By Jan Rasmus Ludwig.

When did the protection of designs originate? And what factors are considered in a design patent? The publication “Designpatente der Moderne 1840-1970” (“Design Patents of the Modern Era 1840–1970”) not only offers interesting insights into the history of the design patent, it also provides an analysis of selected patents, enabling the reader to consider design patents in a specific context from an art historical perspective.

“Designpatente der Moderne 1840–1970”, edited by Robin Rehm and Christoph Wagner (Gebrüder Mann Publishers, Germany), is indeed a book which contains exciting ideas and inspiration for a variety of readers. Its special fascination is due, not least, to the skilful way in which it shifts the reader’s perspective. The thought-provoking cross-disciplinary approach gains further depth through the historical classification of well-known “design classics”.

The monograph, containing contributions from 39 authors, is divided into two parts: a treatise on the “design patent”, and a detailed discussion of 50 important patent specifications. As a whole, the publication resembles a summer bouquet – take a closer look, and you will discover something new and exciting.

How the protection system evolved

In the first part, the design patent is defined according to its cultural and legal significance and importance in design history. The treatise by Louis Pahlow on the protection of aesthetic design features within the German Empire is particularly exciting and enlightening. Because there was no overarching system for the protection of two or three-dimensional designs, the patent system performed something of a stopgap function for the protection of design innovations.

As long as a design innovation could be considered an invention, it was eligible for patent protection. Pahlow introduces the reader to a field of conflicting ideas relating to the “level of inventiveness”, and further into the treatise he succeeds in drawing a connection to the protection of registered designs and to the utility model protection system, or “small patent”.

Patent protection in ideologically polarized times

Also noteworthy is Sabine Zentek’s discourse on the influence of National Socialism on the legal recognition of products featuring a pared-back design as copyrighted works. Zentek gives us a vivid, skilfully crafted presentation of the decision-making process, illustrating the shift in jurisprudence at the highest level with reference to the specific example of the Gropius door handle.

She succeeds in demonstrating that this shift was largely due to ideological motivations. The Bauhaus school in Dessau was closed down at the instigation of the Nazis, almost at the same time as the verdict of the First Civil Senate was pronounced. At that time, in that era, it would have been simply unthinkable to award copyright to the product of a Jewish company which espoused the Bauhaus design tradition of “cultural Bolshevism”.

Analysis of design classics

In the second part of the book, a selection of patent specifications are expertly analysed and presented in terms of their significance from the perspective of contemporary history, design history and economic history. The selection includes classics such as Michael Thonet’s patent for bending plywood, Edison’s “electric lamp” and H. Römmler AG’s patent for urea resin which was used in radio receivers and instrument sets, as well as Alvar Aalto’s “Process of Bending Wood” and various Bauhaus products (including Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture and his 1927 folding armchair), not to mention Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s iconic lamp.

For researchers, enthusiasts and indeed anyone interested in design, this monograph is a veritable treasure trove. It is a homage to design patents as a source illustrating events in the history of art, design and science – a source which has so far been shamefully neglected.


Designpatente der Moderne. 1840-1970. (Design Patents of the Modern Era)
ZOOM. Perspectives of Modernism. Volume 5 by Robin Rehm and Christoph Wagner
Publishers: Gebrüder Mann, Berlin, May 2019
Language: German
480 pages, 285 b/w illustrations, 18 × 25 cm, hardcover
ISBN 978-3-7861-2722-2
€ 69.00

With contributions by
Astrid Arnold, Nacho Baños, Justus A. Binroth, Donatella Cacciola, Dominic E. Delarue, Sebastian Hackenschmid, Leonie Häsler, Christiane Heibach, Mathias Horstmann, Christian Kassung, Kathrin Kinseher, Albert Kümmel-Schnur, Günter Lattermann, Frederike Lausch, Regina Lösel, Otakar Máčel, Beate Manske, Alexandre Métraux, Werner Möller, Stanislaus von Moos, Franziska Müller-Reissmann, Sebastian Neurauter, Solveig Ottmann, Louis Pahlow, Robin Rehm, Arthur Rüegg, Rolf Sachsse, Walter Scheiffele, Michael Siebenbrodt, Manfred Speidel, Christian Spies, Daniela Stöppel, Wolfgang Thöner, Sabine Thümmler, Friederike Waentig, Christoph Wagner, Sarine Waltenspül, Christoph Wowarra, and Sabine Zentek


Additional links:

Publisher’s website
Press release (in German)

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