Issue 3 Das Programm

Video & Photography: Sebastian Petrovski
Interview: Seth Footring

“Otl Aicher’s Olympic identity is just nuts. It’s an attempt to produce a utopian picture of rationality.”

Dr Peter Kapos

502: Does your philosophical background influence your appreciation for Braun and Rams?

Dr Peter Kapos: I’m really interested in functionalist design from a social point of view, the social project of modernism; using knowledge and technology to create a better world for human beings.  
What I find attractive about functionalist design, is that it was this really perfect point where capitalism hadn’t developed into the beast that it has become, so all those kinds of barriers to design didn’t exist. Whereas now the possibilities seem much slighter.  
Within Braun Design there’s a really strong strand of irrationalism. It was a contradiction, particularly because Braun was a capitalist outfit, so operating in a marketplace with this idea of social modernism was never going to work. But the attempt to implement this socialist ideal in industrial design was really formed in the Ulm School. 
In the later years the ideal was in difficulty but in those moments, when it fell apart, some of the strongest ideas were being expressed. That was in ‘68: the Munich Olympic attacks, Red Army faction and Baader-Meinhof where the frustration with the failure of those projects became violent and there was no other way to move forward.

How do historical events affect Ulm and Braun?

The foundation of the Ulm School is the beginning of this utopian ideal that ends in catastrophe. There was total collapse under the pressure of reality. Braun became engulfed in a process that it didn’t really understand and couldn’t comprehend. Ideas are fragile and these were the last attempts of progressive left thinking to produce some revolutionary result. The Ulm School was the only institution  actualizing those ideas. Then at the same time there’s the consolidation of globalizing capitalism. It’s not equivalent to the Olympics on a catastrophic scale at all, but at Braun you can see the struggle through the changing conditions. Then there’s the acquisition of Braun by Gillette: all these things are connected.

Is there a moment in there which is particularly important?  

The Munich Olympics is so important. Otl Aicher’s graphic identity is just nuts. It’s an attempt to produce a utopian picture of rationality. It’s an incredible identity system across an insane number of applications. It’s real graphic designers’ fetish because it suggests that someone is really taking graphic design seriously. 
In ‘53 Otl Aicher founds the Ulm School and the Olympics is the end of Ulm. When they begin, they’re looking at the end of the war, Germany’s in rubble. It’s about reconstruction and rebuilding the world in a rational form. That’s the utopian project. In Germany they had this concept of zero hour; resetting the clock. 
The Olympics is itself a positive event, but it belongs to a 19th-century way of thinking; a world of competing nations. With the visual identity there is an irrational level of detail. There’s something about the thoroughness of it, which shows that this isn’t an enactment under artificial conditions of something that can’t be produced in the world. Then you’ve got this terrorist attack where the Israeli wrestling team is machine gunned in a hotel room which is part of the compound, which is architecturally beautiful. Members of the German security are wearing Otl Aicher’s uniforms scaling the building. So the whole situation is just fucking nuts.

Everyone deifies Dieter Rams. Do you think that’s problematic for who was doing what at Braun?

Braun were deliberately suppressing the contributions of the other designers. Rams was promoted publicly from the very beginning as the figurehead. It makes sense from a marketing point of view. It’s much easier to understand an individual than it is to understand a team, or an idea.  There’s this stupid but really powerful idea of the genius. In industrial design it doesn’t make any sense at all because it’s so much to do with teamwork. 
A lot of Reinhold Weiss’ designs, head of the household division, were getting credited to Rams. People were just assuming it was Rams and weren’t getting corrected. There was a lawsuit brought by Reinhold Weiss in the ‘80s against the company to make corrections. I’ve got this book which shows Dieter Rams’ name being replaced with Reinhold Weiss’ name stuck over one another as a correction and you can read the Dieter Rams through the sticker.   
After that they agreed to a system for contribution so when there were collaborations or redesigns there was an order of naming agreed, according to this whole naming credit structure. But the thing that I think is disappointing is that it’s less about fairness. The project is not about individuals, it’s about something social. This is what attracted me to the idea of Ulm in particular.

Tell me about Ulm’s idea of design

Ulm design is about systems that are both immediately functionally useful but also have a social function, producing pictures of ideal social situations. So the parts are all different but together they all belong and can be rational. It’s like a picture of a society; it’s about creating a world. The idea was that people would intuitively understand this and be educated by those objects.  For Braun to be about an individual is completely turning this upside down. It’s then a model of an individualistic society, in which individuals are pitted against each other in a competitive struggle. It’s a fuck you.

Let’s go back to the relationship between Ulm and Braun

What was called the Ulm model was this idea of using live project concepts. They thought that this would help funding the school. They did client work, which the school was paid for. Projects were run by school staff but it would be staffed by students. 
Before the ‘60s the Braun audio programme was all over the place: it had all these different strands and designers: Gugelot, Wagenfeld, Herbert Hirsch, who was an architect, Rams, Fritz Eisler and Arthur Brown and things that were done internally within Braun – it was chaotic. They commissioned Ulm to produce a programme of what a unified system would be. Braun took the unified system and set up an internal design department and didn’t work with Ulm anymore and the story of the school just got dropped. 
Herbert Lindinger was a student in ‘58, working under Hans Gugelot. They an idea of a functional system for audio parts that coordinate physically. Normally they would hide audio equipment in a drinks cabinet or a coffee table and so Lindinger is the first to really systematically think through what an audio system is in his diploma thesis. 
He started with this building block idea. He’s got the parts and breaks down how they are physically coordinated. He’s working out the ergonomics of their operation. He’s thinking about stacking. No one else thinks about stacking: it hasn’t occurred to anyone. It’s really the first attempt to really think through audio systems.

Who are the other Braun designers of note? 

I think Reinhold Weiss next to Dieter Rams - he is super important. Reinhold Weiss has this very particular approach which is really different from Rams. It’s partly different sensibility, partly a solution to a different problem; all his systems are self-contained mechanical systems, whereas Rams’ systems in audio are modular systems. 
For Rams’ audio is a graphic problem about hierarchical ordering because it’s about how to set out the control panels. Whereas for Reinhold Weiss it’s like, how do you explain the coffee grinder? There’s a caddy, a motor and a container for the grounds. How do you express the relationship with between those parts in a way which doesn’t just fall back on received ideas about what coffee grinders look like? He started from scratch and then you end up with something really sculptural, as opposed to just an arrangement of cubes.  

How do you perceive Dieter Rams’ principles?

It’s just absolute nonsense. 
There’s nothing we can do with it. It doesn’t help you. They’re not actually principles because they don’t feed into anything practical, unlike the biblical commandments that are actually telling you what you ought to do.
 What would be much more useful to know is how do you resist marketing data?  Or as a designer what’s your relation to a company that wants to license your design?  
There’s no need during the 1960s to formulate principles of good design, it just gets done.  
I think since the ‘70s it has become very difficult for any company to do that because the business conditions have changed. The 10 principles were formulated really to defend the design department against the pressures from the marketing department. When the commercial pressures on the design department are being made from points of view which have nothing to do with Braun design or the principles of the brand, it makes the principles of design his most important achievement from the ‘70s. The lasting coherence in all of these different categories, all looking like themselves as categories and also all belonging to Braun Design that was his great achievement.

What is the difference between Braun and Vitsoe?

It’s one approach. It’s not a style - Vitsoe just make the furniture counterpart to Braun electrical. That approach is applied to shelving the same way as it’s applied to audio.  An anodized aluminium end-plate with a painted wooden span shelf is designed to interact with a piece of audio equipment. They’re both 67cm. Every part of your home belongs to this product system but think beyond that to the building, the district and the city.

You hear a lot that Braun inspired Apple - what do you think about that?

It’s actually the other way around. Braun wasn’t very fashionable in the early ‘00s until Apple adopted its language. Comparisons between the T3 radio and the iPod lead to a re-evaluation of Braun as a significant design brand.  It was completely different from Apple’s approach; Braun designs would stay in the range for a decade as opposed to a year.

What was the Braun product presentation and packaging like?

Braun’s packaging is incredible. Nothing is a minor consideration. Their printed markings on products and packaging had visual unity and no one was doing anything like that. All of the printed materials, guarantee slips, instructions for use, the product markings and the placement of screws and fixings - everything is given the same level of consideration.  
A more substantial influence is something like Muji, which is a kind of even more democratic approach because Braun were quite pricey. I don’t think Muji always get it right every time 
with their electrical equipment. Fukusawa is an amazing designer, but sometimes the constraints are just too tight -  I don’t want shoddy electrical goods, so that’s not Braun-like.  
Muji are self-consciously broadminded. 
What’s really interesting about them is their suppression of the individual designers. They’ve got Jasper Morrison, Industrial Facility, Fukusawa, who are heavyweight designers who they could in the short term be promoting. It’s a very different way of thinking about the business because it’s not all about the next six months.  
There are clearly red lines where they won’t do it - that is really interesting. How do you keep that balance of business? It’s a massive multinational enterprise, it’s huge, so it shouldn’t work.

And does it feed through into what you do for systems studio?

The studio has a strong connection to the brand and they’re a client and we use the collection in the work that we do for Braun. We have a slightly different way of working with clients. It’s not extraordinary, but we don’t start with a look. We try to understand what people need. And quite often that’s through conversation, where they come thinking they need one thing and then we have a conversation and a workshop and it turns out something else is needed. Problem solving leads to good design, I think.