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Hamburg-based designer Rolf Heide passed away on 14 June 2020 at the age of 88. An obituary of the renowned furniture, interior and exhibition designer who made a name for himself internationally with his Stacking Bed design, among other things.

Designed space as a proposal

In memory of Rolf Heide (1932–2020)

By Thomas Edelmann.

It all began with the medium. More precisely, it began with magazines printed on paper, for which interior designer Rolf Heide designed rooms and images. “The magazine medium is a fantastic thing,” he said in 1995 during an interview for the book “Design Is a Journey”, published by the German Design Council. “What use is a well-designed product or piece of furniture? Neither of these things exist alone in the world (…) there are always other things in addition to them. I am interested in this connection between them, the connection between objects and architecture.”

Flexible conception: the Stacking Bed

He began his career on the editorial team of women’s magazine Brigitte. Starting in 1959 on a double-page spread, it presented “Suggestions for Independent Living in One’s Own Home”, as Heide recalled. The “Stacking Bed”, the most popular design in his oeuvre, has its roots in them. The Stacking Bed made it possible for adults to spend the night together in the same house even if they were unmarried, which until 1973 was a criminal offence under the morality clauses of the German Criminal Code. Two stacked beds transformed into one wide bed and vice versa. Heide designed the collapsible bed – today manufactured by Müller small living – long before IKEA came up with the flat pack for sending furniture.

The designer created a series of self-assembly furniture for Brigitte. The names, “Trolley”, “Screw Armchair” and “Sofa Bench”, spoke of design and functionality at the same time. A collection was developed which Heide and a business partner established as a mail-order business in Hamburg under the name “Wohnbedarf” (“Living Needs”). There were many other furniture and lighting designs that followed.

“Stacking bed”. Source: Müller Möbelwerkstätten.

The 1932 designer generation

Heide belonged to a generation born in 1932 who proved to be extremely productive in design internationally. Italy soon became an important point of reference for him, as it did for his contemporaries Ingo Maurer (1932–2019) and Richard Sapper (1932–2015). When Maddalena De Padova was collecting simple and practical furnishings of mainly European provenance for her company, she signed a licence agreement with Heide in Hamburg for the “Sofa Bench”, his refreshingly simple piece of upholstered furniture. Domus magazine had published his furniture designs prior to this. Rolf Heide spent the second year of his traineeship on the editorial teams of Hamburg magazines.

It was important for us to open up new ways of doing things. How can a home be lived in with freedom? How can cheap and expensive be combined?

Rolf Heide

The heyday of studio photography arrived. Readers were introduced to selected areas of interior spaces thematically. Heide conceived rooms and sections of them, which he translated into images with stylists and photographs. While the photographers had a degree of freedom in their work, Heide’s ideas were generally not to be contested.

“It was important for us to open up new ways of doing things. How can a home be lived in with freedom? How can cheap and expensive be combined?” In terms of imagery, the focus was on creating arcs of suspense and contrasts. The objective was always for “many people to understand that too”, everything, not elite modernism. Brigitte was followed by Schöner Wohnen magazine in 1970 and Architektur & Wohnen ten years after that. Heide also began to design for industry in parallel with his editorial work.

“Sofa bench”. Source: Müller Möbelwerkstätten.

Growing into democracy

Heide was born in Kiel, Germany, and grew up in occupied Gdynia, Poland, where his father worked at a subsidiary of shipyard Deutsche Werke Kiel. As an adult, he would later ask himself what became of the Poles who had lived in his parents’ house before they moved in. “It only dawned on me after the war that we Germans were occupiers there.” His generation vividly experienced how the ideology and reality of the Third Reich dictatorship fell apart. Death and destruction were a traumatising element of everyday life, even in his childhood. Even before his father died during the war. Heide and his family fled back to his grandfather in Kiel when the war ended. “I grew into democracy,” he said. Rolf Heide later helped design what that democracy would look like and how it would be experienced spatially.

Heide completed a carpentry apprenticeship of “medieval rigour”, he later reminisced. His master was astounded, asking, “Are you the one in the newspaper?” Heide, as goalkeeper, had led Turnverein Hassee-Winterbek (THW Kiel) to become runners-up in field handball in 1953, years before the team became known as record champions. During his studies at the Muthesius School of Applied Arts in Kiel, Eduard Levensen provided Heide, the aspiring interior designer, with a new way of approaching the world.

The aesthetics of the late 1930s and 1940s were considered something to be overcome, and design was deliberately supposed to build on the developments that had happened in the preceding period, right up to Bauhaus. Even more importantly, the contemporary era and its needs and necessities offered enough work as it was. Levensen was a carpenter, reformer and member of the “Deutscher Werkbund” craftsmen association. He worked for Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau and led the Muthesius school after 1946, which promoted exchange between people and trades during their education.

“Sofa bench” historical. Source: Müller Möbelwerkstätten.

Enrichment through simplicity

However, the new freedom was associated with great efforts, as Heide learned and experienced. It required precise analysis, preliminary design work and careful implementation if it were to succeed. Heide’s reference to the purposes of design differs strongly from superficial minimalism, which concerns itself purely with visual effect while simultaneously neglecting constructive and functional demands. Heide became acquainted with individual aspects of design that he gradually merged into one integrated approach.

His editorial work was followed by work for industry. Successful companies developed stimulating products, they looked for staging and presentation. Emotion without superficiality was Heide’s answer to the growing need. Trade show displays, catalogues, print advertisements and, continually, products carried his handwriting. Businesses such as Bulthaup, Vorwerk, Cor und Interlübke, Anta and Gaggenau owe him for the three-dimensional presentation of their company and brand universe just as much as some companies owe Otl Aicher for their visual identity. The market and expectations kept developing, including through Rolf Heide’s contribution. The mid-1980s saw demand swing away from the pragmatism of the simple and instead to enrichment through simplicity. When Duravit, Handgrohe and Hoesche presented the first Starck bathroom according to Philippe Starck’s designs in the mid-1990s, it was a spatial concept by Heide that the communication was based on.

A defining German designer

Rolf Heide did not live “isolated by himself in a cubbyhole”, as he put it. He learned about international developments through his editorial work and referenced them in his work. He repeatedly collaborated with his architect son, Tim Heide. Even if Rolf Heide’s name may appear noticeably less frequently than a few years ago, he is one of Germany’s defining designers.

“Coincidence governs life,” Rolf Heide once said to me in conversation. If he could not eliminate coincidence, he would at least try to subdue it and make it subject to his idea and attitude in his work. As soon as his teammates, clients, editors, art directors, stylists and photographers became similarly engaged, he found constant success in this too.

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