In 1965 Hans Gugelot died at the age of 45. That was 19 years ago – a long time for someone who is as little gifted with memory as I am.
I am sitting in one of his armchairs, which he once made for the Bofinger company (and which unfortunately is no longer available). I like this armchair – not only because Hans Gugelot made it, but also because it tells so much of him. It is so little "armchairish", almost an armchair chair – light and yet stable. It doesn't spread out (as armchairs usually do), but allows for air around itself, is unambiguous, simple and honest. It is of a reserved, almost grand elegance and with its movable backrest it is nevertheless comfortable.
So there I sit – a piece of blank white paper in front of me. It remains blank for a long time, because I ask myself: Who and how was Hans Gugelot? Do I know? I know one thing: what he did and meant for the company – then Max Braun OHG. And that was a lot and very decisive. Not only for the company – but also for me personally. With the attempt to remember Hans Gugelot, the memory of my own past automatically rises.
I cannot separate the two.
What was it like actually back in 1953 when I reunited with Erwin Braun – whom I had met during the war as a nineteen-year-old soldier, and with whom I felt connected in friendship since then? I came from a different world – from the world of theater and film (where I had worked as a director and set designer) – a world that was rather skeptical and hostile towards the industrial sector. There were: Erwin Braun (30 years) and his brother Artur Braun (26 years). Both had taken over the company in 1951 when their father Max Braun had suddenly died – a company that stood on solid ground thanks to the great entrepreneurial skills of this father. In 1953, the company manufactured radio and phono devices, kitchen appliances and just the first electric shavers.
A heterogeneous product range that hardly differed from the appearance of the competition. It had a dozen face, a face without its own character. From 1954 on, Erwin Braun – inspired and stimulated by Wilhelm Wagenfeld – started looking for a new way – his own way. I remember all the questions that were seething and boiling inside him at the time (and which I tried to keep boiling, as far as I was able to do so). Diverse and complex questions, which increasingly concentrated to form an overall corporate concept and which ultimately (to put it very simply) led to just one question: Could you be more honest and more human and still do successful business? This was a very substantial question that could only be answered if someone found himself willing to follow such a path. The discrepancy between will and reality was most obvious in the radio sets. They were virtually crying out to be freed from their gold-plated dishonesty. But by whom?
There was no separate design department at Braun yet. We heard about the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, whose buildings were just being erected. Erwin Braun went there. We got to know Inge and Otl Aicher – and Hans Gugelot. What we saw and heard corresponded to what Erwin Braun wanted more than we had expected.
Hans Gugelot was commissioned to redesign the Braun radios. I still remember his first appearance in Frankfurt. He brought along – mysteriously covered with a white cloth – the first model for a future radio set. It was kind of a monument unveiling. There was it: a simple square wooden box – a black circle and a rectangle on the front – that was all. And there were three gentlemen from the industry (and me) looking at the thing. Hans Gugelot, sturdy, in a sporty leather jacket, instead of a tie a thick woolen scarf around his neck (although it was quite warm in the room), in turn looked at these gentlemen expectantly, skeptically, almost a little arrogantly. Pause: an angel walked across the room.
He must surely have thought that it was a devil in disguise who would blow up this marvelous thing from Ulm with a bang. Later he confessed to me that he had staged this demonstration as a kind of provoking test. He wanted to know whether the people at Braun were this sort of industrialists who wanted to try out so-called modernity. When he realized that they were serious about it – that they were even ready to turn this rough draft of a radio set originating from a matrix into reality – at that point the gentlemen from the industry turned into human beings for him. With his thick woolen scarf, he put aside his skepticism, became a co-conspirator and went to work.
Crazy times began – for him and for the people at Braun. Because in a few months' time, the entire radio-phono-television range was to show a completely new face at the 1955 Electronic Exhibition in Düsseldorf. They used a two-pronged approach. A more conventional line of products was developed in house, which, however, drew on developments from Ulm – such as scales and control elements. For Hans Gugelot it was a difficult task. It actually contradicted his ideas of design, according to which function and form must develop systematically and organically with each other from the very beginning in order to achieve a convincing and harmonious appearance. He could not design something new from scratch; but he was forced to do something he actually rejected: creating a form around an existing and fixed function.
He had to work with engineers who did not understand him, who looked at what developed right before their faces with suspicion and fear. It is certainly to the credit of Artur Braun, the engineer who stood behind this adventure with conviction and commitment, that all these devices could be realized without any compromise.
There they stood one day: the PKG radio-phono combination (the "langer Heinrich" with 3 different bases); a new Tischsuper (in 2 different versions); a record player and a television set in light maple – light and precise individual devices that nevertheless formed a family. For Hans Gugelot had succeeded (from the wrong end, so to speak) in developing devices that were harmonized in size and form, that could be arranged on top of or next to each other to form a harmonious whole. These were the first combinable radio sets on the market – something completely new – real Gugelots. The devices developed in house, on the other hand, were decent, but at the same time bland and naive. (They were only later lifted to an adequate level by Herbert Hirche). And there was also Otl Aicher.
It was obvious that within the vast potpourri of speculative dishonesty these devices needed the space and the setting in which to be able to breath and act. Out of the same spirit, Otl Aicher developed a completely new exhibition system (a system that still dominates the appearance of many booths today). And he created all the pertaining communicative means. And so the impression we left in Düsseldorf in 1955 was a consistent one. The result is well known. It was a sensation.
What happened back then was decisive for the future development of the Braun company; because there was a really tangible model that answered all of Erwin Braun's questions about the new and that showed that it could be done and how it could be done. It also determined my future. I had been caught up in the maelstrom of Erwin Braun's ideas and plans – I had contributed as much as I could, but at that time I had not yet thought about it that I might end up in the industry for good one day.
In the spring of 1955 – right during the busiest time – I received an offer to direct a film. I had to make a decision. I decided for Braun because I thought it would make more sense to help make decent appliances than questionable German films (because the ones I would have liked to make were not possible at that time).
So I became a "man of the industry" and head of design at Braun. Would things have turned out the same if I hadn't met Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher? I think not. Because without their friendship and help I would have had to dabble. Although I was a good deal older than them, I was their student (and they were sensitive enough not to let me notice). They gave Erwin and Artur Braun and me ideas beyond their Düsseldorf model and taught us methods on which we could build and develop further. And they helped us – with words and deeds – to build up our own design departments in the company (although they must have been aware that this would mean competition for their own work).
It was Hans Gugelot who, with sure instinct, pointed out the special talent of Dieter Rams, who at that time, among several others, had applied for a job as an interior designer at Braun. I am convinced that the achievements of Dieter Rams and of all the other design people at Braun in the many years that followed could only evolve and develop on the ground prepared by Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher at that time.
Still sitting in Hans Gugelot's armchair (it's really good design: the swiveling backrest nestles pleasantly against a spine that has actually seen much younger days) I think of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm. Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher were lecturers there. For me they were the Hochschule für Gestaltung. With their activities and methods, the university found the most visible and convincing expression of its special and lively quality. The Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm no longer exists. It did not die a very glorious death.
What was unique and special about it more and more disappears into gray fog. Even hostile images emerge. With undifferentiated, vague terms such as: functionalist, purist, bloodless, ideological, and what else do I know, a façade is built up in front of which they believe they can put themselves in the spotlight more effectively with yet vaguer, purely emotional terms. Misgivings arise inside myself that Hans Gugelot might be imagined as a bloodless theorist with a square, gray-gridded head. Was he like that? He was the opposite: he was open, lively and vital. I can still see him swinging down a steep slope on skis in front of Erwin Braun and me, elegantly, skis close together (and we both wisely refrained from trying to do the same). I sit next to him in the car again and hold my breath, because of his bold overtaking and turning maneuvers in a much too weak and simple car – with a big grin on his face: a prevented race driver. I trudge behind a relentlessly curious Hans Gugelot again – very late at night – in Paris (somewhere near Montmartre) with the wish in my head and legs: hopefully the guy will soon get tired.
And I remember the great journey with him, which Erwin Braun had staged to see real examples and models that could serve as inspiration and confirmation. It led via Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York to Italy – to Olivetti.
During all this time, Hans Gugelot was: a friend, door-opener, leader and mentor. He was not an abstract theorist, but a realist and practical person – with a broad theoretical knowledge who thought in systematic contexts, a designer who was not primarily interested in the appearance, but who was initially interested in the prerequisites that could lead to a necessary and thus to a coherent form.
He always carried paper with him (usually with a square grid of lines). Wherever possible, he pulled it out somewhere and began to draw – not all formal drafts, but small-format construction drawings which he then brooded over and fiddled about with great pleasure. He had an excellent spatial sense (he could, for example, write texts upside down in mirror writing). Basically, he also was an excellent (and therefore probably all the more committed) design engineer. A design engineer and a designer with great sensitivity for the real thing – the perfect mixture.
Looking back at him, I get an ever-increasing understanding of what he meant to Braun and me. Behind everything that I myself was able to do and achieve in the many years that followed at Braun as a – well, as what actually? – as a designer, educator, inspirer, preventer, firefighter, confessor? – there was – as a kind of benchmark so to speak – always the question: what do Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher think about it?
And that is still the case today.
So it doesn't come as a surprise that I – who is still sitting in Hans Gugelot's armchair – am overcome by a great feeling of gratitude in the helpless attempt to bring him back to life.
Eichler, F.: Realisationen am Beispiel Braun AG. In: Wichmann, H. (Hrsg.): System-Design. Bahnbrecher: Hans Gugelot, München 1984,
22-26 und Eichler, F.: Realisationen am Beispiel Braun AG, bewahrt im Archiv von Artur Braun, Königstein/Ts., Ordner Braun: Personen, Abteilung 1 Fritz Eichler