Hartmut Jatzke-Wigand
Otl Aicher:  Hans Gugelot

Otl Aicher

hans gugelot

when an engineer designs a technical product, a workpiece or the memory of an information chain, he proceeds in logical leaps, just like in mathematics. he measures and counts, he calculates and follows the law of causality. every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect. the engineer thinks linearly, in a chain of thoughts. for a designer it's not that easy.


when a painter paints a picture, he doesn't calculate or measure. he doesn't get far with logic. he defines the aesthetic qualities that are important to him, derives them from an objective. whether the picture is naturalistic or abstract, he wants to make a statement by means of its aesthetic quality.


it's not that easy for a designer.


he can neither fall back on a rational analytical working method dissolving everything into quantities and making it quantifiable, nor can he restrict himself to producing qualities, orders of view, color, form.


the working method of the designer is more complex. it's not a bit of this, a bit of that. it includes calculating and measuring and creating proportions, but it's more. the designer is a kind of moralist. he evaluates. his work consists of evaluations.


there are technical products which are good but which offend the eye; there are decorative products which are not usable, beautiful things which block the world. there are products of highest practical value but which are technically abysmal. there are beautiful products which do not inform, which do not allow for curiosity, which consist only of disguise.


what does a designer have to deliver? a functioning product? a good-looking product? a usable product? an informative product?


the designer is caught between two stools. a technically perfect product does not have to be beautiful, a beautiful product does not necessarily have to be practical, a product of high practical value does not always have to have a high technical standard and a good-looking product can perhaps only look good because it hides and conceals everything.


the designer's job is to create order in a conflicting environment of heterogeneous factors, to evaluate.


it is pure nonsense to regurgitate that (good) form results from function or that a good spirit must live in a beautiful body. the opposite is no less true.


the category of the technical is the functional one, not the beautiful one, and the category of the beautiful is the aesthetic one, not the functional one. the category of information is the true one, not the beautiful one. and the category of application is the useful one, not the functional one. certainly, the product we are looking for is the technically functional one, as well as the formally appealing one, as well as the one that proves itself in use and is readable in function, meaning and origin. but all these qualities do not emerge by themselves, they are not mutally dependent, they do not causally depend on each other; not infrequently are they in and create conflict. in this respect the designer's job is an evaluation.


it's not easy for him.


finally, he also has to consider the dimension of the economic and certainly cannot assume that the market-driven product is the right, beautiful, true and useful one. especially junk sells well.


hans gugelot was born dutch. it was noticeable. the dutch have acquired a pragmatic sense and an ingenious attitude towards the environment out of their need to deal with the sea. the courtly culture of france was unknown in the netherlands, and elegance is just as little a dutch design category as representation. the dutchman had to embank the advancing sea, he had to build ships and canals, use the power of the wind for pumps and mills. this developed common sense, the virtue of tolerance and practical reason. in the work of hans gugelot there is a lot of technical curiosity, but never pathos.


hans gugelot grew up in switzerland.


here too, a cultural behavior developed that saw nature as not only the supporting factor but also the challenge. and just as one cannot cope with the sea at higher command, the confrontation with rock and snow resulted in a group behavior that was oriented towards efficiency, not great form. the swiss built cities, they can build watches, cathedrals and castles were not their scene. they were interested in a case, not in an ideology, just like the dutch.


in design today, ideology comes first. american and italian design is no longer concerned with an object, but with representation. design is degenerating into a sign.


hans gugelot is twenty years dead. the question is whether he would be a contemporary designer today, a designer of american behavioral culture, which becomes manifest in showing and showing off. or would his influence have remained as strong as it was then? without question, he was of decisive influence for an entire era. hans gugelot and charles eames, the latter an american still of the pioneer mentality, were the dominating designers of that time. but their thought categories were those of craftsmen, of technicians, not of industrialists. their products were not designed for production, but as answers to a situation.


perhaps hans gugelot would be of particular relevance even today. it is not at all certain that the future belongs to the large-scale formats, that the market has to determine the product and that we have to get used to a world of representation, where nothing stands for itself, but only represents itself.


can there be a famous designer?


a designer is caught between all stools. there is a great painter, a great scientist, a great general. but the great presupposes the limited, the concentration on a narrow, methodologically uncomplex field. if a general would still think about the meaning of war, let alone about peace, he would be lost for history, his battles would go wrong. a designer is like a painter who calculates and measures instead of painting, he is like an engineer who seeks proportions instead of constructing, he is like a businessman who is interested in the perfection of utility instead of sales, and he is like a sculptor who seeks construction and technical intelligence instead of shapes.


even a philosopher who also wants to be a teacher himself has little chance to go down in history. he who approximates the complexity of life has little chance of remaining in the memory of men as the great simplifiers, the high-flown specialists do. he who drives his head to the last rationality or his heart to the most sensitive nerve, has the chance of being recognized, but not the one who needs both. the simplicity of the method makes for the greatness. even an architect must have specialized either in form or in technology, if he wants to be noticed. that is the real cause for the inferiority of women in history. she must think with her heart and feel with her head and thus eludes our scheme of cultural appreciation.


rietveld made chairs that look like sculptured versions of mondrian's paintings. they were hardly suitable for sitting. but they became famous. they were bought as aesthetic objects, as an expression of a style of geometric fundamental forms. only square, circle and triangle as well as the primary colors black and white, red, yellow and blue were legitimate. they were the expression of a style. the chair was reduced to an aesthetic form and thus had achieved the reduction of simplification that usually is the essence of the famous.


such objects therefore can no longer be found in private homes but only in museums. hans gugelot made chairs only for private homes.


most designers have their own style. a rietveld can be recognized as a rietveld. how should you recognize a gugelot?


what speaks against an own style? we have entered a world of signs and very often we use objects no longer as objects of utility but as carriers of signs. the things we buy are more often determined by the brand image than by their practical value. the shape of the product, the brand, the appearance has often become more decisive than the technology, benefit and performance of an object, that are in most cases impossible to judge without special analysis under the colorful disguise of their appearance.


nowadays, buying a product has to do with self-demonstration. it demonstrates that i am someone who identifies with a brand. this also strengthens the visual function of the objects and forces the development of a style that has a symbolic character. how many people bought braun devices just because they could demonstrate that they belong to a design-conscious class of people?


so what speaks against an own style? i'm sure that if he had lived to experience it, hans gugelot would have taken offense at the development of an own braun style. with every product, he wasn't just interested in solving a problem, but in resisting the temptation to style. with every product, he was running against the danger that it could create a style. he had to prove to himself that he doesn't fall for any style, neither a style as an expression of his personality, as a handwriting, nor a style as a corporate image. when he thought about cars and had contacted bmw, he didn't think about building a bmw or producing a gugelot. back then, you could recognize a pininfarina as a farina, and to this day, a mercedes has to look like a mercedes, because people first of all see a brand in a product.


hans gugelot was afraid of a style and had to prove to himself that he could resist the temptation to a style. in style he already saw the beginning of the corruption of design.


every human being is a person, a personality, a figure. but not everyone is a symbolic figure. symbols are not only signs, but identifiers. you look up to them. they are exaggerations. they allow projections of a wish, expectations become manifest in them.


design has taken advantage of this. products are less and less what they are; they are loaded with symbols, carry content and arouse interests that no longer correspond to the matter in hand, but rather want to arouse desires and satisfy them.


a product is always a sign and part of product quality is that the product signals what it is. in addition to the technical quality, the usage quality, product design also has to provide for communications quality, namely to make the product transparent, comprehensible, understandable as regards origin, production, materials, construction, and use. a really good product appears like it is.


unfortunately, that is the exception. today, a product doesn't have to look like it is above all, but rather like it best appeals to the market and customers. everything that shines and sparkles has a higher sales value. therefore, pictures have gold frames and cars have chrome trim. cars that look like fish or birds sell better, even if their so-called air drag coefficient, which is used to measure aerodynamics, doesn't have to be higher than that of a car that is easy to get in.


only in a few areas, such as cameras and radios, a design still prevails today that allows a product to be what it is, that seeks to enforce its product character instead of covering it up with symbolic attitudes.


also to this development hans gugelot has contributed a lot. until he started to design radios a radio was primarily a piece of furniture and had to integrate into a living room culture that always served the purpose of showing off, of representing. today, a hi-fi system only appears qualified if nothing about it is reminiscent of a living room. but that may tip. even the technical may become a symbol. there are already cars without chrome, the back lifted like a formula 1 car, just to borrow from racing. there is a technical design, but also a technoid one.


even in architecture, that today produces almost only representative, symbolic, emblematic buildings, we experience that in addition to historical quotations, such as columns or round arches, technology also appears as a quotation, as a symbol. many glass roof constructions are decorative and copy technical thinking instead of developing it. this attempt to elate everything to an icon, to make allusions instead of statements, to show scenery, packaging instead of facts, is the determining trend of today's design.


this is surely also a consequence of the increasing belief in authority. since we have less and less own experiences as we actually receive them via communication channels, since we create less and less products ourselves and neither improve or preserve them as they actually impose on us as disposables, we lose confidence in ourselves, we lack confidence in our behavior, in what we do and say, and we worship authorities. a symbol is the authoritarian form of a sign. a symbolic product shows its user as a subject, as a devoted one.


symbols once were the signs of religious and political rule. today they are mostly signs of cultural superiority. art becomes an arsenal of meaningfulness. if you make the seat of a chair into a triangle, you lift it up into the world of painters and museums, and many believe that it is then also good to sit on. today, people are so devoted to art that even nonsense can be sold with it or ensures the profit's increase in value.


but hans gugelot also had reservations about engineers, not just about art. like charles eames, gugelot is an engineering designer. he had a soft spot for technology and originally wanted to become a constructing engineer. although he never looked down on engineers, because a designer might have been something better thanks to his cultural platform. but technology is something very unilateral. we once talked about the fatal flaw that cars are becoming ever faster, more technically perfect, more sophisticated, and at the same time their utility dimension, both for the individual and for society, is becoming more and more stunted.


this has nothing to do with technophobia. gugelot was a construction fetishist and infatuated with process engineering. but he saw the dead ends into which a scientific-technical civilization is forcing us. precisely because he was actually an engineer, he saw the limits of a technology that only thinks technically. today, the measure of a good car is its horsepower and its speed. everything falls victim to that. you don't have to be an enemy of constantly improved engines, by no means insensitive to the experience of speed, if you nevertheless understand a car above all as a humane object and therefore don't just judge it by technical and business efficiency, but simply as an object of utility.


today's alternative wave very often takes on an anti-technological character. the cult of handmade products is flourishing again. even though manual production can be very misanthropic. every farmer already appreciates the advantage of the machine.


some people are said to have a pebble in their pocket to play with. hans gugelot would have taken a ball bearing. the unresisting sliding of the two rings is worth a manual experience. but a handmade ball bearing is a contradiction in itslef. balls of this precision cannot be handmade.


it's no wonder that he usually started his tasks with technical function models. on principle he questioned every technical solution and, by means of simplified apparatuses, tested whether the performance could be improved. for a long time, his carousel for kodak consisted of a bodyless slide projector on which he tested the technology. he was an introverted technician. for him it wasn't about aiming at the moon, but finding more intelligent solutions.


hans gugelot wasn't a theoretician. but he wasn't a practitioner either. but what was he if he was neither a theoretician nor a practitioner?


he had all his senses together, used his head like few people did, he lived in what he did. and what he did was not a job, but his life, and his life was his job. there was not a subject working on an object. he lived himself out by the way he solved a task. he didn't need the panorama of art nor of literature, only music didn't let him go. while still in switzerland he had played in a jazz band, and when he listened to records, he occasionally took his ukulele and played along. his work also determined his relationship to fellow men. his friends were also the partners of his work.


it may well be attributed to hans gugelot that he extended the practical value as a design variable by the system concept. in a variable furniture system of elements he saw a higher practical value in the sense of self-determination than in the collection of cupboards, however beautiful and handcrafted they may be. the buyer can put together a storage system that is tailored to his needs according to inclination, interests, requirements and circumstances. cupboards, shelves and compartments can be assembled in all heights and widths according to occasion and inclination. such a system that establishes freedom, that achieves a higher humane quality, that, however, also requires creative intelligence, an inclination to be productive, not only consumers, such a system can only be produced with the precision that is inherent to technical production methods. industrial production methods are the prerequisite for an extension of applicability and thus the practical value. such an extension of the practical value also includes the time factor. a system can grow and shrink, modify itself according to the stage of life. as a system it remains constant.


you won't be so bold as to claim that our consumer virtues are so developed and the inclination towards self-determination so deeply rooted that the representative cupboard as a single piece is no longer a top-seller in the market. a top-seller both in fine antique shops and in the self-collector furniture store. nevertheless, design thinking, our demand for practical value has become both more analytical and more methodical and has moved away from the werkbund idyll of the home- and handmade.


the weakness of today's design lies in the fact that it has not succeeded in developing a set of values for practical use that goes beyond household empiricism. this is easy to explain because technology and economy are not to be measured by content and meaning, but by figures. turnover can be expressed exactly in numbers, which leads to the fatal conclusion that a large turnover is an indication of an excellent product.


so design has still not been able to free itself from the misunderstanding that only the beautiful handmade product, glass, porcelain, cutlery meets the demands of humane use. but the reversion is also true: a large turnover is not a contradiction for an optimized practical value, for a good product. as a designer, gugelot never had to abandon the idea that design is the creation of good individual objects. as a designer, he started with a highly flexible furniture system whose quality could only be achieved through technical production. with this system he also abandoned the doctrine that only natural materials are good; he used melamine resin panels.


today, wall unit systems, kitchen systems and office furniture systems are a matter of course, but someone had to start and replace the production philosophy that constituted the werkbund's success, the philosophy of the beautiful, handmade unique piece.


gugelot did not only understand his system as a concrete offer, he saw it as a design principle that should also prove its validity in equipment engineering, in architecture and in urban planning.


the idea of an end product was no longer the starting point. this end product had evaporated. the result could look one way or the other, depending on requirements, depending on use. the starting point was an element. a few boards, connected by standardized connections, could be assembled to form units, a box, a shelf. from the units in turn, the most diverse programs were created. methodologically the relationship opened up from constants to variables, from standardization to arbitrary final form, from element to program.


today it is hardly possible to describe the feeling that moved us when we no longer had to understand freedom and variability, also in the personal and political context, as opposites to standards and fixations, but as something mutually dependent. only the accurate element, only the strict method creates openness, allows creativity, enables imagination. rational methods and exact elements, exact standards and precise production open up the freedom of our own programs.


we broke up standardization, which as such led to constraint, schematism and uniformity. we forced the grid to serve impulses. from the repetition of the schema we carved out the game. it was precisely by affirming standards that we enabled free play in a completely new way. we had the ladder on which one could rise above oneself. we affirmed the laws of technology to unlock the realm of unlimited variations.


when i say we, i do so because i had the same experience in the field of typography as gugelot had in the area of product design. what gutenberg did with writing, enabling diversity and at the same time higher productivity through elementarization, we tried to extend also to the type area and makeup, which had been frozen in a normative strictness for centuries. we tried to overcome the schema of new typography by typing the basic elements.


the alphabet has 25 letters and with it, all thoughts of the world can be captured. in the linking of writing not to words but to letters and their standardization, was the prerequisite for the new freedom of the word. we hoped for something similar in the field of design.


back then we had taken care of programs to merely a modest extent. systems theory as such, the rules of combination and permutation gave us the feeling of having entered new territory. the methodology of series and mass production expanded to a design concept of open form. we were naive enough to see emerge an open society through the provision of open systems.


we understood programs as technical offers. a kitchen machine should expand to a kitchen program, and in the end it could perhaps mean the disappearance of the kitchen machine. perhaps only a shaft remained and the focus shifted from the machine to optimizing the kitchen processes of stirring, cutting, mixing, grating, pressing.


however, the question for what food is prepared in a kitchen was not yet a design-determining one. so you might want to forgive hans gugelot that he, seen from today's perspective, also had his limits as a designer. they are connected to his early death. and in a double sense that is. there is no question that a person as sensitive as hans gugelot would have developed further. but his optimism towards industry and technology would have become more differentiated, if not more sceptical in regard to reality.


but it was then that the question began. what is the point of it all? where does the provision of open systems lead us? what does industry do with our design ideas? what does society do with value-free design? we began to understand the problem of programs. we began to doubt the belief that the provision of open systems implied an open application.


i don't rule out the possibility that, given the intensity with which hans gugelot was a designer, his death may have been connected to the conflicts that slowly but surely became apparant, including controversies also with his friends.


a designer is a moralist. life is not easy for him. instead of following natural laws, fathoming them and applying them in technical terms, he is caught between all stools. he has to choose and decide between many different factors and find a credible resultant. he never knows what will come out of it if he hasn't already succumbed to a style. he has to deal with contradictins, differences and conflicts that arise from the different demands made on a product. in the end, he even has to ask himself that one question that an engineer is least inclined to ask, a businessman even less, namely what the product should be good for. who could stand that?



Bewahrt im Archiv Gugelot, Hamburg; Archiv von Artur Braun, Königstein/Ts., Ordner: Braun Personen Abteilung 5: Hans Gugelot und Aicher, O.: hans gugelot. In: Wichmann, H. (Hrsg.): System-Design. Bahnbrecher: Hans Gugelot, München 1984, 15-22

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