Publikation # [356] (english text)

»HfG Ulm. Concise history of the Ulm School of Design. Notes on the relationship between design and politics.«

= Edition A5 ed. by Jens Müller, vol. 6. Concept and design: Larissa Rauch, David Fischbach. Zürich: Lars Müller, 2014.

HfG Ulm
»Concise history of the Ulm School of Design (1953-1968).
Notes on the relationship between design and politics

The designers’ societal responsibilty
Why HfG Ulm was founded

The Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung — HfG Ulm) is generally regarded as the most important 20th century design college worldwide. It probably exerted a broader, deeper and more permanent influence on modern design than any other teaching institution, including the Dessau Bauhaus. For international art, however, the Bauhaus was much more important than HfG. Nevertheless, these assertions cannot be proved, as in spite of all the rankings, importance in this context cannot be meaningfully quantified.

HfG was not founded to rectify an aesthetic deficit. Its founders (Otl Aicher, Inge Scholl and Max Bill) were not primarily concerned with designing elegant posters and lamps. On the contrary, they wanted to design society. Put more precisely, they wanted to assist in creating conditions in which a peaceful, democratic and free society could arise in Germany after the end of the Second World War.

That objective was a distant utopia when, in the spring of 1945, Otl Aicher and Inge Scholl started to put their initial ideas into practice. It was simply unimaginable that the Germans could ever shake off their blind obedience, militarism and fanatical racism. For six years, the Germans had immersed the world in war and committed an inconceivable amount of inhuman atrocities with mechanical implacability and cold-blooded precision. They had murdered millions of people in gas chambers and on the battlefields. And now those Germans, of all people, were supposed to become better human beings at a stroke?

In 1945, Germany was in ruins. The buildings had been destroyed, the streets and squares of the cities were full of rubble. The country was divided and occupied by the four leading allied powers. The destruction was almost total, not stopping at the material environment. Families and friends mourned the dead and missing.

Over and above that, the intellectual foundations of society were seriously damaged. The world had changed so radically in the wake of the Nazi regime that, in Aicher’s view, it was impossible for the Germans to follow on seamlessly from the period up to 1933. He wanted to use the catastrophe as an opportunity to question all the traditions and certainties that had borne up German society as a matter of course. All the social values appeared questionable, because they had failed to give people the strength to resist the Nazis. This opportunity for a completely new start was referred to as “zero hour”.

How proud the Germans had been of their superior culture, of the works of Luther, Bach, Beethoven and Goethe. How haughtily they had turned up their noses at the philistines from the USA and the proles from Russia. But under Hitler, the country of poets and philosophers had metamorphosed in only a few years into an abyss full of headsmen and hangmen. Their appreciation of music, poetry and philosophy had not equipped the people to act as responsible citizens and call a halt to the madness when the chips were down.

Otl Aicher was of the opinion that the traditional bourgeois esteem of “Sunday culture” deserved to be thrown overboard. He had nothing against theatre, opera, concerts or paintings, and he had even studied sculpture in Munich for a few months. But their elevation into a fetish had led to contempt for the things of everyday life. As a result, the everyday objects which had been manufactured in large quantities since industrialization and were therefore affordable to broad sections of the population were also disdained.

Aicher was not interested in using the tools of design to enhance the appearance of sets of fine porcelain for Sundays and holidays. His idea was rather that a free and democratic civil society needed crockery for every day of the year. It was not only to be practical and affordable; above all, it was to have a form of its own rather than imitating the appearance of up-market luxury goods. It should not pretend to have their style, nor their expensive materials or intricate workmanship. Some years later, in 1959, when HfG had been in existence for quite some time, the student Nick Roericht actually designed one of the most famous products of HfG as his diploma project: the TC 100 stackable crockery which was manufactured exclusively for canteens. Millions of people have used it for decades, for instance in youth hostels.

Aicher also had the same aspiration for the design of information. Anyone, for example, who created a clearly arranged railway timetable or a factually informative poster on the necessity of a healthy diet was, in Aicher’s view, doing something more relevant to society than artistic painting. That is why he abandoned his studies at the Munich Academy so soon. He saw no sense in devoting his time and energy to the fine arts as if nothing had happened between 1933 and 1945. At the time, art even appeared phoney and dishonest to him, as he thought it allowed the artists to evade their responsibility to use their talents in the establishment of a new post-war society—a radical view, typical of Aicher’s uncompromising stance.

HfG was a private institution, not a state-controlled university. That does not sound particularly remarkable today. At the time when it was founded, however, it was absolutely unique. In Germany, education had traditionally been the preserve of the government. Even now, teachers and professors are civil servants with public sector salaries. They have a special relationship with the state, requiring loyalty and service. In the early 1950s, the conviction that this was the right thing was even more deeply rooted than today. Otl Aicher, however, thought differently. He had experienced the state as an organization which systematically doled out injustice. The Nazi regime had murdered his dear friend Sophie Scholl and her elder brother Hans. Since then, Aicher had deeply distrusted all governmental constructs.

Hans and Sophie Scholl were among the few active resistance fighters against the Nazi regime. As did Otl Aicher, the two came from Ulm. While attending university in Munich, they belonged to the core of the group “The White Rose”. They distributed pamphlets at the university, and were arrested doing so in February 1943. A few days later, the Nazis murdered them. Otl Aicher luckily escaped arrest himself—and so surely also his own death—by a hair’s breadth. Together with Inge Scholl, Hans and Sophie’s elder sister, he was already organizing lectures by philosophers and theologians in Ulm shortly after the end of the Second World War, intended to give people hope and guidance in their devastated world. Out of that initiative, they developed the adult education centre Ulmer Volkshochschule in 1946. They and their friends, the so-called Ulm Circle, had not yet lost the impetus of “zero hour” to rethink things from scratch. That was what distinguished them from most other people in Germany. After the immediate post-war years, in which the population had struggled merely to survive, as hunger and privation were rife and ice-cold winters in houses without roofs, windows or heating carried off the emaciated bodies in droves, the situation improved step by step towards the end of the 1940s. In the early 1950s, affluence became perceptible. Looking back, the incipient phase of recovery up to the end of the 1960s would be termed the “economic miracle”. Germans made themselves comfortable in conditions which had become more pleasant. Everyone had their first Italian holiday in their first car within their grasp. Back then, in the early 1950s, hardly anyone wanted to concern themselves with socio-political utopias. Particularly as the end of the Second World War was already years away. The memory of the past, with brown SA uniforms, was collectively repressed. Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher however worked untiringly to put their idea of developing a new, second educational institution on the basis of Ulmer Volkshochschule into practice. With the aid of US High Commissioner John J. McCloy and his colleague Shepard Stone, they received a commitment that a donation of one million German marks would be made by the American taxpayers if they could manage to raise a second million from other sources. As it was not permissible for those funds to flow to Inge Scholl in person, they founded an organization— the Geschwister-Scholl-Stiftung—on 5 December 1950 to manage the cash in accordance with its intended purpose. Originally, at the end of the 1940s, Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher had wanted to found a university named after the Scholl siblings together with the writer Hans-Werner Richter. Its purpose would be to expand the range of subjects offered by the Volkshochschule, in particular adding social and political topics. However, as Otl Aicher was interested in architecture, urban planning and design, his attention was drawn by the Zurich architect, artist and designer Max Bill. Bill rapidly became an important ally of the Ulm-based group, and within a few months brought Hans- Werner Richter to the point at which he withdrew his commitment. Bill ensured that the planned curriculum for the university to be founded was limited to design topics: urban planning and architecture, visual design, product design and information design. The social and political orientation was by no means ousted. On the contrary, it remained as the basis for approaching questions of how the world should be shaped. What does design have to do for people to resist the temptations of a tyrannical, inhuman regime, and so that anything like the Nazi era could never happen again? “Never again!” was the battle cry of the Ulm group.

Coping culturally with technical civilization
The aim HfG Ulm pursued

What responsibility does the designer bear for the development and strengthening of a free, independent and critical society? What kind of society do we want to live in, and what can we do as designers to help that society become reality? The social responsibility of the designer is not only the driving force behind the foundation of the Hochschule für Gestaltung, but also its intellectual basis throughout its existence from 1953 to 1968. Nowhere else in the world did theoretical debate and practical work concentrate so closely on the question of what constitutes the designer’s social responsibility as they did at HfG. The answers HfG spawned to that question are now already 40 years old and more. Just as the answers of the Bauhaus were already 40 years old when HfG was founded. Those who consider it legitimate in the present day to approach this issue should therefore above all take the reasons why HfG was founded very seriously: It is, admittedly, also worthwhile to be aware of the old answers, as they contain considerable wisdom and sincerity, but circumstances have now changed so much that we have to find our own truths.

Nowadays, HfG Ulm is predominantly reduced to its superficial achievements: utensils which have been styled icons of modern product design, visual images published as glowing examples in text books, and Max Bill’s architecture. The attitude which led to those results has in consequence been eclipsed and largely forgotten, and what HfG produced is regarded simply as a formal, aesthetic style—to say nothing of the shallow-brained “functionalism” label.

HfG was based firstly on the observation that the historical process of industrialization had transformed the (western) world into a technical one since the middle of the 19th century, and secondly on the assumption that that world could be designed. Both of these are fundamental components of the framework of ideas, values and convictions which modernism brought forth.

One of the modernists’ central inferences was that every problem could be solved from within itself. Viewed from this perspective, problems are challenges which can be overcome by the task of developing. Staying with the same image, problems are entanglements, already containing their own solution at the core. One “only” has to penetrate that far, and then the solution appears almost automatically. This concept, coupled with a firm belief in the designability of the world, led to modernism being charged with the idea that the secret of successful projects was to be found in thorough planning followed by the linear unwinding of spools of previously defined tasks. As a result of this consistency,however, modernism only produced places, buildings, machines and services of enhanced quality in the rarest of cases, and instead just that banality of which modernism was accused from its very beginnings (and at the latest with the first Great Exhibition in London in 1851) as an inhuman submission to the dictates of machines and industry, as aesthetic desolation and monotonous simplification.

The approach taken by the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius consisted in tackling this challenge with artistic means. He propagated architecture as the discipline which brought all the arts together. Otl Aicher was of a different opinion: Technical civilization had to be mastered on the basis of a new understanding of culture. Culture was not something only worn on Sundays like a special dress and only affecting a few areas of life (particularly poetry, theatre, opera, classical music, painting, sculpture and philosophy), but had long come to encompass all mechanically produced objects and everyday actions. The design of those objects and relationships within the industrialized society therefore had to be treated as a cultural task.

It was disastrous that the Nazis had made use of the scientific, technical and logistical achievements of modernism. Their propaganda, for example, instrumentalized modern wireless technology (the “Volksempfänger” or people’s radio), developments in engineering (the Volkswagen and the autobahn), media (photography and film) and aesthetic organizational principles (Corporate Design before the term even existed). Not to mention the industrial-style mass annihilation in the concentration camps. The belief that there was an inherent, unquestionable sense in technical progress was shattered after the Second World War. Which principles were now to apply, in the reconstruction and concomitant redesign of a devastated world?

Otl Aicher did not want to build either on a “machine aesthetics” which had been led astray or on a romantically transfigured historicism (even Thomas Mann despaired at the recognition that there was a lot of Hitler in Wagner). Instead, the cultural mastery of technical civilization was to be based on objectively founded rationality. He radically rejected every form of artistic staging or overpowering emotion, as they were what had enabled the images in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films and the pictures of torch-lit Nazi processions at night to achieve their effect. Aicher replaced symbols and slogans with level-headed, persuasive argument. Design was to be an activity based on reason. It was not a matter of inspiration and a rush of ideas, but rather one of unprejudiced and thorough examination of the context of a problem, objective evaluation and weighting of the analysis results, and systematic, multi-disciplinary production of systems instead of one-off items. The persuasive power of information was more important to him than amusing entertainment. He preferred improving practical benefit for the many to enhancing luxury goods for prestige consumption by the few. Technology was not a fetish to him (although he was fascinated by engines), but a potentially effective tool in establishing a democratic society. For that reason too, he felt that technicians, scientists and engineers should not be blinkered specialists who merely accumulate their niche expertise in isolation without any interest in its social ramifications.

As soon as the students had completed the Basic Course in their first year, they worked in their departments on various projects. Typical examples in product design were a handheld electric drill, an espresso machine, spectacles, a drafting machine, a slide projector and a fountain pen. This work always followed the same pattern. The start was a critical analysis of the things already available on the market. Then, the character and properties of the product were defined, so as to permit a precise determination of the functions required to achieve the objectives. At the same time, there were studies on the economic and sociological interrelationships, although these could not in principle be brought to a conclusion. Then, the mechanics and structure were examined. Nothing was taken as given, and various options were tried out. At the end, the students and their teacher decided in favour of one version. Only then did the formal and aesthetic design work start.

In this way, HfG established a profile which was more sharply contoured than that of any other training institution for design. HfG set itself the task of making relevant contributions showing that the technical civilization of the 20th century could be culturally mastered. There was not that focus, nor has there been since, anywhere else in the world.

A brief history of HfG Ulm

If they were to be able to found and operate HfG Ulm, Inge Scholl, Otl Aicher and Max Bill had to find funds and supporters. They were initially successful abroad, interesting US High Commissioner John J. McCloy and his colleague Shepard Stone in the idea of a new private university which would assist in the establishment of a modern, democratic, peaceful and prosperous society. In 1950, they received a commitment that American taxpayers would make a donation of one million German marks if they could manage to raise a second million themselves. Inge Scholl could not accept the cash as a private individual. She needed an organization to fund the university and manage its finances. As a result, she founded the “Geschwister- Scholl-Stiftung” on 5 December 1950. That foundation is still in existence today, although now renamed “Stiftung Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm”.

It was extremely difficult to collect the second million. There were very few people who found the idea of founding the School of Design worthy of support. Most of the politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs, architects, academics and journalists were not convinced that Germany needed something so radically new. As they saw it, there were more important things in need of sponsorship. At least they would have preferred the American donation to be used for an existing university, for instance the Department of Architecture at the Technical University of Stuttgart. Nonetheless, hardly anyone openly opposed accepting the American million. Grudgingly, and with much gnashing of teeth, they allowed the people in Ulm to have their own way. Inge Scholl, Otl Aicher and Max Bill had to build up HfG under extreme pressure, with steely resistance, hostility, intrigue and incomprehension on one side and a lack of time and money on the other. Added to these was a legal and bureaucratic obstacle course, as the foundation may have been private, but even so it was nowhere near independent. It was reliant on subsidies from the City of Ulm, the State of Baden-Württemberg and the Federal Government. Without that cash, the building complex at Oberer Kuhberg could not have been erected and the running of HfG could not have been financed.

Within two years, however, Inge Scholl in particular succeeded in mobilizing at least enough assistance in the parliaments, ministries and industry for John J. McCloy to present her with the cheque for 1 million marks at Ulm City Hall on 23 June 1952. HfG started teaching operations on 3 August 1953; the first lecturers were former Bauhaus teachers. But construction work on the building complex only commenced on 8 September 1953. Teaching therefore took place in rooms at the Ulmer Volkshochschule until the complex, still a shell, was occupied on 10 January 1955. The interior fit-out of the educational and residential buildings then took a further 9 months. The ceremony to inaugurate the buildings only took place on 1 and 2 October 1955, with a commemorative speech by Walter Gropius, who enjoyed an outstanding global reputation as an architect, designer and Director of the former Bauhaus.

It was part of the plan for the first HfG students to make an essential contribution to the building process, and in particular to the interior fit-out, as part of their courses. Just as Max Bill’s architecture translated the HfG programme into a structure, the interior fixtures and fittings were intended to embody the pioneering spirit of Ulm. Lecturer Walter Zeischegg bore the main responsibility for the interior. The products created included mountings for fluorescent lamps, slatted frames for the beds, wash basins, door handles and the “Ulm Stool” (a result of collaboration between Max Bill, the Dutch designer Hans Gugelot and the foreman of the woodworking shop Paul Hildinger). It is not comfortable to sit on, but just about bearable. It can be carried around, but not particularly conveniently. It is said that it has even been used to transport books, but there are obviously better ways of doing that, too. It is very useful as a low table and as a step with two different heights. The stool presumably became so famous because it a) makes optional, contrasting uses available, b) has a no-compromise, bulky shape and c) minimizes both the amount of material required and the steps needed to produce it. In that combination, it seems to be a mirror image of the entire Ulm School of Design on a smaller scale.

HfG existed as a teaching institution for 15 years, from summer 1953 to summer 1968. In that entire time there was not a single day without financial worries. The foundation crept around just above the breadline, or even sank below it. Admittedly, for a couple of years there were grounds to hope that the situation would fundamentally improve, but in the end that simply did not happen. One result of the permanent financial deprivation was the gap between how the institution saw itself and how it was perceived by outsiders: Although the students and lecturers were united in the certainty that they belonged to an immensely progressive elite, they were confronted on a daily basis with the fact that almost the whole of society failed to appreciate the value of their work. Some of them blithely and confidently ignored it, but in many cases the lack of esteem led to frustration. That fed part of the energy which was discharged in vehement tensions between the various players. (Another part resulted from the fact that most of the persons involved had strong personalities.) Because the disputes were argued out with relentless intellectual rigour, the public rapidly gained the impression that nothing was being done at Kuhberg other than permanent in-fighting. Outsiders were therefore hardly able to understand what achievements were being made at HfG. That is without a doubt bitter, but typical of every avant-garde. The Ulm jargon turned out to be a further obstacle to a broader understanding and contributed to the accusation of arrogance: Extensively unfamiliar terms like ontology, cybernetics and semiotics were found more irritating than clarifying or interesting.

After the opening ceremony, there were only three events which attracted major public attention to HfG. Firstly, the departure of Max Bill in 1957. Secondly, Otl Aicher’s constitutional coup in 1962. And thirdly, its closure in 1968. On the bottom line, then, bad news dominated the climate of opinion. In the spring of 1950, Max Bill was not only destined to be the architect of the building complex. He also wanted to be Rector, representing HfG to the outside world, to be responsible for the overall curriculum, to be Head of the Architecture Department and Head of the Basic Course. It then transpired during the construction phase that he was difficult to work with. He was not a team player, and apart from that he was too rarely in Ulm. It was impossible to organize the development work from afar in his Zurich office. Initially, the people in Ulm were exasperated, and then they were annoyed. Consequently, Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher (they had married on 7 June 1952) agreed with Max Bill as early as 1955 that he should no longer be responsible for day-to-day business as Rector, and that would be handled by a committee of several lecturers, the so-called Rectoral Council. His rectorship ended on 31 March 1956, but he remained a lecturer at HfG and an associate member of its Rectoral Council. Then, nine months later in January 1957, a fierce quarrel flared up. Its cause was at first sight trivial: Max Bill had had a sign put up in front of the teaching rooms he used permitting access to “his” students only. From the perspective of the Rectoral Council, however, this was only the visible tip of the entire iceberg. Otl Aicher, Hans Gugelot and Tomás Maldonado in particular accused Max Bill of intending to establish a separate “Bill Studio” as a kind of master class in the tradition of the academies of fine arts. The dispute escalated. The school split into two camps, for and against Bill. When the foundation parted company with Max Bill with effect from 31 March 1957, all the supporters of HfG were appalled that the only well-known protagonist of the young School of Design which was still in the development phase had been shown the door. The students who stuck with Max Bill were allowed to finish their courses with him in Zurich. The contract of employment of lecturer Max Bense, who had supported Bill, was not prolonged.

Aicher’s and Maldonado’s real motivation for the public break with Bill was their conviction that HfG had to dedicate itself consistently and with all its might to making design a science. That objective ran counter to the traditional artistic view based on the idea of genius and, by association, education in master classes. Aicher and Maldonado wanted to replace the artist with a new type of designer—with a team player trained in scientific disciplines who could hold his own in discussions with professional engineers. His work was to extend much further than the creation of a formally aesthetic surface. To achieve that, they wanted to develop a new outline of the profession at HfG, adopting the then unfamiliar and foreign word “designer” as the name for its practitioners.

The new programme of scientification was intended as an attempt to develop design as an objective, value-free (natural) science. It led to a variety of engineering, natural science and social science subjects being taught at HfG, including for example cybernetics, semiotics, sociology, statistics, stochastics, mechanics, materials science and engineering design. In that, HfG differed substantially from the contemporary education institutions for architects and designers (schools of applied arts, technical universities and academies of art).

One generation of students after the break with Max Bill, in the 1961/62 academic year, Aicher took stock. His conclusion was harrowing. Having summoned the spirits of science, he now wanted to rid himself of them by any means possible. He did not even shy away from starting another open power struggle. Essentially, this dispute in 1962 was concerned with the question of whether design is an objective science. Aicher’s antagonist was the mathematician and intellectually formidable teacher Horst Rittel. Aicher was unhappy with the results of the direction taken since 1956/57, and had therefore changed his mind. He had come to believe that design could only be regarded and practised as a natural science up to a certain—or an uncertain— point. In its essence, design was not, he thought, an objective, value-free science. Now, he wanted to re-establish the designer as an evaluating, active agent at the centre of HfG’s work. This restored to the designer the authority of a genius, who in the end makes his decisions on the basis of his own perfection. Science and technology were, however, still to serve as aids in his work. In order to assert his opinion against opposition from part of the lecturers and students, Aicher ensured in the background that HfG was provided with a new constitution. That constitution replaced the Rectoral Council with a Rector. The subservient role of science as an aid to design was to be expressed in the subordination of is teachers: Only a designer could in future be Rector of HfG, and the theorists were demoted to second-class lecturers.

As a result, on 20 December 1962, Otl Aicher was himself elected Rector under circumstances which he himself described as a farce. The school’s constitution had been amended accordingly in an undemocratic process. Aicher’s election, too, had only retained a formal semblance of democracy. The entire process was in fact more similar to a putsch.

The price to be paid by HfG in the following years for Otl Aicher imposing his will again was a high one. Many influential sponsors turned their backs on HfG. Disappointed, they simply gave up, or were exasperated by the frequent changes of course which had been rung in each time in an uncompromising, absolute tone. The ignorance of most politicians and journalists also had a demoralizing effect. The nadir of tendentious reporting came with an article in Der Spiegel magazine in 1963. It not only damaged the reputation of HfG, but also endangered its existence. For in response, the State Parliament of Baden- Württemberg embarked on a review of whether it was still in any way appropriate for the private HfG to receive governmental subsidies.

The closure

The reports circulating about the closure of HfG are predominantly false. Even serious publications spread fairy stories. Against their better judgement, authors uphold the myth of HfG being struck down by the coup de main of a stupid Minister President of Baden-Württemberg.

In fact, however, it was not a sudden surprise attack by a powerful individual, but rather a tangled process lasting several years that led to the closure of HfG. The surprising thing is that what happened was not really intended to by the majority of the people involved.

The visible cause of the closure was a lack of funds. There were two reasons for that: Income was declining and the foundation did nothing about it, or at least nothing successful. One of the consequences of the change of programme at HfG in 1962 (design is not a science, and HfG is not a scientific university) was that the Federal Government had to withdraw its subsidies. As the individual states enjoyed cultural sovereignty, the Federal Government was unable to support HfG directly, and could only make provide financial aid for fundamental research. The end of research activity at HfG therefore drew the response as early as 1964 that federal subsidies would be paid for the last time in 1966.

The foundation’s only reaction to that was to bury its head in the sand and hope that HfG would be placed under state control. In 1965, the situation was so desolate that no-one even noticed that HfG spent 420,000 marks more in that year than its budget allowed.

In 1966, the State Parliament in Stuttgart increased its annual subsidies to 900,000 marks, in order to close that gap at least partially. At the same time, the parliament made it absolutely clear that HfG would on no account be placed under state control. But if the teaching operations were to stand on a firm foundation, HfG needed at least 1.3 million marks per year. And there were no supporters in government or industry to ensure that. Furthermore, there was no-one left within HfG whose commitment was anything like that which had led to HfG’s foundation. The long-serving lecturers Hans Gugelot and Friedrich Vordemberge- Gildewart had died, Otl Aicher and Tomás Maldonado had left HfG to focus on new missions (Aicher: design mandate for the Olympic Games in Munich 1972, Maldonado: office in Milan and teaching at Princeton University).

In December 1967, the impending insolvency of the foundation could no longer be ignored. As a result, it had to dismiss all its employees with effect as of 30 September 1968. Otherwise the members of the foundation’s board of trustees would have become personally liable for the financial consequences. They coupled the notice of termination with the unrealistic suggestion that HfG should be saved by merging it with the State Engineering School in Ulm. From the perspective of the members of HfG, that proposal was an unbearable imposition, proving as it did that the foundation no longer had any idea of what made HfG special. In terms of courses, teaching methods and philosophy, HfG and the Engineering School had nothing in common at all. In the eyes of the HfG members, the only legitimation of the foundation was to ensure financial conditions sound enough for HfG to be run even approximately in the way which all those involved—donors, students, lecturers, politicians and journalists— had been promised. If it could no longer fulfil that function, it had lost its raison d’être. They therefore now rejected the foundation’s authority to determine HfG’s fate and represent it in negotiations.

They demanded that HfG be placed under state control “as an autonomous institution”. They dreamed of the state paying all the bills, while refraining from exerting any kind of control or imposing any sanctions. The State Government did not show any interest in that. After all, it was not even 18 months ago that the State Parliament had thoroughly ruled out any form of state involvement. Sullenly, on 23 February 1968, the members of HfG announced its “self-dissolution”. This polemical, melodramatic slogan was also a result of the heated atmosphere of the student unrest in 1968. There was no common communications framework for constructive, solution-oriented cooperation.

In spring 1968, then, HfG was at a dead end. There was no longer any central integrating power to keep the squabbling and divergent forces together. The foundation had abrogated its responsibility, and the state did not wish to take it on; the foundation and HfG were moving apart; teachers, assistants and students could not reach agreement, and the differing interests of the politicians in Ulm and Stuttgart and of the press poured oil onto the flames.

On 18 July 1968, the State Parliament in Stuttgart approved a grant of 900,000 marks for HfG in 1969, too. That subsidy, then, was not reduced. The State Parliament of Baden-Württemberg never resolved to close HfG—a widespread but false assertion. But the state funds were not increased either. The cash was not sufficient to keep HfG going. The grant was linked to conditions which had to be fulfilled by 1 December 1968. Fundamentally, these involved HfG and the foundation submitting a joint strategy for the continuation of HfG. HfG and the foundation accepted those conditions.

But when the summer vacation ended, most of the students, assistants and lecturers did not return to HfG. Lothar Späth, Minister President of Baden-Württemberg a decade later, remarked that HfG had run apart like molten butter.

Those who did return to Kuhberg could not agree on a joint strategy. That, by the way, was also a question of money. Some of the lecturers wanted a share of the income from commissions to be performed at the institutes. Most of the students opposed this. As a result, the State Government in Stuttgart ruled on 3 December 1968 that the conditions imposed by the Parliament had not been fulfilled. The approved funds were then put on hold —not cancelled—until such time as the foundation and HfG had fulfilled the conditions. De facto, HfG’s fate was sealed. Minister President Hans Filbinger then faced the press with the incomprehensibly simple-minded statement that if something new was to be created, the old had to be removed. The remaining members of HfG could not wish for any better distraction from their responsibility for HfG’s demise.

There are hardly any renditions of HfG’s history to date that omit to mention that statement in connection with the closure of HfG. It is suggested in that way that the government closed HfG—an assertion which, in that shortened form, is completely false, because it glosses over the complex nature of the processes that led to HfG’s closure. Any assertion that the “State Government” closed HfG impedes a critical examination of the real causes.


HfG’s building complex is located at Oberer Kuhberg, outside Ulm. This geographical separation of town and gown was not planned. It resulted from the fact that the city was not able to make its contribution to the donations required on foundation in cash, but only in kind. This above all included the gift of the land. It is situated directly adjacent to a military fortress from the mid-19th century, which the Nazis used as a concentration camp. Otl Aicher wanted to use these existing buildings and convert them for HfG. Max Bill, however, swept that idea off the table. He insisted on a new building on the neighbouring site.

Bill designed a complex of different building units for the existing hillside site: residential buildings for the students and lecturers, seminar and lecture rooms, workshops, offices and a library, and the dining hall with its famous curved counter and surrounding terrace on which so many photos were taken. There were three types of residential accommodation: studio apartments, apartments in a tower block and separate houses for lecturers. But there was not enough space for all the members of HfG. Around half of the students—at least those in their first year—had to rent rooms in the city. That also applied to most of the lecturers. The students in more senior years were generally able to live at Kuhberg.

On paper, the image of a campus was created, giving shape to the American ideal of a community of teachers and students in a single place. Its remoteness not only strengthened that cohesion. It also reflected a self-image of being different: different from the conventional residents of the city, and different from all other universities. Which indeed it was. If it was a provocation to the residents of Ulm, the members of HfG regarded themselves as vindicated. This architecture impressed contemporaries “as a manifesto, as the programme of the School of Design in bricks and mortar: transparent reality, use of basic shapes, clarity of arrangement, seriality. You feel that this architecture is intended to organize relationships.”

The HfG buildings were inaugurated on 1 and 2 October 1955. The keynote speaker was Walter Gropius, Director of the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus. Teaching, however, had already started in provisional premises at the Volkshochschule on 3 August 1953. The authors of German features pages shook their heads at Max Bill’s architecture. His configuration of unadorned cuboids ran counter to all expectations of a university building. The public struggled for words and belaboured similes, such as “it looks as if a giant had thrown a handful of building blocks onto the hill.” The visibility of construction materials (exposed white-painted brick, reinforced concrete painted grey) and fittings was found provocative. Part of the fixtures and fittings— wash basins, mountings for fluorescent lamps, the Ulm Stool and slatted frames for the beds – had been designed between 1953 and 1955 by students and lecturers (above all Walter Zeischegg). In that respect, these buildings were of course on the one hand a result of the extremely limited budget, but on the other hand also a programme in bricks and mortar. Technology was bluntly revealed as technology, without any decoration or traditional cladding. Basically, contemporaries viewed the complex as a shell, a skeleton without flesh or clothing. The renunciation of aesthetic richness, familiar from the Bauhaus, was now felt to be aggressive brutality. The journalists mocked this Ulm-based monastery with its ascetics, who wanted to convert the world to their belief in the right angle. In contrast, hardly any attention was paid to the fact that the students had bright and generously dimensioned work rooms, above all in the workshops, with just as much light as space. In 1955, then, HfG was on the horns of a communicative dilemma: Its architecture embodied the programme even before it had really started. Although the HfG buildings were—figuratively speaking—a prototype and a model built to test a hypothesis, they were criticized as if they were a fully developed series product.

Statistics I

HfG was an extremely small university, measured by the total number of matriculations. It was intended to provide capacity for 150 students, but that number was only reached in the penultimate academic year. In the 15 years of its existence, only 97 female and 540 male students enrolled, a total then of 637. Slightly less than half of them (278) came from outside Germany, including the 93 from Switzerland. In total, just over a third (238) stayed no longer than one year at HfG. Slightly more than a quarter (173) studied there for two or three years. Only the remaining 35% (226) spent the full course duration of four years (and five in the Film Department) at Ulm.

The academic year was divided into quarters, with the first quarter starting on 1 October of each year. There was no teaching in the fourth quarter, which was intended for practical work by the students in industry. Presence at lectures and seminars was obligatory, and was strictly monitored. The small number of students made these checks easier and increased the pressure to perform. In the mornings, the students worked on practical exercises in the workshops and departments. It was not the intention to manufacture finished products in the workshops (wood, metal, plaster, typography/printing and photography). The aim was rather to achieve a technical understanding and work with extreme care on models, striving for perfection. Students and lecturers spent the lunch breaks together in the dining hall, at the curved counter and on the terrace. The afternoons were reserved for the theoretical subjects. Work continued in the evenings and well into the night to complete the large number of allotted tasks.

The course could be, but did not have to be, concluded with a diploma project, consisting of practical and theoretical parts. HfG awarded diplomas to 178 students, and a further 53 were able to complete their diplomas at its successor institute IUP (the Institute of Environmental Planning at the Technical University of Stuttgart).

Admission to the course

Looking back, the former students consistently identify one central motive for not applying to an old-established state university, but rather to the young Ulm School, about which they did not in many cases know very much more than what was published in a newspaper article or an edition of HfG’s own magazine ulm: Like no other institution, HfG represented international modernism. At the time, that was synonymous with a new, unconventional, progressive and critical approach. In the early days, Max Bill and the building complex embodied that position, and after a few years a corresponding mystique had evolved.

That HfG was serious about it was already apparent in the fact that applicants were not required to have the usual university entrance qualifications. What counted was the individual, and his or her interests, inclinations and character. All of those had to fit in with the Ulm self-image. Anyone who had previously served a craft apprenticeship usually possessed the sought-after attitude, experience and knowledge. But it could also be sufficient for admission to the course to have a particular talent and the personal recommendation of a referee. Helmut Schmitt-Siegel, for example, came to Ulm because HfG graduate Hans G. Conrad had commended him in a telephone call to Otl Aicher.

Applicants had to complete an extensive questionnaire. The questions were not about knowledge of facts, but rather attempted to sound out the applicant’s personality. Those who were admitted first had to complete a probationary quarter. Some of the students then had to leave. But the heads of department only finally decided at the end of the first year on which students they would accept into their departments.

Statistics II

On the basis of the figures, conditions for students at HfG were paradisiacal: 282 lecturers for 637 students. But these statistics falsify the reality. For just as there were many students who only spent a year or less at HfG, so almost three quarters of the lecturers only taught for a year in Ulm. On the bottom line, however, the ratio of teachers to students was excellent. Depending on how it is calculated, the statistical result in the best case is 1:1.2, and in the worst case 1:7.2. One lecturer to seven students as the worst case scenario: What educational institution has numbers like that today?

HfG was famous for its constant flow of high-powered speakers, who came to Ulm from across the globe for a single lecture or for an event lasting several days. The first Basic Course (which lasted three months), for example, was taught by the former Bauhaus course leader Walter Peterhans. In 1955, Johannes Itten taught for one week only. And the teaching activities of authorities like Charles and Ray Eames, Konrad Lorenz, Norbert Wiener, Nikolaus Sombart, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anton Stankowski and Buckminster Fuller were limited to lectures with following discussions. Intellectual stimulation by permanent, controversial debate with input from the outside was an intentional idiosyncrasy of HfG.

Looking at gender distribution, lecturing at HfG was a man’s world. Only five women taught at HfG: Käthe Hamburger, Gisela Krammer, Helene Nonné-Schmidt, Helga Pross and Elisabeth Walther.


Work at a university is traditionally divided into teaching and research. Otl Aicher attempted to add a third component at HfG. He called that addition “development”, and defined it as the creation of practicable prototypes, ready for series production, for clients. That was intended to establish a kind of control circuit, in which the abstractions of theory could be tested directly for correctness in practical applications, with the findings obtained leading to a correction and further development of the theory and the circle then being put in motion again. Advanced students were also involved in development.

Otl Aicher named this system the “Ulm Model”. It was the educational anticipation of the change in the profession which he was striving for. Until then, the work of designers had taken place within hierarchies in which they were assigned a subordinate role. Aicher wanted to transform this practice into teamwork between designers and scientists, business people and engineers. If that were to come about, the designer could no longer, in his words, be “a superior artist, but rather an equal partner in the decision-making process of industrial production.”

From 1958 onwards, the contract work was organized in the Institute of Product Design. All the lecturers were able to open development groups of their own within that institute. They were numbered and abbreviated. E5 was the name of Otl Aicher’s development group, in which he, for example, worked on the order for a Lufthansa corporate design. A further group was headed by the Dutchman Hans Gugelot, and worked for clients including Max Braun AG.


HfG was planned as an international avantgarde. This self-image and self-confidence rubbed off on its members. Not only was it rapidly surrounded by the nimbus of the exceptional, spread by press reports and its own publications, but its unusual admissions procedure also ensured that everyone accepted as a student was conscious of belonging to a special group.

The atmosphere of an urbane, independent unit was cultivated by features which indicated the distinction, in some cases obviously and in some more subtly. Journalist Helmut Heissenbüttel produced a masterly description of these characteristics. HfG, for example, was known for adopting its own jargon of technical terms. The innovations Ulm wanted to produce required a new language. Terms such as “visual communication” and “unorientable area” ensured that only those initiated into this hermetic jargon understood each other. This also included the aesthetic appearance of the people at Ulm: preferably short hair and plain clothing within a closely defined canon. Visitors reported that they had never before seen such a homogeneous group of people who consciously designed all the details of their appearance.

The exuberant parties at HfG were notorious. They fed the rumours in the petty bourgeois city of Ulm that the people up on Kuhberg enjoyed an unfettered sex life. After all, young men and women from all over the world were living next door to one another in the students’ residential tower! In other words, the atmosphere of direct human proximity was typical of life at HfG and, depending on the personalities involved, was perceived variously as a fructifying rivalry, an oppressive competitive struggle or even an unbearable provincial monastic constriction.

Important lecturers

Otl Aicher
* 1922 in Ulm
† 1991 in Günzburg

In the telling words of Max Bill, the Swiss designer was “an artist who didn’t want to be one.” His work had a global influence on the theory and practice of design, not only through HfG, of which he was a founder, but also through his writings which he produced in parallel with his design work. In some cases, their suggestive and argumentative power of persuasion even surpasses the quality of his graphical work. Aicher knew the Scholl siblings from his schooldays. He himself only narrowly escaped arrest by the Nazis in 1943, and deserted from the army in 1945. He started studying sculpture in Munich in 1946, but left after only a few weeks, and instead devoted his energy together with his later wife Inge Scholl to the founding of the adult education institute Ulmer Volkshochschule. From then until the 1960s, he designed 327 posters for the Volkshochschule. His break with HfG started in 1967 at the latest, when he was appointed design representative of the Olympic Games to be held in Munich in 1972. That work doubtless ranks among the most significant international design achievements. Aicher’s approach of developing a corporate identity, which he had previously done for Lufthansa and was later to do for numerous major companies, is still today one of the most influential concepts in design. He was however also criticized for that, and even reviled as a “design fascist”, which, in the light of his biography and his ethical stance, is an obscene, self-disqualifying misrepresentation. This example clearly shows how much the man, his radical consistency and his work polarized opinion, which is also illustrated by the response to his “rotis” typeface series.


Inge Aicher-Scholl
* 1917 in Ingersheim-Altenmünster
† 1998 in Leutkirch

The elder sister of Sophie and Hans Scholl, the two students who fought against the Nazis, was an embodiment of the moral high ground at the end of the Second World War. Her gentle but unbending authority was, as contemporary witnesses relate, hardly resistible. In 1945, together with Otl Aicher, she initiated the Ulmer Volkshochschule, which she founded in 1946 and headed until 1978. Her book about the resistance movement, “The White Rose”, first published in 1947, was reprinted many times. In 1950, she founded the Geschwister-Scholl-Stiftung in Ulm as the funding body for HfG. With seemingly superhuman efforts, she succeeded in raising 2 million marks for HfG’s foundation. She married Otl Aicher in 1952. Until 1959, she headed the foundation. From the end of the 1960s onwards, she took part in the peace movement’s Easter marches and in the 1980s the blockades of the anti-nuclear movement.


Josef Albers
* 1888 in Bottrop
† 1976 in New Haven, Connecticut

The abstract painter Albers was one of the four former Bauhaus teachers who lectured in the Basic Course at the young HfG. Together with him and in succession, these were Walter Peterhans, Helene Nonné-Schmidt and Johannes Itten. Albers was a trained elementary school teacher. He studied art in Berlin, Essen and Munich. As early as 1920, a year after its foundation, he taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, he became its master builder, and in 1930 deputy director. In 1933, he emigrated with his wife Anni to the USA, taking up American citizenship in 1939. He taught at the legendary Black Mountain College in the remote hinterland of North Carolina until 1949. Like Vordemberge-Gildewart, Albers joint the “abstraction-création” group of artists. From 1950 onwards, he taught predominantly in Yale, Harvard, Havana and Santiago de Chile. His works were exhibited at the first and fourth “documenta” in 1955 and 1968. His best-known works of art worldwide include the “Homage to the Square” series (started in 1950). His theoretical publication Interaction of Color (1963) was translated into German by Gui Bonsiepe. It is still read and reviewed up to the present day.


Max Bense
* 1910 in Straßburg
† 1990 in Stuttgart

Philosopher and publicist Max Bense was concerned with closing the conventional gaps between arts and sciences. As he was working towards bringing scientific, philosophical and artistic theory and practice together under the common term of rationality, he fitted in perfectly with the Ulm programme. After studying physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology and philosophy in Bonn and taking his doctorate, he was refused a professorship as he was a determined opponent of the Nazis. From 1945 onwards, he taught briefly in Jena, and from 1949 as a Professor in Stuttgart. He started lecturing at HfG in 1953. As he supported Max Bill’s position in his dispute with the foundation, his lectureship in Ulm ended in 1957, but he returned to teach at HfG again in the mid-1960s. During the disputes in 1967 and 1968, Bense was regarded by the Ulm students as a role model, since his students in Stuttgart had gone to the barricades in 1963 to demand his appointment as a full professor against the will of the Ministry of Education.


Max Bill
* 1908 in Winterthur
† 1994 in Berlin

This Swiss artist ranks among the most important of the 20th century. He was also an architect, designer, publicist and independent member of parliament. He was an indomitable man, sometimes charming, sometimes pig-headed, with a strong will and a range of linguistic expression which extended from vile insults to rapier-like irony. Together with Otl Aicher and Inge Aicher-Scholl, he was involved in the foundation of HfG from 1950 onwards. He drafted significant parts of its foundation programme and designed the university campus. Following an apprenticeship as a silversmith in Zurich, Bill studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1927/28. Starting in 1929, he had his own office in Zurich, where he pursued a wide range of activities. Like Vordemberge-Gildewart and Albers, he was a member of the “abstraction-création” group of artists. He started producing his “concrete art” in 1936. In 1938, he joined the influential CIAM. From 1961 to 1968 Bill, always politically controversial, was an independent member of Zurich’s Council, and from 1967 to 1971 a member of the Swiss National Council. From 1967 to 1974, he taught as a Professor in Hamburg. His works have been exhibited countless times, including three appearances at “documenta” in Kassel. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the “Praemium Imperiale”.


Gui Bonsiepe
* 1934 in Glücksburg

Design theorist Bonsiepe was one of the few HfG students who stayed at HfG after graduation and taught there. Bonsiepe came to HfG in 1955, after studying graphic design and architecture in Munich. He chose to join the Information Department, where he lectured after receiving his diploma in 1959 until the closure in 1968. He had a decisive input as editor of the magazine ulm, in which HfG publicized news of its activities. After the closure, he worked and taught in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, and as a Professor in Cologne. One focal area of his work is the interface. It is to his credit that every student now knows how important the subject of the interface is for design.


Hans Gugelot
* 1920 in Makassar auf Celebes
† 1965 in Ulm

Gugelot was one of the few designers whose work established the global reputation of HfG. After studying architecture in Lausanne and Zurich, he started work at the end of the 1940s with, among other people, Max Bill. From 1950 onwards, he worked in his own firm on, for example, the development of modular cupboard systems. Bill ensured that Gugelot was appointed lecturer in product design at HfG in 1954. Together with Aicher, he designed the Braun radiogram known popularly as “Snow White’s Coffin”, with which the manufacturer evolved at a stroke into a programmatic embodiment of the sober, functional and systematic design approach of HfG. A second milestone of his work is the Braun “Sixtant” electric shaver of 1961. With that product, Gugelot established the color combination of silver and black, which has ever since been perceived as the expression of technical elegance and perfection. His “Carousel” slide projector for Kodak (1963) was similarly influential. His works were exhibited in the industrial design section of “documenta III” in 1964.


Herbert W. Kapitzki
* 1925 in Danzig
† 2005 in Berlin

After the death of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart in 1965, designer Kapitzki became his successor as head of the Visual Communication Department. He had studied art in Gdansk and Stuttgart, and had run his own design studio since 1953. From 1956 onwards, his clients included the State Trade Office in Stuttgart, whose President was automatically a member of the Scholl Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Kapitzki started teaching at HfG in 1964. In the same year, his works were exhibited in the graphics section of “documenta III”. He was one of the designers of the German pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. From 1970 onwards, he taught as a Professor in Berlin and worked for clients including the City of Frankfurt am Main, Schering AG and the City of Berlin.


Alexander Kluge
* 1932 in Halberstadt

Kluge is best known to the German public as one of the initiators of the “Oberhausen Manifesto” of 1962, and as a film director, television producer (“dctp”) and writer. At HfG, he developed and, together with Edgar Reitz, headed the Institute of Film Design from 1963 onwards. Kluge studied jurisprudence, history and church music, taking his doctorate in law in 1956. He came into contact with HfG by working as a junior lawyer with Hellmut Becker, the legal adviser of the Geschwister- Scholl-Stiftung. Kluge is one of the most important figures behind the “New German Cinema”. He not only made over 30 films (e.g. Abschied von gestern (Yesterday Girl) in 1966 and Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos (Artists under the Big Top: Perplexed) in 1968), but also wrote just as many literary and theoretical books. He is regarded as a leading film theorist and analyst.


Georg Leowald
* 1908 in Düsseldorf
† 1969

Georg Leowald represents that particular group of architects who, especially in post-war Germany, designed a multitude of practical and elegant furniture and everyday products which were produced in large quantities for decades without their creators receiving public attention. To that extent, Leowald was also a typical representative of the Deutscher Werkbund, whose members traditionally focused on the functional quality of their work and allowed their identity to recede into the background. In 1955, for example, he designed a stackable chair for Wilkhahn with a plastic shell as its seat, on which (or on an imitation of which) everyone who has ever been in a German lecture hall or dining hall will have sat. In his short time at HfG, Leowald supervised several projects by students which have become icons illustrating our image of HfG: These include an espresso machine which student Hans von Klier designed in his second year, 1956/57, and in particular the stackable canteen kitchen crockery that Nick Roericht developed as a diploma project in 1959 and which was manufactured by the Thomas company (later Rosenthal) under the name of TC 100. It is one of the most famous practical creations of HfG as it ideally embodies the institute’s programme.


Tomás Maldonado
* 1922 in Buenos Aires

The Argentinian painter and design theorist Maldonado was one of the first designers to think systematically of design from perspectives which we today would quite naturally associate with labels like “holistic”, “sustainable” and “ecological”. As a young artist, Maldonado was entranced by the art of Max Bill, who he met at an exhibition in São Paulo in 1950. He then produced a monograph about Bill, which was published in 1955. In consequence, Bill invited him to become involved as a lecturer in developing the young HfG. A short time later, Maldonado, together with Aicher, brought about HfG’s break with Bill and its move towards the scientification of design. Maldonado developed into one of the leading personalities at HfG and a globally respected propagandist for the convictions on which HfG was based. His articles in the magazine ulm are regarded as standard works of design theory. He left HfG in 1967 and taught in Princeton until 1970, and then as Professor of Environment Design in Bologna from 1976 to 1984.


Abraham Moles
* 1920 in Paris
† 1992 in Straßburg

The French natural and human scientist eludes any attempt to assign his work to a single category. Moles was not only a qualified electrical and acoustic engineer, but also had doctorates in physics and philosophy. Starting in 1965, he taught semiotics and information and communications theory, among other subjects, at HfG. Similarly to Max Bense, he is regarded as a pioneer in the attempt to formulate a theory of aesthetic perception in conjunction with psychology, sociology, image theory, information theory and cybernetics. After his time at Ulm, Moles taught as a Professor in Strasbourg and at other universities. He published well over 200 academic works.


Herbert Ohl
* 1926 in Mannheim
† 2012 in Darmstadt

Designer Ohl had studied painting, graphics and architecture in Karlsruhe before joining the Construction Department of HfG in 1956 as the successor to Konrad Wachsmann. He was its last Rector, from 1966 to the closure. After 1968, he worked as a designer for clients including furniture manufacturer Wilkhahn. From 1974 to 1982, he was Technical Director of the German Design Council, and also taught as a Professor in Pforzheim and Chicago.


Edgar Reitz
* 1932 in Morbach

Together with Alexander Kluge, the author and film director developed and headed the Institute of Film Design attached to HfG from 1963 onwards. Even while pursuing his studies of German language and literature, journalism, art history and drama, he worked as a camera operator, assistant editor and production assistant from 1953 onwards. Reitz was among the protagonists who set the emancipation of the young German authors and filmmakers in motion with the “Oberhausen Manifesto” of 1962. At HfG, he taught film direction and camera theory. His film, Mahlzeiten received the award for the best debut work at the Venice Film Festival in 1967. From the end of the 1970s, he worked for almost 30 years on the Heimat trilogy set in Germany’s provincial past. From 1995 onwards, Reitz taught as Professor of Film at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design.


Horst Rittel
* 1930 in Berlin
† 1990 in Heidelberg

Natural scientist Rittel was one of the most brilliant intellectuals at HfG, and, during his time as a lecturer at Ulm, the harshest critic and opponent of Otl Aicher. After studying mathematics and theoretical physics in Göttingen, he worked in industry from 1953 to 1957, and moved to the Social Research Department of the University of Münster in 1958. In the course of the programmatic scientification of design, he was called to HfG that same year as a lecturer in theoretical subjects. When Otl Aicher became Rector of HfG on 20 December 1962, Rittel left Ulm and took up a professorship in the “Science of Design” in Berkeley. From 1973 onwards, he was also Professor of the Fundamentals of Planning in Stuttgart. Among his deliberations on design theory and planning processes, the concept of “wicked problems” above all has met with global attention.


Claude Schnaidt
* 1931 in Genf
† 2007 in Paris

HfG was from time to time accused of “incest” by its contemporary critics. That referred to the several students who worked as lecturers at HfG after taking their diplomas, without gaining any professional experience outside Ulm. It was levelled first and foremost at the case of Claude Schnaidt, who had started at HfG as a student and would have become Rector in 1968 if HfG had not ceased operating. Schnaidt had studied architecture in Geneva, and started work in Max Bill’s firm in 1954. Bill then took him to HfG straight away. He pursued his studies in the Construction Department until 1958, and taught there from 1962 onwards. From 1967 to 1968, he was elected Pro-Rector of HfG, and was intended to become Herbert Ohl’s successor. From 1968 onwards, Schnaidt taught architecture in Paris, focusing on industrialized construction. He was involved in architectural theory and architectural education, and regularly published articles, for example in the magazine form + zweck. Schnaidt was a true modernist Marxist, and a member of the French Communist Party.


Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart
* 1899 in Osnabrück
† 1962 in Ulm

Vordemberge-Gildewart was as significant an artist as he was a versatile one. He produced not only graphics, paintings and sculptures, but also reliefs, photo montages, stage sets, and works which would generally rather be assigned to the field of design: typography, furniture and interiors. In order to avoid being confused with his cousin of the same name, Friedrich Vordemberge added to his surname the name of the alley in Osnabrück where he had grown up. He served an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, and studied architecture, sculpture and painting in Hanover, starting in 1919. There, he also worked on the avantgarde magazine Der Sturm. He came into contact with artists like Kurt Schwitters, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky and Hans Arp. In 1924, he became a member of Theo van Doesburg’s group “De Stijl”. In 1932, he joined the “abstraction-création” group in Paris. Because the Nazis classified his art as “degenerate”, he emigrated to Amsterdam in 1937, only returning to Germany in 1954 as a lecturer and head of the Visual Communication Department at HfG. His works were shown at the first two “documenta” exhibitions in 1955 and 1959.


Konrad Wachsmann
* 1901 in Frankfurt an der Oder
† 1980 in Los Angeles

Wachsmann, an architect, was one of the pioneers of modern building who attempted to apply industrialization—and in particular mass prefabrication—to architecture. After serving an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, he studied architecture in Berlin and Dresden. From 1924 to 1925, he worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, and starting in 1926 for a company specializing in timber structures. From 1932 to 1938, Wachsmann was in Italy, and then emigrated first to Paris, and finally to the USA in 1941 (with the help of Albert Einstein, for whom he had designed a summer house in 1929). In the USA, together with Walter Gropius, he developed the “Packaged House System”, a system for timber prefabricated houses which could be erected in a single working day by a few unskilled labourers. From 1949 onwards, he taught in Chicago, from 1956 he supervised the architecture class at the Salzburg Summer Academy, and from 1964 he taught in Los Angeles. Wachsmann has made decisive contributions to answering the question of how relatively complex structures can be developed with as small a number of different elements as possible.


Walter Zeischegg
* 1917 in Wien
† 1983 in Ulm

The Austrian designer was overshadowed throughout his life, although his achievements as a designer and lecturer were outstanding. Zeischegg already turned his attention to product design during his study of sculpture in Vienna. In 1951, he followed Max Bill’s call to Ulm and took part in building up HfG during its foundation. His designs for the interior fittings of the HfG buildings included the mountings for the fluorescent lamps. Zeischegg was the only lecturer to teach at HfG from the first day to the last. The colored, stackable, curved plastic ashtrays for Helit, which resulted from the work of his development group with students Dieter Raffler, Tsugio Nachi and Verena Loibl in 1966/67, have become famous. After 1968, Zeischegg ran a design firm in Neu-Ulm.


Further important lecturers and visiting lecturers:
Kurd Alsleben, Bruce Archer, Hermann von Baravalle, Horst H. Baumann, Werner Blaser, Lucius Burkhardt, Rodolfo Bonetto, Peter Cornelius, Hans Curjel, Rudolf Doernach, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anthony Frøshaug, R. Buckminster Fuller, Roland Fürst, Karl Gerstner, Eugen Gomringer, Tomás Gonda, Ernst Hahn, Chadwick Hall, Bill Huff, Johannes Itten, Walter Jens, Joachim Kaiser, Gerd Kalow, Hanno Kesting, Martin Krampen, Herbert Lindinger, Will McBride, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Hans Neuburg, Helene Nonné-Schmidt, Frei Otto, Walter Peterhans, Erich Podach, Harry Pross, Peter Raacke, Nick Roericht, Bernhard Rübenach, Joseph Ryckwert, Ernst Scheidegger, Nikolaus Sombart, Anton Stankowski, Christian Staub, Kohei Sugiura, Martin Walser, Elisabeth Walther.


Workshop supervisors:
Paul Hildinger, Herbert Maeser, Peter Muthes, Otto Schild, Josef Schlecker, Wolfgang Siol, Cornelius Uittenhout.

Basic Course

The contribution of the Bauhaus with the greatest impact on international design was its educational concept, which was adopted by educational institutions across the globe. This particularly concerned the first, preparatory year of study, the curriculum for which was developed by Johannes Itten at the Weimar Bauhaus between 1919 and 1923. During that year, the basic knowledge considered essential in the individual subjects was disseminated. All new students were required to complete this preparatory course. HfG adopted this structure: Studies began with a propaedeutic year known as the Basic Course. Irrespective of their origins, prior qualifications and intended duration of study, it was mandatory for all students. That resulted in an unforeseen dilemma: Even the foreign first year students, who only wanted to stay at HfG for one year or only had a scholarship for that period, had to complete the Basic Course, even if they already had a degree or a trade qualification. The Basic Course also functioned as a filter: Those who did not fit in with the HfG’s philosophy were sifted out. This selection procedure gave rise to a high level of self-referential concentration among those who were allowed to stay. The term “elite” was by no means frowned upon. On the contrary, it was the declared intention of the founders of HfG to create an elite who were, after their courses, to act as multipliers worldwide. Abandonment of the Basic Course started in the 1959/60 academic year. At the start of 1961, the term “Basic Course” was replaced by “first year”. The Basic Course was finally abolished with effect from 30 September 1961, and the 1961/62 academic year was the first in which the new students started immediately in one of the four departments (Product Design, Visual Communication, Industrialized Construction and Information).

The purpose of the Basic Course was by far not only to bring the knowledge of students with highly different educational backgrounds onto a uniform level. Over and above that, the first aim was to prepare the students for the work in the departments from the second year onwards, especially in terms of method. Secondly, they were to be given an idea of the fundamental challenges of the technical age. The horizon was definitely not confined to daily, practical business, but permitted and encouraged a focus on the big picture in society, politics, industry and culture. Thirdly, collaboration between subjects and in teams was practised.

The following subjects, for example, were addressed in the Basic Course:

– Visual methodology: Findings from research in relation to two and three-dimensional space

– Theory of perception

– Workshop work: Wood, metal, printing and photography

– Modes of presentation: Technical drawing, typography, freehand drawing, languages

– Mathematics, physics, chemistry, mathematical logic

– Sociology

– 20th century cultural history: Architecture, literature, art

The students were to be familiarized in an intellectual and pragmatic regard with the laws of mathematics, physics, geometry and mechanics—from the elementary solids such as spheres, cones and cubes, through combinations of those shapes to complex three-dimensional structures. All these topics are still far removed from formal, aesthetic tasks.

Visual Communication Department

The Visual Communication Department at HfG was intended to bring the growing fields of activity of the mass communication professions together under one roof and establish as clear as possible a relationship between the achievements of technology and the audience. With a total of 158 matriculations, it was the third largest department. The fundamental work performed there is typified by pictograms, signage systems, series of posters for events and cultural, social and political topics (healthy food and road safety) and a uniform visual corporate image for companies and authorities, such as that developed for Lufthansa. The theoretical subjects in visual communication included technology, composition, reproduction, printing, paper, semiotics, psychology, sociology, the history of typography, of film and of exhibitions in the 20th century, journalism, propaganda, public opinion, theory of science, behavioural theory and copyright. The practical work in the second year included, for example, bookbinding, pictograms, diagrams, series photography and photographic laboratory work. In the third year it comprised, for example, magazines, books, signets, posters, exhibitions and photo journalism. In the fourth year, the students were required to work independently, for instance on poster series, newspapers, the use of symbols in science and technology, traffic signs, types of exhibition, cartography, weekly news programmes or television.

Product Design Department

A total of 249 students matriculated in the largest department, that of Product Design. There was a broad range of theoretical subjects on the curriculum, including production theory, organization of production and production works, manufacturing workflows, cost analysis, technology, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, wood, plastics, forming methods, technical design, the theory of groups and the whole, statistics, linear programming, the theory of science, the history of the concept of a scientific experiment, machinery, behavioural theory, working conditions, the history of industrial design in the 20th century, sociology, mechanics, dynamics, statics and patents. The practical work in the second year included the analysis of functions and production, and assembly techniques. Designs were created, for example for tools, household utensils and office equipment, and containers. The practical work in the third year concentrated on difficult designs, for instance the identification of parts of a system, simple machines and furniture. In the fourth year the students were required to develop an industrial product ready for manufacture on their own.

Construction Department

The Construction Department, the second largest at HfG with 170 matriculations, focused on the industrialization of building and the application of modern production methods to construction techniques. HfG wanted to train professionals who could handle building like industrial mass production. In part, the students were taught the same subjects as in the Product Design Department, adapted to reflect the needs of construction. Subjects specific to the department included, for example, statics, the resilience of materials, climatology, optics, acoustics and the history of architecture in the 20th century. The practical work in the second year covered project organization, lightweight construction in metal and plastic, heavy structures in metal and reinforced concrete, standardization, coordination, analysis of construction sites and the use of prefabricated components in building. The practical work in the 3rd and 4th years included, among other topics, joints of metal and plastic, assembly, logistics and the design of buildings.

Film Department

Starting in 1956, there were ideas of integrating film and television in the teaching programme at HfG. When many new lecturers were appointed shortly after the departure of Max Bill, photographer Christian Staub also came to Ulm. He initiated his first film project at HfG in 1958. In the early 1960s, interest crystallized in film as a modern medium for mass communication. The young filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz perfectly captured the atmosphere of impending change in their motto, “Grandpa’s cinema is dead”. In 1962, together with other likeminded signatories, they published the “Oberhausen Manifesto” at the 8th West German Short Film Festival, calling for emancipation of the young generation from the outdated, antiquated German entertainment film. From 1963 onwards, Kluge and Reitz taught at the recently established Institute of Film Design, which was legally independent but attached to HfG. This so-called Film Department of HfG is regarded as the first academic institution for film theory and education in West Germany. It was driven by the fundamental convictions that, firstly, film should not be a medium of illusion, but of information, and secondly, the filmmakers should not be submissive service providers within the entertainment industry, but rather should be both designers and producers who do not allow any part of their control of the entire production process to slip out of their hands. The progressive impetus which enlightened the other departments of HfG was also applied to film: The aim was not to produce art for art’s sake or entertainment as a diversion from socially relevant topics. Formal and aesthetic traditions were rejected as being unusable. In the few years up to 1968, no less than 31 students enrolled in the Film Department, with 11 of them taking their diplomas at HfG.

Information Department

One of the most unusual idiosyncrasies of HfG was the fact that it maintained a separate Information Department (from 1954/55 to 1965/66). With only 22 matriculations, it was the smallest department. Nevertheless, its very existence proves the special feeling of HfG’s founders for the importance of information in its relationship with design. The department was planned to provide a generalist education for authors and journalists in mass communication media: press, radio, television and cinema. The theoretical subjects included for example photography, film, sound, typography, printing processes, information theory, analysis of news dissemination, content analysis, codes, transmission technology, linguistics, the history of the mass media and the history of modern literature. The practical work in the second year included exercises in style, analysis and production of texts, translation, interviewing, reporting, dialogues and layouts. In the third year the students dealt, for instance, with advertising copy, semantics, commentaries, criticism and portraits. The practical work in the fourth year included radio programmes, programme design, acoustic design, directing and stage sets.


In the 1950s, photography was still a young medium. Photographs were not generally appreciated as works in their own right, but only as a means of reproduction in a magazine or a book. At HfG, the examination of photography took on both a central role and a subcutaneous one. Visitors report their astonishment at seeing photographs being taken at HfG not only for specific student projects, but all the time. The role photography should play in the concert of mass media communication was, then, not only discussed theoretically, but also explored in everyday practice. What is information, and how much of it is there in a photo? Does photography change the object and the information? Can the photographer draw back from the picture? How objectively can an object be photographed? What relationship has to exist between the picture and text for an intended effect to be achieved? The people who devoted great attention to the medium of photography included Hans G. Conrad, the first student at HfG. He documented countless moments of teaching and social life at Kuhberg, and also took portraits of many of the personalities who came to Ulm. Over and above that, he experimented with the camera as a modern tool enabling the Ulm ideas of mass communication to be put into practice, for instance with dynamic images of a fair and of motorcycle racing at the Nürburgring, bulb exposures of Frankfurt am Main at night, graphical structures of the vineyards and the Danube, and shadows of people in Ulm’s cathedral square.

Status: 31 May, 2017

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Prof. Dr. René Spitz

Röntgenstraße 4a • 50823 Köln • spitz [at] renespitz [Punkt] de 

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