Ways out of “voluntary self-restriction”
von Thomas Edelmann | Feb 26, 2012

"Warum gestalten?" is the key question in the design symposium hosted by Hamburg's University of Fine Arts (HfbK). The audience comprised students and other design aficionados. University staff commented that seldom before had a conference been so popular. Only recently the HfbK reorganized Design Studies, making it a component of the art curriculum, and appointed three new design professors. In early February the Design department provided a panorama of selected aspects of designing. Happily it turned out to be not a product or work show but rather a tableau of different working manners and approaches. External speakers were introduced or presented by university professors in an attempt to reflect the various positions represented at the university, as was stated in the invitation.

Occupy against designers?

Having been introduced by Friedrich von Borries, Professor of Design Theory and Curatorial Practice at HfbK since 2009, "Why are bananas curved? Or 'What is design?'" (Stylepark reported about it on 15 February 2012) design expert Andrej Kupetz kicked things off. The 42-year old, who is General Manager of the German Design Council, provided an overview of current and future design strategies, a survey that appeared somewhat contradictory, was not very stringent as regards subject matter but had a lot to do with current practice in industrial design in Germany, and prompted President of the University Martin Köttering to intervene ("When I see what you have just shown us then I almost feel called upon to establish a new Occupy movement that demands: stop designers from trying to improve the world.") Kupetz opened his talk with comments on the global population of seven billion people, the "urban challenge", the new Facebook continent with around 845 million active users to date, then turned to currents in product design in the western world. He argued that design was largely driven by marketing. What initially annoyed Köttering and others in the audience were his final comments on surface, that it would in future function even more so than before as a "canvas carrying significance", and would become a design mission because it made it possible to create things that were more distinctive.

Alterations using the Bunsen burner

Classic product design is still caught up in industrialization, stated von Borries. It does not advance beyond "applying the Bunsen burner to the work done by the fathers simply to give it a slightly formal makeover," he said by way of summarizing Marten Baas' "All burn down collection" that Kupetz had presented in this lecture. This was another reason why the aim in Hamburg was to "work towards breaking up the traditions of classic product design" so as to enable "access to other ways of thinking and practices". The objective was to break up the "voluntary self-restriction imposed on the discipline" – the very motto underlying the entire event.

Infecting with design

The contrast to Kupetz could not have been greater: Axel Kufus teaches Designing and Development at Berlin's University of the Arts, and Andreas Brandolini, Professor of Design in Saarbrücken, spoke as representatives of New German Design. In the 1990s they had a joint workshop in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Their current practice differs enormously. Kufus talked about the early days, the strict rules of his carpentry training, which he broke free of with his first design projects and advanced further. "I always looked for an elegant solution," he said. Initially, he developed new things out of semi-finished goods and production remnants. But now Kufus, whose "FNP" shelf is amongst the most important creations of New German Design still available today, works as a university lecturer. His outlook has changed. For him the focus is no longer on developing a single product but rather working as a team to find ideas. His enthusiasm for the workshop as a place of action is complemented by what Kufus refers to as "the head", in other words reflecting and researching. His equation is: "workshop+head=laboratory". As such, the laboratory is a place for research where budding designers, but also scientists from the adjoining Technical University come together. They have come to see themselves as a joint campus. Kufus argues that the "iterative creative experiment" needs to be transferred to the world of engineering. To this end, the designers invited group behavioral researchers from a wide variety of fields, who met here for the first time.

A key expression for describing the cooperation with engineers, scientists and others who are not always skilled in design matters is "multi-perspective". "You need to link the training with the practical world," says Kufus. Specific examples such as the cooperation with specialized, small and mid-sized firms in Berlin (Design Reaktor Berlin) created an opportunity for UdK students to use their laboratories in order to develop products ready to be patented. They experiment with materials such as Alcantara as they do with copper sulfate crystals, which "heal" broken porcelain and allow new objects to be realized.

For Kufus design projects are always both research and application; they serve networking purposes in an education and research process in which the participants "infect" each other with ideas. Demonstrated using a wealth of images and projects, this approach proved infectious for the audience, too.

The perfect world of irony

Another cut: Designer Jaime Hayon (born in 1974) and photographer Nienke Klunder (born in 1975) presented joint projects and individual work. Hayon became known because as a young designer he drew inspiration from the traditional formal world of Baroque and Rococo in order to meld it with today's colors and forms. Presenter Julia Lohmann, "Professor for Introduction to Creative Working (Design)" introduced him as a "Renaissance man". If you look at his studio's output this designation is indeed fitting. Following strict but conventional design training in Madrid and Paris he initially worked in Benetton's Fabrica, where he was discovered by Oliveiro Toscani and made chief designer in 2000. Under the title "Mediterranean Digital Baroque" three years later he exhibited his works for the first time in David Gill's gallery in London; jobs for exclusive manufacturers, manufactory and luxury brands followed. The sheer number and diversity of his projects, which span porcelain, glass and handicraft, but also furniture and graphics, and even culminate in large installations is in itself amazing. Hayon and Nienke Klunder became acquainted in 2003 and have cooperated on design projects ever since. Their first public cooperation was "American Chateau", a mixture of "Versailles and Disneyland", in which forms and techniques from 17th-century European furniture-making were fused with 20th-century US Pop icons. As a photographer Klunder not only has Hayon slip into a disguise (say as a rabbit in a pink costume) but also orchestrates herself in various roles, which is reminiscent both of Cindy Sherman and Anke Engelke. What with the hot dog as a rocking chair, and the caricatured enormous balloon breasts with which Klunder's alter ego sometimes equips himself, von Borries inquired whether the joint work was not possibly to be seen in the context of pornography, which the artist-designer duo Hayon-Klunder gently denied. Some of his furniture designs appear to be feminine, explained Hayon, who has offices in Barcelona, Valencia and Treviso. Following 300 images in rapid succession it remained unclear whether their joint effort is irony, a common lifestyle, an especially superficial luxury world or simply brilliant marketing manifested as design.

Battles for the city

Another change of scene: artist, urban interventionist and theory entertainer Christoph Schäfer – who stepped in at short notice – presented a brief survey of his publication "Die Stadt ist unsere Fabrik". The book consists of a series of watercolors, which transfer the theories of French sociologist Henri Lefébvre into an illustrative, narrative series of images and text; or as Schäfer said a "pseudo-historical panorama" with "breaks through space and time." How did cities come about? How did they transform? How is the exercising of power manifested in space? At the moment major cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich or Frankfurt are undergoing massive transformations and structural changes. Property sales and rises in rents make it almost impossible to find affordable accommodation close to the center, in the course of large new building and conversion projects previously public areas are being reorganized, and generously sized green spaces and recreational areas are being cut to an low-maintenance minimum, monument preservation, and historical urban structures merge in with restructured consumer areas. Echoing Lefébvre, "The Right to the city" is the name of a merger of Hamburg initiatives which fight for an alternative use of the city. For Schäfer it is about ideal production in which the city is a resource, a playing field, which is only waiting to be used and shaped by its inhabitants, far removed from the deceptive images with which investors promote their projects.

Village practice and design history

Another change of scene: Andreas Brandolini (born in 1951) was interviewed by Jesko Fezer (born in 1970). What was it like back then? In the background there was a film about the 1985 Berlin project "KdO – Kaufhaus des Ostens" on a famous East German department store. Brandolini, architect and designer, and once a protagonist of New German Design in Berlin, today lives in the Allgäu region and in France, and teaches design at Saarbrücken Academy of Fine Arts. Fezer presented his manifesto "An die jungen Designer" (To the young designers), which appeared in the catalog accompanying the KDO project.

A few years ago Brandolini converted a small square not in the city but in the middle of the village Raucourt in Lorraine – next to the town hall. It was supposed to be a government-sponsored art project but the design was primarily intended to be of use to the local people, and it outran the budget. There is a bowling alley in a modernized annex, a graveled square with seating, a playground with a pergola: It all seems unspectacular, hardly worth talking about, but it required the efforts of the villagers in order to be realized. "Brandolini does not criticize but rather affirms, better still he synthetizes and clings to profane manifestations of reality," design critic Uta Brandes once wrote about him. The occasion was a large public design project called "Busstop" in 1994 in Hanover, for which Brandolini designed one of the new shelters. Unlike most of the nine designers participating in the project he did not create a radiant city emblem. His shelter consisted of a long oak bench and a steel base topped by a large tub planted with greenery. In the course of time, Brandolini explained dryly, all manner of rubbish would land on the roof of this piece of urban furniture but thanks to the greenery it would be invisible. Here again the realization was only possible because local retailers and businesses contributed to the financing. We also got another glimpse of his installation "Deutsches Wohnzimmer" (German living room), created in 1987 for the design section of documenta 8 and recently sold by Munich-based auctioneers von Zetzschwitz. "Why do we design?" Brandolini asked once again and supplied the answer himself: "Because we want to intervene." Design is a "highly attractive profession if you did not want to save the world," he determined.

Right and wrong

By this point in the late afternoon the minds of the audience were already filled with a jumble of impressions, contradictory and yet related at the same time: design with and as marketing, as a research group or a battle for a better city, as ironic luxury or contextual shaping. A highlight of the symposium was still to follow: Vienna-based experimental film-maker, artist and cultural philosopher Peter Kubelka (born in 1943) slowly spread out several items, which he then discussed one by one. How and what he presented had the makings of an independent event, a theory of design and media as cultural history. Every medium only covers a part of our senses, and no new medium could completely replace an existing one. "Media complement one another," said Kubelka, who was once director of Frankfurt's Städel Art Academy, where he established a class in film and cooking. The world is sound: "Depending what I hold in my hand I am a different person," he explained. The ear functions as a guard dog. The eye is there for "roaming vision", for "examining concepts". The child's rattle serves as an educational instrument – he had brought three different models along with him. "What moves makes a sound." A lead-in to a cultural history of objects, cascades of associative thinking. He presented a large, old wooden spoon, a combination of extended lower arm and a hollow hand. He used an Alessi espresso machine for the stove to explain the "discrepancy between the useful and the symbolic," Kubelka talked of preparing food as "food building", an almost architectural design procedure. The previously uttered urban sociological term of "appropriation" suddenly took on a new turn: "Everything I eat is in my power," said Kubelka, and: "Food is read by the mouth." Initially everyone at the university, including the students, had been against the cooking classes, he reported. However, cooking teaches people to assume responsibility, teaches them to serve without being a slave. But "I sent away anyone who wanted to be creative". What is often forgotten at universities cannot be concealed when cooking: "A result can either be right or wrong."

What the "Warum gestalten?" public symposium offered was truly exceptional. What can result from it in the everyday routine of teaching design, whether old and new professors in Hamburg will be infected, or whether they will wear themselves out in arguing over the right or wrong design remains for the future to decide.

oto © Thomas Edelmann
5 Jesko Fezer and Andreas Brandolini (f.l.t.r.), photo © Thomas Edelmann
6 Peter Kubelka, photo © Thomas Edelmann
7 Andrej Kupetz, photo © Thomas Edelmann
8 Screen Andrej Kupetz, photo © Thomas Edelmann