“Die Moral der Gegenstände”

Bauhaus Archiv

This exhibition on the Ulm Academy of Design, a school that is legendary in West Germany for its postwar design work, comes at a time when imaginative new developments in contemporary design have caught the art world’s attention. Initiated and sponsored by the Olivetti Group, and cu-rated by Herbert Lindinger, “Die Moral der Gegenstände: Die Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm 1953–1968” (The ethics of objects: the Ulm Academy of Design 1953–1968) was mounted at the Bauhaus Archive in West Berlin. The Ulm Academy was the acknowledged heir to the Bauhaus, although it never achieved the latter’s widespread fame.

The history of the Ulm Academy is the history of the attempt to relate design and politics, industrial reality and humanistic ethics. In this sense, design should link art to life, should develop forms and working/living environments that create political consciousness. This is design in search of an “ethics of objects” and an emancipatory power that these objects can embody in both a social and an individual context. It is not enough simply to create well-made forms that satisfy esthetic and functional criteria; one must attempt to transform reality through the world of objects. At Ulm, the optimistic motto “From the spoon to the city” linked together visual design, film, architecture, and journalism as well as product development. The Ulm Academy is best known for its work in “corporate identity design,” for helping firms like Braun and Olivetti achieve an international reputation. The cornerstone of the Ulm style was conceptual design planning, an integration of science and technology into the design process. From this, system design was developed and applied in fields as diverse as furniture construction and traffic planning.

The connection between theory and praxis is apparent in the Ulm Academy’s curriculum and faculty. Theoreticians like Ahraham A. Moles and Max Bense worked alongside pragmatists like Otl Aicher, Max Bill, Hans Gugelot, Herbert Lindinger, and Tomas Maldonado. Intellectual rigor was a hallmark of the academy’s style, leading to an almost Purist precision in product design. If we compare the form-language of design developed in Ulm with current avant-garde trends, we see two completely different postures. With its anecdotal combination of forms and materials, contemporary design tends toward narration and, often enough, mere chatter; Ulm design, on the contrary, moved in the direction of silence. Moreover, where contemporary design has an affinity with the politics of diversion and entertainment, Ulm design was concerned with mediating political enlightenment.

The powers-that-be in West Germany by no means appreciated this pedagogy; indeed, the government of the state of Baden Württemberg closed the academy in 1968. The “ethics of objects” was obviously seen as a threat in a society that was increasingly choosing the route of “amusing themselves to death.” But the Ulm energy has lived on in the work of teachers and students scattered throughout the country. Helped along by this exhibition, the rediscovery of Ulm is imminent—not in the form of a revival of the “Ulm style” as it reflected the ’50s and ’60s but of the Ulm concept of design as the expression of social responsibility.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.