From Bauhaus to Berlin’s poster culture: a German design guide

In the first of a new series spotlighting design in different countries, we look at Germany’s diverse creative culture, from industrial to graphic design, which is both forward-thinking and respectful of the country’s rich history.

Germany’s diversity of design is perhaps best summed up in the complex legacy of Bauhaus, which turns 100 this year. Dedications to Walter Gropius’ movement are spread throughout the country; at Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv (which is temporarily closed) and the recently-opened Bauhaus Museum in Dessau (where Gropius set up his art school in 1925). In Weimar, the pastoral central German town where Bauhaus was founded, the movement has only recently been marked with a suitably design-led dedication. A five-level, minimalist white gallery, from architect Heike Hanada, was built earlier this year and now houses around 1,000 objects from the Weimar Bauhaus collection.

Weimar’s Bauhaus museum

Anke Blumm, curator at the new museum, says Bauhaus was so important because it comprised “all the avant-garde movements of the time, from constructionism to new ways of using typography and photography as well as everyday design”. And the century-old movement influence is still felt in Germany, even if it’s as a reaction against it. “As a designer, you can’t avoid dealing with it — being that you avoid it or integrate it,” she says. “You have to have an attitude toward the Bauhaus.”

Beyond Bauhaus, the country’s design scene has an international outlook. The German Design Council was set up in 1953 to help make its businesses run more successfully, especially on the international stage. A priority for the council is the country’s ‘Mittelstand’ (middle-sized businesses) which includes companies such as kitchen makers Poggenpohl (founded in 1892 in Herford), other furniture brands as well as accessory designers. A spokesperson from the council tells Design Week that this industry provides a “backbone” for the country and a key focus moving forward is digitalisation.

Inside the new museum

Design education

A popular route into the design industry is through the country’s dual vocational education and training system, known as the Dual VET. This course, which usually lasts two or three-and-a-half years, comprises half classroom teaching and half on-the-job training. It’s widely credited as a significant factor of the country’s design industry — giving students the academic underpinning as well as professional training. It’s also popular: around 50% of all school leavers take this training.

Students choose from a variety of professional trades, across the fields of design and engineering — over 330 occupations require this formal training. While it is country-wide, the system is standardised so that a student product designer in Munich will receive the same training and testing as one in Berlin.

“You learn from the beginning to design honestly and focus on the necessities”

How does Germany’s legacy — and long list of design legends — influence its new crop of designers?

“You learn from the beginning to design honestly and focus on the necessities,” says Kai Rump, an industrial designer nominated for the design council’s 2019 Newcomer award. Rump says that as a student at western Germany’s University of Wuppertal, he was taught “the principles of good design set out by Dieter Rams and also the direction of the Bauhaus”.

Rump’s facial shaver

Rams’ designs — from the Braun table top radio to the Oral-B tooth — endure not just in Germany, but throughout the world. His impact — clean lines, timeless design — have long been seen as a design standard. This year, the Rams-designed LE Braun speaker was relaunched with an update. In Rump’s work — from a typical Braun facial shaver to the distinctly less everyday “astrophotography system” — it’s possible to see Rams’ influence too.

Rump says that this trend towards “reduction and minimalism”, although not new, have both “become very popular again”. It also ties into one of the defining principles of German design. “In my opinion, the biggest feature of German design culture is the realistic design process,” Rump says. “It includes a lot of research and product testing before any sketching or modelling.”

“It helps to create innovation and reasonable products with a smart use of resources and not just throwing cool design concepts out of your head,” he adds.

Design for the astrophotography system

The future of industrial design

Janina Hünerberg, another industrial designer and nominee, shares this innovative approach. She has explored medical design with LYBOprotect, her design for an antibiotic plaster for the prophylactic treatment of Lyme disease. She tells Design Week that the plaster allows for a “safe and simple application” and was based on the anatomy of ticks and reworking of previous procedures.

While her design approach is resourceful, its scope is not limited. Hünerberg is also interested in agriculture, a sector that is “currently undergoing a great deal of change” thanks to the advent of new technology. It’s a prevalent topic for Germany where over half the country’s land is used for farming purposes. (It’s also the world’s third largest exporter of agricultural goods.) “We can help our farmers optimize their processes and meet the high standards demanded by consumers,” she says.

Hünerberg’s LYBOprotect plaster

Hünerberg has designed Mamelle, a measuring device that allows an instant diagnosis of mastitis in dairy cows, a disease which frequently affects dairy farms and leads to the death of the animals. It aims to dismantle old farming techniques and create a more efficient dairy farming process by maintain healthier and more productive cows.

It’s also possible to take a more playful approach to the country’s legacy. Max Goßler, another nominee, works on projects involving artificial intelligence such as 2017’s Creativity of the Machine, which posed the question: “Can a so-called artificial intelligence generate things that a person would attest to have a creative origin?”

The resulting AI platform was a “generative machine” which could create unique designs of what Goßler identified as one of the most designed objects since industrialisation: the chair. Goßler has a keen awareness of the country’s strong industrial design history and there is a sense of humour in this “provocative” project — with Goßler trying to replace himself as a designer.

“Bilingual design” and Berlin’s poster culture

Though industrial design is the country’s most famous export, Germany also has a strong history of graphic design, with a proliferation after the industrial revolution in the 18th century. It’s a history that has inevitably darker stretches — during the Nazi occupation, graphic design was used as a propaganda tool and some of the country’s designers produced work for the state. Ludwig Hohlwein, for example, worked for automobile companies like Audi before collaborating with Goebbels on Nazi propaganda.

Graphics from Eps51 for Berlin’s jazz festival

Now though, especially in the creative hub of the country’s capital, this sector has a strong international feel. One Berlin-based graphic design studio, Eps51, is focused around “bilingual design”. Ben Wittner, the studio’s co-founder, says that the studio’s location in Berlin – teamed with the founding partners’ international background — gives them a “specific visual style” which focuses on typographic solutions and strong concepts. Clients include Nike, L’Oreal and Heineken, and all have an emphasis on editorial work.

Posters for Kommunale Galerie Berlin

Wittner singles out Berlin’s poster culture to Design Week. “The availability of large poster walls affects the way posters are designed as conceptual series,” he adds. In the past year, the studio has created graphics for city-wide events like JazzFest Berlin as well as Kommunale Galerie Berlin, a collection of 34 freely accessible art galleries. These designs rely on bold colourways and eye-catching design that is most of all “intelligible”.

When heritage meets digital

Outside the typically international capital, some of Germany’s most interesting design comes from when its heritage meets the present. In the state of Bavaria, where the German clichés of lederhosen, classical castles and snow-covered Alps are realised, one studio has found a way to combine tradition with technology.

Anakin’s design team “combines traditional craftmanship with intensive use of digital technologies”. The 20-year-old studio has worked with a range of international brands — counting Apple, Red Bull and BMW as clients — but it also works with traditional and regional brands as a way to stay true to its “Bavarian heritage”.

Anakin’s table design

Hans Wembacher, the studio’s co-founder, says that “craftmanship” is vital for the process. In fact, during the development stage, the designers make mock-ups and prototypes of packaging, catalogue and print material by hand. The resulting visual identities have an almost-textural look — both an homage to Bavarian heritage as well as digitally refined.

The studio also applies its approach to product design, like a recent range of leather goods and a table design that is both traditional and futuristic.

An industry in trouble

It would be impossible to talk about German design without talking about cars. But that iconic landscape is changing. Professor Ferdinand Dudenhoffer, from Institute CAR (Center Automotive Research) at the University Duisburg-Essen, began the year predicting “chaos” for the industry, with reasons ranging from waning international demand to the effects of a global recession.

His prophecy came true, in part. Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz and is headquartered in based in Stuttgart, announced it would cut 10,000 jobs worldwide as it switches to electric cars. Audi, which is based in Ingolstadt and owns Volkswagen, also announced it would cut almost 9,500 jobs. These were just two of the companies that suffered this year.

Porsche’s flying car concept

But Dudenhoffer tells Design Week that the year ends with more positive news. Chief among this is a repositioning of German legacy brands as electric vehicles. “The German car manufacturers are taking big steps into this new world,” he says. One major example is Porsche. “Porsche has always been linked to its 9/11 model or SUV types like the Cayenne,” he says. “But if you look at its Taycan range, it’s in the world of the Tesla.”

Porsche is not just focused on going electric. The luxury brand is also in a development agreement with Boeing in a secretive project. Its goal? To explore the “third dimension of travel” and produce a fully electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle. In plain English: To make a flying car. Other car-markers are also adapting to new challenges. Audi, for example, is rebranding next year for a global audience next year. And VW — after a global diesel emissions scandal — rebranded with a new logo for its “electric future” along with a new generation of pure electric vehicles. Dudenhoffer points to VW’s ID.3 line as a particular highlight from the industry’s 2019 sustainability push.

VW’s ID.3

Dudenhoffer believes that the legacy of this industry will help it adapt to the future — while admitting that the next five years will be hard because of a China-US trade deal and profit losses incurred by the switch to electric. “But the German car manufacturers will offer dynamic cars,” he says, “just as they did in the past.”

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