Battle of Things

An exhibition in the 100th year of the German Werkbund

29 Jun – 31 May 2007

The Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things takes the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the German Werkbund (German Work Federation) to throw a critical eye on the history of the development and reception of this reform movement, and to review the objectives of the Werkbund with regard to their future usefulness in the light of current product culture.

The Deutsche Werkbund (German Work Federation) strove towards life reform within the frame of the utopian cultural tendencies of the beginning of the 20th Century. Increasing alienation was to be counteracted with industrially manufactured products, architecture and living space in modern, practical designs. The Werkbund movement intended to create a new context of understanding between designers, producers, salespeople and consumers to establish ethically sound values such as quality, truth and justice to materials, functionality, utility and sustainability.

The historic Werkbund-Museum in particular complied with these objectives. The Deutsche Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe (German Museum of Art in Trade and Industry [DM]) built by Karl Ernst Osthaus from 1909 in Hagen, serves as a structural model for the current Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge. The DM, with its orientation towards contemporary product culture and its diverse mobile “bodies”, was an avant-garde enterprise, with methods which could be carried over to a current museal way of working.

The various strategies within the Werkbund were aimed at keeping up the image of a culture which creates unity, using this to oppose the violently erupting social contradictions of the 20th century. The aim of the Werkbund was to give one face to its own time and that the use and exchange value of products should become equal, using the functionalism and practicality derived from technology. Objects should ease people’s lives as silent servants, rather than dominating them as seductive and independent consumer fetishes.

Drawing on the image of the Ausstellungszentrale in the context of the Deutsche Museum, the exhibition may be understood as a repertoire of model collections, assembled from the collection of the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge. They may be expanded into larger exhibitions on each subject. The exhibition is divided into two large areas: The “depot” on the long side of the exhibition space and a central “thematic” axis. For the latter, objects were chosen which, firstly, can convey the basics of the Werkbund work and secondly, can put contemporary product culture up for consideration against this thematic background. In the cupboards on the long side, more collections about object culture of the 20th century are presented in a storage mode. Through this comparison the excerpts from the collection chosen for the exhibition should be understandable to visitors and the various ways of reading the stock should be highlighted.

The concentration on product culture, defined by goods and mass production is based on the direction of the museum’s collecting practice. Architecture, graphics and photography as central areas in the spectrum of activities of the Werkbund are only peripherally considered, in a more documentary form.


Why battle of objects?

It was not the primary objective of the German Werkbund to fight, yet it developed sophisticated battle imagery, aimed at “bad” products from craft mass production and commodity fetishism. The necessity of an aesthetic and morally based “recovery” of German arts and crafts was established, not least with commercial interests. Good form was propagated up to the 60s in publications and exhibitions, with the help of Warenbücher (product catalogues) and Werkbundkisten (Werkbund boxes).

A battle of objects also dominated inside the early Werkbund. Here the question was how to create modern design. The most important confrontation in this context was the so-called Werkbund or standardization conflict, which took place in 1914 during the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne between the protagonists Hermann Muthesius and Henry van de Velde. Questions came up at the time, which are still relevant today. They concern the relationship between functionality and exchange value of a product, apparent in its typology and form.

Black and white

Conflicting relationships are a central theme in the sample collection assembled for the exhibition. Between products specific to the Werkbund and mass-produced objects, unique craft items and industrial products, objects by famous and by anonymous designers, functional, purist objects and what was then kitsch and is now called trash. The black and white of things shown here is a metaphor for these confrontations, which may be divided quite in the spirit of the many guidebooks on “good and evil” in the home into collections of “good” and “bad” taste.

Imitations and “Hausgreuel” (home horrors)

As the 19th Century created imitation objects and furniture in a previously unheard of quantity and quality, the Landesgewerbemuseum in Stuttgart firstly devoted itself systematically to this area. Gustav E. Pazaurek constructed a department for taste aberrations here in 1909, which was copied throughout Europe. In the guidebook for the collection and the educational book Guter und schlechter Geschmack im Kunstgewerbe (Good and Bad Taste in Arts and Crafts) published in 1912, Pazaurek divided the various kinds of “bad taste” into three main groups: material, construction and decorative mistakes. The Kunstwart activities in particular (created by Ferdinand Avenarius in conjunction with his magazine Der Kunstwart) fought against the “home horror”, receiving a great deal of feedback. Their travelling exhibition presented twelve photographs of choice tasteless industrial objects on cardboard placards and made the decorative lunacy of the Wilhelminian age and its perceived dishonest, showy and superficial culture manifest.

Pomposity and confused styles

“Not only the wealthy strive to surround themselves with products of the craft business, conforming to the taste of past times, but rather the less wealthy also.”(Georg Lehnert)

These developments enabled and promoted the creation of a whole branch of industry. The art industry constantly pushed for novelty, so-called “nouveautés”. Accordingly many craft businesses produced increasingly more “skilful” products. The “style question” posed at the beginning of the 19th century soon retreated so far into the background that even the well-meaning observer could only state that at the end of the century “even lack of style is a style in itself ” (Egon Friedell). The art industry subsequently took possession of Art Nouveau as an ornamental style and pushed its lineament, initially seen as harmonious, into the rearguard of historicism. Adolf Loos spoke in 1903 of “ornamental hell” and made a direct connection between Ornament and Crime in his pamphlet of the same name, against Art Nouveau of 1908.

Das Deutsches Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe
(German Museum of Art in Trade and Industry)

The collection of the Deutsches Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe (hereafter DM) – presented in the departments glass, ceramics and metal, united the most important artists of the German Werkbund and, in all its contradictions, the essential tendencies of the craft movement before 1914.
The much confirmed uniform style of German art, which demanded the reunification of art and craft and which was supposed to orient itself to the needs of industry was, however, nowhere to be found. Rather, we see various contemporary influences of the time, which in particular make up the special appeal of the collection. In this way Art Nouveau ornamental forms are juxtaposed with practical, functional designs; unique craft pieces next to mass products, luxury goods next to everyday objects. The work of Richard Riemerschmid, Josef Olbrich, the Belgian Henry van de Velde and that of the Vienna workshops seemed indispensable to Karl-Ernst Osthaus. Even contemporaries considered the design style which succeeded here exemplary.

Glass – from Art Nouveau to Functionalism

The glass collection presented here shows a chronologically comprehensible development from Art Nouveau to pioneering forms, above all in the examples of Peter Behrens or Else Wenz-Vietor. Basic forms of making and decorating glass were the starting point, as developed in the centres of European luxury glass industry in Murano (Italy), in Haida and Steinschöngau (Bohemia). Many designs focus on the simple clarity of blown glass, emphasizing the particular delicacy and suppleness of the material and the functionality of consumer goods. In place of deep engraving, the decoration consists of light engraving or drawings with feather-thin lines. Artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Kolo Moser and Michael Powlony developed thin “muslin” glass, Behrens created the swollen stem, the so-called Entasisstängel.

Appearance and commercial prints of the Deutsche Museum

In founding the DM, Osthaus did not want to establish a “sample catalogue of the past”, rather he wanted to test, reject or honour the current contemporary product culture, commercial graphics as well as architecture and forms of product presentation on its quality and modernity. Subsequently this selection was transferred and made recognisable in various media, according to each user group. A large collection developed within a short time for the most important part of the museum, the Ausstellungszentrale (exhibition centre). Further departments were the Photografie- und Diapositivzentrale (photography and slide centre), the Hagener Handfertigkeitsseminar (Hagen seminar on skills), the Reklameprüfstelle (advertising testing centre), the Schaufensterwettbewerb (window display competition), and the Kunstgewerbehaus (craft house). A central office attempted to set up contact between designers and businesses considered modern. The DM, complemented by self-published graphic advertising material and commercial prints, organised the intended new understanding between designers, producers, salespeople and consumers with the areas mentioned.

Quality household objects –  Das Deutsche Warenbuch

The plan to create a “Baedecker for business Germany” reached back to the constitutional phase of the German Werkbund. In 1912 Ferdinand Avenarius succeeded first time in publishing a product catalogue of “dignified appliances for the home”. In 1915 the German Werkbund published Das Deutsche Warenbuch (German Product Catalogue) together with the Dürerbund and the largest retailers associations. Over 3000 household objects came together, predominantly industrially produced, so-called “staple goods”, but also unique pieces hand-made by craftsmen. An almost unparalleled group of artistic advisors was responsible for the selection. Among these “art professors” (among others, P. Behrens, T. Fischer, J. Hoffmann, H. Muthesius, A. Niemeyer, B. Pankok, and R. Riemerschmid) was the certainty, that one could only survive in industry economics with internationally valid products. Therefore one did not need artists with a developed individual style, but the designer which could forget himself in favour of the demands of the objects.

Designing exterior space

The aesthetic reform movement at the turn of the century shows itself to be tightly interwoven with the cataclysmic developments in scientific and technical areas. Electricity as a newly available form of energy led to an incredible business boom and began to change the form and rhythm of everyday life. The exciting drives in van de Velde’s designs and the strict lines of Behrens sewing machines reflect the exhaustion underlying the concept of material and the trust in its stability, and shows the attempt to aesthetically represent the abstract quality of invisible voltage lines, force paths and energy flows. In van de Velde’s train carriage for the Belgian railway service from the early 1930s we recognise an echo of the lines of earlier times. Art Nouveau becomes streamlined, particularly noticeable in the design of the carriage lighting. It exemplifies the aspirations of the Werkbund artists in the design of public space.

“New power” and machine reform

“The nature of handcraft is individualisation, that of machine work, schematization.”(Hermann Muthesius, 1908)
The industrial use of electricity – the “new power” at the beginning of the 20th Century radically altered familiar living conditions and previous experiences of space and time. A confusing net of telephone cables, tram tracks and power lines characterised the new face of cities and became the optical repertoire which appeared on images and in the design of consumer goods.  The mechanisation and streamlining of mass production demanded different designs from those of handmade products, for technical reasons and also to match the Zeitgeist with its faith in progress. The Werkbund demanded timely forms of expression and orientation towards a new aesthetic for the modern age. The smooth, spare, precise and simple machine form stands as a symbol for the age of technology. Be it telephones or radios, industrial products manufactured in large series stand for the levelling character of mass production.

The Werkbund companies /  Technical products

The products of the German electrical industry by AEG and Siemens were internationally recognised even before 1900. Together with General Electric (USA), the two German monopolists covered the market between them.
The painter and Werkbund founder Peter Behrens worked as a designer for the Werkbund company AEG from 1907 onwards. This collaboration is the most well known example of the desired connection between art and industry. Behrens – represented here by some of his own designs – was responsible for the external form of countless products, print media, shop design and even the factory building, with the goal of unifying the market profile of the company. Everything should radiate “a cleanly constructed, attractive beauty, appropriate to its materials”. Renunciating imitation of handcraft, material and historic styles, he wanted to “reach the forms which emerge from machine and mass production and are of the same kind as them” through ”highlighting and precisely carrying out machine manufacture in an artistic way”.

The Werkbund companies /  Brand products I

The Werkbund goals in relation to trade, the relationship of product, brand and marketing strategy may be seen in the example of classic Werkbund company collections such as e.g. Bahlsen, Pelikan, Manoli and Weck.
“One should feel, not as in the past only read as a statement, that these are products which have been cared for and supported with all possible means, which satisfy the connoisseur.” wrote the Werkbund member Fritz Hellwag about the products of the Berlin cigarette factory Manoli. The inventor of the Sachplakat (object poster), Lucian Bernhard, tightened up the appearance by redesigning the logo and most of the advertising media. Even before 1900 the Pelican company organised competitions for artists to design their posters. The company practised the synthesis of art and industry by using the winning posters as advertising. The gradual objectification of the well-known trademark by the Werkbund graphic designer E.W. Baule and O.W. Hadank also highlights the importance of the design, making Pelican a leader in brand development.

The Werkbund companies /  Brand products II

Hermann Bahlsen formulated the Werkbund principle of high quality work as “making a good product in an attractive form”. The businessman imported the patent for “airtight” packaging from technologically advanced USA and developed with Leibniz biscuits in “TET packaging” one of the first trademark products, a mass product which is sold everywhere in the same quality, amount, appearance and for the same price. The biscuit tins mostly designed by artists were more strongly bound to the style of each time. Kaffee Hag was the first ready-packed brand coffee. The Werkbund company set out to create a monopoly of their dishes in sanatoriums and hospitals, at trade fairs and on trains. The life-reforming character of the caffeine-free products in black, white and red packaging propagated the quality of “German” companies.
The company Weck succeeded in the acceptance of their name as the generic description for their type of product, which most manufacturers could only dream of. The words “WECK-Glas” and “einwecken” could early on be established as idioms for the technique of heat sterilisation.

Packaging and promises

The sample collections of historic brand goods by nameworthy Werkbund companies are juxtaposed with a selection of other product packaging of the early 20th Century. Brand development is a characteristic phenomenon of the time. The distinctive company or product logo superceded the functional value of the products using packaging and advertising. The buyer was relieved of the difficult and, in some ways, impossible task of personally testing products and through the authority of the brand, belief replaced knowledge. The brand and packaging give the trademarked product a visible identity, which differentiates it from all others and protects it, at least legally, from imitation. Brand products’ quality promises are often manifest in the product name. Names which function as usage properties such as Ideal, Standard or Universal proclaim an enlightened, rational quality understanding, suggesting universal, general usefulness without disadvantages based on standardisation.

Form without ornament and spray decor

In 1924 the Werkbund expressed its orientation with the formula form without ornament in its first exhibition after the war. The Werkbund referred to the aesthetic possibilities of formal simplicity and unembellished form with soaps, test tubes, fireproof baking dishes; machine suitable, simple and well-proportioned objects. The declaration had a strong influence on modern endeavours despite the juxtaposition of handcrafted and machine-made objects and the inclusion of Bauhaus works, as well as traditional groups of the Deutsche Werkstätten (German workshop) type.
Household ceramics with sprayed patterns, which flourished from 1925 onwards, show another direction of abstraction. All pieces are modelled in a three-dimensional way with contours, protrusions and recesses. Geometric imagery, constructivist patterns, three-dimensional detailed forms, abstract surrealist line constructions, glowing primary colours and strong colour contrasts point to a popularised modernity. In 1937 these objects were outlawed by the so-called “völkisch-germanische” art propaganda.

Chairs / Artist’s designs and standardization

Although the Werkbund artist Heinrich Vogeler sought to follow the demand for simple and cheap furnishings, his furniture still opposes the Werkbund aesthetic. The chair designed in 1908/09 for the Worpsweder Werkstätten demonstrates how the “style masquerade” of historicism was confronted with down-to-earth handicraft products. The simple form was not enough in itself and the handcraft-like ornament reads as if it is trying to hide its machine manufacture. This becomes particularly clear in comparison with the machine-made furniture program by Richard Riemerschmid of 1906, which with regard to its machine manufacture with high standards and simple, functional form design is exemplary for Werkbund design. Although this is not pure machine work, rather an adaptation of the machine manufacturing process, what is groundbreaking in the design is the possibility of serial production of forms, which were defined as “types” as early as 1910.

Chairs / Handcraft or industrial aesthetic

New techniques and materials defined the chair designs of the 20s in construction and appearance. In general, hand-made chairs with an industrial air may be differentiated from those which were industrially produced, but have a traditional handcrafted aesthetic. The material aesthetic of wood and steel tubing is the most important in this differentiation. Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe experimented with steel tubing, which was seen as the ideal material at Bauhaus to make cheap mass-produced furniture for people’s needs. In the Chair B 64 designed in 1928 by Marcel Breuer, the machine and laboratory aesthetic of the steel tubing is softened by the cane work covering (so-called Wiener Geflecht) and the bentwood frame of the seat and back rest. A symbiosis occurred between the technically contemporary and the historically established as these Thonet trademarks were integrated into the design.

“Beauty” between 1933 and 1945

In the summer of 1933 the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Combat Group for German Culture) organised the exhibition Fort mit dem nationalen Kitsch! (Off with national kitsch!) in Cologne. The National Socialist government saw its honour encroached upon through the “Party Kitsch” and protested against the respectless handling of national symbolism. Good taste should be shown in, for example, handcrafted, simple furniture. In the Werkbund magazine Die Form (8/1933) these initiatives against everyday objects garnished with swastikas were welcomed as a “meaningful acknowledgement of the spirit of design”.
The wall clock for Deutscher Werkstätten by Heinrich Tessenow or the modern porcelain service Arzberg 1382 designed before 1933 by Hermann Gretsch and Urbino by Trude Petri for KPM fitted into the picture.
Also in the office created by the NSDAP Amt Schönheit der Arbeit (Beauty of Work Authority), Werkbund design lived on as “good German design” and the book die Deutsche Warenkunde (German product science) of 1939 served as self-referencing total expression of a period style. The Werkbund itself was integrated into the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) in 1934 and was dissolved in 1938.

The beauty of poverty

The art historian Erwin Redslob prompted in a debate about republishing the Warenkunde after World War 2 to consider “if one should not highlight those producers who make exemplary objects from remainders and scrap, which is particularly pressing with the dearth of raw materials”. (Protocol Werkbund meeting 1946). Improvised production, in private handicraft or from small businesses, for the provisional need for consumer goods in and after the end of WW2 was not taken up by the general Werkbund members in the form Redslob suggested. This collection area is nevertheless integrated here, as the enforced simplicity and practicality of the emergency products certainly influenced perceptions of taste in the post-war period. Modesty is apparent in the objects themselves, enforced by Germany’s economic and moral collapse, whilst in the later post-war period it appears in the reserved practicality of the designs.

Exhibiting again –  after the war

The exhibitions in which the Werkbund took part after 1945 were quite in the spirit of reconstruction. Neues Wohnen (New living) and Wie wohnen? (How should we live?) (both 1949) or also Interbau (1957) showed possibilities of self-furnishing in new housing and a new time. The theme was amongst others the quality of industrial production, now abundantly used. Gute Industrieform (Good Industry Design) (1952) or Schönheit der Technik (Beauty of Technology) (1953) advertised well-designed industrial products. “Good” was not only an aesthetic criteria in this. Honesty, cleanliness and decency were called for. In Werkbund circles one was convinced that creating a moral for objects would not only make a contribution to material and spiritual rebuilding after the war, but also that this would restore Germany’s reputation which had been damaged by its National Socialist past. An “attitude of restraint” was already apparent in the concept of the contributions to the Milan Triennial and was the plan for West Germany’s self-presentation at the Brussels World exhibition in 1958.


The material diversity and characteristics of plastic have advanced it in the past 100 years to the most used of all materials. As a compound material, unlike wood, glass or metal, it can rather be understood as a collective term for almost endless material variations and may be composed according to demand. No other material has yet been so widely used and been the stuff of so many dreams. “Plastic is less a substance than the idea of its constant transformation”, as formulated by Roland Barthes in 1957. Plastic has long since been emancipated from the initial imitation of rare “real” materials, which the Werkbund reacted to with critical demands for uses appropriate to the material. The potential of the material overtakes the possible uses through the development of new production processes, but also gives design new tasks with regard to called-for ecological sustainability.

Commodity fetishism

“Manufacture dominated by free competition when the average offer exceeds demand must lead to us giving objects an enticing exterior over and above their usefulness” stated Georg Simmel as early as 1896. There was a critical attitude towards trade as place for fashion trends in the early Werkbund and thus an area which was difficult to influence or control. He attempted to make rational aspects the deciding factors for a product, wanted to give people orientation in the product jungle and in the fight against arbitrary commodity fetishes. But ”…fetishistic consumer culture simultaneously represents the pillar of business as well as the central field of expression of the affective energies of society”, as formulated by Hartmut Böhme. Products as seductive objects of desire are no problem with today’s ironic distance; consumer fetishism is a common attitude. Scarce raw material resources and the world ecological situation set the only limits.

Black and yellow and glassy elegance

Two collections are compared here, both anchored in the 50s. One in the shrill warning tone of the trendy black and yellow colour combination, and the other in the reserved transparency and subtle colouring of the glass designs of Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Heinrich Löffelhardt. Wilhelm Wagenfeld may be described as the “prototype” industrial designer. He had doubts about the term “design”, he restricted himself too easily to “façade design” or simply “cover making”. Wagenfeld did nevertheless design industry forms during his whole lifetime and make objects for notable companies.
Among these are mass-produced objects which became trademarks, and objects which became guidelines for design and were still being produced 70 years after their initial creation. The tea and coffee pots, salt and pepper shakers, drinking glasses, bowls, vases, ceiling and wall lamps, inkwells and egg cups are typical objects of their time, which above all demonstrate artistic responsibility.

Der Rat für Formgebung (Design Council)

“Quality is the decent thing.” (Theodor Heuss)
There was such a hail of criticism for the German post-war products at the New York export fair in 1949, that the Werkbund stepped in to stress the need for state support for modern product culture. The Rat für Formgebung (Design Council) was formed in 1953, which has since then worked with exhibitions, competitions, publications and in an advisory capacity for the design as economic and cultural sector. It initiated the new edition of the Deutschen Warenkunde together with the Werkbund. A no less ambitious project was the setting up of an archive with around 2000 slides which documented current good form, but also historical series und kitsch. The Rat für Formgebung arranged the West German contribution to the Milan Triennial. The objects which were to be sent abroad as ambassadors of the young democracy should not be spectacular but functional, unpretentious and modest. This policy was internationally recognised, apparent in the many honours and medals which were given to West German products at the “object olympics”.

Shapes and colours of the 50s

With the start of the economic miracle in West Germany, decorative furnishing elements such as vases and bowls helped to make things beautiful once more and confirm regained prosperity. In Autumn 1950, Rosenthal AG presented the Orchid Vase 2592 designed by Fritz Heidenreich. It was named Pregnant Louise after the factory slang and, after a hesitant reception, quickly reached extraordinary popularity and helped the breakthrough of asymmetrical design in West Germany. Just as widespread were wire containers for pretzels, salt sticks, serviettes and bottles which defined the party culture of the 50s and expressed a new understanding of representation.
The principle of mobility and permeability of the wire structures seemed to break through the cramped conditions of the average flat and the weight of historical destiny. With them distant lands marched into the living room, even if an at best naïve exoticism adhered to the figures.

Braun design –  “Silent helpers and mute servants”

The simple machines made of light wood, metal and plastic which the company Braun presented in 1955 at the Deutsche Funkausstellung (German Radio Show) in Düsseldorf were a sensation amid the usual mass of glossy polished TV home altars and gold glittering radios. The reform of the Werkbund company began with these objects. Within just a few months all the products from shavers to kitchen machines were technically reworked and formally brought into line along with corporate identity. Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Hans Gugelot, Otl Aicher, Herbert Hirche and Dieter Rams were the pioneers of the new Braun designs. The obligation to ethical principles such as honesty and humanity in production were mirrored in the design maxims of order, harmony and frugality. With this new face Braun stepped onto the victory train, receiving many honours, through international design exhibitions into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. New designs like Schneewittchensarg (Snow White’s Coffin) and Weltempfänger (multi-band radios) became the visiting card of a “better” Germany.

Designing interior space

“How one lives, which things one surrounds oneself with, is not only an aesthetic but also a moral decision.”
(Hans Eckstein)
The Werkbund took to the battlefield against enemies such as the kidney table, bag light, Chippendale imitation and Gelsenkirchen baroque. “Function instead of representation” was the battle cry. Good furniture should be simple, functional, flexible and good value for money. A shrill prestige object such as the TV “Komet” by the successful label Kuba was none of these things. Originally conceived as a trade fair gag, it developed into a sinfully expensive success in the economic miracle West Germany. Herbert Hirche’s bar cart and lower armchair on the other hand represented the Werkbund virtues such as objectivity and restraint in an exemplary fashion. Hirche furniture was placed in many of the model apartments in 1957 at the Interbau, in Berlin’s Hansa district, the most important window display of the time for contemporary living culture as propagated by the Werkbund.

How should we live?

The old Werkbund question, How should we live? was repeated in view of the reigning housing shortage of 1945. The Werkbund saw a chance to apply maxims which they had developed as early as the 20s for a modern living culture. One saw functional furniture everywhere in small and even tiny flats in new tower blocks, in which the majority of German people now installed themselves. The interior design advice centres were a novelty. The interested visitor could develop floor plans here with professional help. There were materials available, from wallpaper patterns to tea sets, exemplary interiors and exhibitions of good design. The Berlin advice centre was a child of Interbau. It became clear that the subject of living in the 50s was morally highly charged, at the latest with the model apartments presented here in 1957 and the aim of the special exhibition die stadt von morgen (the city of tomorrow). To live in a “modern” way was an acknowledgement of the lifestyle of the democratic West and simultaneously a demonstrative distancing from the most recent political past.

Souvenirs, souvenirs

It has been a tradition to bring back exotic objects ever since people have travelled. By incorporating fragmentarised foreign objects in the collectors’ world, that which is foreign is assimilated, the distant world is brought to the present and the memory of the self is materialised somewhere else. Every landmark in the world has been made in series in every size and material conceivable ever since industrialisation. The appropriation of the serial product remains individual however, and souvenirs have their own particular worth in the context of personal experience and memory. The battle against kitsch belonged to the plan of advanced modernity. Kitsch was seen as the opposition to that which was good, the vulgar, light form. “Kitsch allows one to fulfil those pleasures which self-conscious modernity had to reject per se as it is always identifiable as kitsch. Concreteness, opulence, clean eroticism, smooth, beautiful bodies, heroes, saints and the sublime joy of small pleasures.”  (K.P. Liessmann)

Honoured – State prizes

On the occasion of the opening of the Deutschen Industrieausstellung (German Industry Exhibition) in 1969, proposed by the Rat für Formgebung (Design Council), the Bundespreis Gute Form (Federal Prize for Good Design) was endowed through the Bundeswirtschaftsministerium (Federal Ministry of Economy) and the honoured products were presented. This prize was open to all products sold on the German market, and at the same time served consumer information. The strong connection to industry was quite disputed in Werkbund circles. At the beginning of the 90s the Bundespreis Gute Form was renamed Bundespreis Produktdesign (Federal Prize for Product Design).
The prize is the official design honour of the Federal Republic and central measure for financial support for design. It has been presented annually since 2006 in the areas product and communication design. The Rat für Formgebung makes the selection and honour. The conditions to be nominated are that the product should already have been awarded a national or international prize and the institution to be honoured must have been nominated by the department of trade and industry of the country and the federation.

“Good” and “bad” form in the East

As in the West there were large differences in product design in the East. People fought over the form of objects and searched for theoretical justification. In this, the design concept of good form complied ideally with its emphasis on utility values and the rejection of symbolic distinction with the theory of an egalitarian socialist society. Not only the consumers’ desire for variety, as in West Germany, but also often the personal taste of the party functionaries who were given the power of decision stood in the way of the assertion of this principle. However what the product designers of the GDR understood as design was not really any different from the concept of their colleagues in the West. The increasing differences between well-designed products from the East and West rested on the growing technological backwardness and lack of materials in the GDR and the limited possibilities for East German designers to inform themselves about international design development.

The well-decorated table in the Werkbundkiste

“The ABC of good design begins in kindergarten.” (Rat für Formgebung, 1963)
The Werkbund Nord, the Karlsruhe Landesmuseum and the Neue Sammlung Munich began, largely independently of one another, to give out so-called Werkbundkisten (Werkbund boxes) for taste education in schools. These were equipped with examples of exemplarily designed everyday objects from craft and industry. Pupils should be offered the opportunity to “understand” modern design and to recognise the influence of use demands, the materials and the production on the product design. There were boxes on various subject groups, where either functional units (“the table setting” “the work table”) object types (“the vase” “cutlery”) or different materials (“plastic”, “porcelain”) were in the foreground. The boxes also sometimes contained photo plates with historical examples and gave criteria to judge good form in special booklets.

Chairs: folding, stacking, dismantling

Chairs of the post-war period distinguished themselves through their material variety and are in addition defined by new qualities like their space-saving stackability or ease of dismantling. The foldable chair SE18 by Egon Eiermann is symptomatic for an aesthetic which was developed as a reaction to the dearth of space and finances in 1952. It embodies to the highest level the ideal design of the Werkbund designers: exciting design, solid construction, little need for storage space (40 chairs to 1,5 metres of floor space), manageability, economy of materials and low price. “It cannot be done better”, Eiermann stated about this export success, which is the only German furniture export to have been uninterruptedly in production since the 50s until the present day. In 1956 the SE 18 was taken into the Deutsche Warenkunde by the Werkbund.

Design as main or minor matter

In the course of social upheaval and the accompanying disappointment about “technologically perverted modernism” postmodernism reacted with asymmetric forms, demonstratively unbalanced form combinations, strong colouring, playful, almost silly design and “confronted the emotional deficits of functionalism provocatively against the sentimentality of kitsch”  (Thomas Hauffe). The Studio Alchimia in Milan began under its mentor Alessandro Mendini. Design culture was persistently revolutionised with the founding of the group Memphis under the control of Ettore Sottsass. Pure functional form: There are inconspicuous objects which surround us as a matter of course on a daily basis, things, which it seems no one has designed and whose form has remained unchanged for decades: cardboard box, chain, screwdriver, paper clip. Normal things, which are necessity itself, which are covered 100% in form and function, belong so obviously to our everyday life that we pay them no attention.


What do we collect today with the background of history and objectives of the German Werkbund? Do the values propagated such as quality, appropriateness of materials, objectivity, functionality and sustainability still apply?
What would be “Werkbund-like” today? Which criteria are important beyond this?  The Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge understands itself as a “museum like experimental lab” for a contemporary form of social memory. Therefore the current presentation for the 100-year Werkbund anniversary is not a documentation of the past for itself, rather it is concerned with clarifying the meaning and commitment and history for the present. In front of this background of this claim the exhibition is not understood as only a viewing situation, but should work in the sense of a work and experience platform on aesthetic design as well as its analysis and perception, for the visitors and for students from museums and design relevant areas. The last room of the exhibition is therefore arranged as a museum like open work situation. Chosen areas of current product culture are placed on the “ value testing stand” and
the aims of the Werkbund are tested on confrontation with current product culture on their sustainability. Who gives us orientation today? Who evaluates, who chooses, who forms the canon?

Manufactum – “They still exist, the good things” – Is the call for traditional quality in the sense of the Deutsche Warenkunde to be understood as a cultural concept or as a marketing programme?
Ikea – “Do you live, or are you alive?” (German advertising slogan) – The simple and cheap offer for all or the continuation of the Werkbund aims as production and trade concept?

“designed by” – Is the orientation in design as label something for the “stupid” consumer or the expression of the downfall of the design definition?

Label products – does the label still count as proof of high quality or is it’s meaning only an expression of market fetishism?

no Logo – “gut & günstig” (“good and cheap”,) “ja!” (“yes!) or “toll im
Preis (tip)” (“great price”) – are these products the sign of defence against market fetishism or signs of the power of discount?

Design prizes – Reddot and if design award, Compasso d’Oro, – Who decides today what is beautiful and good?
Stiftung Warentest (Which? report) and ecological labels – The quality tests on serviceability, health safety, energy use and other product characteristics as orientation guides for the consumer or as sales concept?
Ideal Standard or the model collection of the consumer; what is the standard equipment in each household? The honour is not given by a chosen jury but by the sales figures.

Copies, product clones – What is real and who is interested in copyright? Is the quality of the product worth protecting or is product piracy a minor matter?

The objects are constantly regrouped and labelled by a light installation.

They may be:
simple | complicated | functional | practical |
playful | standardised | original  | copied
prizewinning | accomplished | classical | innova-
tive | new | old | beautiful | ugly | eco-
friendly | appropriate for the material | black | white |
grey | colourful | pale | traditional | trendy | normal | cheap | good value | ornate | mute |
shrill | sweet | kitschy | trashy | cult | pleasing | flashy | reserved | dignified


At the end of the exhibition is an insight into the documentary archive of the Werkbund history, which forms the core of the museum. The historical documents which were originally stored and archived by the office of the Werkbund itself were destroyed in a fire during an air attack in 1944 and so lost forever. The material now collected in the Werkbund archive is an attempt to reconstruct the organisational history of the Werkbund in as multi-facetted a way as possible, from various and partial estates of Werkbund members, from Werkbund publications and other materials. The counterpart to the historical Photography and Slide Centre of the Deutsches Museum für Kunst in Handel und Gewerbe is located in this part of the exhibition, as the structural model for the current Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge is based on that of the DM. Successive additional image material on the other activity areas of the Werkbund – architecture, photography and graphics, will be integrated in addition to the documents already displayed.