Nº 281

Ulm Revisited

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Translation: Iain Reynolds

When the preview of the book “Vom Bauhaus beflügelt” [Inspired by the Bauhaus] came out shortly before the Book Fair in Frankfurt/Main, this reviewer was moved to write a then unpublished commentary:

“[…] Sometimes the publicity for a new title can actually put you off paying it further heed – because the level of nonsense therein can only augur ill. That is certainly the case with the two-page preview for the aforementioned title about the Ulm School of Design, which seeks to capitalise on next year’s Bauhaus anniversary despite the entirely separate subject matter, thereby ignoring historic details such as the fact that Ulm School protagonists from Otl Aicher to Tomás Maldonado expressly distanced themselves from the Bauhaus.”


It further stated: “Here, autodidact Aicher is deemed worthy of the epithet renowned graphic designer while the similarly unqualified Max Bill, despite his many successes as a painter, architect, graphic designer etc. (among them his contribution to the 1951 São Paulo Biennial) was apparently just a ‘Bauhaus student’ who didn’t graduate. The Ulm School founders are claimed to have wanted something that was ‘their own’, as if they were in search of some kind of personal validation. And the book itself is said to tell the story of this ‘school of industrial design’ – no mention, revealingly, of the visual communication, film, information or industrialised building departments – from the perspective of those involved for the first time, as if the earlier book and website on women at the Ulm School had never existed and the Club Off Ulm had not published books of its own, including one featuring accounts from former Ulm students who didn’t make it beyond the foundation course. And what are we to make of phrases such as ‘They saw the rational and good design of the world around them as a way to realise the ideals of modernism’, given that the ‘good design’ doctrine fell out of favour after Bill had left, if not earlier? All this would be aggravating enough were it from one of those superficial design theory dissertations so popular of late, but this is a book published to accompany an exhibition at the Ulm School archive and the author being a long-serving employee and one-time director of the same.” So far, so disappointing in the eyes of this critic. It would, though, have been tempting just to leave it at that were the book itself not even more aggravating, mixing as it does information with condemnation. Typographer Anthony Froshaug thus had “various children with various women” and was seen “in the company of the under-age daughter of a local taxi driver” – rather than attempting to inform, the author seems more concerned with scandalmongering.


By contrast, the book “Einfach komplex” [Simply Complex], about Max Bill’s Ulm School buildings, is a rather more heavyweight offering, one that extensively documents everything from the different floor coverings and colours to the roof structures – and thus brings back to life much of what has been lost via ill-advised modifications. At this point, a few praiseworthy examples might have been offered up to illustrate the authors’ almost obsessive enthusiasm for these buildings and their details, had they not chosen to go much further. As it is, the book attempts to use an examination of the buildings as a means to rehabilitate and celebrate the Max Bill era in Ulm – not that there was any need for such an undertaking. Here, too, anything that doesn’t fit the narrative is simply ignored. There is thus, no mention of Binia Bill’s refusal to move to Ulm, reported by Eugen Gomringer, the upshot of which was that Bill did not relocate from Zurich and the principal’s house was no longer required; instead, the authors choose to focus on the unfounded assertion that the ateliers contained double beds, albeit narrow ones, an assertion contradicted by the architecture and by the social mores of the day, never mind the fact that it was then still illegal to facilitate or promote extramarital sex. The choice of sources regarding the authorship of the Ulm stool also jars. The writers, after all, know the material yet choose to pick from it in a way that seems more about myth-making. The observation made in an interview with Paul Hildinger in Design and Design that Hans Gugelot was not involved in the stool’s creation is thus omitted, while the book’s description of Bill’s original draft, which remains elusive, would have surely led to a very different product. What’s more, the book’s tracing of the Ulm stool’s origins expands in at times rather abstruse fashion on a piece by this reviewer in form 257 (p. 80), though the latter is naturally not cited.


Also problematic are the book’s graphic design and dimensions. Its weight hampers any on-site cross-checking of the information. The schematic ragged-right alignment often veers too close to justified text, while the dark and in some cases stretched photographs don’t do justice to the importance of their subject, often making the buildings themselves look scratchy. Furthermore, the critical and polemical remarks on the status quo towards the end of the book raise questions as to whether here, as elsewhere, a sense of grievance has crept in and clouded the authors’ view of what might be possible, particularly as museification won’t help further the school’s ideas.


Such things rather detract from the enjoyment of a book in which there is much to discover, including the fact that Otl Aicher’s famous aerial shot of the school on the mist-shrouded outskirts of Ulm was prefigured by Max Bill’s early design outlines of the school. Readers can also examine Aicher’s previously unseen plans for the school, which envisage a glass superstructure atop one of the city’s forts, in the context of today’s Reichstag dome by Norman Foster. In the end, though, both these books leave you wondering why it is that, 50 years on from the closure of the Ulm School of Design, the conflicts between Aicher, Bill, and Maldonado continue to dominate its public perception. After all, you can admire Bill’s life’s work and criticise his egomania, ponder why Maldonado turned from Bill devotee to enemy and recognise the tragic aspects of Aicher’s desire to do the right thing. You can consider all these conflicts without repudiating radicalism or mistaking objectivity for ambiguity. Whether you wish to, though, is another matter.

Christiane Wachsmann

Vom Bauhaus beflügelt

Menschen und Ideen an der Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm

Av Edition, Stuttgart (DE)


256 pages, € 29

ISBN 978-3-89986-286-7


Daniel P. Meister, Dagmar Meister-Klaiber

Einfach komplex

Max Bill und die Architektur der HfG Ulm

Verlag Scheidegger und Spiess, Zurich (CH)


650 pages, € 140

ISBN 978-3-85881-613-9


Nº 284
Region of Design

form Design Magazine

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