German Design Culture

From common place to cultural asset.

It used to be said that modernist German design was sober, severe, matter-of-fact and orderly.

Some felt it was short on lust for life and glamour and long on boredom. In an age in which function was going into overdrive, meanwhile, others began to find beauty in uncluttered forms and elegance in straight lines.

One person who appreciates orderliness is Apple’s chief designer Jonathan Ive. He cites Dieter Rams as a force behind his work, a man who, as one of the best-known designers in Germany, came to be the very epitome of West German design through his more than twenty years’ work for Messrs Braun. Ive’s iPods and iPhones for Apple have instilled sexiness into functionalist forms that were long accused of lacking emotion.

The germ cell of functionalism is considered to have been the Ulm Design College (1954–1968), set up after the Second World War with the lofty aim of harnessing better design to the cause of creating a similarly better democratic society. The big names in West Germany’s subsequent design history studied and taught here, this is where the first cooperative ventures with companies such as Braun were entered into, and it was here that concepts of good, timeless form defined solely by its function were spawned.

Better society through better design

One of the College’s co-founders and first lecturers was graphic artist Otl Aicher, who was to shape the perception of West German design for decades with work such as the corporate identity he fashioned for Lufthansa or his visuals for the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, from which a new image of Germany went round the world not least due to Aicher’s own work.

FSB joined forces with Aicher to come up with a new corporate identity and a fundamentally new design culture, one that, as well as addressing the company’s origins and tradition, also takes in the cultural history of the handle and, indeed, the entire history of the holding process.

This led to the unearthing of the handle as a design issue: in 1986, FSB invited the likes of Mario Botta, Peter Eisenman, Hans Hollein, Alessandro Mendini and Dieter Rams to the first Handle Workshop in Brakel. The company achieved celebrity in next to no time due to the outcome of this workshop and to the event itself.

This early “name design” project turned what had long been regarded as a low-interest product into a design topic that well-known architects and designers immediately began addressing themselves to.

Otl Aicher also refashioned the FSB logo, taking as his point of departure a handle designed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – no pictogram could have fewer frills – for the house his sister had built in Vienna between 1926 and 1928.

Role model Dieter Rams

Aicher also thought up the Four-Point Guide to Good Grip – thumb brake, forefinger furrow, support for the palm and gripping volume – that served thenceforth as a means of gauging the quality of handle designs. 1987 saw FSB initiate what must be one of the most comprehensive series of publications by any company on the cultural history of its own core product. FSB proceeded to publish books on philosophy, ergonomics, artistic subjects and even literary issues as they affect the handle.

The company effectively wrote the design history of the door handle, a topic that had already been aired in Scandinavian modernism, at the “Bauhaus” or at the Design College in Ulm, one to which designers such as Alvar Aalto, Max Bill or Arne Jacobsen too had turned. The huge popularity of these books caused some critics to jestingly muse that FSB must be a publishers able to afford the luxury of making handles as a sideline.

Handle as design topic

Initially just a metalware makers from small-town Brakel, FSB has grown to become one of the most noted design-driven enterprises in Germany, in the process transforming the handle from a disregarded common-or-garden item into a cultural asset. You may wish to call that clever marketing, but it is also possible to see in it the design earnest and sense of responsibility that has now once again allowed German design and design-oriented German enterprises to be celebrated, and occasionally even loved, the world over.

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