He shaped the ICE, worked on the design of the Transrapid, brought a new travel culture to life at Deutsche Bahn and helped design a Shinkansen in Japan: On 17 December 2021, the industrial designer Alexander Neumeister turned eighty.
By Thomas Wagner.
“Design”, Alexander Neumeister once explained, “is a long process, a constant work. Existing things should not simply be made differently, but first improved.” The designation “industrial designer”, under which he falls, indeed contains the promise that in close connection with production processes, important areas of everyday life can be improved through design. Anyone who wants to be successful in this field must constantly keep abreast of technological issues. When it comes to designing the transition from mechanical to electronic systems, Neumeister is there to take up the challenge.
To be successful in capital goods design, however, a good intuition for technology alone is not enough. Alexander Neumeister is also curious, wants to find out what possibilities arise for the designer. When new technologies appear, they first have to be understood. Then, their practical application has to be designed in the sense of a user who often meets the new with incomprehension or even scepticism. Neumeister responds to such challenges with an enormous integrative power that is also reflected in his design language, which warms up cold technology and makes it habitable. Such power is created by the designer’s understanding of technology not as an end in itself, but as part of a concept of use related to concrete needs. Technology alone leads as little to the goal as design misunderstood as beautification.
Curious about everything foreign
Anyone who wants to understand Alexander Neumeister’s integrative approach will quickly find it in his career. At the age of fifteen, he went to the USA for a school year and developed a curiosity for everything foreign. According to Neumeister, his studies at the HfG Ulm, which he took up in 1964, were actually an make-shift solution. Fixated on the USA as he was, he wanted to apply to the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Only later did I realise what an opportunity fate had given me with Ulm. Design interested me because I was interested in technology. Not the construction, however, but the functioning, the using and of course the form of things.” In 1968 he graduates, becomes a consultant at aerospace manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, but (they keep the job open for him) goes to Japan for a year on a scholarship. There he became enthusiastic about traditional architecture, craftsmanship and lacquer art, developed a feeling for forms and materials, for the balance between nature and the world shaped by man. And he realises that slowly optimising something, as is practised in Asia, does not have to be an obstacle to innovative thinking.
Engagement for the Third World
In 1970, Alexander Neumeister founded his own office in Munich. His social and political understanding of design became apparent when he became involved in the Third World together with his wife, the sociologist Gudrun Neumeister. Convinced that design can promote economic and social development, he organises workshops in the Philippines and Indonesia. Even though the approach has met with little success, this does not detract from his openness to other cultures. Driven by the conviction that development work can only be achieved through his own local entrepreneurial commitment, Neumeister founded an office in Rio de Janeiro in 1988 together with local partners.
ICE and Transrapid
On 2 June 1991, the first “Inter City Express” whizzes from Hamburg via Frankfurt to Munich at a top speed of 250 km/h. The ICE not only shortens the journey time; it also marks the beginning of a new era in the German rail network. It is not only the travel time that is shortened; the ICE also marks the beginning, at last, of a new railway era in the German rail network. In Japan, the legendary Tokaido Shinkansen had already gone into service in 1964, the year of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, in France the TGV between Paris and Lyon in 1981. It is hard to overestimate the part Neumeister’s design has played in the renewal of Deutsche Bahn, and not just in terms of technology. It all began with the high-performance high-speed rail study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology, which resulted in the ICE on the one hand and the Transrapid magnetic levitation train on the other.
Alexander Neumeister has been involved in both projects from the very beginning. In the case of the Transrapid, he slipped right into the middle of the starting project and subsequently accompanied all phases of the development of the magnetic levitation train, which in the form of the “Transrapid 05” transported 50,000 people during the International Transport Exhibition in Hamburg in 1979. Ironically, it is then the ICE that competes with the Transrapid when it comes onto the rails in 1985, and causes the introduction of the expensive technology that requires its own tracks to fail in Germany.
A new culture of travelling
It would be a misunderstanding to assume that the ICE changed rail travel in Germany simply because of its higher speeds. With the first technology carrier, a process had begun in the course of which the culture of rail travel was cleared out, renewed, modernised and redefined. This could not be done without design, a design that emancipated itself from that of passenger aircraft: By means of pleasant room atmospheres, bright and clean entrances, pleasant service zones and conference areas. To create this, Neumeister studied the culture of travel just as intensively as the expectations and habits of travellers. Even if only a fraction of his proposals were adopted in the ICE 1, the slim train becomes an ambassador of a new era as a “designer train” and a symbol of a successful railway reform. Innovation, technology and design now form a unity. It was not until the ICE 3 that everything except the seats and cockpit came from Neumeister, from the beechwood-clad walls to the curved luggage racks made of sandblasted glass to the red leather upholstery in the on-board restaurant.
Trams, regional trains and more
Of course, it would be ignorant to identify Alexander Neumeister with the ICE and Transrapid alone. In addition to a low-floor tram, which was not realised due to technical problems, but from which many ideas were incorporated into the design of the Munich underground, he and his team also designed regional trains and suburban trains, which still shape the idea of such transport systems today. Looking at the pictures of the interiors created for a night train a good 30 years ago, one wonders about the lack of foresight. In the homeliness that Neumeister’s interiors exude, it becomes vivid what travelling through the night could have looked like long ago if the designers’ suggestions had been followed back then instead of first letting existing night trains in Germany come down and then abolishing them altogether.
Over decades, Neumeister has acquired what is probably unique knowledge and know-how in railway design, in a discipline that combines technical, aesthetic, cultural, social, economic and climate policy aspects. Someone who is so competent is also appreciated elsewhere. And so he is the first foreigner to be entrusted with the design of a generation of the Shinkansen. As an advisor to Hitachi, Neumeister contributed to the development of the HST-350 in 1991 for an exhibition on “a pleasant way to travel faster”. Subsequently, the JR-W 500 “Nozomi” Shinkansen is created, for which Neumeister, together with the teams of JR West and Hitachi, is awarded the “National Award for Invention” in 1998. The “Nozomi” is the fastest commercial train in the world for a long time.
Living up to one’s responsibility as a designer
Of course, Neumeister has not only designed trains. The large scale, however, remains his terrain: the passenger ship Ms 2000 sails on Lakes Thun and Brienz, the Lake Constance ferry “Euregio” has been connecting Romanshorn and Friedrichshafen since 1996. Whatever he designs, technology is never an end in itself for Neumeister, but must be tangible, easy to grasp and use, and integrable into everyday life. An everyday life that is culturally shaped and cannot be levelled by products of a washed-out international style. All the more true today is what Neumeister said in an interview in 1999 with regard to increased environmental awareness: “I sometimes have the feeling that we Western Europeans live in a kind of full displacement. We hardly notice what is going on in the rest of the world. If there’s a crash somewhere, we startle for a moment – only to quickly get back to enjoying the New Beetle or some other design gadget. As designers, we must finally become aware of our responsibility and act accordingly.” Today Alexander Neumeister celebrates his 80th birthday.
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