“The Kramer principle” at the MAK/Frankfurt: Ferdinand Kramer’s “Rainbelle“ sun/rain umbrella, designed 1948 during his emigration in the United States. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Knock-Down, not craftsmanship
by Thomas Wagner
Feb 8, 2014

A new era, a new life. Both spelt the need for a change in tools, furniture and rooms. “The expectations we have on our homes and their furnishings today,” wrote Ferdinand Kramer in 1928 in vol. 1 of the “Neues Frankfurt” journal, “have changed fundamentally as a result of the general trends in the economy and technology.” A decade after the end of World War I one thing had become blatantly clear, and that was that the old concepts had become hopelessly outdated. Kramer was firmly of the opinion that furniture had to be affordable, “in both its form and function it must adapt to today’s apartments, which have a smaller number of rooms and footprint.” Moreover, maintenance of these new interiors should be a swift and efficient matter. His reasoning: “The standardized apartment needs to be furnished with standardized unit furniture for rational and aesthetic reasons,” he argued, and added: “The present age calls for greater care in the design of models for items that are then machine-made. Once up and running, the machine must be able to keep to a set standard and the items must cheap, clean and precisely made.”

The furniture engineer replaces the craftsman

Obviously, this constituted a challenge for the design process: Craftsmanship had become obsolete. The days of decorative design concepts, in which “the relationship to the materials and function” was a mere “excuse for free theatrical affectations”, were dead and buried. The “furniture engineer” replaced the craftsman. There was a demand not for elaborate one-offs, but for intelligent designs that could be mass produced and accorded with the logic of the latter. Welcome to Modernism!

Now Frankfurt is commemorating (at long last, one is tempted to add!) one of the protagonists who helped it embark on a journey into Modernism, into a “Neues Frankfurt”. At least at the museum level. Once we step inside, however, we are in for a surprise: It is not Ferdinand Kramer (1898 to 1985), the architect, who is at the heart of this solo show, but his work as a designer. “Das Prinzip Kramer. Design für den variablen Gebrauch – The Kramer Principle. Multi-Purpose Design” is the name of the exhibition at Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Art. It is guest-curated by Gerda Breuer who has since 2001 been Professor of Art and Design History at Wuppertal University and has, in the wake of a minor exhibition on his residential concepts, gradually assembled an extensive collection of Ferdinand Kramer’s designs. The new show is essentially based on this collection.

Explaining a design mindset

Some 100 objects have been laid out in an effort to reconstruct and organize Kramer’s output as a designer and illustrate his “design mindset” by using examples. The spectrum of objects on display ranges from early 1920s jugs, luminaires, slow-combustion stoves, chairs, tables, chaise longues, standardized window and door fittings, right through to “knock down” and standard unit furniture from the 1930s and furnishings for Frankfurt’s Goethe University. The historical pieces are juxtaposed to a selection of items that designers at e15 have created as re-editions based on Kramer’s original concepts. Which all goes to show that Kramer’s output is of interest not just for the design historians among us. The furniture’s unpretentious look-and-feel remains as welcome as ever, plus the items have proven themselves to be efficient and useful. Indeed, in times of interior design mélanges they seldom dominate a room. Their reduced reticence, at times thought to be bordering on the demure, serves to provide a calming contrast to the at times overbearing overshoot in diversity in today’s interiors.

High quality, most economical resources

From a very early age Ferdinand Kramer learned the art of shipbuilding through his grandfather Carl F.A. Leux and in the Leux’s shipyard in Niederrad and found it to be a trade that “demanded highest quality with most economical resources”, a philosophy that sowed the seed for what was later to become the “Kramer Principle”. That said, the attempt to boil Kramer’s achievements both in architecture and design down to one and the same principle could seem somewhat problematic to some. For a combination of different principles is actually more the driver behind Kramer’s fundamentally modern approach. Adjectives such as rational, flexible and useful, swiftly plucked out of a hat to characterize his accomplishments in furniture and industrial design, do not adequately describe Kramer’s take on Modernism amidst the debates about a “form without ornament”. It’s worth taking a close look at them: Without exception, Kramer’s designs have a natural and undogmatic air about them; his solutions appear instantly compelling – not in the sense of formal compositions, but as regards catering for a tangible need and being useful. They have been stripped of all decoration. Their appearance is decidedly unpretentious, the items neither seem to set out to define a particular style, just as they do not seek recognition as trademarks or status symbols. It would not be very far-fetched to say that Kramer was an antipode to any form of high-end one-off design.

Designing for a new way of life

We should consider the historical context to understand how fundamentally this attitude broke with 19th-century traditions. During the 1920s, designs became more practical for the simple reason that, or so Kramer suggested, following the disaster of World War I and the social transformations that came in its wake, people needed aluminum pots more than they did ornamental vases. Inflation, unemployment, the general housing shortage and the changing role of women joining the workforce likewise contributed to this shift, resulting in an enormous need for practical and reasonably priced household appliances and functional plywood furniture for small rooms. Under the heading of “New Objectivity” a rational design approach took precedence over perpetuating a style and lineage that was no longer regarded as contemporary. It is no coincidence that Kramer, disappointed that the “Bauhaus” in Weimar did not yet have Architecture on its academic curriculum (he opted to complete his degree at Munich Technical University instead), in 1925 joined the team around Ernst May, Head of Frankfurt’s Building Department. Here he set about standardizing door and window fittings, plywood doors, steel door frames and lamps, which were then included in the “Frankfurt Index”, a collection of exemplary prototypes for municipal projects.

More than just warm-up exercises

Even the prototype of the “Kramer stove”, which he had designed as an infantryman in the trenches and which provided optimum heat output without any tell-tale smoke, testifies to Kramer’s rational and functional approach to design. The fact that during times of giddy inflation building contracts were few and far between therefore only explains to a limited extent why Kramer eventually opted for design. It was no longer possible to treat construction, living and thinking as separate domains, which is why, right from the outset, Kramer’s designs were more than simple warm-up exercises. Just like architecture, they responded to the fact that users’ existential needs were increasingly taking center stage. Kramer was not a formalist, as is still evidenced by the objects he designed. On the contrary, as the sociologist Siegfried Kracauer expressed it in a nutshell, Kramer’s approach was characterized by “consistency and a lack of platitudes”. For Kramer, an objectivity that was free of frills, a strict economy of form and new manufacturing methods geared towards mass production were all inextricably linked – in building just as in designing stoves, chaise-longues or tables.

New Frankfurt: 1920 – 1938

The exhibition divides Kramer’s efforts in the field of design into three phases: Kramer’s involvement with “New Frankfurt” comes under the years 1920 –1938. The emphasis here, in architecture just as much as in the design of furniture, was on rationality, usability, and variability. Despite seeming obvious given the precarious economic situation, it was controversial. In addition to his work in the Standardization section of the Frankfurt’s Building Department, this period includes the chairs and wardrobes Kramer produced for Thonet and his presence at Werkbund exhibitions such as “Die Form” in 1924 in Stuttgart. In 1927, as part of the exhibition “Die Wohnung”, staged yet again by the Werkbund on the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Kramer furnished a terraced house by J. J. P. Oud and two apartments in Mies van der Rohe’s house. To this end, he relied among other things on a recliner with belts of bend leather and a side-table he had designed in 1925 as standard furniture for municipal schools in Frankfurt, and which have sicne come out as a re-edition.

America: 1938 –1951

In retrospect the second phase, the years between 1938 and 1951 which Kramer spent as an emigré in the United States, proved to be a time of experimentation with cost-effective, variable use furniture, during which his designs matured. In 1937 Kramer, who at the time was working as a self-employed architect, was excluded from the Nazis’ “Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts”, his architecture was defamed as “degenerate”, and he himself was forbidden from working. In 1938, he followed his wife who, as she was Jewess, had been forced to emigrate to the United States well before him. He quickly came to view what was now a very different life as a welcome challenge. A wholly rationalized mass society, a flexible, mobile and pragmatic lifestyle, all this was reality in America and fascinated Kramer just as much as did the easy-going attitude. Through the support of his childhood friend Theodor W. Adorno, he became manager and vice-president of two housing associations and in 1940 was awarded his license to work as an architect. First and foremost, however, he did interior design for department stores and advanced his unit furniture. Inspired by what was known as “knock-down” and “put-away” furniture, he created items of furniture that was easy to assemble (without a craftsman being required) and, if need be, dismantled again, meaning that long before Ikea people were able to configure apartments to reflect their own “self-determined lives”.

Starting from a basic module Kramer designed combinable standardized furniture, small side-tables and metal cube elements with perforated sheet metal covers and shelves – these could be combined and stacked at will. He designed “Packaged Coffee Tables”, aluminum sun recliners, and even a movable miniature kitchen. In the exhibition there are unfortunately only photographs of the furniture in his 1940s “knock-down” series, yet even so we still get an idea of how Kramer’s stackable, folding, movable furniture shows how deeply fascinated he was by the Americans’ mobile lifestyle. Practical, variable, space-saving and fit for purpose – here you can literally touch the “principle” with your hands. Kramer’s repertoire at this time even included a folding corrugated cardboard table with a chess board printed on it punched–out cup holders, a 1951 Coca-Cola advertising giveaway. His disposable plastic-coated paper umbrella “Rainbelle”, which likewise dates from 1951, shows how Kramer responded to contemporary needs. Available in many colors, the normal size, for ladies, cost US$ 1.98, the kids’ size US$ 1.49. Even though a 1952 Sunday Picture Magazine headline read “Rain Made Him Rich”, given the elaborate production process the project did not turn a profit.

Frankfurt 1952 – 1985

The third phase began in 1952, when Kramer returned to Frankfurt. In the museum, somewhat concealed behind one of the partition walls, viewers will find a transport crate with Kramer’ Frankfurt address written on it as the destination. It is unclear whether it actually was Max Horkheimer, who in 1951 had become Rector of Frankfurt University, who got him to return home. What is for sure is that in the ensuring period Kramer, as the university’s Director of Buildings, not only handled rebuilding of the campus, which had been destroyed by bombing, and this is involved 23 new edifices, but also took charge of the interior design for each of them. Needless to say, he once again used robust, functional, and flexible furniture, tailor-made for the needs of staff and students. Even if the sobriety was not to everyone’s liking. In addition to the “kd” (knock-down) steel furniture he designed for the “Philosophicum” building, and which was also used in the Institute of Mathematics, Kramer re-launched a couch and accompanying armchair he had designed in 1926 for the Obernzenner department store, rounding out the ensemble with a simple recliner with a mattress and headrest. Here, too, a low price as a result of mass production, together with high quality and durability set the standard for flexible everyday furniture.

Kramer realized early on that the individualism of middle-class apartments cut no deeper than the surface, and his work as a designer reveals him to be not just a master of functional form. It also proves that with the upheavals of the 1920s a trend began to emerge in the course of which anything individual was almost completely engulfed by function. Nor should one forget that to this day few recognize Ferdinand Kramer’s achievements as a designer. He is still regarded as one of the protagonists of “New Frankfurt” and as the architect, who as the university’s Director of Buildings was, from the 1950s, responsible for rebuilding Frankfurt University. And as commendable as focusing on Kramer the designer, and making his designs known is, these must nevertheless be linked back to his work as an architect. However, the exhibition ignores this linkage, albeit deliberately, something that can be seen not least from the fact that the exhibits are displayed without any real reference to their setting.

So there is room for discussion on the form of presentation chosen for the show. What is beyond dispute is that chairs, tables, recliners, umbrellas and stoves, drawings and fittings are all displayed closely together on large pedestals. In addition, these are swamped by a swarm of gray, numbered building blocks that refer to the explanations in the accompanying leaflet and allow for careless pigeonholing, which only makes things worse. In this case, less would have been more. As such the presentation mode highlights and indeed cements turning designs into museum exhibits, and plays down the “variable use” expressly addressed in the title of the accompanying book. If it were not for the some of the Thonet chairs and a selection of the re-editions launched by e15, we would have to rely completely on what we see with our eyes to gauge the functional value of Kramer’s design output. Incidentally, the confined space demonstrates once again that the Meier building is a difficult stage for temporary exhibitions and the museum would benefit (though this of course falls on deaf ears when it comes to politicians) from having a separate space for such shows. After all, there are plenty of models for low-cost, modern construction that could be used – starting with Kramer’s very own oeuvre.

Das Prinzip Kramer. Design für den variablen Gebrauch
(The Kramer Principle. Multi-purpose Design)
Museum angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt/Main
through September 7
The catalog is edited by Gerda Breuer and featuring articles by Gerda Breuer, Leif Hallerbach, Thilo Hilpert, Ferdinand Kramer, Lore Kramer, Julia Meer, Michael Müller and Wolfgang Thöner. Published by Wasmuth Verlag and costs EUR 42.

MORE on Stylepark:

Clearing out the comfy corner: At the Salone des Mobile e15 is showing a re-edition of Kramer's furniture, featuring eight of his designs
(16 April 2012)

Ferdinand Kramer, stool and daybed, designed 1925. Solid ash/ leather strips.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ferdinand Kramer, chair „B 403“, so called “Kramer-chair”, for Thonet, 1927. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ferdinand Kramer, table of the kd programme, 1959/60, for the Goethe-University, Frankfurt/Main. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Disposable game table for Coca Cola, 1951 ( Replica made by the Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich, 1991). Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ferdinand Kramer. Photo © Kramer Archiv, Frankfurt am Main
Ferdinand Kramer, sketch of a folding bar, 1946. Photo © Kramer Archiv, Frankfurt am Main
Steamer trunk used on return journey to Germany in 1952. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ferdinand Kramer, interior design, Rotterdam, 1927.
Photo © Kramer Archiv, Frankfurt/Main
The Ferdinand Kramer-collection by e15, also shown in the MAK: stackable side table “FK12 Fortyforty“ (left), as like as daybad “FK01 Theban”, stool „FK 03 Aswan“ and stool „FK 02 Karnak“. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
„Das Neue Frankfurt“, magazine, february 1929. Foto © Grete Leistikow
Originally for the department store Obernzenner, then for the Goethe-University: Daybed with variable double wedge as head or armrest, ca. 1953. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Ferdinand Kramer, „Eron“-chairs and office table of the kd-programme for the Goethe-university, ca. 1959/60. Photo © Universitätsarchiv Frankfurt
Ferdinand Kramer, „Knock-Down“-Coffeetable, 1942. Photo © Rudy Bleston
Ferdinand Kramer, „Knock-Down“-Coffeetable, 1942. Photo © Rudy Bleston