For many decades, Herbert Lindinger has demonstrated the important role that design plays in processes of renewal. His work also shows the advantages of modularisation and that good design always has a playful dimension. The designer is now 90 years old.
By Thomas Edelmann
There is a lot of talk about transformation these days. Industries need to prepare for the consequences of climate change and digitalisation needs to be shaped. For many decades, Herbert Lindinger has thematised and exemplified how design comes into play in processes of renewal and what this is good for. His design work spans the private and working worlds as well as the public sphere. One of his concepts is consistent modularisation, which also creates scope for numerous detailed improvements. Nowhere is this approach more relevant than in public transport, which he raised to a new level of design quality with his designs for underground trains, light rail systems and trams in Hamburg, Hanover, Stuttgart, Berlin and Frankfurt, with passenger coaches for the Austrian Federal Railways and German standard buses. In Stuttgart alone, he was able to develop three generations of light rail vehicles. In 2017, when the latest series was presented, it adorned a stamp in the “Design from Germany” series. One of Lindinger’s typical improvements to the interior: instead of the usual forests of handrails, he introduced elongated oval handles that are easier to reach. The space appears more spacious, making it easier to hold on securely.
Human-Friendly Reform of Production and Use
But Lindinger’s work – always created as a team – encompasses much more. It is a universe whose elements – both individually and as a whole – are aimed at a people-friendly reform of production and use. The design of city squares is just as much a part of it as a widespread telephone (together with the Japanese Isao Hosoe); a systems laboratory for research and industry, experimental furniture or signage and guidance systems for trains and railway stations. Lindinger was also active as a design teacher with a university professorship and as a campaigner for copyrights, which some clients recklessly ignored. Defending oneself against attempts to take advantage is also an important part of the design profession that benefits all creative people. Lindinger fought for the further development of the profession in honorary positions at the head of German and international associations.
Lindinger’s initial phase in the 1950s already offered an enormous variety of perspectives and projects. Born on 3 December 1933 in Wels, Austria, he initially studied graphic design at the traditionally oriented trade school in Linz. Herbert Lindinger quickly attracted attention there with his student work and was commissioned to design significant parts of the exhibition “10 Years of Reconstruction in Upper Austria”, which took place in 1954. He used the fee to travel to Milan for the X. Triennale, at the time a place of pilgrimage for those interested in design. “A revelation for me,” he says, as new “international standards” could be recognised there. In the German pavilion in Milan – designed by Egon Eiermann and curated by Mia Seeger – he noticed a brochure that took him by surprise: “Square, grey, the texts in lower case, incredibly sparse typography, completely restrained,” he describes in a video interview with the director of the Bröhan Museum, Tobias Hoffmann. So much understatement motivates him. The brochure advertises the new Ulm School of Design. The statement in the text that this institute wants to “help build a new industrial culture – from the spoon to the city” electrifies the young man.
Westwards, Along the Danube
After all, it is only a few hundred kilometres westwards from Linz to Ulm – along the Danube. He would spend fourteen formative years there. Even before moving into Max Bill’s buildings, Lindinger began studying at the HfG in Ulm in 1955 at the age of 21. He was just as enthusiastic about the social impetus of the project as he was about the new way of life for students and lecturers that was being trialled here. In his basic studies, he had to deal with Josef Albers and Johannes Itten. Max Bill, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Tomás Maldonado taught him. Lecturers such as Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher soon included him in their development groups. Lindinger’s first study assignment was to design a spectacle frame for the Angerer company in Linz. This was based on studies of fields of vision and facial profiles, for which students and lecturers were photographed in order to find a statistical mean value that would provide guidelines for the design.
When the interaction between the company headquarters in Frankfurt and the HfG in Ulm resulted in a new product language and the first pioneering appliances for Braun, Lindinger was involved from the very beginning. Braun was one of the main sponsors of the private HfG and benefited from the close collaboration with Hans Gugelot and his students. Lindinger is involved in the well-known SK4 radio-phono combination, which Gugelot designs and for which Dieter Rams contributes the idea of the Plexiglas cover. When Stephan Ott recalled the beginnings of the magazine “form” in 2017 with the special edition “Revisiting the Past”, he could not have chosen a more suitable interview partner than Lindinger. Among other things, he talked about his diploma thesis at the HfG Ulm. He had researched technical, anthropological and local history museums for his theoretical work, resulting in a history of everyday objects before Ruskin, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and Ulm University. According to Linder’s thesis, objects intended for use have hardly ever been recognised as designed. At that time, the art-historical gaze was more focused on objects of courtly representation. However, it brought to light everyday objects whose creators often remained nameless. And yet they were orientated towards practical use as well as design quality. According to Lindinger in conversation at the time, “in addition to their practical searching and making, in addition to their need to communicate, people have always playfully searched for beauty – simply for fun.” From 1964, “form” published the theoretical work as a multi-part series.
The Archetype of a Modular Hifi System
The practical part of his work, which he completed in 1959 and published in 1961 as a “modular system for devices for acoustic and visual information storage and transmission in the home”, was the design of a modular hi-fi system, inspired and supervised by Hans Gugelot. He presented it as a table set and as a wall-mounted system and hinted at further configurations. The research resulted in the “archetype” of the combination of coordinated components that would go on to shape consumer electronics worldwide, initially conceived as a consistently modularised and minimalist building block box. “Today,” says Lindinger with a smile, “all this and much more can be found in every smartphone.” Braun’s studies initially seemed very purist and could not be realised with the tube technology of the time. It was only with the spread of reliable transistors that Lindinger’s basic research began to bear fruit: Dieter Rams’ wall-mounted system, which Braun presented in the mid-1960s, borrowed from Lindinger’s study, even if it arrived at different solutions and proportions in detail.
Where Design Can Become Fruitful
Unlike Rams, who put his understanding of design and fighting spirit at the service of two companies, Lindinger, who was almost a year and a half younger, looked for other fields of activity. He deliberately left those areas that “tend towards consumption and are inevitably threatened by styling”, as he says. The projects for Braun had made the HfG interesting as a potential industrial partner; the board of Hamburger Hochbahn also took notice. Lindinger’s work on the DT2 underground railway carriage (1959-62) showed him where design could still be fruitful. Lindinger became a colleague of his teacher Hans Gugelot. In Ulm, the “development group” was the name given to the transitional area between advanced studies and practical industrial assignments. Shortly afterwards, he became a full lecturer at the HfG. This marked the beginning of a long career in teaching, which Lindinger saw as a complement to his commissioned projects. Guest residencies took him to India and America.
The new underground train is the first time that ergonomics, lighting, seating and holding options have been systematically considered. The designers persuaded the engineers at the manufacturing company to invest in plastics technology to make the design more coherent and the car lighter. The DT2, which first ran in Hamburg in 1962, only disappeared completely from the cityscape more than 50 years later. The outer shape still serves as a model for successor models today. In many projects, Lindinger has shown how means of transport should be designed in order to be up-to-date, attractive and safe. For example, he created better boarding facilities for wheelchair users, better workplaces for train drivers, clearer information concepts and brighter lighting. He repeatedly focussed on seating comfort. With certain reservations, “making things more refined, more sophisticated” has proven its worth, wrote the designer about design for public spaces. In 1972, Hanover became the adopted home of the Austrian, who was appointed to the local Technical University. Two years later, his lime green TW 6000 light rail vehicle hit the tracks here. Since then, the technology of the vehicles has been repeatedly adapted, and since 2019 the old-timers have undergone a complete refurbishment and continue to characterise the cityscape. When the TU became the university and in 2006 the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz University of Hanover, Lindinger created its visual identity.
New S-Bahn Trains for Berlin
A few years before the end of the GDR, the S-Bahn was rediscovered in West Berlin. After the Wall was built, it had been boycotted because it was run by the GDR Reichsbahn. In 1984, Hans Jochen Vogel, as Governing Mayor of Berlin, succeeded in getting the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) to take over and further develop the S-Bahn in the western part of the city. Lindinger was commissioned to design new vehicles. His modern train with light blue-grey exterior paintwork was created. Traditionalists who insisted on the colour scheme from the days of steam locomotives – red, ochre and black – prevailed in a televote. Lindinger’s class 480 from 1985 is now the oldest generation of trains on the Berlin S-Bahn. Designers of later series also failed to push through a changed, contemporary colour scheme because of the traditionalists.
The Famous BVG Worm Pattern
Lindinger has not only designed trains and buses, but also the corresponding seat covers. He created comfortable plain-coloured upholstered seats for Stuttgart. His lawsuit against the Berlin transport company BVG caused a sensation. The seat cover he designed for the S-Bahn in 1985 was used by the company in ever new vehicles and contexts. Originally created as an original defence against graffiti, Linder’s design, affectionately called the “worm pattern” by Berliners, was used everywhere in buses and underground trains. What’s more, it became a core component of the BVG marketing and merchandising campaign. Many newspapers and blogs reported on the supposed “ban”, which Lindinger won in court. The issue was that his seat cover, called “Urban Jungle”, could not be used arbitrarily without a fee agreement, which was negotiated at the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg and led to an agreement between the parties.
Actively Contributing and Counteracting
Herbert Lindinger’s advice is still sought after. At exhibitions on Braun design in Berlin and on railway design in Nuremberg, he provided precise information as a contemporary witness. He has just been asked by the city of Heidelberg to help with the renovation of Bismarckplatz, an urban “hub” that he designed in the mid-1980s. In future, there should be more trees and more shade, fewer flagpoles and unnecessary fixtures. In the face of AI, Lindinger says today, designers need to consider how they can “actively help steer, counteract, in favour of new cultural approaches à la Bauhaus or Ulm and environmental preservation.” In 2021, I interviewed Herbert Lindinger for the “Design and Rail” exhibition at the DB Museum Nuremberg. When asked about challenges for design, he said at the time: “The Ulm School in particular has shown that you have to find a symbiosis between the sciences relevant to design: The human sciences, the technical sciences and the design sciences. In design, you can’t walk around alone, you have to work in teams. Reasoning, reflection and discussion are central to this.” Design requires realisation, requires thinking, action and decision-making. Herbert Lindinger says that this needs to be reminded again and again.
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