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Design as an undisciplined discipline and a new notion of collaborative competence: a homage to the life of Michael Erlhoff, design theorist and CEO of the German Design Council from 1987 to 1990.

By Thomas Wagner.

Portrait Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff
Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff. Photo: Nele Martens

Michael Erlhoff died in the early hours of 1 May in Cologne. He was an open, extremely generous and hospitable man who knew how to bring others together – not just physically. He was skilled at working up enthusiasm in people for things that affected them (and often all of us) and gathering them together to discuss an issue – be they friends, colleagues, students, allies, people who were merely curious (regardless of their gender or background) or someone else entirely. These discussions were by no means limited to design. Michael chose his words carefully, liked playing with language, enjoyed anagrams and palindromes, and collected paradoxes and bons mots. He absorbed plenty of the Merz spirit of Kurt Schwitters’ home town Hanover, and it is no coincidence that he wrote his dissertation about the Dadasopher Raoul Hausmann, bane of the German bourgeoisie.

Whether he was speaking, listening, researching, teaching or organising, Michael Erlhoff sent out positive signals, bubbled with energy, and was present and focused. If a conversation ever floundered or threatened to peter out, he would choose the right moment to go out and smoke a cigarette or fetch drinks. This usually injected fresh life into things. Sometimes one of his ideas took him too far away from the others and he would have to recapture them, explain, and go a few steps back.

In both small and large gatherings, the result was always a conversation from which one emerged as a different person. A dialogue (not a series of monologues) which enabled a shared experience that continued to resonate even though it was temporary. It was crucial for Michael that this was a rich social experience accompanied by outstanding food and drink. In this sense – for all his cleverness and warm-heartedness, his anarchistic and hedonistic tendencies – he was a virtuoso host and conversationalist. Some people have said that Michael exuded the calmness of a Buddhist monk. I prefer to compare him to Socrates, who (if we believe what is written about him) after spending all night at the symposium would remain bright and cheerful as he embarked on the next round of conversations at daybreak.

Michael Erlhoff had a wide range of interests right from the start. Born in Hildesheim on 27 May 1946, he studied and completed his doctorate in German literature and sociology at the University of Hanover. He was an assistant lecturer, worked as an assistant director at the local state theatre, edited the magazine “zweitschrift” with Uta Brandes, and published a Kurt Schwitters almanac every year. At the same time, he already had a profound interest in design. When Manfred Schneckenburger curated his second documenta, Erlhoff joined the advisory committee for documenta 8 and established a section for new design at the heart of the international art exhibition. It was only the second time this had been done (the first being the d3) and the exhibitors included Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, Javier Mariscal, Florian Borkenhagen and the Pentagon Group.

Michael Erlhoff was CEO of the German Design Council in Frankfurt am Main from 1987 to 1990. He involved the city and society in the debate about current design issues and turned the “Design Report” news service, which had been produced in conjunction with the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce since 1972, into an up-to-date magazine published by the Council. In 1991 he moved to Cologne as founding dean of the design faculty, teaching at what later became Köln International School of Design (KISD) as a professor of design history and theory until 2013. He was named an honorary professor by the Braunschweig University of Art in 2016.

He demonstrated his sound feel for directing the living, breathing alternation between concentration and relaxation, plenum and peripatetic at all sorts of events, including the legendary Design Summits held in St Moritz between 2000 and 2006, which he organised together with Uta Brandes as president of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, also conceived by him. Here, too, dialogue and the direction in which a conversation travelled were more important than reducing that which was said to a simple statement that could be easily shared.

As a design theorist, academic teacher, author and exhibition organiser, Michael Erlhoff understood that theoretical work was always about looking closely and perceiving things precisely – then drawing conclusions from one’s observations. That went far beyond the realms of academia. He thought and acted in a transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary fashion as a matter of course, whether he was penetrating professional design or exploring unconscious design statements. To describe these, he and Uta Brandes coined the phrase “non-intentional design” (NID). He made the “everyday remodelling of the products of design” more accessible and allowed people to see that the cultural diversity of “the world of products, which is otherwise primarily organised and made available in a global fashion” only becomes clear at the usage stage. In line with this, long before all the fashionable, commercial debates about “sharing”, he advocated simply using things instead of aspiring to own them (“Buying something is fun; ownership is frustrating”). His love of discovering things and talking about them is also consistent with the fact that he and Uta Brandes travelled to Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, China and the USA to teach during semester breaks in Germany – long before most German academics embraced intellectual globalisation.

The way in which Michael Erlhoff understood and approached design theory and history was always imbued with openness and curiosity, formulated to an exacting historical/cultural standard, and of an intellectually challenging standard. (He liked to quote Karl Kraus by saying: “The standard is high, but unfortunately no one can measure up to it.”) In his opinion, design should be an “undisciplined discipline”, given that design was the expression and realisation of “a totally new notion of collaborative competence”. Believing that experts were “nothing more than bigoted amateurs”, he felt the future belonged to generalists as “spirited dilettantes”.

Michael Erlhoff always saw design as an intellectual activity. More as a task, and less as a profession. Sticking to objects which mutated completely into goods was not an option. He viewed design as a considered course of action against the backdrop of an open horizon of possibilities; as a critical mindset – aware of its responsibility – to a consumer society which had long since become thoroughly industrialised. Michael Erlhoff’s first novel with the wonderful title of “Musils Mulis” was published just a few days ago. It is a quirky tale divorced from space and time and full of anagrams, palindromes (German: “Einsame Ameisen morden modern”) and mules. We will miss Michael’s energy, passion, intelligence, patience and warm-heartedness.

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