When Bazon Brock started on his "Lustmarsch durchs Theoriegelände" (Pleasure march through the grounds of theory) stopping off to take stock at 11 German cultural institutions on the occasion of his 70th birthday, he advanced the notion that the putting "all kinds of cultural products from all eras and all areas" in museums was the "most effective form of civilization." Because, as he wrote, "it is in museums, in particular, that, using the criteria that have been elaborated for making distinctions, it is possible to feel appreciation for the specific achievements of the various cultures in peace, without the danger of being forced to come down in favor of one particular culture to the detriment of another. In no individual culture, including that of Western civilization, have the achievements of other cultures been recognized to the same extent as in museums as they act as agencies of a universal civilization."
What, in times past, was the domain of astrologers at the Kremlin, namely the ability to recognize from a cough or a sideways glance from the chairman of a particular party and state council whether the nation was in for a phase of East-West détente or an extremely frosty period, has long since been taken over by the bloggers and commentators of the Apple astrologers. After all, they not only know what technical features will be integrated into the next iPad, where Apple employees lose certain prototypes and which trade fair stands will shortly be divested of ostensible plagiarisms: Apple itself has not only left its mark on Western culture, recently having been named the most-valuable company in the world, but is also a culture of its very own, a new ideology, a parallel universe, an "iCosmos", as Frankfurt's Museum für Angewandte Kunst called the show held there from March through May of this year.
Now, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) is the second museum to tackle the subject of Apple. Whereas Frankfurt's curator Volker Fischer chose the "Might, myth and magic of a brand" as his theme, in Hamburg, the young curator Ina Grätz has taken the opportunity to acquire the museum's own collection of old and new computers as well as, of course, one of iPods, iPhones and iPads. And now, the native of Hamburg is proudly claiming to be "the first in the world" to be showing Apple appliances "in a comprehensive show."
The MKG shall be showing "Stylectrical – von Elektrodesign, das Geschichte schreibt" (Stylectrical – on history-making electrical design) now until January 15, 2012. Grätz had initially been planning an exhibition of images that had already been making the rounds on the Internet quite a few years ago. These images show early products by the Braun company, which produced appliances for the consumer electronics sector between the 1950s and 1980s, from transistor radios to world receivers and hi-fi systems. These were designed by Dieter Rams or by designers from his team at Braun. Now, virtual images in the museum sphere have once again become real products, which have been set opposite them. The exhibition's original idea that now only accounts for a small section of the show, has turned out to be extremely illuminating. The reason: it does more than simply point out surprising aspects that the two sets of products have in common but also demonstrates their clear differences. It is not only in terms of their technical functionality, but also in their proportions and materials used that the differences between the two become apparent, but at the same time the charms of a relationship between the product that served as a role model and its later reincarnation become clear. This is very different in character from the types of plagiarism of today, at which we often just shrug our shoulders and smile. Here it becomes apparent that images of things are not enough but that we need design museums in order to be able to analyze and understand real objects.
But unfortunately this is only one side of the coin. The other is characterized by imprecision, omissions and a drift into the realm of legends, beginning with the fact that even more than one week after the exhibition's inauguration the some of the captions beneath the exhibits are still not in place. In the case of many of the Braun appliances on show visitors are informed neither when they date from nor who actually designed them. And as for the Next Cube, designed by Hartmut Esslinger and Fritz Frenkler, whose software concepts provided the inspiration for later Apple models, visitors are faced with little more than a black box behind glass. Whereby the comprehensive listing of designers' names from an early stage is what led to personalities such as Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive achieving international repute far beyond the confines of the design scene. And yet, in the case of Ive, on whom the exhibition was originally intended to focus more strongly, the exhibition has allowed itself a serious dating error. In contrast to what is suggested here Ive did not take up his influential post as late as 1997, upon the return of Steve Jobs; rather, he was already Head of the Industrial Design Group IDg at Apple in February 1996. This meant that he was able to do the groundwork for the first change in the company's design strategy as reported in a video interview featured in the exhibition by Thomas Meyerhöffer, a designer of Swedish extraction. In 1996, as an IDg team member Meyerhöffer designed the "eMate", a school computer based on the Apple Newton and the first Apple appliance whose housing was made of translucent plastic. The Swede, who now lives in California, explains how Ive was constantly holding meetings with the marketing department, campaigning for his ideas. But Steve Jobs did not return to Apple until 1997. After this, Apple's design department was reorganized and Ive appointed Vice President.
In a telephone interview that I conducted with Ive at the beginning of 1996 in his then, new position he said: "When you design products for the home they need to stand out from those used in business more so than they have previously. (...) You will soon see that our design takes this into account." The product that Ive came up with for Steve Jobs his new boss at the time was the iMac, which launched in 1998.
The iMac is located right at the beginning of "Stylectrical", in all kinds of versions and colors. The idea of mixing translucent and opaque plastics, the concept of the consistency of surfaces, the notion that components located on the inside could be visible; all of these were new design assignments that also had implications for other sectors, and not only in formal terms. However, the first thing to consider was that in the domestic environment the iMac could not have any loud fans and it was therefore ventilated from the back of its housing. Even the arrangement and shape of the iMac carrying handle were determined by this construction. Anyone who knows about this is lucky because the exhibition allows visitors to compare diverse versions of the appliance (perhaps even a few too many) in detail. Neither in the catalogue nor in the exhibition itself are these design details, to which Ive has provided extensive commentary, ever explained. It is true that a great deal of space is given over to the subject of "material", both in the exhibition and in the catalogue, albeit without "plastics", in order to distinguish between polypropylene and polycarbonate for example. Moreover, the exhibition makers seem unable to decide between a focus on chronological order and the formation of individual product series. As for production technology, here too there are, for instance in the film "Objectified", relevant statements by Ive on the manufacture of notebooks made of aluminum and the design of the inside of the housing, but the subject has been overlaid with evaluations of formal aspects.
But at this point I should not neglect to mention another of the show's highlights for insiders; a series of loans shows the progression from the first Sony Walkman to CD and MD players, to the "Pontis", the first MP3 player. A German invention by a company from the Black Forest, it is clunky with emphasis entirely on technical aspects. Its concept was later refined by Grundig but it was not developed in any fundamental way. The writing was on the wall because by now it has become patently obvious what happens when no thought is given to potential users, when people fail to see design as an active creative process that allows the public to experience new technologies; when order and stimulation as formulated by John Maeda in his work "The Laws of Simplicity", are neglected. Most visitors will stroll past this series without paying it much attention. No information, no highlights, no orchestration.
The adjacent line-up of different models from an iPod to an iPhone calls to mind the impaled collection of an entomologist. An explanatory text on the wall about the "mobile music society" remains vague. What happened when the transistor radio was introduced? What kind of new quality did the Walkman and the iPod represent? Here, visitors who are familiar with the business and culture sections of newspapers know considerably more than the makers of the exhibition are able to communicate to them. Collector's items and loans are grouped, from a luminaire, to a kettle, to a chair and individual fashion items. Nevertheless, the relation to Apple remains sketchy. They just happened to be contemporaries that may have mutually influenced one another. Or something like that.
On the other hand, asking Hamburg-based designers about the materiality of their designs (Tobias Grau about "Soon" and Hadi Teherani about "Silver") appears to be informative. At a show about the recently invented term "electrodesign" one asks oneself why it is that towards the end more and more office chairs are on display or why faucet manufacturers Grohe are suddenly to be found advertising themselves in a corner with their showerheads and faucets (electronically controlled, at least!). A German design company that is as switched on as Apple? If you are looking for information all you will find is advertising slogans, for example, on the design value theory put forward by the Essen-based Red Dot Institute. Another institute, "EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung", an international environmental research institute that advises companies upon request on the composition of chemically optimized raw materials has a large advertising presence. When so requested, one of the institute's staff members explained at the press preview that they had not yet looked at the actual composition of Apple products.
But what is really missing from "Stylectrical" can obviously hardly be expected of a museum under present circumstances (barely adequate budgets for their regular work, the necessity of having to apply for sponsorship for additional projects, be they small or great): How is design – and not only the design of an appliance's outer casing – involved in the process that Americans call "seamless"? Or the seamlessness between hardware and software, between advertising, purchasing, unpacking and use? What is sad about "Stylectrical" is the onesidedness of the term design when it moves away from the possibility of allowing something like Apple to happen a second time.
Stylectrical. Von Elektrodesign, das Geschichte schreibt
From August 26, 2011 through January 15, 2012
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Catalogue to accompany the exhibition:
Edited by Sabine Schulze and Ina Grätz
Hardcover, 320 pages
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2011
€29.00 at the exhibition; otherwise €39.80
The bilingual catalogue on the Frankfurt exhibition is still available:
Der i-Kosmos/The i-cosmos
By Volker Fischer
Hardcover, 112 pages, Edition Axel Menges, Stuttgart/London, 2011
Only available secondhand:
Apple Design, The Work of the Appel Industrial Design Group
By Paul Kunkel, photos by Rick English
288 pages, Graphis Inc., New York, October 1997