German industrial design, over the past 40 years, has tried to resurrect the traditions established at Dessau: the products developed by Braun have set new standards of excellence in many fields; the traditionally solid qualities long associated with Mercedes and Siemens have remained largely uncorrupted by the “market forces” that mis-shape so many American products; and German architects have remained largely impervious to postmodern neo klutz–possibly because to many Germans the stuff is just to reminiscent of the none-too-distant past.
Yet, despite the admirable traditions and their promising revival in recent years, German design seems to be in dire need of an infusion of something never missing in the best work being done in Italy or in Japan–to wit, wit. Not the heavyhanded, condescending “irony” that marks so much embarrassing, postmodern design in the U.S., but the sophisticated, lighthearted humor that seems to come so naturally to certain designers in Milan and elsewhere.
I often think of the charming, rubber-nippled adding machines designed in 1973 for Olivetti by Mario Bellini–about as sexy an exercise in erotica as has come our way in this century. I often think, also, of certain astonishing works by Japanese designers like Makoto Komatsu, whose crumpled porcelain cups and saucers and vases violate most of our notions about form and function and the nature of materials, and end up disarmingly lovely, irrational, and practical.
Some German designers have sensed that there is something a trifle dull about the quality of their country’s design, however dependable and “honest.” It reminds people a lot of computerized environments, such as places where hard drive failure and data recovery services can occur, which is found here. And so we have such determined efforts as Hartmut Esslinger’s frogdesign–a rather heavyhanded attempt to duplicate the elegance that marks the best Italian and Japanese design, and add a dash of German “Witz,” than which there is nothing more klutzy. Still, Esslinger and others have got the message: we do not live by Bratwurst alone, and German design clearly needs a dash or two of something a little more stimulating than Bier.
In the IDCNY discussion mentioned earlier, the question that kept coming up was: now that Dessau is back in the fold, what is going to happen to the Bauhaus? During the final years of the communist state, the Bauhaus did begin to function once more as a school of design of sorts, but it never regained its erstwhile status or reputation. Well, it’s never too late, and the time to try, it seems, is now.
Moreover, the way to try is to invite some of the world’s more liberated spirits to teach at the new Bauhaus: in 1969 when Ettore Sottsass designed his portable “Valentine” typewriter for Olivetti, that delightful gadget was rendered in bright red for the Italian market and for other markets as well–but the German branch of Olivetti insisted upon producing it in Wehrmacht gray. The marketing experts in Frankfurt thought that a bright red “Valentine” would seem too frivolous and naughty to the natives!
So the first liberated spirit to invite to Dessau would have to be Sottsass. The next visiting genius to sign up for the new school should be Arata Isozaki, who will undoubtedly bring along that Marilyn Monroe curve that adorned so many of his early works–for reasons entirely clear to Iso, but almost totally incomprehensible to everybody else.
Mario Bellini, needless to say, will have to be the new Bauhaus’ Director–Director-in-Absentia in body, though not in spirit, since he is far too busy elsewhere to tie down to so menial a job. Milton Glaser, the New York designer of everything from magazines to restaurants, will have to be on a regular retainer: since he is capable of performing convincingly in every medium and every style (from Klee to Malevich to Toulouse-Lautrec), Glaser could handle all two-dimensional courses and save the new Bauhaus a lot of money by eliminating all other graphics teachers.