Prof. Matthias Wagner K

Designing Life

There is much more to design than lending shape to objects. Design can also serve to trigger democratic processes that improve the quality of life. “Design for Democracy. Atmospheres for a better life” is the slogan the City of Frankfurt/Main and Rhine-Main region have adopted in a bid to become “World Design Capital 2026.” Prof. Matthias Wagner K, Director of Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst, is heading the bid. He also came up with the claim and explains the concept behind it in this interview.

Anna Moldenhauer: Prof. Wagner K, what made you decide to lead and coordinate Frankfurt/Main’s bid to become World Design Capital 2026?

Prof. Wagner K: The decisive reason for me is the work we are already doing in the museum and our efforts connected with the exhibition provisionally titled “Design for Democracy: New Frankfurt” scheduled for 2025 to mark the museum’s 100th anniversary. We boast a good number of defining moments in the Rhine-Main region, things that led to social upheaval, new ideas and alternative ways for people or society in general to live. Take the media revolution set in motion over 550 years ago by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz for instance, which in turn influenced social developments such as humanism and the Reformation and meant people had a greater say. Or there’s the social reform movement of Art Nouveau, or the Deutsche Werkbund founded in 1907, which resulted in a new understanding of design. Then there is New Frankfurt movement, which from 1925 to 1933 was not only an ambitious program of affordable housing, but was active in almost all areas of design, in interior design, fashion design, industrial design, product and communication design as well as in the area of everyday life, was permeated by a democratic design utopia, and indeed sought to achieve a different kind of society. After the dark period of the Third Reich it was again the city of Frankfurt where the Auschwitz Trials were held from 1963 to 1968 that stood for West Germany’s legal indictment of persons involved in the Holocaust. It was also in Frankfurt that the universities began to network with business and industry, creating what can truly be called applied sciences. And in the coming year not only will we commemorate the first German National Assembly held in 1848 in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche, but a House of Democracy is also to be realized here. Numerous designers live and work in the region and there are a great many art and design colleges here. That’s why I think our application is in with a good chance and it could all be very exciting.

How do you plan to convey to people the potential design has for transforming society?

Prof. Wagner K: That’s a good question. The news we hear day in, day out is not good. A bid whose fundamental concern is to change society and to explore the role and function of designers in society needs a positive tone, or in other words: good solutions require good problems. And as many of our problems can be solved, you can’t talk about bad ones. Moreover, I think the title says it too ­– “Design for Democracy: Atmospheres for a better life” – the “better life” is essentially like a promise that many things can still be changed. Which means that we need to design things and indeed everything around us such that a good life is possible for ourselves, but also for future generations.

You would like citizens to experience the topics of democracy in a practical and sensory manner and for places of learning to be created. Can you give an example of these places?

Prof. Wagner K: One way we want to create such learning places is through our democracy workshop truck, for example. This will allow us to organize workshops with and at schools that examine issues of democracy. Alongside two pavilions and a whole lot of furniture, the truck will have a large screen so that we can begin by using images to talk with students about what democracy really means and what options we have as designers for shaping it. And about what demands there are out there and how we can think of our future. These workshops are basically followed by surveys that tend to go down very well. We want people to have their say and express this wish in the simple German slogan “Gib deinen Senf dazu” (literally: Add your mustard) – and everyone who gives their opinion will also get a tube of mustard, a tube of organic mustard even! (laughs).

WDC Tour Opening Offenbach

Which design disciplines will you be showcasing in this context – product design, industrial design, media design, design research, architecture?

Prof. Wagner K: I would say that we see designers as having a larger role and function and ascribe more possibilities to them than perhaps exist at the moment. Communication design is perhaps the most important area of design. It’s crucial that designers are familiar with working and thinking in open-ended processes. They do not know what the result is at the start and search for a solution by working through various processes. In other words, they know what kind of structure collaboration requires. That is what makes all designers such valuable people, regardless of whether they are product designers or communication designers. When it comes to communicating information that is relevant for society, such as the need to get vaccinated against coronavirus, designers should be involved at a much earlier stage because they are much better at communicating scientific research clearly. And the same goes for political processes. It starts with a flier and extends to designing an application form for citizenship or registering at a new address, both of which are currently difficult to read and understand (in Germany). If designers were involved earlier in the development of this communication there would be other solutions and the situation would be much easier for people. This should be a requirement: getting designers on board very early on in political processes – both as moderators between politics and citizens and in the networking between politics and science, and to present scientific results in such a way that all of us can read and understand them. As such, I think a designer’s task is about so much more. Ultimately, you could break down the “Design for Democracy” concept into the following: designing how we want to live. Similar discussions are being conducted in connection with the plans for the “House of Democracy” that is to be realized in Frankfurt. Should it be an open, transparent place that can be altered, or should it be more like a museum devoted to the idea of democracy? Do we want to allow people to experience democracy here and now, to point out contradictions and create an atmosphere for cooperation shaped by debate, or is it more about a location with a symbolic value? These are all questions that entail some form of design and it is precisely this process of deliberation that will be included in the bid.

Designers have many ideas that could make our society more sustainable. But often our failure to adapt our existing systems stands in the way of these ideas actually being implemented. What is needed if this call for change is not to fade away before it succeeds?

Prof. Wagner K: That is, I think, difficult to answer, as to start with you need a broad recognition in society of these problems. People tend to blank out the unpleasant when they feel bombarded with bad news so as not to feel weighed down by problems. I think this is another area where communication can help. Problems need to be articulated. Simultaneously, we need to convey that they can be solved and that there can be totally different ways of arriving at a solution. It is literally in our hands and we can decide what should change. I think that our bid for this title can encompass a broad range of topics, whether it is man-made climate change, the crumbling pillars of democracy, the penchant for autocratic governance in East and West through to education, health, living, food, energy, and other areas in the daily lives of everyone. The title “World Design Capital 2026” brings with it international recognition and higher visibility. Thus it offers an opportunity for showcasing various types of solutions – for example, adapting and transforming existing buildings as opposed to realizing a new building and then documenting how much energy this saves. In product design, sustainability ought to be anchored in a design’s DNA anyhow. In what areas have we made mistakes and how can we rectify them and present the changes as examples that could be followed? The world will look to us for such guidance if we secure this title. This could make a great deal of difference to the field of design and also lead to people recognizing opportunities that are not that far removed and to which they can contribute; but it can also result in demands being made.

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You said “We aren’t bidding for this title because it would be good for our image, but want to use our application as a chance to organize a movement for a democratic culture based on freedom and a better life.” In other words, the awareness of every single person makes a difference. Compared to other countries we are doing quite well in Germany despite all the crises. Do you believe people will feel the urgency to stand up for democracy?

Prof. Wagner K: Well, if we get the title, we will also be a role model. Acting as one requires transparency in all the processes mentioned earlier, such as how we came up with the design for the House of Democracy. There are and will be many examples that serve to demonstrate the urgency.

“What we very definitely don’t need for a better life are even more things. Designing ever new products doesn’t bring us closer to one another. Rather, we want to show that it is about creating spaces and designing places where different people can come together.” This statement brought me up short, because as I see it new things can also be useful in creating a democratic atmosphere. It is more about the use these products have for the community and whether they have a durable quality and are not simply intended for fast “consumption.” Like ante up’s latest project “Otta x Watt,” which redesigns urban spaces to make them more attractive for people. Did you perhaps have something like that in mind?

Prof. Wagner K: Yes, precisely. Enhancing and upgrading urban space – that is what we have in mind, and analyzing how public space is currently organized for us. Typically, it is shaped by consumerist interests and sometimes the design is really awful. This has prompted us to consider how places should be so that people don’t want to just walk through them quickly or carelessly drop their rubbish there, but rather make it feel like a special space, a home of sorts so that you act accordingly. It is also about creating an atmosphere that makes you enjoy engaging people in conversation. The statement “We don’t need even more things” means just that. When I look at the displays in the stores I ask myself on the one hand whether it’s really necessary to use our resources for the third vase or tenth chair and whether these extremely fast cycles in fashion design are necessary. On the other hand, I also wonder whether you indeed need the eleventh chair that rectifies the mistakes of the other ten and whether we can’t create things that are more durable, better and more beautiful because the eleventh chair is comfortable, and even after sitting on it for several hours I don’t get back pain like I do on the others. Why should I rush to get rid of such a chair?

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Shouldn’t design not only serve democracy, but be democratic itself?

Prof. Wagner K: I would think that’s very difficult to achieve. I see a difference between design for democracy and democratic design. The awareness that we need an open democracy because it alone allows us to enjoy a free life and coexistence, does not impinge on free design. However, democratic design could swiftly become ideological, in other words could almost become the opposite of a free design process. However, what is definitely needed is attitude, responsibility and a kind of honesty. And that as a designer you also consider for whom and for what you are working.

How will the connection between design and democracy be visualized at the Museum Angewandte Kunst?

Prof. Wagner K: Well, the bid itself is a project that is being pursued independently of the Museum Angewandte Kunst – even though the project office is located in the museum. But as I mentioned at the beginning, we are planning to devote a show to Das Neue Frankfurt (New Frankfurt) again and want to explore what has remained of it, what similar movements have been inspired by the design or still exist today around the world. This is sure to take over the entire museum, will run for at least a year and might conceivably have as its title “Design for Democracy.”

Design for Democracy