How does culture affect the design philosophy in a place? — German vs. North American Design. (Part I)
Insights from different angles and inspiring points of view
The objects that surround us every day tell the story of our culture, the ideas we live our lives in. Often it is only when we travel and feel the strangeness of a new place that we recognize the differences to the place we left. In this series, we hope to highlight the ways that national design philosophies may differ, how these philosophies impact the objects we interact with every day, and how they may, sometimes, be combined to create a truly innovative solution. For the first part of the series, we will start with German design.
The German design philosophy has long been defined by its authenticity and high precision. Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of this philosophy is the model SK 4/10 radio-phonograph, designed by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot in 1956. Created using Ram’s 10 “good design” principles, the museum case presentation of the product resulted in the nickname given to it at the time, Snow White’s Coffin. Specific and detailed use of materials, using very clean and authentic finishes, combined with compact and simple shapes, gives an impression of minimalism and authenticity, emblematic of German design.
So, where do those design values come from?
The catalyst for modern German design starts in 1907, when the “Deutscher Werkbund” was founded in Munich to elevate the quality of German manufacturing. Up until this point, products were being created in small scale factories and in the historical and neo-renaissance styles of the time. Deutscher Werkbund was created by twelve architects and firms, including Peter Behrens, Theodor Fischer, Josef Hoffmann, and Bruno Paul to name a few. Noted members included Eliel Saarinen and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe. The goal of the Deutscher Werkbund was to establish a distinctive, modern German-style based on simplicity, precision, and high quality. A well-known example from this period is the AEG hairdryer and in it you can see the beginnings of Germany’s design philosophy.
“German design philosophy has long been defined by its authenticity and high precision.”
The second large development in German design culture came in 1919 when Walter Gropius founded the “State Bauhaus in Weimar” to connect architecture, sculpting, and painting under one artistic endeavor. Gropius came together with some of the most modern artists, designers, and craftsmen of the time and established the principles of design that they taught together. These principles included minimalism, geometry, and craftsmanship. Although the school ceased operations in 1933 its teachers went on to continue to push forward design, and the foundation laid at the school would be an influence to design all over the world, as the members scattered during WWII.
“…Gropius came together with some of the most modern artists, designers, and craftsmen of the time and established the principles of design that they taught together. These principles included minimalism, geometry, and craftsmanship.”
The School of Ulm
The final large development in German design came with the founding of the “Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm” or the school of Ulm in 1953 by Inge Aicher-Scholl, Otl Aicher and Max Bill. Unlike the Bauhaus’s more artistic approach, Ulm favored a combination of art and science. HfG worked well with manufacturers, who often funded the school and worked closely with the students to create successful products. Ulm developed a teaching of design based on the purity of form and mathematics. This is where we see German design culture transform into what it is known for today; precision, quality, contained, and efficient beauty. Dieter Rams was a graduate of this school and transformed its teachings, as it may be seen in the SK 4/10 radio-phonograph.
As highly regarded as German design philosophy, it has also been described as cold, rectangular and restrained.