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Tomás Maldonado in class, 1958, photo: Wolfgang Siol. © HfG Archive Ulm - Museum, Ulm
Tomás Maldonado in class, 1958, photo: Wolfgang Siol. © HfG Archive Ulm – Museum, Ulm

He developed the “Ulm Model” and gave important design impulses for an era whose complexity put the will to design to a hard test day after day. Tomás Maldonado would have turned 100 on 25 April.

By Thomas Wagner

Tomás Maldonado would have been 100 years old today. From 1954 to 1967 he worked as a lecturer and from 1964 to 1966 as the rector of the legendary Ulm College of Design. Subsequently, he taught at renowned universities from Princeton to Bologna and Milan and received many awards. Despite all this, his concepts and perspectives still receive far too little attention. Gui Bonsiepe studied design theory with Maldonado in Ulm. In the 1950s and in 2007 he translated and published a selection of Maldonado’s essays and writings from the “post-Ulm” period on the philosophy of language, anthropology, computer science, medicine, political economy, semiotics and the history of technology into German, rightly doubts that Maldonado can be easily characterised:

“It would be a nonsensical endeavour to try to come to terms with Maldonado’s multifaceted person with labels – painter, philosopher, designer, educator, critic, theorist …. All of this is true, but still falls short. In his youth, he was a rigorous representative of concrete painting who, with the manifesto arte concreto-ivención at the end of the 1940s, denounced the academicism, including abstract painting, that was prevalent in Buenos Aires at the time. At the HfG Ulm, he advanced into the field of research, development and training in design disciplines. In Italy, he distinguished himself as a leading representative in the cultural debate on design issues.”

A preference for contrary thinking

Tomás Maldonado in class at the Ulm School of Design, 1955, photo: Ernst Hahn, © HfG-Archiv - Museum Ulm
Tomás Maldonado in class at the Ulm School of Design, 1955. Photo: Ernst Hahn, © HfG-Archiv – Museum Ulm

Among the multitude of characteristics and attitudes that Bonsiepe has identified in Tomás Maldonado instead of blanket labels, he highlights his preference for “pensiero discorrente”, contrary thinking. In addition, there is an “aversion to monocausal explanations, a distrust of dematerialisation tendencies, a criticism of technological-political naivety, a seismographic sensitivity to anti-emancipatory, authoritarian, anti-democratic forces” and “a distrust of verbal radicalism”, to mention just a few of the characteristics. Maldonado was also not lacking in “caustic wit”, as Bonsiepe puts it.

The titles of his publications alone reveal how wide-ranging his interests were and how pronounced his willingness to think beyond disciplinary boundaries and to create sparks from them that illuminate more than the expected areas. “Is Architecture a Text?” he asked in 1992; Cyberspace –ein demokratischer Space? [“Cyberspace – a Democratic Space?”] in 1997. He wrote about “Telematics and New Urban Sceneries” as well as about the “Concept of Iconicity”, again posed the “Question of Technology” and examined its autocratic conception to see whether it was tenable or not.

Reorientation of the fundamental theory

Even before Tomás Maldonado was elected rector of the HfG Ulm, he had been committed to a radical reorientation of basic teaching. Instead of focusing on talent and its development through craftsmanship, as Max Bill’s concept adopted from the Bauhaus envisaged, his approach was based on scientific problem awareness and problem-solving behaviour. With this reorientation, later known as the “Ulmer Model”, Maldonado not only changed the basic teaching at the HfG Ulm, but he also influenced design education worldwide. His approach is still valid today and is practised in its basic features in the training of industrial designers at numerous universities worldwide.

Maldonado’s turn towards a scientification of design theory, which moreover incorporated still young or just current subjects such as semiotics and philosophy of science, is all the more astonishing because he himself had not begun as a scientist but as a visual artist. Admittedly, even in his early paintings, works of geometric abstraction, he engaged in a controlled and lucid play with visual perception. Together with Argentine artists such as Elena “Lidy” Prati, Alfredo Hlito, Manuel Espinosa, Raúl Lozza, Enio Iommi and Oscar Nuñez, he had been part of an avant-garde movement in 1935 and subsequently founded a group focused on definite art that understood art neither as a representation or imitation of an external reality, nor as an expression of inner states and sensations, but as pure invention. In 1945, his commitment culminated in the association “Arte Concreto-Invención”, founded together with Lidy Prati and Edgard Bayley.

The Age of Conception

After Tomás Maldonado left Ulm and moved to Italy in 1967, his collaboration with Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti and his corporate design for the Rinascente department stores’ chain brought him much recognition. He also had a lot to say in his 1970 book La speranza progettuale, published in 1972 under the title “ Design, Nature, and Revolution: Toward a Critical Ecology”, he identified environmental destruction and social change as issues that designers absolutely had to address. In the essay ‘The Age of Design’ and Daniel Defoe, Maldonado later located the beginning of the “projecting age” in the late 17th century, not only with the help of Daniel Defoe’s “An Essay Upon Projects”. By means of a revealing comparison with Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, published twenty years later, he also worked out two diametrically opposed projecting perspectives. One aims to change politics and society (very useful to society), the other wants to solve individual problems (very useful to me). Both perspectives, says Maldonado, continue to have an impact today: “People forget that our epoch, for better or worse, is an epoch of creating – a projecting age, as Defoe called it, anticipating three centuries – possibly the most design-intensive epoch in history.” “Thinking about this Defoe”, says Maldonado, can “help us to examine the possibility (and above all the probability) of working out honest projects in an epoch like ours, in which the enormous complexity of the problems to be solved puts the will to design to the test day after day.”

An exceptional phenomenon in the design discourse

Tomás Maldonado, 1963
Tomás Maldonado, 1963, Photo: Roland Fürst. © HfG-Archiv – Museum Ulm

Maldonado deliberately preferred to speak of “conceptualiser” rather than “designer”. Perhaps this is why he has remained an obscure figure in design discourse to this day, unfortunately, and although his turn towards scientificity as a basis for teaching was successful. Too exotic, too educated, too reflective and too transdisciplinary still seems to be his way of not only talking about design thinking in common diction, but of including literature, philosophy, drawing theory and much more in a reflection on the age of design. Nevertheless, Maldonado did not argue for pure theory, but for action that changes something socially. Anyone who delves into his texts recognises the academic rigidities common elsewhere, but is above all shocked by the extent to which a language of unreflective practice or the latest marketing-speak dominate design discourse today – and make it desolate. Maldonado has recognised that in the age of design thinking, the discourse cannot be left to designers, artists or theoreticians alone. Not even when none of them is willing to quickly ignore the design-empirical background with a few abstractions. In this respect, he has opened up perspectives from various heights that make it possible to raise one’s gaze above that summit-less “philistine flatland” that Bonsiepe polemically characterised the design discourse as.

At the end of his commemorative lecture on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the HfG Ulm in 2003, Maldonado recommended “that designers should broaden the horizon of their social and cultural responsibility with all the means at their disposal; that they should free themselves from the narrow, sometimes suffocating limits of a view limited to the professional; that they should devote ever greater attention to the consequences of their actions for the concrete living world of people. No more, no less”. Tomás Maldonado, born in Buenos Aires on 25 April 1922, died in Milan on 26 November 2018 at the age of 96, just over two months after Inge Feltrinelli, his lifelong companion and famous publisher.

More about Tomás Maldonado

On the occasion of Tomás Maldonado’s 100th birthday, the HfG Archive and the HfG Ulm Design School Foundation commemorate the design theorist and designer: An Argentinian in Ulm: Tomás Maldonado 1922-2018

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