12 December 2018


Obituary Tomás Maldonado (1922–2018)

Text: Bernhard E. Bürdek

In the 1940s Tomás Maldonado belonged to the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención, the avant-garde movement in Argentine art, and was co-author of the “Manifiesto Invencionista”. In 1954 Max Bill brought him to Ulm to work with him on a joint book. Despite his modest acquaintance with German, he became a lecturer at the newly founded Hochschule für Gestaltung, where he taught from 1955 to 1967 and served as rector from 1964 to 1966. He then went on to teach architecture in Princeton, environmental design in Bologna and was instrumental in promoting the industrial design department at the Politecnico di Milano.


Maldonado was the intellectual head of industrial design in the 20th century, not only in Europe, but also worldwide. After the Second World War, in Germany and elsewhere, it was the design of functional and aesthetic products that was in demand rather than art and Maldonado played a major role in this phase of reconstruction. From 1967 to 1969 he was president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), today the World Design Organization (WDO), and promoted this new form of industrial design – a move away from the arts and crafts towards establishing the significant discipline of industrial development. Communication was his major focus: he succeeded in bringing together science and design, giving them life, through language and texts, as well as through projects for companies such as Erbe Elektromedizin, Olivetti, La Rinascente, and others.


At HfG Ulm he conceived of and promoted the scientific and theoretical foundation of design education. Thanks to him, semiotics was included in the curriculum for the first time, and Maldonado also extended the canon of scientific subjects to be studied as part of design as well as exploring the works of Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap and Theodor W. Adorno for their relevance and use in design. From 1962 to 1968, together with Gui Bonsiepe he was joint editor of the bilingual magazine of HfG Ulm: Ulm. It published reports on student research projects, diploma theses, and research projects from the institutes, as well as significant contributions on design theory and disseminated them internationally. In what was, at the time, a very sparse theoretical landscape where design was concerned, Ulm advertised the discussions taking place at and around the university. The articles published in the magazine, for example, “Wissenschaft und Gestaltung” [Science and Design] (Ulm 10/11, Gui Bonsiepe and Tomás Maldonado, 1964), “Die Krise des Funktionalismus” [The Crisis of Functionalism] (Ulm 19/20, Abraham Moles, 1967) or “Ist das Bauhaus aktuell?” [Is the Bauhaus up-to-date?] (Ulm 8/9, Tomás Maldonado, 1963) are among many indispensable texts on the theory and history of design.

In 2007, the book “Tomás Maldonado: Digitale Welt und Gestaltung” [Tomás Maldonado: Digital World and Design] was published by Bonsiepe for the Zurich University of the Arts. It contains key texts for reflection on design in the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. Here he describes how the influence of digital technologies is reflected most significantly in writing and reading, and for this reason in language. It also included his critical reflections on the semiotisation of building (“Is Architecture a Text?”).

In the last years of his life Maldonado returned to concrete painting, thus closing a circle. He was the grand seigneur of design in the 20th century, and throughout his long life he drew inspiration from the saying “Il faut être absolument moderne” [You have to be totally modern]. Tomás Maldonado died in Milan on 26 November 2018 at the age of 96.


Nº 284
Region of Design

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