Design-Conference in Aspen/Colorado

Aspen/Colorado USA 1996 1990er Jahre Aspen/Colorado USA 1996 1990er Jahre Thementotems „Das Deutschsein des deutschen Designs“ | Aspen 1996 Foto | Th. Meyer, Düsseldorf Thementotem „Das Deutschsein des deutschen Designs“ | Aspen 1996 © Th. Meyer, Düsseldorf

The Germanness of German Design

English version

I would like to demonstrate first, how I fit into the major topic of this conference personally. The major topic is "Gestalt and Vision", so it is very hard for a foreigner to understand what Gestalt means and therefore I will just go onto demonstrate it instead. I normally wear a tie and many of those who take off their ties when they are in company of their designer colleagues, normally wear a tie, and I can assure you, that even Heinrich Klotz normally wears a tie as I do. And this indicates that we are quite conscious about what Gestalt means. For an individual, for outstanding personalities, for intellectuals, artists and scientists in 20th century Europe, it's just by chance that they were not victims of all the totalitarian systems which overthrew Europe. We Germans wear a tie always to be aware of this (gesture of strangulation). This is the normal way European intellectuals have been treated by totalitarian systems. And of course, it's to show that even the functionaries, the Stasi-agents and Stalinistic agents have to be aware that hangmen also die.

Secondly Gestalt expressed in the tie shows how much form – like every one-way-sign – points out a direction. You see, it's cut like this and this means it goes in this direction, (indicating the abdomen and the earth). It is given an intention of movement, so we usually wear the tie like this, to point to the centre of man's power, but also to point to the earth, which is where we come from and where we have to go back. When German intellectuals, philosophers, scientists, artists and others wear a tie, they always are aware of the fact that this is the ultimate aim of our living, being, working and doing.

I must remind you, that I was asked to give a lecture on Germanness in German Design and not on the History of German Design or Design theory. This is very important. Otherwise you would get a little disturbed with the items I'm going to show you. It sounds a little extravagant to take into account something like Germanness or Frenchness in building up an analogy, for example endlessness, or for emptiness or even for Loch Ness. However, here in Aspen, a very famous colleague of ours, Nikolaus Pevsner, took the chance to introduce to the audience his brilliant study of the Englishness of English Art. I therefore think, it's not just a kind of German foolishness to always circle around the questions 'what is Germanness all about? What do we have to achieve, when we speak about Germanness?'

I remind you that the late, brilliant Lenny Bernstein gave a lecture in '59 , and I might add, that this was the most outstanding action-teaching that I have ever met. The title of this lecture was: "What is so American within American Music?" So, these two hosts – Pevsner and Bernstein – will lead us into the discussion about what I was asked to speak about: "The Germanness of German design".

The shortest description of Germanness as an aim of the Germans is: we want to be loved by all of you. When we mean "all", we mean "all of mankind".

The shortest orientation towards Germanness is defined by 'German radicalism'. Radicalism refers to the Latin noun radix, which means 'root'. Do you remember the very famous TV series in America called "Roots" in the late 1970s? Germans also use the idea of "roots". But this is a very special aspect of German radicalism. We say 'back to the roots' in order to eradicate them. You have to [understand] this literally! Furthermore, as a kind of second definition of Germanness, literalism and literality are the most important ways in defining Germanness. Germans believe that everything you can name or that corresponds with an abstract term is real. This is what we call in German 'realism' and it goes like this: whatever people believe to be real is real in its consequences. So enlightenment in Germany never had the chance to succeed. You couldn't just start telling someone, "No, don't believe in these kinds of spirit or this kind of oddity. If someone always wanted to believe, then the consequences of this belief would be real, and this is shown in what you meet in the street or within the houses or the attitudes of people.
So, radicalism, "back to the roots" to eradicate them, and secondly, literalism and literality in this capacity, means: whatever comes out of the belief of people is real.

To feed your inspiration, to feed your eyes, I will give another short description of Germanness by reminding you that every German emperor, when he appeared in public, chose tor his emblem a dog. For instance, remember Frederick II. of Prussia. He always was accompanied by greyhounds or running dogs (Windspiel). Goethe and Schopenhauer always referred to the poodle. Think of Faust and Schopenhauer's philosophy. The poodle, because he was the embodiment of Mephisto, talked to Schopenhauer and Goethe about it and they wrote it down. Or, remember that our famous founder of the Reich in 1871, Bismarck, was always accompanied by what we call in German a "butcher's dog", (here you call it a great Dane, so the German expression is more proper). Whenever Bismarck appeared in public the iconography of his appearance, the symbols of his functions were represented by a great Dane. William II., the German emperor, mostly liked to speak to Dachshounds. From his early youth he was very fond of Dachshounds. And as you all know, Adolf, the Hitler, tried to convince everybody that the German shepherd was the heraldic emblem for all Germans, orientated towards Germanness. Just imagine, how quickly the inspiration to Germanness is fed through the emblems that each leader chose. After World War II no German politician ever appeared in public with a dog or any other animal.

You'll know Matthew 7:3 where he said: 'why do you always see the splinter in your brother's eye but you don't notice the beam that is in your own eye'.

Now I'm going to demonstrate the most important beams in the eyes of Germans, the totem poles of Germanness, which make us blind to a real experience of the world. The first beam is topped by a skull, a very famous Germanic emblem, which for instance, the German resistance after 1806 chose on the uniform of the black corps. They fought the Napoleonic army. The German resistance army which nobody knows that we had, up to now, as it was thought that only the French had a resistance army, and which had existed already in 1806, chose the skull as a Germanic emblem on its uniforms including the black color from which derived the uniform of the S.S.

Well, we are ashamed by this ultimate destination of German politics and culture – death – covered by a piked helmet. It's a kind of cap of invisibility. You know this, of course, from Wagner operas; you will find out that this is completely Wagner, because in his operas and on stage you always find caps of invisibility, skulls, weapons and a kind of mystical, spiritualistic object, and special weapons as the famous sword made of Solingen steal, one of the most famous design objects of Wagner's time.

The second beam in our eye of Germanness is topped by the crown of the fool. It's very normal to refer to fools, for instance, during my career I have always been called a fool like Simplicissimus or Hans Wurst or Eulenspiegel. We say that a fool has only hay and straw in his head, but this straw flamboyantly reaches the sky, when we burn it.

As we learned from Tilmann Buddensieg, the history of modern German design started with the design of the Iron cross by Schinkel, to honour those in 1813 who were killed in the resistance fights against Napoleon. And Buddensieg said they started with a "dead end". Well, if you wear this, you can be sure that you are one of those within the trap of "dead end".

Going down the pole with the skull, you have some signs or some toys representing the most outstanding German design objects, namely weapons, cannons, tanks, rockets, the first jet ever flown. It is a little bit tragic. This is not because of the weapons. They are used all over the world and you can make a good fortune by selling them, equally for Americans or for others. The tragic aspect is, that the most famous and most important design award Die gute Form (the good form) faced its death when it was not possible for the judges to take weapons into account on what good, functional, and brilliant design is. And, of course, everybody knows, that the most outstanding designs all over the world result from designing weapons. So Herbert and all the other guys said, "No, you would never be allowed to judge upon weapons as good design". Therefore, the whole award paid by the German government was cancelled. Up to now it doesn't have any meaning. It will have meaning again, when you start taking weapons as good design, as good form, into account again.

Now here you have what Buddensieg did. This was charming or brilliant. A special paperback edition for soldiers to take Nietzsche with them into the field, as it fitted into the backpack. And, of course, it was dedicated to the most important designers who were organisers and changers of the world, that means, who had military genius. Every soldier as a designer is a military genius. He changes things completely within a few seconds. So this was how he learned to judge what he was doing and why it was useful to use such weapons to organize, for instance, a new world: everything he needed to know about this was written in this book.

Further down the pole, you have the famous mess kit of German soldiers. The German soldier would rather get rid of his weapons but never of his mess kit in the field, because this was what guaranteed his survival under all circumstances.

And the next item is a recent product presented by Lufthansa. [It is] one of the [most] brilliant ideas in German communication design, the design of the "cultural bag" (in German: Kulturbeutel). The soldiers had to take a cultural bag with them to always remember that they had their mothers in their bag telling them, "Please, brush your teeth, clean your body, even in the mud of the field. Be aware, that you are a civilized man." So, every soldier had to take his cultural bag with him. Included in the bag from 1937 was a kind of refreshing water, Eau de Cologne, and a very tiny German Christmas tree, to always remember the ultimate orientation of ritual life outside the war. The soldier had everything he needed to define culture using the cultural bag.

The most important object in this bag and for the military organisers of Utopian societies was Aspirin. I do not have the time to explain, that most of these items have been created in Wuppertal, there is the university, where Professor Loesch and I work. For instance, Aspirin was created by Dr. Hoffmann in Wuppertal. It is a kind of universal medical treatment for everybody, but especially for soldiers. You know the jokes about medical doctors in the military hospitals, they cure nearly everything with Aspirin. Well, and that was, of course, the end of the German army. The Americans were clever enough not to believe in the universal use of Aspirin.

Now, let's start here with the opposite pole. Everybody can imagine, that this means, as Buddensieg said, the ability to organize, to make oneself invisible, to make invisible the ultimate aims of what we are doing. It is the tradition of rationalism, of planning, of just getting something done towards a new Utopian idea of the world.

Over here are the famous Jesuslatschen (Jesus' sandals) or Birkenstocks, because fools always face the world, homeless, just wandering around, and that's why they need a backpack. In the backpack is some food which is usable for, let's say, many years or at least five years. This Leibnitz cake is one of the famous German design products that indicates Germanness. It was just by chance of fate that Leibniz had a relationship to Hannover. The Hannover manufacturers didn't take all the "cultural shit" too seriously, so you amazingly find that they spelled the name of Leibniz incorrectly. To them it was just a reference without real cultural or essential knowledge. They also put on it 'T.E.T.', which is an old Egyptian expression for eternal youth and hence this product. So, they took this symbol of eternity, used in the fifth, the fourth, the third, and the second dynasties of Egypt, to guarantee the meaning of quality shown as Good German design, to be used for ever. This is true, of course. If you're going to eat the cake on your rucksack-walks all over the world, being a fool or understanding what is going on, you eat it and you transform it. Then you eliminate it. It finally ends up feeding the fish. So, Leibniz shows the eternal cycle of life. Then, everything is okay.

This one here, the famous Langenscheidt, was created years before other guys started to copy the idea, as a dictionary for fools, making their ways through the world. If they had to get in contact with people somewhere they should ask 'Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen, wo ich hier Wasser finde'. Therefore, Langenscheidt created this dictionary for tourists like explorers of the world. It was completely different from the books the military government gave every soldier to be able to communicate with those he had just killed.

And, of course, the invention of a beer bottle with a ceramic snap top of the bottle is still very important. We have a manufacturer over there who is producing it. Not only is this a brilliant invention, but the content of the bottle [is] also an outstanding example of German communication design, due to the famous Reinheitsgebot of 1516. Within the European Union we have a lot of discussions on whether we should stick to the Reinheitsgebot, or whether we should get rid of it.

Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we come to the communication design of the propaganda materials from the 'Greens'. They were the first 'green' party in the world. This is not to say that America or other countries did not have people being aware of the problems concerning the natural environment earlier than the sixties, but that they did not build a political party from this. The German Greens did. They also correspond with the other beam or totem pole of Germanism with the very special German invention of a kind of civil servant, called the Beamter. The Beamter is guaranteed a very special status by chapter 33 of our fundamental law, and this says that he is a representative of the State, being paid throughout his entire life, being taken care of by the State and so on. So, the German Beamter in this traditional heritage, marked here with the beam of a totem pole of Germanism, corresponds to this. We will draw a conclusion from this later on.

Now, down the pole of rationalism, you see one of the most important inventions of communication design. This is the ring folder. It is not just the folder itself, but the design of the hole. As I said, Germany derives from emptiness or from the analogy of emptiness, so one of the most important design creations was this hole. You can put your finger into it and draw the file out of the shelf. Furthermore, if you are convinced that by rational planning you will achieve a new Utopian society, then, with the utmost consciousness of a military designer, you must use this kind of organisational material and logic.

Now, down here we see Volkswagen, the famous beetle. What does it have to do with rationalistic tradition? We have to add that the rational tradition is always corresponding in the minds of Germans and their Germanness, with mysticism and spirituality. This is incorporated in dwarfs, hedgehogs or Mainzelmännchen, the symbolic emblematic figures out of the logo of the German state TV from the fifties. Now you can find out easily why this Volkswagen was called the "beetle", because the rational planning manufacturers had to combine this rationality with the roots of spirituality and mysticism. When you call a piece of metal 'beetle' it becomes inspired, it becomes animated somehow. We even call rockets "dicke Berta" (thick Berta). A marvellous lady, it shot up about 1.000 kilometers. So, by choosing the name 'beetle' we have the combination of this tradition – rationality and planning – with spirituality and mysticism, incorporated, for instance, by dwarfs. The dwarfs are embodiments from natural sources, transformed into civil servants, or those that you can use in the household. Many fairy tales go like this: Once upon a time, when all we had to do was to just call these civil servants. Germans were always orientated towards wish fulfillment and the only ones who can guarantee it are the dwarfs. If you have to start to fulfill your wishes by yourself, you will find out that you don't have many grand wishes. If others are going to fulfill your wishes, like these embodiments of natural sources, then your wishes will always be fulfilled.

The Germans would perhaps accept that Disney was the inventor of Richard Wagner and all his music plays. Wagner as one knows is the inventor of Hollywood music, so we as Germans would accept this. What we never can accept is, that, e.g. Disney created "Snowhite and the Seven Dwarfs", because this is originally a story by the Gebrüder Grimm, and is the expression of Germanness and nothing else.

Now here, we have a hedgehog referring to a Grimm fairy tale, too. The Americans know it as the race between the hare and the turtle. In Germany, it is known as the race between the hare and the hedgehog. The Germans always saw themselves in competition with the French, the English, and the United States. They saw themselves as very agile, speedy and successful, but they always lost every competition, as you know. After World War II they said, "Well, what is the emblem which symbolizes the character of our opponents who appear so average? We wanted to change the world but were always defeated." They found out, that the emblematic of the others was the hedgehog, who won the race. So in the fifties they chose the hedgehog as the symbol for the new Democratic Germany with the consciousness that the steady and stable will win the race.

We could not watch TV or buy a magazine or do something like that, without being confronted with the hedgehog called Mecki.

Next, if one wants to ask the doubtful question of why Germans still can't understand or are still trying to understand why they are being surpassed by e.g. even the Seven Tigers of South-East Asia and India, or wherever, it is due to the little Mainzelmännchen or dwarfs. They have introduced up to now, two generations of people into philosophy. You can easily imagine that professors like us are not able to introduce people into philosophy, but the designers who designed these Mainzelmännchen were so brilliant in building up reflexive linguistic forms and semantics, with every TV spot, that every child at the age of eight, has reached the level of a German linguistic professor concerning reflexivity in the use of language. That is why our universities are so crowded, for we have a lot of children who watch these Mainzelmännchen shows.

Last, but not least, you see an outstanding piece of German Art history in the star of the Mercedes. The inherent logic of all that has been discussed is combined in it. But I leave this up to your imagination.

Anyhow, the tradition of rationalism and planning, always being combined with the forces of nature or forces of spirituality and mysticism are linked within the German Beamter, within this very special German civil servant. On the other hand, the tradition of the youth movement, Wanderlust and romantic attitudes, as represented in the Greens, refer to another German tradition, that of 'good housekeeping'. Good housekeeping comes from the Greek nounoikos. "Oikos" means the fireplace within a household, within a hut or something like that, so economic affairs are just affairs of good housekeeping. And every German would know therefore, that the most important and the most successful products by German designers have been developed like this. For instance, the glue, Uhu, or the mouth wash Odol. You didn't have such things in America before... Nowadays, you have the mouth wash offered in every hotel. Think of the Germans always having their Bier and their Bratwurst and after having eaten it, they have to resume their ability to communicate from mouth to mouth and therefore they need Odol. And, of course, the famous tape. In America, it is called Scotch-film, but this is Tesa-film. It's marvellous, I think. It's one of the most brilliant ideas that have ever come out of a German designer's brain. Tesa-film, Odol, Uhu. And the disposable tissue, Tempo: Why did the German designers create this? It would have been too awkward always to carry the tears you have shed with you. Better to use this kind of handkerchief as we had a lot of opportunities and necessities to shed tears. So we cry, but this is the end, okay? Then we start again.

And, of course, these product names have become generalized names for a whole class of products in Germany.

Now, I have to introduce you to something very special. It is the only creation by former Eastern German designers that has become successful worldwide. It's a cleaning cloth, which has the ability to take dirt and filth, like magic, off every spot. You don't even have to clean it. You just wring it. It's marvellous.

But you see, these people were not very intelligent. They created a kind of material to get rid of filth, fat and all the "shit", but they didn't succeed in their own state. Otherwise they would have survived. They didn't get rid of their own "shit" and filth. However, we have adapted this cloth, and we are using it.

Now, we not only have beer in the German household and the strategy of good housekeeping, oikonomia, but also coffee. The national beverage in Germany is coffee. Therefore, a German lady called Melitta invented the coffee filter in 1903. This kind of coffee filter bears her name on its packages, even nowadays. It's marvellous to sit in a German household that is properly run by a German housewife, who is also a member of the Green party, drinking a fragrant cup of coffee out of a cup which has just been glued by UHU because it was broken, that is fragmented. The strategy is to fragment everything and then use the glue and the tape to put the fragments together.

And now, you have a cup of filter coffee with your wife and in your arms is a teddy bear, also a German invention. It has been called after Teddy Roosevelt, because an American entrepreneur came to a fair in Leipzig and he did saw these toy bears and ordered 3,000 of them, and because everyone was fond of Roosevelt's bear hunting, the toy bear got the name of Teddy Roosevelt, but the invention is German. Well, you have the teddy bear in one arm and you think about the ultimate aim in this heritage, and you find out that this is the design of children. The design of fitting children into social formations is, I think, the greatest deed in German communication design. Käthe Kruse designed dolls in such a way that even the hair styles, the clothes were quite authentic. A child could really learn how it should design itself by playing with the doll or listening to the parents in order to fit into the social formations which have been described.

So, you're sitting there now, drinking your cup of coffee filtered by Melitta, and thinking about all this. You are within the artificial form of all these strategies of good housekeeping, being memorized in the term of Gemütlichkeit, which means social warmth. This is very important up to now. Even Joseph Beuys decided that he was an artist, who only made his sculptures out of social warmth. He became the greatest propagator of German economic systems which result in good housekeeping. Nowadays, you have a projection of these two traditions in one, and this goes like that: a member of the Green party with the status of a German Beamter who believes in rational planning and is assisted by relying on the magic of the earth and nature to keep up the natural environment, would like just to take his Rucksack and wander with Wanderlust through the world. Finally, all this would be represented in a brilliant strategy for everybody in the world on how to do good housekeeping.

If you look now for someone who keeps all the projections of this tradition within him, just look at me. I am a German dwarf. I'm a hedgehog. I would like to show you why but let it be.

There's just one remark left and this is about the Cuckoo-clock. I studied the philosophy of these Schwarzwald manufacturers, and I found out why they designed the Cuckoo-clock. As a contemporary, you only have one possibility to really find out who you are and where you are, in terms of Germanness or whatever. If you send out an echo which can come back, you will become an "echo-creator". Such a person is the ultimate one from which contemporary people can see their own reflections. Therefore, we invented the Cuckoo-clock, in order to perform an echo and receive it back. The echo is aimed at the question of what Germanness is all about. You get back the echo "cuckoo, cuckoo", and this in German means: you have just been teased. Thank you.