Published in: Sabine Schaschl (ed.), Thinking Outside the Box, The Museum Haus Konstruktiv Collection (1986–2016) and Guest Interventions, Berlin 2016
At the 11th Triennale di Milano (1957), a rhythmic sequence of vertical stripes becomes the focal point of the Swiss exhibition and appeals strongly to the public. Richard Paul Lohse’s mural 3 gleiche Themen in 5 Farben [Three Equal Themes in Five Colors, 1957] is also placed directly at the entrance of the room. Interrupted by individual horizontal fields, columns of red, blue, yellow, black and white create a dynamic visual structure that has a spatial effect at the same time. In a report on the show in Milan, the architect and exhibition designer Alfred Roth highlights the programmatic role of Concrete Art in the “realization” of an overall spatial impression. In addition, the exhibition display, featuring a selection of furniture, materials, precision instruments and other Swiss products, most of which bear the quality seal “Gute Form” [Good Form] follows the design concept of Lohse’s painting.
Although points of contact between design and art in the context of Concrete Art from Zurich are only seen occasionally in exhibitions, the exchange of programmatic convictions between these two disciplines is a matter of course, especially during the 1950s. Moreover, establishing aesthetics of necessity within an economy defined by mass production and (to an increasing extent after the Second World War) by excess can be seen as a common programmatic source for Swiss design’s “Good Form” and for Concrete Art. The core issues of these two cultural movements are very closely related. Furthermore, their protagonists also represent both at once: At this time, most of them work not only as visual artists, but also as exhibition designers, industrial designers and graphic designers. They advocate creative work in art, design and architecture that draws on production principles from industry and technology. Here, the logic of industrial manufacturing is not addressed as an opponent of the cultural world, but is instead even understood to be a prerequisite or a part of a contemporary notion of culture. Although similar collaborations between art, design and architecture in the interests of a new notion of design certainly also appear elsewhere in the 1950s, for instance in London’s Independent Group and its spectacular exhibition projects, a number of concrete artists from Zurich, striving to achieve design that corresponds to the material conditions of our existence, play a special role—which is also a result of their decades-long (sometimes also international) presence. This text is an attempt to trace the relationship between the art context and the design context in the Concretists’ environment on the basis of several examples.
The claim that art can contribute to a “realization” is based on nothing less than the avant-garde aspiration to redefine the relationship between aesthetics and practical life. What was formulated in various creative reform movements at the start of the 20th century is continued by many concrete artists from Zurich. Here, the intention is for art (as well as architecture, design and graphics) to be based on the given industrial and market-based production conditions. These pragmatic auspices of the feasible characterize many artists’ positions in the 1950s. For instance, Richard Paul Lohse (working as a graphic designer, among other things) and Max Bill (working as an exhibition architect and industrial designer, among other things) see their active involvement in striving for new design in the association Swiss Werkbund as an integral component of their work as artists. Meanwhile, contact with the worlds of industry and trade not only serve to improve sales of modern furniture in Switzerland, but also to make artistic, design-oriented and societal objectives more widespread. In Zurich, the furniture company wohnbedarf, established in the 1930s, plays a special role. For co-founder Sigfried Giedion, the company is all about a notion of “liberated living.” This modern movement’s programmatic text declares “LIGHT, AIR, MOVEMENT and OPENNESS” to be guiding principles in new residential construction. Giedion does not find beauty in the representative facade as much as in the “interplay of well-served functions.” What began in the founding years with Max Bill designing the company’s logo develops, in the 1950s in particular, into a close-knit collaboration between wohnbedarf and Concrete Art’s protagonists. Bill, for instance, designs a squareround table (1949) and two chairs (the 1949 three-legged chair and the 1952 cross-frame chair), among other things, as part of this collaboration: on first impression, they convey an atmosphere that is quite typical of the 1950s—elegant, but modest; natural materials, somewhat angular, but also round. These three designs demonstrate the specific concrete aspiration to devise structures that mediate between the beautiful and the necessary. For instance, the square-round table consists of a square tabletop with sides that can all fold out to produce the curvature of a circular form. This combination of different formats in one table is by no means solely based on the practical notion of being able to react quickly to changing requirements where space is limited. Instead, the appearance of the folded-out circular form refers to aesthetic potential derived from serial variation of geometric arrangements. This dynamic potential is also incorporated in the table legs via their positioning, as they extend out from the center of the table toward the outer radius. From this, it is tempting to draw the premature functionalist conclusion that the necessary arrangement of the individual parts inevitably gives rise to the beauty of the table as a whole. However, this is by no means in line with Bill’s design program, which clearly distances itself from any utilitarian understanding of functionalism in 1949: “the production of mass-consumption goods should be designed so that not only a relative beauty emerges from their functions, but that this beauty itself becomes a function.” For Bill, there is absolutely no hierarchy between beauty and function in industrial design, although beauty and function are not one and the same either. In an aticle for the journal Werk, the mouthpiece of Swiss Werkbund and the modern movement, Bill questions (among other things) the functionalist design criteria that are seen as unwritten rules within Swiss Werkbund and elsewhere up until the 1960s. In his view, the frequently repeated Werkbund principle of “material justice” pertaining to certain materials (e.g. plastics) and production techniques does not by any means automatically provide beautiful, i.e. “genuine,” form: “on the other hand, it is generally known that any form can be made from any material, without it being permissible to describe … one as genuine and the other as non-genuine.” According to Bill, any “sense of responsibility toward the users,” i.e. the potential function of an object, is less important than the “universal need for forming.” The notion of an overriding and universal aesthetic need corresponds to an understanding of Concrete Art that “[makes] abstract ideas themselves visible using purely artistic means, and [creates] new objects for this purpose.” Above all, in both creative fields, an aesthetic concept has to be realized—albeit under the auspices of industrial production logic. Here, on the one hand, Bill refers back to an idealistic notion of art from the 19th century, in which art is seen as the manifestation of an idea. On the other hand, Richard Paul Lohse in particular vehemently argues that every form of new composition (in art, architecture and design) should be based on the (also universally applicable) framework conditions of mass production. However, it is precisely this unique combination of idealism and a fundamentally positive acknowledgement of industrial production conditions that also gives rise to some inconsistencies regarding the avant-garde aspiration to contribute to a “realization” with art. To no small extent, this is evident in exhibition practice, and in the relationship between art and design.
In Zurich, although the leveling of hierarchies between the creative disciplines is part of the concrete program, there are equally painstaking efforts to maintain the conventional boundaries between disciplines in presentation formats. For many concrete artists, part of their creative identity is to carry out design tasks and to present the results in exhibitions as well. At the same time though, works from the contexts of art and design are rarely exhibited together—except by Max Bill, who certainly seeks a closeness between these disciplines in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s in particular. However, even in these exceptional cases, boundaries between disciplines are also evident at first glance: sculpture and painting are categorized as art, while furnishings and commercial graphics are categorized as design.
The two fields mainly encounter each other in indicated furnishings- oriented situations, as often seen in Swiss Werkbund exhibitions—for instance in Switzerland’s contribution to the 1957 Milan Triennale, the 1959 show Swiss Design in London, or Wohnen heute [Living Today] at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in 1960. While the triennale contribution combines painting and everyday objects in an atmosphere of interpenetration, the design of both the London and Lucerne exhibitions relies on the isolating effect of the white cube, in which, against a white backdrop, the exhibits from art and design are (so to speak) “cropped”—a term commonly used to refer to photographic image editing for both product catalogs and art catalogs, where spatial situations are transformed into objects. In both exhibitions, alongside Bill and Lohse, another artist is represented, who initially comes to Zurich in 1933 as an interior decorator and designer: Camille Graeser. After several failed attempts to establish himself through contact with other designers and industrial companies in Switzerland, whereby his numerous fabric designs for the textile company Burgauer & Cie. are an exception, he achieves public recognition with his painting. This is astonishing, considering the soaring elegance that characterizes, for example, the table that Graeser designs for his Zurich apartment in 1936, which bears resemblance to Bill’s 1950s wohnbedarf furniture. Nevertheless, in the Werkbund presentations, Graeser only presents artworks. For instance, the presence of his painting Exzentrische Konstruktion in drei Rhythmusgruppen [Eccentric Construction in Three Rhythmic Groups, 1954/57] defines the impression made by an exhibition booth at the show Swiss Design, organized by Swiss Werkbund and designed by Max Bill. Here, for two weeks in 1959 at London’s Ceylon Tea Centre, outstanding “Gute Form” products are displayed together with works of Concrete Art, whereby Graeser’s work constitutes a colorful “window,” so to speak, for a booth that is furnished with Bill’s square-round table and cross-frame chairs, and surrounded by bright white walls. One year later, Graeser’s painting is once again shown as part of a Werkbund exhibition—also together with furniture in the perfect white cube of the Museum of Art Lucerne. While Concrete Art still predetermines the direction of the overall exhibition design at the 1957 Milan Triennale, the concrete artists’ paintings take a back seat, as it were, within a conventional framework in both London and Lucerne. No matter how extensive the overlaps (both in terms of people and content) between Concrete Art and modern design may be, joint presentations of the two fields remain just as exceptional as experimental formats that cross the established boundaries between disciplines. Also within an art context, particularly from the 1960s onward, many concrete artists from Zurich follow a precept of separation between art and design.
This is surprising in view of the fact that their texts, in many places, take the commonalities between creative disciplines into consideration. In comparison with spatial presentations of other art movements from the 1950s and ‘60s that also deal with the aesthetics of industrial mass production, this preservation of conventional boundaries between disciplines does not appear particularly advanced, as opposed to their own programmatic aspirations. In contrast, presentations by London’s Independent Group in the 1950s or the Fluxus happenings and Pop Art environments of the early 1960s can be recollected, which involve working, in particular, with the crossing of boundaries between different formats, artifacts and media from industrial mass production. However, the aforementioned examples differ from the presentations of Concrete Art and design from Zurich not only in terms of the mixing of different compositional contexts. They thematize (whereby Pop Art is certainly the most obvious case in point) a characteristic that is inseparable from the principle of industrial mass production: the commodity status of their products. In the displays in shop windows, at trade fairs or at world expositions, this characteristic is inevitably central, as these are indeed presentations that draw their appeal from the aesthetic appearance of things. Even though Max Bill speaks out, for example, in his passionate plea against a functionalism that reduces the creative design process to mere utilitarianism, his advocacy of “beauty as function” does not by any means thematize the aesthetic appearance of commodities. When Theodor W. Adorno, at a German Werkbund convention in 1965, conveys his discomfort with regard to the functionalism of post-war architecture, he is concerned about the “sinister secret” that functionalism tries to conceal. Here, Adorno alludes to the attempt to free industrial design from its “entanglement” in the conditions of ist manufacture, presentation and distribution as a commodity. A significant part of Werkbund’s activity in Germany and Switzerland around the 1950s focuses on a would-be liberation from the aesthetic appearance of the commodity aspect, via exhibitions (like the Basel show Die gute Form organized by Bill in 1949), home guidance centers and sample collections. The intention is to “enlighten” designers, producers and consumers about Good Form. However, the enlighteners are soon evidently disillusioned by the comparatively marginal impact (in relation to their universal aspirations and the international approval from professional circles) on the overall volume of production at the time.
In a younger generation of concrete artists, although the various working contexts are also often presented separately, the relationship with the commodity aspect is interpreted quite differently. Andreas Christen, for instance, alongside his work in an art context, primarily focuses on designing anonymous serial products—such as a mailbox with an integrated parcel compartment, which has been a standard feature of Swiss households since 1974, but is not sold under the designer’s name. On the other hand, Christen demonstrates a quite ironic approach to the industrial product, which constitutes a symbol for a certain usage and, to an equal extent, an aesthetic manifestation as a commodity. In an era when travelling by car or plane has become affordable for many people, the plastic suitcase “inflated” to the size of a wardrobe (1964/83) simultaneously represents a practical storage place and the aesthetics of a certain lifestyle. On the one hand, the gesture of arbitrarily enlarging a familiar everyday object is reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s Pop Art, while on the other hand, it could also be read as a rather nonchalant response to the consumption-skeptic reproach that design merely “inflates” utility objects. Already in 1960, Andreas Christen designs a stackable bed with flowing forms that incorporate plastic’s characteristic feature of being able to provide potentially any chosen form. Wall reliefs that Christen presents in exhibitions are also based on plastics and industrial production techniques.
From the 1960s onward, there are hardly any more overlaps, apart from joint presentations of art and design work by concrete artists from Zurich. At this time, Lohse, Bill and Graeser, for example, begin to focus almost exclusively on sculpture and painting. Simultaneously, new voices within Swiss Werkbund start to radically reformulate the understanding of “Gute Form”—and of what and how to design in general. What previously saw itself as an interest group of designers and manufacturers of award-winning utility objects, gradually transforms into a socio-politically active organization that primarily criticizes the planning of the built environment. From the context of this movement, among other things, Lucius Burckhardt (chief editor of the journal Werk from 1962 to 1972 and president of German Werkbund from 1976 to 1983) develops the notion of design that is virtually invisible: because we perceive everyday design not in the form of isolated objects, but as a complex structure with different temporal, social and economic factors. To no small extent, this modified “understanding of work on the part of Werkbund” also involves more recent developments in art, information on which is provided in publications and conferences: developments like the open work, which has an almost indeterminable physical dimension and expands in a temporal and spatial sense with performances or happenings and, for instance in the case of land art, extends into (urban) landscapes. For example, the final issue of the SWB product catalog in 1969/70, with a reproduction of a key work from early British Pop Art, quite explicitly raises the question of the commodity status and a multi-dimensional critical notion of design. Presented in an essay, Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? (produced for the catalog pertaining to the 1956 Independent Group exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, London) not only questions industrial society’s concept of production, but also even demonstrates an alternative understanding of the work and the exhibition. In the 1980s, designers like Ron Arad programmatically set new priorities, not with designs for large series, but instead with single experimental items. In 1989, the first museums specializing exclusively in design open in London and Weil am Rhein.
The rediscovery of modern design from the start of the 1990s onward, which has given rise to numerous re-editions, also focuses on an author figure in most cases. While the primary concern in the 1950s was the establishment of new industrial standards and, in the 1970s, a system of environmental design, what now counts most of all is the authorized “original.” In 1992, for wohnbedarf, in parallel to an exhibition on his furniture, Max Bill signs a re-edition of the Ulmer stool that he and Hans Gugelot designed in 1954. Different versions of this stool have been produced by various manufacturers ever since, but Bill’s signature, now mechanically printed on the underside, has remained. At the very latest, it is with this gesture, that the hand of the originator (from an economic perspective: the logo or brand, so to speak) in this design, which was conceived long ago as a highly economical and versatile small piece of furniture after the Second World War, comes to the fore. This is not the first place where it becomes evident that many works by concrete artists from Zurich fit quite seamlessly into the economies of design and art. On the one hand, programmatic texts, e.g. by Bill and Lohse, keep the societal and technological framework conditions of design in mind. On the other hand, the object categories in exhibitions (painting, sculpture, graphic design and industrial design) are basically oriented toward the common formats in the art/design economy. Without a doubt, this is where one of the greatest strengths of the Concretists lies, as many artists’ positions have been able to have an impact in both a design context and an art context, precisely due to their specific manifestation that corresponds to the framework conditions of the respective discipline. Here, the design principles of aesthetic work under industrial conditions become visible beyond the boundaries of disciplines. In this manner, serially varied symbols oscillate between the fields of graphic design, industrial design, exhibition design, sculpture and painting. The aspiration to be open to the potential of almost infinite variations and even to subjective expression, with simultaneous confinement to the principle of mass production, has yielded many concrete works of captivating beauty. Although this also repeatedly leads to contradictions between certain presentation formats and programmatic statements, it is precisely in these moments that they constitute a productive struggle for contemporary aesthetics: aesthetics that do not turn away from socio-economic conditions, but instead, in the broadest sense, seek concrete traces of our existence within them.
Alfred Roth, .Die Schweizer Abteilungan der XI. Triennale von Mailand., in Werk 44.10 (1957), pp. 339-41.
 After the 1949 Basel exhibition Die gute Form (The Good Form), conceived and designed by Max Bill, “Gute Form” became a quality seal pertaining to postwar modernism in Switzerland and Germany. The exhibition encompassed a broad spectrum of examples, e.g. from nature, science, art, technology, architecture and interior design. Bill defined the criteria as follows: “We understand the term ‘good form’ to mean a natural form, developed from its functional and technical preconditions, for a product that completely answers its purpose and is beautiful at the same time.” See Claude Lichtenstein, Die schöne Form des guten Gegenstands., in Max Bill – Sicht der Dinge. Die gute Form: Eine Ausstellung 1949, ed. Lars Müller (Zurich 2015), pp. 19-29, here: p. 23.
Sigfried Giedion, Befreites Wohnen, ed. Emil Schaeffer, Zurich, 1929.
Ibid., p. 5.
Around the 1950s, alongside the collaborations with concrete artists, numerous other designs were also created for the modern wohnbedarf by architects and designers such as Hans Gugelot, Wilhelm Kienzle, Hans Bellmann, Fred Ruf, Hans Coray and others
Max Bill, ”schönheit aus funktion und als funktion“, in funktion und funktionalismus. schriften: 1945-1988, ed. Jakob Bill (Bern, 2008), pp. 15-26, here: p. 20
Ibid., p. 15
Max Bill, ”vom sinn der begriffe in der neuen kunst“, in Konkrete Kunst – Manifeste und Künstlertexte, ed. Margit Weinberg Staber (Zurich, 2001), pp. 47-51, here: p. 50
Especially within the exhibition architectures that he designed himself, Max Bill attempted to interconnect his own artworks with his contemporaries’ design work, e.g. at the 1936 Milan Triennale, the 1949 Basel exhibition Die gute Form and the 1959 London exhibition Swiss Design.
Sigfried Giedion, Befreites Wohnen, ed. Emil Schaeffer, Zurich, 1929
Although Graeser was prominently represented by his furniture designs, for instance in the 1927 exhibition Die Wohnung at the Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, and initially only submitted applied design for Swiss Werkbund exhibitions, the members of the Swiss Werkbund jury in 1950 also favored his artistic designs. See Christoph Bignens, ”Camille Graeser und die Wohnreform in der Schweiz nach 1933“, in Camille Graeser Design, ed. Camille Graeser Stiftung, Zürich (Cologne, 2002), pp. 27-39.
Theodor W. Adorno, “Funktionalismus heute”, in Gesammelte Schriften 10.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt a.M., 1977), p. 393
Bill, ”schönheit aus funktion und als funktion.“, p. 21.
Hal Foster, Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) (London / New York, 2002). By generally accusing design of merely “inflating” simple utility objects and architecture, the author adheres to a tradition in cultural criticism, whereby design is primarily seen as a manipulative accessory to the commodity phenomenon. (See Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Kritik der Warenästhetik: Gefolgt von Warenästhetik im Hightech- Kapitalismus (Frankfurt, 2008). The American design of the streamlined form was also subjected to similar accusations from the 1950s Werkbund milieu.
Lucius Burckhardt, “Design ist unsichtbar”, 1980, in Design ist unsichtbar: Entwurf, Gesellschaft & Pädagogik, ed. Silvan Blumenthal et al. (Berlin, 2012), pp. 13-29.
Thomas Gnägi, “Gestaltung in einer sich verändernden Gesellschaft: Von der Prädikatsstelle zur Informations-und Aktionsplattform”, in Gestaltung Werk Gesellschaft – 100 Jahre Schweizerischer Werkbund SWB, ed. Thomas Gnägi, Jasmine Wohlwend Piai, Bernd Nicolai (Zurich, 2013), here: p. 184 f.
In an essay by Peter F. Althaus, quoted from Gnägi, see footnote 17.
Bill repeatedly incorporated this as the difference between his concept of free artistic works and design tasks. See, for example, his comments on his own work Kontinuität in FORM: Eine Bilanz über die Formentwicklung um die Mitte des XX. Jahrhunderts (Basel, 1952), p. 26.