The Ulm aesthetic

Otl Aicher biz card

On a hill called the Kuhberg (literally: “cow hill”) outside the town of Ulm, halfway between Munich and Stuttgart in southern Germany, sits a complex of low raw concrete buildings where Germany rebranded itself after the Nazi era. Now a museum, it was once the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School of Design, HfG), where, between 1953 and 1968, a group of young West Germans connected to the wartime resistance created what was has always seemed to me to be an anti-Nazi aesthetic. The project was intended to contribute to democracy in West Germany. But the visual style they developed, influenced by the Bauhaus, came to define the image of the Bonn Republic. The clean, modern style associated with Germany has its origins in the HfG.

The driving force behind the HfG was Otl Aicher and Inge Scholl, who got married in 1952 – a year before the HfG opened. Aicher grew up in Ulm and was arrested as a 15 year-old in 1937 for refusing to join the Hitler Youth. He was subsequently drafted into the army and spent four years fighting on the Eastern Front (described in his memoir innenseiten des krieges). Scholl was the sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the two key figures in wartime student resistance group The White Rose. Between 1942 and 1943 the group had distributed a series of six leaflets criticising the regime to students at Munich University. In February 1943 Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, another member of the group, were arrested and convicted at the People’s Court and executed the same day.

1945 was Stunde Null, or “zero hour” – a new beginning from which a democratic Germany would come into existence (at least in the zones of the country occupied by the British, Americans and French). In reference to the idea of Stunde Null, Aicher and Scholl called their project “studio null”. From the beginning, it was a political project. In fact, their original idea was to set up a school for civic education. It was the influence of the Swiss designer Max Bill, who had studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the late 1920s, that led to the shift in the focus to design. It was from him that the idea of creating a “new Bauhaus” emerged. The Bauhaus, of course, had been shut down by the Nazis shortly after they came to power in 1933.

The idea of an anti-Nazi aesthetic was not straightforward because the Nazis did not themselves have a consistent visual style. For example, Nazi architecture was a mixture of neo-classicism (for example the Olympic stadium, Tempelhof airport, the new Reich Chancellery and Albert Speer’s plans for a post-war Germania), modernism (for example Heinrich Wolff’s Reichsbank) and Alpinism (for example the SS settlement in Zehlendorf in Berlin). The style that emerged from the HfG was instead modernist, functional, modest. The anti-Nazi impulse behind it was most famously expressed in Aicher’s rejection of capital letters. He is quoted in Deyan Sudjic’s book The Language of Things as saying that “if only Germany had not been so fond of capital letters it would have been less vulnerable to the rise of fascism”.

Scholl persuaded US High Commissioner for Germany John McCloy to put American money into the project – if she could raise matched funding from within Germany, which she succeeded in doing. The first classes took place in 1953. A year later, the purpose-built complex on the Kuhberg – a “living manifesto” like the Bauhaus building in Dessau designed by Walter Gropius – was completed. It had exposed concrete walls and spruce wood window frames and doors. Gropius himself spoke at the opening of the new building and other Bauhaus professors like Josef Albers came and taught at the HfG. The product that embodied this early phase of the school was the brilliantly simple Ulm stool made of four pieces of spruce wood.

What makes the idea of the HfG as an anti-Nazi project even more interesting is the role that Ulm played in the Federal Republic’s engagement with the Nazi past. In 1958, ten members of the Einsatzgruppen, the notorious SS killing squads that operated behind the lines in eastern Europe went on trial accused of the murder of 5,500 Jews in Lithuania. Although less well known than the subsequent Auschwitz trials in the early 1960s, it was actually the first major trial of Nazi perpetrators in a German court and the first time the Holocaust was at the centre of such a case. The ten men were all convicted and sentenced to between three and ten years in prison. In a sense, therefore, you might say that Germany’s attempt to “work through the past”, as Theodor Adorno call it in a famous essay published a year later, began in Ulm.

In the 1960s, the HfG started working with industry through “development groups” with companies such as Braun and Lufthansa. It was from these groups that some of the HfG’s most well-known work emerged – in particular the visual styles created for Braun and Lufthansa. Aicher also later developed the Rotis font. But the high point of the HfG’s anti-Nazi aesthetic came after it had shut down in 1986 when Aicher created the visual style for the 1972 Munich Olympics – which was itself meant to be the antithesis of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Best known for the groundbreaking pictograms he developed, it complemented Günter Behnisch’s Plexiglass Olympic stadium and symbolized a modern, open Germany.

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