Publikation # [352] (english text)

»HfG IUP IFG. Ulm 1968-2008«. Ulm 2012.
Ed. by International Design Forum (IFG) Ulm under the directorship of Regula Stämpfli.
316 pages, 215 x 270 mm, 541 photos, ISBN 978-3-9802864-2-8, EUR 38,-.
Design: Petra Hollenbach and Regina Klebinger, Cologne.


Across the globe, “Ulm” stands for a specific approach to the design of the modern world. The Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) Ulm had set itself the task of developing design and architecture as cultural means of coping with technical civilization. Nowhere else was the theoretical deliberation and practical experiment so concentrated on the question of the designer’s social responsibility – driven by major players including Otl Aicher, Max Bense, Max Bill, Gui Bonsiepe, Tomás Maldonado and Horst Rittel. This debate was continued at Ulm’s Kuhberg even after the closure of HfG in 1968: first by IUP, the Institute of Environmental Planning (1969-1972), and since 1988 by IFG Ulm, the International Design Forum. Since then, “Ulm” has been in a state of permanent transfor- mation, with new answers to the ever pressing questions of the humanist principles of design beyond the surface of things, supplied again and again by leading protagonists from the international design scene in conversation with scientists, politicians, economists and artists. This book sheds light for the first time on that continuity and its ruptures. It contains a collection of original interviews with Ruedi Baur, Gerhard Curdes, Christopher Dell, Fred Hochstrasser, Bernd Kniess, Siegfried Maser, Ton Matton, Miguel Robles-Duran, Sabine Suess, Regula Stämpfli, Florian Walzel and Alexander Wetzig. With a text by Peter Sloterdijk.

“Ulm” is not Ulm

“Ulm” is not a monolith. What designers throughout the world associate with “Ulm” is not the same thing, eternal and unchangeable. “Ulm” is constant change, adaptation to changing contexts. “Ulm” is permanent transformation. That is overlooked out of ignorance or wilfully suppressed whenever and as soon as the contours of “Ulm” are reduced to a dozen or so results: in media reproduction merely as a reference, in collections merely as an option in the history of design without the attitude on which it was based, and in curated exhibitions merely put on show as a fetish.

The monosyllabic siglum “Ulm” conceals a multitude of initiatives, starting with Otl Aicher’s first campaign to organize lectures in the extensively destroyed City of Ulm a few weeks after the end of the Second World War. That led to the foundation of the Ulmer Volkshochschule adult education institute. Then came the ideas of the so-called Ulm Group to establish a further platform named “studio null”, and then the Ulm School of Design, HfG Ulm (1953–1968), whose existence is characterized by phases of highly differing orientation. When HfG closed on 31 December 1968, it was followed by the Institute of Environmental Planning (Institut für Umweltplanung – IUP) (1969–1972), which itself metamorphosed within only three years from the Institute of Design through the Institute of Environmental Design to its final identity as IUP. There followed a long period of structural consolidation at the foundation which, from the very start (05 December 1950) had been the funding institution for the activities at Kuhberg in Ulm. Step by step, starting in 1985, IFG Ulm, the Internationales Forum für Gestaltung or International Design Forum, was established, and hosted its annual September conferences from 1988 to 2003. After another break at the end of 2003, the IFG Hearings of 2004 and 2005 embarked on a reorientation of its activities, leading to the promotional programme “Designing Politics – The Politics of Design” which ran from 2006 to 2008. This documentation ends with that programme being discontinued (as a consequence of the foundation investing in the restoration of the HfG building).

Some of the changes were hardly visible from the outside. Often, however, they were so fundamental as to irritate, and provoke shaking of heads and indignation. In the very first retrospective to be published on the history of HfG Ulm, Otl Aicher describes the existence of the “Ulm School”, as he called it, as anything but a unit. He divides it into “seven phases”. A student starting the course at the provisional premises of the Ulmer Volkshochschule in 1953 and a student enrolling in 1967 experienced two thoroughly different institutions.

After 1968, “Ulm” continued to be driven by doubt, by the search for the right answer. “Ulm” knew no certainty. It was not only at HfG that mistakes were made. What was decisive was how they were dealt with. What raged at the time as a vehement dispute was with hindsight euphemistically termed an experiment. “Ulm” taught the world of designers that errors had to be permitted. “Ulm” established a culture of questioning and trial. The arguments are a part of that, as they show things were meant seriously. The topics addressed at Ulm are not trivial, but relevant. They concern us, our existence and the future of our planet. “Ulm” is not content with anything less.

Change requires the courage not to shy away from the resulting arguments. But the niceties have to be observed, even then. “Ulm” is based on the humanistic, enlightenment idea that we should not bash each other’s heads in. The form of a dispute, the way in which we arrive at a result, is therefore primarily a task for design. That is why design always has a virulent social and political dimension. That may well be the only certainty at Ulm.

What happened is history. This book is a first documentation. It is therefore a historical book. For that reason, Cologne-based designer Petra Hollenbach decided to work with elements which unmistakeably and without falsification point to “Ulm” in its manifestation as the “Hochschule für Gestaltung”. The pages are arranged in three columns, the typeface used is Akzidenz Grotesk, and the illustrations are kept within a specified grid. Earlier, one would have said the design was consciously reticent, but such a statement would now be nostalgia. Of course, the decision to adopt this style of drafting, stating and showing has a specific connotation. It draws attention to the belief that the world can be constructed with reasonable means. We know today that this creed has been transformed into an ideology, and that we cannot expect salvation from following it uncritically and unconditionally.

This book is intended to make things visible. In Ulm, essential issues of design have been examined and discussed, not only until 1968, but also thereafter. What happened in Ulm was ahead of its time. This finding applies not only to HfG. The topics that IUP and IFG broached made their way into the international dialogue outside Ulm some 5 to 10 years later.

The breadth and depth of this intensive examination of the fundamental questions of design cannot be fully sounded out in this book. In consequence, the intention is at least to trace the Ulm horizon from 1968 to 2008 and draw attention to the protagonists and their topics. The job would be done if interest could be awakened in a more intensive study and that resulted in a series of deep exploratory boreholes on individual focal aspects.

This book, too, should have come about “sine ira et studio”. But even that aspiration to stay in the background, to withdraw as a creative human being from the results of one’s efforts and merely let the results speak, and in the final analysis to become invisible as the author, is an ideology comparable with the unfulfillable demands modernism has placed on designers and architects. That is why this book too is by no means free of errors, gaps, jumps and misconceptions, and finally also with delusion and anger.

I have been associated with Ulm ever since I came across a book by Otl Aicher in my father’s library in 1985. From 1989 to 1991, in parallel with my studies of history and German in Munich, I worked together with Otl Aicher and his associate Albrecht Hotz for the South Tyrolean company durst. Following my publication on the political history of HfG Ulm, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Foundation invited me in autumn 2003 to become involved as a member of the IFG Advisory Board. Only a few weeks later, I was appointed Chairman of the Advisory Board with responsibility for realigning the activities of IFG. I ended that appointment in the summer of 2007. In early 2012, when I was asked by Regula Stämpfli, my successor as Director of IFG, whether I could compile a documentation on “Ulm up to 2008” for IFG, I was delighted by the opportunity to shed a light on the complexity and multifacetedness of Ulm. My intention in that context was not to sweep the conflicts typical of “Ulm” under the carpet, but to put them up for discussion and permit dissent.

Prof. Dr. René Spitz

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