History does not make itself. In Germany, Gert Selle, art educator and later professor of aesthetic education, has been actively involved in writing a well-founded history of design since the turbulent 1970s. To mark Selle’s 90th birthday, one of his former students traces important stages and positions in the design historian’s career.
By Gerd Ohlhauser
When art teacher Gert Selle was transferred from a Frankfurt grammar school to teach drawing at the Werkkunstschule on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt in 1968, he encountered a disorientated, floundering educational institution. An authoritarian director stubbornly tried to resist the democratic decision-making bodies and processes demanded by the students of 1968. Revolutionary cells attacked the old concept of art and its formalistic basic doctrine. The Städel graduate Selle, however, had already clashed with the Bauhaus pre-teaching reproduced by Ernst Röttger during his two-semester postgraduate art education course at the Academy of Art in Kassel, had established an art teaching programme based on intuition and subjective experience at the newly founded Liebig-Gymnasium in Frankfurt and had found a revolutionary like-minded fellow student in Hermann K. Ehmer. The later editor of the epoch-making publication “Visuelle Kommunikation. Zur Kritik der Bewusstseinsindustrie” (1971), with whom he would have a lifelong friendship, argued in favour of a reorientation of art teaching that would expose the subliminal manipulation by the consciousness industry, not excluding product design, and enable an emancipatory use of media and objects. A concept that soon found its way into the framework guidelines for grammar schools in Hesse, but also called into question the traditional education in commercial art.
Drawing as a Visualization of Thought Processes
This Gert Selle immediately got involved. The basic program of the Hochschule für Design (March 1969) – “we had proclaimed ourselves a university on our own authority for a few months” – linguistically points to his collaboration. He led the discussions with the Minister of Culture about this. He became a member of the examination board and was deliberately elected to the staff council. He countered the abstract-formal basic teaching with a preliminary drawing course which, together with descriptive geometry and technical drawing, suddenly put the fetish of model making into perspective, even if it has remained the sacred cow of industrial design in many places to this day. Selle’s drawing lessons categorically ruled out aesthetic ingratiation. For him, design drawing meant visualizing thought processes. Representing and thinking through the design became one. His exhibition of exemplary teaching results, puristically presented on corrugated cardboard, was intended to make a programmatic “contribution to the discussion of a didactic concept that attempts to do justice to the problems of contemporary design”, as the accompanying 70-page catalog “Darstellungsmethodik” (Presentation Methodology) put it. Selle (2007): “I never thought much of illusionistic drawing, it was actually always analytical and constructive drawing […] a language that industrial designers first use to communicate with themselves.” He distinguishes between “presentational and finding or developing drawing. Drawing as a kind of extended imaginative capacity.” He leaves the illusionistic rendering that spills over from America to his colleagues.
Criticism of the Invisible Dependencies of the Industrial Form
He countered the glaring lack of theoretical foundations in design with seminars on “Design History and Aesthetics”. A 75-page script entitled “Politästhetik des fotografischen Sehens” (1971) has been preserved. It can be assumed that the follow-up seminar “Der Fetischcharakter von Designobjekten und die Fungibilität von Designutopien (Versuch einer designtheoretischen Metakritik)” announced therein formed the basis of his first book “Utopie und Ideologie des Design” (Cologne 1973, new edition Vienna 1997), which was published soon afterwards. In it, he dissected the invisible dependencies of the industrial form, its ideological exaggerations and utopian overloads. For further clarification and to help the subject find itself, he initiated a “model experiment for the reorganization of study courses in the field of design”, which recorded and analysed the content and constitution of the approximately 40 relevant German educational institutions. Selle wrote the first interim report (1974), but was no longer involved in the second (spring 1975) and expressly distanced himself from the final report (fall 1975) after he had lost his “ideological” grip due to his move to the Chair of Art and Visual Communication at the Braunschweig University of Teacher Education (1973/74). However, together with Bernd Meurer, an Ulm native whom he had guided to Darmstadt, Selle continued to develop a discovery of the model experiment: they proposed the municipal designer as a new occupational profile (Kommunaldesigner – ein Vorschlag aus Darmstadt, 1973). Incidentally, the HFG Ulm did not initially play a model role during the transition phase in Darmstadt and elsewhere.
Darmstadt’s Mathildenhöhe as a Control Center
For Selle, the Mathildenhöhe was not simply Art Nouveau, but a “Wagnerian design hill”, a place to view concentrated design history and a hub of influence. Here he had his workplace in an annex of the Werkkunstschule, founded as the “Grand Ducal Teaching Studios for Applied Arts”, which had been spared from wartime bombing. The “Institute for New Technical Form” and the “Council for Design” were based here. With a “sit-in” with students, the jury of the federal prize “Gute Form” was ultimately asked to reveal its criteria (1971). The Bauhaus and Werkbund archives with the office of the Secretary General of the Deutscher Werkbund, Gert Selle’s second workplace, also took up residence in the studio house of the artists’ colony. Here they made books together and Selle promoted his theses on design education via the Werk und Zeit organ. Olbrich had already spelled out the vocabulary of modernism with light, color, forms, materials, structure and surfaces in the Wedding Tower, completed in 1908. This had already been laid out in the surrounding houses of the artists’ colony, in particular in the one built by Peter Behrens, the pioneer of industrial design and corporate identity, in whose Berlin office the Bauhaus founder Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had all “studied” modernism at the same time. (Mathildenhöhe was awarded World Heritage status in 2021 not for Art Nouveau, but for heralding modernism).
The exhibition halls on the Mathildenhöhe, a place for researching, presenting and communicating art and culture since 1900 with a special focus on contemporary art, also regularly opened up new aspects of design.
The Mathildenhöhe was also the residence of Darmstadt’s head of cultural affairs, the writer and later Lord Mayor Sabais, who was very close to the school and Selle. The loss of the capital city function to Wiesbaden after the war was to be compensated for by massive investment in culture. A new building for the school was already under construction. (Postmark: The arts live in Darmstadt.) Not forgetting the Ströher collection in the nearby Hessian State Museum, which at the time had the largest collection of American Pop Art, with 38 works by Warhol alone and the monumental Beuys block. Selle’s book “Betrifft Beuys. Annäherung an die Gegenwartskunst” (Unna 1994) probably has its roots here. The Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, into which the Werkkunstschule finally merged as a design department after the Fachhochschule Act came into force in the early 1970s, now promotes the department as the design training center with the most awards in Germany. As early as 1972, a student founded “Funktion”, Darmstadt’s leading furniture store for modern design to this day. Examples of the spirit of optimism to which Selle made a not inconsiderable contribution.
Art Nouveau and the Art Industry
Selle had written and absorbed design history at the Mathildenhöhe. “Jugendstil und Kunst-Industrie. Zur Ökonomie und Ästhetik des Kunstgewerbes um 1900” (Ravensburg 1974) was the art educator’s first book on the history of design. In the course of this, he published “William Morris: Kunde von Nirgendwo” (Cologne 1974) with an extensive foreword, which went through several editions. Morris is regarded as the founder of “Arts and Crafts”, a social reform movement originating in England. Its central characteristics, handcrafted production, simplicity of form and material, significantly influenced Art Nouveau, the Werkbund and Bauhaus, and ultimately Selle himself. In 1978, he published the first edition of his “History of Design in Germany”, which had grown by a third to almost 450 pages by the time of the last edition in 2007 and had become a standard work. Even after his departure from Darmstadt, he remained present with lectures, catalog contributions and statements on design. In 2008, he gave one of the two keynote speeches on the founding of the “Gesellschaft für Designgeschichte” (Society for Design History). Much of this inspired his design history or found its way into “Another Design History”, as the working title of his book “Design in Everyday Life. From the Thonet chair to the microchip”, also published in 2007. His declared last book “Im Haus der Dinge” (Frankfurt/ Darmstadt 2015) is a further attempt at orientation in the world of design in the face of advancing digitalization.
He Gave Away His “Snow White Coffin” Straight Away
After Braunschweig, Gert Selle taught as Professor of “Theory, Didactics and Practice of Aesthetic Education” at the University of Oldenburg from 1981 until his retirement in 1999. His subject-oriented art education still has an influence on the subject today. The “Selle-Otto controversy”, in which Selle questioned the connection between art and education in general, is unforgotten. In addition to the relevant books, he published several books on living and dwelling with things. For the design theorist, art didact and image maker, who he also was on the side, our relationship to things and their relationship to us was the unifying and equally resented theme – so much so that he wanted to have as little to do with them as possible. He gave his “Snow White Coffin”, the icon of Braun design, to one of his first students. Only a few design objects found their way into his apartment, such as the functional techno-minimalist desk lamp “Daphine” by Tommaso Cimini (engineer designer and founder of the company Lumina, designed in the mid-1970s) – but four of them did. No matter where it was placed, on the desk, dining table, bookcase or bedside table, he standardized its use as much as possible. He only made pictures for his own use, for the free use of others or to burn if they got out of hand. He wanted nothing to do with the art market.
After the publication of his last book “Im Haus der Dinge”, the editor of the cultural magazine “Merkur”, Christian Demand, conceded in his design column “Theoriemüdigkeit” (issue 817, June 2017): “Selle is one of the few intellectual greats [of design theory]. He has been writing about design issues for decades in an informed, reflective and easily accessible way, has published popular standard works on German design history and has been omnipresent for a long time with his lectures and as an author of catalog contributions.” However, he laments the fact that his intellectual diligence has not set a precedent in design. Of course, this corresponds to the lax reading habits of the smartphone generation. Today’s design students see Selle as a “text machine”. There is a complete list of his monographs on the Wikipedia page. However, he was not born in Saarbrücken in 1933, as stated there, but in Breslau. Today, on December 17, 2023, he celebrates his 90th birthday.
Gerd Ohlhauser, a former student of Selle’s, has compiled and annotated an authorized selection of almost 40 lectures and essays spanning five decades under the title “Gert Selle: Design Denken” on 400 pages (A4) (ISBN 978-3-947428-07-6). Under the title “Selle Lesen”, the publisher is offering a paperback with 100 pages of reading samples in advance. (ISBN 978-3-947428-06-9)
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