The obligatory group photo of the winner of the German Design Award 2016. Photo © Lutz Sternstein
Authentic Passion
by Thomas Wagner
Feb 18, 2016

Let’s get straight to the point: The highpoint of the prize-giving ceremony for this year’s “German Design Awards” was without a doubt the moment when Konstantin Grcic was given the “Personality” Award. Unfortunately, “Personality” as an honorary title sounds pretty damn wooden for “a personality who has done outstanding services to design in the form of extraordinary work.” As if the person thus honored had in the years running up to the award simply lacked the personality, and if he ran the risk of such as fate thereafter, too.

Indeed, the characterization of the German Design Personalities remains a real mystery. Or could you explain why exactly the Personality in 2013 – Hartmut Esslinger – was honored as a “Designer and Strategist”; the laurels which went one year later to Gert Bulthaup, this time for his work as an “Entrepreneur and Kitchen Revolutionary”; and the current winner Konstantin Grcic who has received the accolade not of “Designer”, as one might be forgiven thinking, but of “Managing Director Geschäftsführer Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design”? Good counsel is hard to come by. And for German Design which is, after all, not the German Academy of Language and Poetry; but shouldn’t those who wish to enhance the general aesthetic awareness among us all not also start with language... no? OK. Over time, we’ll get used to living with these convoluted or distorted verbal garlands.

How one can do so, in a way that does justice to the material and the beauties of language, was shown that afternoon at least by René Spitz in his decidedly witty speech in praise of Konstantin Grcic – and he managed marvelously to not only not get lost in the thicket of KGID’s now meanwhile extensive oeuvre but also to address many of the serious or less serious issues in design. Congrats!

But back to the Awards – truly a mammoth undertaking. No less than 3,400 entries were submitted to the various categories up for grabs, which is why all the different objects filled a complete hall when laid out ready for the jury meeting. This prompted a juror from China, or so Peter Pfeifer, President of the German Design Council reported, to comment that the jury of experts basically amounted to the “full parliament of design”. And the gamut of items that parliament then elected to bestow awards on can be seen by clicking Very few of those products, praised in the form of an Award in Gold on the big stage, shall suffice here to enable us to garner an idea of the diversity – and of the justifications given for the choices.

For example, there were the drinking glasses that Jasper Morrison designed on behalf of the Ggallerist Koichi Ando. Each one of them, or so the jury writes, “are all mouth-blown at a traditional glassblowing workshop in Tokyo’s historic district, which gives each one a unique form.” The account culminates in the statement: “This is a very high level of craftsmanship. Beautiful!”

Things are different when it comes to “BigRep ONE.2”. Which is the “largest 3D printer on the world market” whereby the full-scale printer “with over one cubic meter in volume” offers “totally new possibilities for production” – well, what else would it do? Design? And then again, the box in question evidently has its advantages: “The Big Rep ONE.2 is a strong piece of technology that is instantly visually recognizable as a 3D printer due to its iconographic design vocabulary.”

Just about no one will be surprised that the “SieMatic” 29 was designed not only “as a standalone piece”, but also as a “new, surprisingly versatile reinterpretation of the traditional kitchen sideboard” for which “the company became famous almost one hundred years ago”. While the company is evidently relying on the graces of retro design, others are busy bringing the future into the present. A good example would be SimonsVoss with its new digital door fitting, the “Smart Handle”, an “intelligent access control with the utmost in ergonomics and an elegant look”. And anyone finding three or four palms trees in an evenly spaced row (trees with strong roots or at a pinch stable trunks), can simply hang a “Tentsile Tree Tent Stingray” between them, which is “a new kind of tent” that “floats in the air, extending the radius of experience from two to three dimensions”. Needless to say, something like this is of course “at once functional and poetic”, although all you non-virtual campers will at the least become familiar with the meanness of the third dimension when a storm blows up.

The sweetest justification the jury came up with was for the appealing and equally functional frame set that the “legendary bicycle manufacturer” Storck has brought out as a limited edition to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its foundation (along with “special anniversary paintwork and high-quality components”). The jury effused: “The combination of technical perfection and dynamic styling reflects Storck’s authentic passion for designing bikes: absolutely functional, absolutely carbonic! Absolutely perfect.”

It would no doubt be an exaggeration to speak of a crisis of criteria for judging design and would definitely be taking the occasion too seriously. Yet the ceremony did give a good insight into how people like to judge design today, why it gets prizes, praises, and how it gets skillfully marketed.
Artisanship gives industrial products the right spice; retro is an option many love to parade; formulations such as “iconographic formal vocabulary” function like foghorns; and where there is a dire shortage of aesthetic, social or historical reasons, innovation, size and technology are at hand to stop the gap. Should the judges simply not be able to think of anything, they tend to then suggest the thing tells a story, proves to be genuinely authentic, or at once both functional and poetic.

About which one must sadly say the following: Firstly, anyone who has ever attempted to write such jury statements knows how tough it can be. Secondly, back in 1981 author Botho Strauß already characterized the “present jester” as someone who simply cannot eschew “advert-like enlargements of affective words”. Thirdly, Paul Valéry, similarly smart minded, compared emotions not only to the vibrations of a machine that generates the “world”, but also termed them structural faults and the cause of failure. And fourthly my colleague has convinced me that there are definitely phenomena where one can assume, and definitely say, that they are a matter of passion in a non-authentic guise. One needs to think here only of the temptation of the theatrical. In an age where emotions seem to infuse everything, cliché-riddled exclamations uttered by barely restrained emotional deities appear unavoidable. This ensures along the following lines: Even a plain box-like refrigerator can (today it is not products but a feel for life that gets sold) can appeal to our heart, although there’s no need to then band about wildly Dionysian nonsense.

One must concede here that a prize-giving ceremony conducted purely along rational lines would of course be far more boring. Which brings us to Aristotle, who thousands of years ago already insisted that what counted was the right measure. And this is certainly applicable to design, to the extent that one does not let things rest at stating that the award-winning product somehow feels right, and sometimes is actually quite innovative.

Oops, I almost forgot: Right at the beginning Detlef Braun, Managing Director of Messe Frankfurt, proudly announced in his welcoming address that the exhibition area provided by the Ambiente amounted to exactly 22 times St. Marks Square in Venice. Sadly, there was not a single authentic St. Marks Square was to be found in Frankfurt. Ciao!

Winner in the category "Tabletop": The glassware of Jasper Morrison for Ando Gallery.
Photo © Ando Gallery
Winner in the category "Workshop and Tools": The BigRep one.2. Photo © BigRep GmbH
Winner in the category "Kitchen": SieMatic Möbelwerke / Kinzo Berlin. Photo © SieMati
Winner in the category "Building and Elements": SimonsVoss Technologies GmbH / ergon3 Design. Photo © SimonsVoss
Winner in the category "Bath and Wellness": BetteLux Shape of Tesseraux + Partner Product Design. Photo © Bette
Winner in the category "Transportation": Aerfast 20th anni of Storck Bicycle.
Photo © Stylepark, Thomas Wagner
The Newcomer Gold Award went to Eva Müller. Photo © Lutz Sternstein