Britain can make it
by Thomas Wagner | Apr 11, 2013
“Secret Report on German Design”, all photos © Tatjana Prenzel, Stylepark

As exciting as this secret mission may sound (and indeed is for the design buffs among us), the report’s content has little to do with the glamorous image often associated with our modern-day understanding of the term “design”. And yet it does display early signs of a development that has now led to design playing an increasingly decisive role in the success of mass-produced products, no longer left to technology alone. Highly succinct and in the diction of a public official, the venture now presented under the title “Secret Report on German Design” dictates: “On the recommendation of the President of the Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Industrial Design, the goods offices of the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee have sent four teams to Germany to investigate the designer’s standing in German industry.”

The whole thing is as delicate as it is exciting; it does after all involve the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (BIOS) sending nine renowned British designers and design experts to Germany between June and December 1946. Divided up into different teams, they visited a total of 92 companies from a range of sectors and sought out 22 educational institutions for product designers in the British and (to a lesser extent) in the American occupation zones. They spoke to and questioned entrepreneurs, directors, technicians, architects and interior designers, designers and teaching staff at universities and vocational colleges. They surveyed a whole host of products, collected photos and illustrations, all in order to sound out which research and production methods were being used, what standing the designer had assumed in German industry, what they were earning there, and what training they were receiving. The team also had an interest in finding out about channels of distribution, marketing and market research, and focused their efforts on Berlin, Frankfurt/Main, Offenbach/Main, Stuttgart, Munich, the Bavarian town of Selb, Krefeld and Bielefeld. In terms of sectors, they surveyed the electronics industry, light metal and synthetic fiber processing, wallpaper and metal goods manufacture as well as companies from the furniture, textile and fashion industries.

Herr Pott from Solingen appears before the delegates in his brown work clothes, speaking a strong German dialect. The stainless steel products he makes have been designed by his own son, he tells them. Herr May, a master carpenter from Osterode, who runs a small furniture company with 15 employees, narrates how he spent almost 80% of his time during vocational training in drawing and illustration classes. He presents an innovative chair completely devoid of nails or screws, which he has been making in the chair factory in Escher-Hattorf in the Harz region. Architect Arno Lambrecht is one of the very few actually working as an industrial designer – his main clients being furniture manufacturers such as Knoll and Behr. He recalls how as a young, penniless designer he offered German radio and television apparatus company Telefunken five different designs for casings for radios, which he claims were revolutionary. When met by criticism from Telefunken representatives regarding a number of the designs’ details, he insisted that it was a take-it or leave-it issue: either take all of his designs or none of them. Although they were showing little interest in his designs, they enquired as to the fee he expected to be paid. He came up with the laughably high sum of 20,000 Reichmark – and they accepted.

It seems that the mission, which had been put together in order to find out exactly what laid the foundations for the German manufacturers’ supremacy in all things “design”, as perceived in Britain at the time, ran astonishingly smoothly, even though the German companies were of course under an obligation to provide information to the victorious powers and the Brits were the one’s wearing the uniforms. The final 155-page report entitled “Design Investigation in Selected German Consumer Goods Industries” was laid before a circle of officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and British industrialists in summer 1947. A typescript of the report also spent a short period on the shelves of the BIOS offices, available for 14 shillings a go.

Anne Sudrow, research fellow at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, rediscovered the secret report in Cambridgeshire, UK (to be more precise at the Imperial War Museum’s satellite branch on the grounds of the former Royal Air Force airfield Duxford) and has now published the report in its original language complete with an in-depth introduction, in which she outlines the background and brief for the mission and places it firmly in the context of the history of design and technology. The appendix even includes the biographies of the most important product designers mentioned in the report. According to her estimations the report should be looked upon as “the most extensive and eminent source of information on product design practices in German industry around the mid-19th century.”

And indeed, the report does afford unparalleled insights into the reality of the industrial production of consumer goods in post-War Germany. The Brit’s curiosity in German design know-how may have been directed predominantly toward the armament and chemicals industries but the Allies also recognized that the consumer goods industry was an area worth their consideration, because these industries had been forced to make use of substitute materials as part of the Nazi’s Four Year Plan. As a result the Germans had learned to be particularly innovative when it came to utilizing such synthetic materials. Thus, the Brits’ enquiries into which design and production methods the Germans deployed were certainly not of secondary importance. On the contrary: The Brits found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to “design”, and this at a time when the economic race with the United States was only just getting started. Unfortunately all of the products, material samples, catalogs and brochures collected by the BIOS commission during their visits to German manufacturers have since been lost, which is why it is now impossible to reconstruct and decipher the individual products the report refers to.

Sudrow gives three possible reasons for the enormous interest the British showed in the subject: Firstly, in their own occupation zone, the Brit’s considered it a matter of war reparations and the associated benefits, which could prove particularly valuable for industry in their own country. Since unlike the French and the Russians they had largely forgone claiming material reparations such as dismantled machinery, they went for intellectual loot instead, in the form of design know-how. Secondly, the British Department of Trade and Industry had been pursuing a “new and innovative kind of economy policy”, whereby design became the beneficiary of government subsidies as a way of improving the chances for British products on the exports market. They founded the “Council of Industrial Design” as early as 1944 for this very purpose, intended to help anchor the notion of “good industrial design” in the consumer goods industry. Furthermore, in September 1945, Labour Minister for Economic Affairs, Stafford Cripps proposed a plan to strengthen the competitive position of British companies on the global market. Thirdly, the mission ultimately assisted the occupation of “industrial designer” to establish itself as a true profession in Britain.

What makes the highly detailed report an even more exciting discovery is that there are very few other reports by the secret service in which the aesthetics of the goods in question played any role at all. And to top it all, it was written by none other than German emigrant and art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who, since he was initially unable to continue his work as an art historian, shot to fame in England with his approach to empirical design research. Though he wasn’t universally well-liked, having published a study back in 1937 that left some readers very hot under the collar – after all, in it Pevsner claimed that 90% of British products possessed no aesthetic quality whatsoever and that the state of product design there was disastrous. According to Pevsner, the “Modernist movement” had barely gotten off its feet in Great Britain with the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris before it was left twisted and misshapen by the throes of the World War I. Gropius and the Bauhaus in Dessau were among Pevsner’s role models, in particularly their understanding of design as a means of social reform and craftsmanship, art and industrial production as part and parcel of one and the same thing.

These were certainly strong words. Some even suspected Pevsner of being an undercover German agent. The theory that Germany was the true seedbed of modern design, because German designers in contrast to their English colleagues never dismissed the machine but instead explored the avenues opened up by serial production and put what they found to productive use, was supposedly one of the reasons why Pevsner ultimately had such a great influence on the secret report. His “empirical design research” also formed the methodological basis of the venture in 1946. In actual fact, the secret report was to provide further empirical evidence in support of Pevsner’s theories; Germany had indeed outstripped Great Britain in all things design. The team also welcomed another German emigrant to the team in the person of Margaret Leischner, who spent a short time as Head of Weaving at Bauhaus in Dessau and in the years between 1932 and 1936 taught fabric design at the Berlin School of Textile and Fashion Design before spurred by her political beliefs electing to emigrate to England in 1936 or 1938.

Of course, the report does far more than portray a key chapter in industrial and indeed contemporary history. It also enables us to fathom just how radical the switch by the German consumer goods industry in favor of a modern form of production determined by aesthetics and sales promotion really was. It is also rather surprising just how swiftly commercial considerations usurped military concerns once the War had come to an end.

The report clearly states how enthusiastic German industrialists were about “good design”, how glad they were to “grapple with the philosophy behind it”. They lent their support to the educational establishments in their industry “not just financially but also with their input on the curriculum and educational policy.” It also comments on the “more critical” stance taken by consumers in Germany, which the commission put down to three causes: There was a much higher cultural quality to be seen in the provincial towns, because as a metropolis Berlin had never reached the same level of importance as London; “Modernism” had proved more of a success in Germany than Britain; and all those involved in the production process were given far superior training.

Long gone were the days when the label “Made in Germany” had been introduced as a kind of stigma, indicating that a product had been made by the cheap German competition (a scheme shamelessly initiated by British companies at the end of the 19th century). Especially as far as proximity to the customer and professional product design were concerned, British industry certainly had its finger nowhere near the pulse of the times. Things were exacerbated by the fact that British industry still tended toward employing designers who had received little training and whose work was never destined to go beyond mere styling. As the creative minds behind the products, they were never given a share in the construction or the conceptualization of the production processes. They were merely there to decorate things and tailor them to the public’s taste – no more, no less.

That fact that the question of product design (as Sudow points out) had already redirected itself during the War years can be ascribed to the state funds that were channeled into the development of standard products. In the wartime economy, materials and indeed manpower were scarce. Thus the production of consumer goods was curbed from 1940 onwards, while imports and exports were subject to close governmental surveillance. This is what drove companies to turn to joint ventures as a way of developing their products as part of so-called “utility schemes”. All companies were forced to shift a fixed proportion of their production operations over to this model. At the same time, there was a huge rise in demand for product designers who were familiar with the particular product’s function, knew how to apply materials in an economical way, and paid mind to the needs of the user. In addition to “good style”, the designer’s charge consisted in developing an attractive, appealing product, a “functional design”.

Even during the World War I, the reformers at the “Design and Industries Association” (DIA) had described the sober “machine-like style” that characterized furniture, fabric and other consumer goods from Germany, e.g., products by Thonet and AEG, as exemplary specimens of design. New production methods, creating furniture typologies and modular systems as well as attempts to sink prices by producing larger editions made them trailblazers in the industry. This was of course joined by the suspicion that the Brit’s “decline” in the field of design could lie in the lack of industrial training.

Since the Brits had made Germany their design lodestar, the Council (as Sudrow so soberly puts it) used the one-time opportunity so auspiciously afforded to them by the Allied occupation “as a new way of attaining information to get a project involving state-commissioned industrial espionage in German consumer goods companies off the ground.” Some years later this unparalleled undertaking would come to have a perhaps unexpected upshot: In 1953, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs fathered the “German Design Council” based on the British “Council of Industrial Design” and established “design centers” in each of the federal states. It seems that the Germans were able to learn something from the Brits after all.

Nikolaus Pevsner et al.
Secret Report: German Design
German Consumer Goods in the sights of the British
Council of Industrial Design (1946)

Original English text
with an introduction (in German)
edited by Anne Sudrow
Deutsches Museum
Articles and reports
New edition, volume 28
336 pages with 33 illustrations, bd., 29.90€
Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen, Germany, 2012

“Secret Report on German Design”, all photos © Tatjana Prenzel, Stylepark
A recently rediscovered “secret report” reveals how in 1946 the British secret service went on a mission to scent out the German consumer goods industry.
Anne Sudrow, research fellow at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, rediscovered the secret report in Cambridgeshire.
The final report has 155 pages.
The report does afford unparalleled insights into the reality of the industrial production of consumer goods in post-War Germany.
The Brit’s curiosity in German design know-how have been directed predominantly toward the armament and chemicals industries.