By Thomas Wagner.
Finding responses to situations: he arrived at the Ulm School of Design in 1954 and his name is closely affiliated with the creation of legendary Braun design. This month Hans Gugelot would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
Otl Aicher was a friend, colleague from Ulm and partner on countless projects for Hans Gugelot (born 1920, died 1965). Twenty years after the latter’s passing, Aicher asked himself whether Gugelot “would have been a contemporary designer today, a designer for the american behavioural culture that manifests itself in showing and being showing”, whether “his influence” would have “remained as strong as it was back then”; one thing was clear to Aicher: “he was without question a determining influence for an entire era”. Aicher adds, “hans gugelot and charles eames, the latter an american who still possessed that pioneering mindset, were the decisive designers of the time.” Gugelot and Eames: though his comparison of the two may involve a certain degree of self-praise for the school in Ulm, Aicher’s reasoning reveals an exciting perspective. “but their categories of thinking were those of artisans and technicians, not those of manufacturers. their products were not designed for manufacturing, but as responses to situations.”
Design in a time of economic transformation
Design as a response to situations: does that describe how Hans Gugelot viewed his work? He would have turned 100 on 1 April this year. Today his name is chiefly affiliated with the creation of the legendary “Braun design” of the mid-1950s. Furthermore, his designs are closely intertwined with a time of transformation when Germany’s “economic miracle” demanded products with a modern design, that is, products free of historical ballast, while what later came to be known as product design was beginning to take shape. HfG-Archiv, the archives of Ulm’s former School of Design, is planning an exhibition devoted to Gugelot in honour of his 100th birthday, although the opening has had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic and it is currently unclear when the exhibition will be open to the public. Even so, the book for the exhibition – “Hans Gugelot. The Architecture of Design.” (av edition, in German) – is available and explores Gugelot’s career, his activity at the Ulm School of Design and much more.
Shaped by Holland and Switzerland
Johan “Hans” Gugelot was born in Makassar on the Indonesian island of Celebes where his father worked as a doctor. In 1927 the family returned to Holland, where Hans went to primary school. In 1934 the Gugelots relocated to Switzerland after the father became a consultant physician at the Dutch Sanatorium in Davos. Holland and Switzerland, if one believes Otl Aicher, make for a special mix: “the dutch, from being forced to contend with the sea, have developed a sense of pragmatism and have an ingenious outlook on their environment. the courtly culture of france was not known in holland and elegance is just as little a dutch design category as ostentatiousness is. the dutch had to dam bursting seas, they had to build ships and canals and harness the power of wind for pumps and mills. this brought about common sense, the virtue of tolerance and practical reason. hans gugelot’s work does contain a large amount of technical curiosity, though never mawkishness.”
In Switzerland, too, where Gugelot grew up and studied architecture, “a type of cultural behaviour has developed that sees nature not just as supporting, but also as challenging”. Just as the Dutch do not “contend with the sea by taking orders from above”, Switzerland’s “confrontation of rock and snow has spawned a group behaviour focused on efficiency, not on big form”. The Swiss “built cities, they can make watches; cathedrals and palaces did not suit them. they are interested in a situation, not an ideology, much like the dutch.”
Resistance to a style
The chief characteristic of Gugelot’s design perspective is rooted in an interest in a situation and its resolution, and not in an ideology. In finding responses to situations. He went about his work accordingly, without being blinkered, without sentimentalist attitudes, even without being shackled by pursuing a personal style – which for him would have meant putting form or a brand above an object’s utility. Aicher’s assessment takes this even further, “hans gugelot feared style and had to prove that he could resist the temptation to tend towards a style. he saw style as the beginning of design’s corruption.”
This attitude is doubtless light years away from today’s authorial design, from fame factor and self-marketing. If the reports of his friends, colleagues and contemporaries are to be believed, Hans Gugelot was indeed infatuated with coherent designs and processing techniques, though was also able to identify the dead ends into which a design can be steered by a one-sided orientation towards technical and scientific criteria. He could think like an engineer, but also knew what an engineer’s limits were. He believed that the quality of a useful object was not decided solely by the technical or commercial efficiency with which it was produced. Conversely, thinking in systems saved him from becoming tied up in pure styling or artisanal aesthetics.
Idealism without dogma
For Gugelot, a cabinet is not a box that remains the same; it is just as if it were pre-existing in numerous variations, becoming a matter of making the right choice for personal needs: sideboard or floor to ceiling, by the wall or in the centre of the room, for the living room or the bedroom, for the office or the shop? A variable furnishing concept did more than offer great utility, it gave customers the freedom to determine their needs, inclinations and preferences themselves. Gugelot continued what the pre-war modern era had demonstrated by showing how design could be relieved of the weight of an anachronistic reality and spurious striving for prestige. His sense for situations evidently left him largely impervious to the pedagogical sentimentality of the “good form” that was widespread in Ulm. The Dutchman from Switzerland, or the Swiss Dutchman, understood how to loosen the users’ conventional relationships to things without becoming dogmatic.
If Otl Aicher wishes to see neither a theorist nor a practitioner in him, seeing instead a person who maintained all his senses and used his mind as few people do, essentially someone who lived in his work and up to the maxim, “what he did was not a trade, it was his life, and his life was his trade,” then that also explains why Gugelot’s friends were almost always his work partners, too. What Gugelot designed did not just contain good solutions, it still today is of an exemplary nature because it possesses just as much of a sense of reality as it does a sense of possibility. Because it reveals the opportunities for development that are hidden within an object, when it comes to production, performance, usage and the relationship that it establishes between people and the thing. Gugelot’s design for a tray-free slide projector is a textbook example of how much fortune and misfortune can depend on certain market conditions and how little they depend on the consistent realisation of a concept. This tray-free projector had one crucial disadvantage: selling slide trays is what made money, even back then, not the projectors themselves.
The architecture of design
Many of these aspects can be examined in depth in the essays included in the catalogue for the current exhibition in Ulm. Christiane Wachsmann provides information about the close connection between work and life at the Ulm School of Design and retraces the development of design as an occupation in those days. Walter Scheiffele expounds on the M 125 furniture system and Eva von Seckendorff describes Gugelot’s development as a teacher, from “learning by doing” to a reflective approach to design. Katharina Kurz and Christiane Wachsmann examine the role of Malke Gugelot and other “wives in the Ulm design scene”, Marleen Grasse and Gwendolyn Kulick the cultural exchange between Ulm and Ahmedabad. All the reader could be left wanting is larger illustrations, given the close inspection demanded by the private shots of the Gugelot family, the photographs from the School of Design world and the images of prototypes from brochures.
Questions about Snow White’s Coffin
Klaus Klemp’s essay on the creation of the Radio Phono Kombination SK 4, the legendary “Snow White’s Coffin”, at times reads like a whodunnit for design historians, only with the search being for a sole originator rather than a criminal. Klemp retraces how the occasional idea would arrive at a dead end or be manoeuvred back out of a dead end in the back and forth between the still-young team in Frankfurt and Gugelot’s colleagues in Ulm. Throughout this, it becomes very clear how team-based and cooperative the processes usually were and how superfluous some of today’s debates about authorship and origination appear – and already were back then. Who was the person who came up with the idea, who was the originator of the acrylic glass lid of the SK4? In this respect, according to Klemp, “the different memories can, in retrospect, only be acknowledged.”
And who were the fathers of the SK4? Dieter Rams is said to have initially cited Antonio Citterio on this in 2004, “As a designer, I am convinced of the fundamental importance of the client, both of the client’s role and of the client as a person. All architecture and all products have a mother and a father: the architect or designer and his or her client.” Klemp then offers a summary, saying, “The mother, Braun, (…) was in relationships with multiple fathers when Snow White’s Coffin was created, a rather polygamous design story with a gorgeous offspring.”
Hans Gugelot considers the design process as “unfortunately unable to be defined precisely” and creativity as unable to be taught. Nevertheless, he concluded in one of his lectures that “the whole art might consist in preparing so well that the likelihood of having an idea is nurtured. (…) Sometimes a design really does come about with a suddenly flashing thought, while other times you have to take a great many detours and put in a lot of effort to develop it. However many and varied the routes of these thoughts are, there is one thing that is certain: you have to come up with an idea.”
21 March – 20 September 2020
Am Hochsträss 8
89081 Ulm, Germany
Published by HfG-Archiv/Museum Ulm u. Christiane Wachsmann
with contributions from Christiane Wachsmann, Walter Scheiffele, Klaus Klemp, Eva von Seckendorff, Katharina Kurz, Marleen Grasse and Gwendolyn Kulick
Paperback, 168 pages, 170 illustrations
av edition, Stuttgart 2020,
A preview of the book can be found here.
Picture (above): Hans Gugelot and the members of his development group, around 1960. From left: Helmut Müller-Kühn, Hans Sukopp, Josef Mundel, Annemarie Bach, Herbert Lindinger (covered), Hans Gugelot, Anneliese Müller. Photographer: Wolfgang Siol © HfG-Archiv Ulm / Museum Ulm
Picture material with friendly permission of the publisher.