Chapter 1. Design History

1.3 Deutscher Werkbund

Alex Hass

In the early years of the 20th century, the German Hermann Muthesius returned to Germany from England with Morris’s Arts & Crafts concepts. Muthesius published the The English House in 1905, a book wholly devoted to the positive outcomes of the English Arts & Crafts movement. Muthesius was a sometime cultural ambassador, possibly an industrial spy, for Germany in England. His interest in the Arts & Crafts movement was not based on returning German culture to the romantic values of an earlier pre-manufacturing era. He was focused on infusing the machine-made products of Germany with high-quality design and material integrity. Muthesius believed manufacturing was here to stay. He was one of the original members of the state-sponsored Deutscher Werkbund — an association that promoted the union of art and technology. The Werkbund integrated traditional crafts and industrial mass-production techniques, and put Germany on a competitive footing with England and the United States. Its motto “Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau” (from sofa cushions to city-building) reveals its range.

Design Embraces the Manufacturing Process

Peter Behrens and Henry van de Velde were also part of the original leadership, and with Muthesius developed the philosophy of Gesamtkultur — a cohesive cultural vision where design was the driving force of a wholly fresh, man-made environment. Every aspect of the culture and its products was examined and redefined for maximum use of mechanization in its production. The new visual language of Gesamtkultur was a style stripped of ornament in favour of simplicity and function. All areas of cultural production were affected by this new philosophy — graphic design, architecture, industrial design, textiles, and so forth — and all were reconfigured and optimized. Sans serif fonts dominated the reductive graphic design style as did standardization of sizes and forms in architecture and industrial design. Optimization of materials and mechanical processes affected every area. Germany embraced this new philosophy and visual style for its simplicity and exactness. In 1919, Walter Gropius, a modernist architect whose work was inspired by Werkbund ideals, was finally successful in opening a school he called the Bauhaus (in Weimar where artists, industrialists, and technicians would develop their products in collaboration). These products would then build a new future for German exports by virtue of their high level of functional utility and beauty.

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1.3 Deutscher Werkbund by Alex Hass is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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