Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff

He inspired the design debate

On Michael Erlhoff’s death.
by Thomas Edelmann | 5/10/2021

A warm July evening in 1987 in Berlin. Nine men are sitting on a panel, designers, an art historian, a Werkbund representative, journalists, and ex-Ulm staff Max Bill, Herbert Lindinger and Tomás Maldonado. The topic for discussion was “Ulm – and now what?”. That afternoon, the retrospective on “Ulm… the Morality of Objects” had opened in the Bauhaus Archive. It was, 19 years after HfG Ulm closed its doors forever, the first coherent show that offered a comprehensive account of the history of the design college. One of the nine was Michael Erlhoff. Since the beginning of the year he had been Managing Director of the German Design Council in Frankfurt. And now his film was screening which, like the exhibition, was called “Ulm – the Morality of Objects”.

Can objects have a morality? Can morality be designed? Michael Erlhoff set out to compare the intentions of the Ulm staff such as they developed in reference to their “strange objects” – and he certainly did not mean the term pejoratively – with themes from Romanticism. I was only able to follow his argument to a limited extent. I was just starting on the basis of the marvelous exhibition catalog, which Erlhoff had helped conceive, to grasp what HfG Ulm might possibly have been, what sources it drew on, what drove it forward, and why it possibly failed. And now this: Romanticism!

The initial irritation soon gave way to enthusiasm. On my return to Frankfurt, where I lived at the time, I encountered Erlhoff again, he invited me and my colleague Fabian Wurm to the Council. He had arranged a series of events there with which he was trying to shed light on other aspects of the HfG story. Lectures and an HfG “Synchronopsis”, that represented events at the college visually parallel to occurrences in politics and cultures of the time, were all to be experienced in the Council’s premises. And activities also included joint presentations by Michael Erlhoff and his partner Uta Brandes. Things were defined by thematic seriousness and entertaining gestures. For example, when Erlhoff lectured ad hoc on concepts that Brandes, who moderated, had just teased out of the audience. His quick wit and extraordinarily broad set of references, which included art, literature, advertising, technology, and society, was an enjoyable and stimulating combination and continued to have an impact well after the particular evening.

Yet the one or other visitor responded with annoyance or defensiveness, something that could lead to a friendly dispute or to ignorance. After a few conversations, Michael Erlhoff asked us whether we wanted to become editors of “Design Report”, the journal he had just founded. DIt would not be a lot of work, he suggested, as it would only come out once every two months. The prevailing mood at the German Design Council was that of a start-up, the only difference being that there was no venture capitalist bankrolling things. The extremely sparse financing stemmed from the State of Hessen Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Federal Ministry of Economics as well as from international projects that Michael Erlhoff conceived. Unforgettable are the conversations at Nick Roericht's bar tables with Michael Erlhoff, Uta Brandes, the fellow campaigners in the council and with many interesting visitors who came there.

Back then, the place was a mixture of literary club, designer club, and meeting place for advertising buffs. Erlhoff managed to kindle the imagination of people from differing disciplines. In the then newly-opened Schirn gallery, on revolving stages he confronted renowned scientists with equally famous businesspeople to discuss corporate culture or tribal cultures. In retrospect it bears saying that it was an open and productive process. For almost three years we worked here with Michael Erlhoff, and in my memory it seems like an eternity. Frankfurt was swiftly emerging as the post-modern metropolis per se. The city was soon not the right place anymore for an expanded concept of design that did not celebrate gloss and aesthetic exaggeration, but instead focused on critical self-interrogation and new forms of sociality.

A prime example of the difficulties he faced back then was the realignment of the Good Form Design Prize that Michael Erlhoff initiated back then, renaming it the Federal Product Design Award. His idea of inviting several juries – designers, psychologists, consumer protection experts and users of the object to each present their own independent results- was rejected. To this day, I am grateful: Michael Erlhoff gave us Design Report editors plenty of free scope. He supported us while we invented our profession. After a short time we realized what an immense responsibility this implied. At the same time, we were burning both ends of the candle, trying with a minimal budget to do far more than simply produce a Design Council newsletter. Looking back, I find our production sequences and scheduling back then daring to the point of mad.

In 1990, Michael Erlhoff quit the Council in order to set up the Design course in Cologne and with it the KISD – Köln International School of Design. By offering the corresponding courses in Cologne, Erlhoff tried to underpin one of his over-arching objectives: To publish on design in those widespread media for which he himself was a gladly welcomed commentator and discussant. The Design Report journal was one of his many inventions, that initially continued to exist in ever changing forms, and came out for the provisionally last time in 2019. Michael Erlhoff emphatically influenced design journalism in German (and probably in other languages and cultures, too). Impossible to mention here the names of all those authors he inspired to write critically about design, whether they are active in journalism, marketing or research. Readers of the Stylepark Magazine will remember “Erlhoff’s Evening Program”, meaning Michael Erlhoff’s column.

Michael Erlhoff was a teacher who could swiftly become a friend, host, and amicable critic, the very opposite of the typical German professor who insists on proven ideas being parroted endlessly. He loved contradiction, to tussle over a matter. Especially if the opposite camp put up a well-formulated case.

Adieu & Thanks, Michael!

Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff