How German design came to America

I originally wrote this piece for the Scandinavian auction house‘s blog, and wanted to share it with readers interested in modern design.

For most Americans, encounters with Apple’s iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad don’t immediately conjure up thoughts of Germany. And yet the mastermind behind Apple’s iconic designs, British-born industrial designer Jonathan Ive, is quite open about the profound influence German industrial designer Dieter Rams has had on his work.

dieter-rams-inspiration-ui-29Place the iPod next to one of Rams’ 50s and 60s product designs for Braun, and it’s easy to see why. Rams’ 10 principles for good design, which include innovation, the ability to help us understand a product, and the key “good design is as little design is possible” permeate Apple products to the core.

And Apple is just one example. German designers’ focus on simplicity, intelligence and innovation has held great appeal for Modernism-loving Americans for decades.

It started with Bauhaus. Founded in Germany by architect Walter Grotius in 1919, the hugely influential school sought to bring all art forms together, reconciling unique craftsmanship with mass production.

Under Nazi pressure, the school closed in 1933. It was a tragedy for the creative minds associated with the school – but for the United States, it meant the arrival of a wave of Bauhaus teachers and students who would influence American art and architecture, as well as its graphic, interior and industrial design.

Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus school’s last architect-director, were among the émigrés. Rohe, whose work the Nazis had rejected as not being German enough, quickly made a name for himself in the US. He became head of the Department of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and introduced the influential Second Chicago School, with a new way of designing skyscrapers like his IBM Plaza in Chicago. Rohe’s famous Barcelona chair, created for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, also became a favorite in America.

A few more items from Bauhaus’ American portfolio: Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House outside Chicago and Gropius’ 1938 Boston-area home impacted the work of such leading American architects as Philip Johnson, who designed the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Hungarian-born Bauhaus student and teacher Marcel Breuer, designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Artist Josef Albers greatly influenced art education.

And today? True, German design does not get the instant look of recognition enjoyed by its Scandinavian or Italian counterparts (the German Design Council attributes this to Germany’s marketing mechanism). But contemporary German designers’ passion for reinventing everyday items resonates across the Atlantic.

In 2010, Konstantin Grcic’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago; his MYTO chair got The New York Times’ attention for its inventive, ultra-eco-friendly design. Both Grcic’s and fellow German designer Werner Aisslinger’s work is now part of the prestigious MoMA collection (as are Dieter Rams’ Braun designs).

German-born multi-disciplinary artist Timothy Schreiber, winner of three red dot design awards, is represented by the Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia. And Elisa Strozyk, (who won the 2010 German Design Award for Newcomers for her hybrid parquet floor/fabric designs) is attracting attention with her experimental work.


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