smow Blog Interview: Wolfgang Laubersheimer – Making is back, that is fantastic and is something I’m certain will change design

In our post from the exhibition Schrill Bizarr Brachial. Das Neue Deutsche Design der 80er Jahre at the Bröhan Museum Berlin we noted that, for us at least, the greatest legacy of the 1980s post-modern neuen deutschen Design movement is and was the number of protagonists who have subsequently found teaching positions in Germany’s leading design schools; protagonists such as Wolfgang Laubersheimer who since 1991 has been Professor of Production Technology at, and since 2013 Director of, the Köln International School of Design, KISD.

Born in Leverkusen Wolfgang Laubersheimer studied metal sculpture at the Werkkunstschule Köln, the future KISD; using his time and freedom as a student to establish in parallel the furniture and shop-fitting company “Unikate”. In 1985 Wolfgang Laubersheimer was a founding member of the design group Pentagon, one of the most prominent groups in the neuen deutschen Design years and with whom he participated in events such as “Wohnen von Sinnen” in Hamburg, “documenta 8” in Kassel and “Bienal de São Paulo” in, well, São Paulo. Following the dissolution of Pentagon in 1991 Wolfgang Laubersheimer established his own design studio from where he has completed projects for clients as varied as Swatch, Mercedes-Benz or AEG, in addition to his teaching commitments in Cologne.

We recently met up with Wolfgang Laubersheimer to discuss neuen deutschen Design and contemporary design education, but began by asking what the motivation had been to study metal sculpture……

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: It wasn’t the case that I had a clear idea of what I wanted. I was interested in art, wanted to study art, but that was all I knew. Other than painting wasn’t really my thing. I had a friend who was studying stone sculpture at the Werkkunstschule and that brought me into contact with Professor Anton Berger who was responsible for the metal sculpture department and with him the students simply made objects, and I found that fascinating and enticing and so applied to study metal sculpture and was accepted.

smow blog: And was the course everything you hoped it would be?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: It was sensational, it was the most fantastic freedom. I spent 14 hours a day in the workshop and considered it holidays! Simply to have the freedom to make things I wanted and which I enjoyed making was for me wonderful, and so for the next five years I was pretty much in the workshop everyday.

smow blog: Was that pure art or was there from the beginning an applied aspect to your work?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: That is a difficult question. I’m no intellectual, my relationship to art is much more as a craftsman and I was always more impressed and influenced by what I saw and what I experienced that what I was told. At that time my impression was that discussions around art were being led by marketing men, for all from Düsseldorf agencies who had discovered art as a vehicle to earn money, and I found that all disconcerting and consequently didn’t really want to be involved, because I thought it would be the end of art. And against this background I came to the conclusion that art must be socially relevant and good when it is also useful. A major influence in that context were the three large bronze doors at Cologne Cathedral. Ewald Mataré had received the commission for the doors and Joseph Beuys, who at that time was one of his students, was responsible for one of them. And Beuys included a mirror in his door so that the homeless and beggars who congregate around the Cathedral could have a mirror to shave in. And that for me was a wonderful adaptation of art with a social purpose.

smow blog: And so what then ultimately led you to your first design works?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: A friend had commissioned me to make a desk for him. The idea was to make it from 4 cm thick plexiglas, but that was unbelievably expensive, it was around 800DM, just for the plexiglas, which for me was a ridiculous price. There was an alternative material, so-called polycarbonate ribbed double sheets which is often used for example for carports or skylights, and is also 4 cm thick, yet one couldn’t bind it because it is produced by an extrusion process. As a material it is very brittle and cracks under thermal deformation and because bonding with conventional plexiglas adhesives generates a lot of heat, we couldn’t use it. It is however very, very cheap. So I decided to try and see what was possible, and together with Hans Roller, a plexiglas specialist here in Cologne, I developed a process via which one could securely bind this polycarbonate sheeting and from this we developed a furniture series.

smow blog: Which we presume was also the start of Unikate……?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: No, no, I had established Unikate with a fellow student, Ralph Sommer, a little earlier. However, the Unikate furniture was heavily influenced by the polycarbonate sheeting.

smow blog: Was the name also programme – so just Unikate, unique pieces? Was the name intended to imply that you perhaps still considered yourselves more as artists than designers?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: No, no. It all sounds a bit banal but we hadn’t considered what we were, we simply wanted to make furniture that we could sell. We wanted to be rich, not just well-known, but also rich. In terms of the name we thought “Unikate” sounded good, there was no great theorising behind it. Mass production was something we simply couldn’t imagine, only expensive single pieces, hence the name.

smow blog: Where was the focus with Unikate?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: As Unikate we completed a lot of shop fitting projects. Using this polycarbonate sheeting process we fitted out, for example, jeans stores throughout Europe, so with chequer plate aluminium floors and shelving constructed from plexiglas filled with coloured paper, in those days that was an otherworldly optic. However, and perhaps because of my background in metal sculpture eventually the plexiglas began to irritate. As a material it is very noble, but also very susceptible to scratches and there were regular complaints from customers and so I started to look around at what else was happening and discovered Ettore Sottsass und Memphis. I considered what they were doing fantastic, however also a bit Mickey Mouse and was the opinion that there must be another way of progressing. At around the same time I became introduced to ideas of using steel through works by the likes Richard Serra, Bernhard Luginbühl and Jean Tinguely, a man who remains a huge influence, and for me what they were creating was a much wider expression of art and sculpture and had something “design” about it. And so I started making furniture from steel. The first object was the Verspanntes Regal.

smow blog: And that was then the start of Pentagon, or…..

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: More or less. Unikate belonged to Ralph Sommer and me, but there were in addition a group of colleagues with whom we regularly cooperated, so that Unikate was, in effect, a group of five. I had proposed we invite them to join us as co-owners of Unikate, Ralph was the opinion it was better to keep things as they were, and so we decided instead to form a new company, one concerned with design research and the development of design projects and which also operated a small gallery, and that was then Pentagon.

smow blog: Pentagon went on to play a not inconsiderable role in the story of neuen deutschen Design. How did you experience the neuen deutschen Design years, was it all just wild parties or was there a lot of dry, serious, theorising behind the movement, a common sense of purpose?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: In terms of Pentagon, aside from Meyer Voggenreiter we all came from a handicraft, sculptural background – we made things, we did things, we didn’t think too deeply; Meyer Voggenreiter had studied German language and literature, he knew that you had to think before acting, back then I didn’t. There were however individuals who from the very beginning concerned themselves very closely with the theoretical questions. Volker Albus for example was very involved with theoretical aspects and could also wonderfully formulate the theoretical basis of his work. Personally that wasn’t my world, I liked Volker but I was interested in what he made not why, and for me his works were objects that always needed to be explained, that were based on a theory that wasn’t obvious in the finished work, and that for me isn’t a viable approach. Objects which aren’t self-explanatory and where the designer has to explain this is so and so, simply don’t interest me.

In contrast the Berlin scene were, for me, always more people who simply made things, often wonderful things. With Andreas Brandolini Berlin did posses one of the leading theoreticians of the period, but in general they were makers not thinkers.

But if there was a joint approach? There was also a lot of snide comments and sneering. As one example, together with some others groups Pentagon were invited to participate documenta 8 in 1987, and that created a bit of misfeeling amongst those who weren’t invited. Everyone was always looking to see who was in which newspaper or magazine. It wasn’t all deep friendships, although there were obviously some very good friendships and close relationships formed.

smow blog: And in your opinion did neuen deutschen Design change design in Germany?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: Totally. It completely opened the term “design”. All of a sudden “design” wasn’t just styling it was an attitude, at times even a political statement. It possibly may have been similar in the 1930s, but the use of crude forms and raw materials in design, that was a political statement, this departure from conventional ideas of beauty. And what I particularly enjoyed was this sense of not taking things so seriously, the implied wink in many works. When, for example, one looks at Siegfried Michael Syniuga’s chairs you have to smile, and I like that in a product when it makes you smile, when there is a genuine delight in viewing it.

smow blog: What has remained, what is the legacy of neuen deutschen Design?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: To answer that question properly I would need a complete overview of contemporary German design, which I don’t have. That said I do have the feeling that those who are designing today are doing so much more consciously, that they no longer, as we did, feel themselves as misunderstood artists but are self-confident designers. And I think this feeling comes from neuen deutschen Design. In addition I also have the feeling that designers today are much cleverer, much better informed, even though that can also be negative, a deficit of information is often positive in order to give you the freedom to experiment and find your own answers.

smow blog: Changing tact a little, you’ve been here at KISD since 1991, how/why did that you take up a position here?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: It was certainly never part of my life’s plan! In 1990 the Technische Universität in Munich asked if I would be interested in applying for a professorial position they had open and my first reaction was, why are they asking me? Have they confused me with someone else? But I was delighted by the offer and excited by the possibilities, and so I applied. Parallel to that Michael Erlhoff asked me if I would be interested in helping establish a new design course he was organising for the new FH here in Cologne, the so-called “Kölner Modell” which was intended as a continuation of the former Werkkunstschule, and an offer I gratefully accepted.

smow blog: You’ve now been here at KISD for 25 years, has in your opinion the species “design student” changed over the years?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: It is in constant flux, speaking objectively it seems to me as if every two or three years a new generation comes along with a new understanding. For example we currently have a generation who are very attentive, they listen very carefully, and as a result I feel obliged to tell them something, to teach them something and not just to talk to them. In addition we currently have a large number of students who want to design, want to build things, not necessarily a product, but they want to create something. In contrast four or five years ago we had many students who thought design was a form of sociology and that one could change the world with thinking about design and everyone was suddenly very busy with concepts, and here and the KISD there was a certain rejection of making, the students thought, they didn’t make. Today with 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines model building is the central column of this institution, everyday our workshops are full of students building things, making things; five years ago that was unimaginable, they were all at home writing concepts! And so now making is back, that is fantastic and is something I’m certain will change design once again.

smow blog: And has the design education here in Cologne also changed, or……..?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: Here in Cologne it is a project based course of studies, it isn’t the case that every year we have the same lectures on the same subjects, rather the students undertake projects with titles such as “Useless, expensive but cool” or “Die Metamorphose des Lagerfeuers” and the projects are always motivated by the prevailing Zeitgeist and so in that respect the education changes because the Zeitgeist changes and so today we offer projects that wouldn’t have been considered 20 years ago and which in 20 years will in all probability no longer be relevant.

smow blog: When we speak with design students or recent graduates they often complain about a lack of commercial, business training in design schools, are students in Cologne taught elements of business and commerce?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: Here in Cologne it is so that we offer a course in Design and Economy wherein business elements are taught, but not only the business elements, the students are also taught Marx, economic theory, economic criticism, Hannah Arendt, etc, and I genuinely believe that is correct approach, one shouldn’t forget that business students also don’t just learn how one runs a business. In addition the courses here in Cologne are so constructed that the students can learn those aspects that interest them and which they consider most relevant for their future career, be that Photoshop, colour theory, engineering or the business elements of the design industry including the economic aspects of running your own studio, commission acquisition, how much one can charge for a project. Not all students however take advantage of all that we have on offer.

smow blog: We often have the impression that there are ever more design graduates, but not necessarily ever more design jobs. How do you see the situation, are there too many design graduates these days?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: I don’t believe the situation is such that there are too many graduates for too few jobs. Here in Cologne for example we offer four courses and the vast majority of our students find work upon graduating. As one example we offer a Masters in Product Design and Process Development which is a mixture of engineering, business studies and design, it is a two year programme yet after a year all students have a job to move onto because the course contains all those elements that industry are looking for. In addition we offer a lot of projects in cooperation with industrial and commercial partners and in such projects you can take your chances, make contacts and so recommend yourself for job once you are finished. That does of course involve working on your own initiative and recognising the potential of the situation.

smow blog: Briefly to end, you started as a metal sculptor, with all the varied experience you have had, do you see yourself still as a sculptor, or now as a designer, educator……?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: To define myself as an artist would be terrible, I do make occasional pieces but you can only be an artist when you do that to 100%. Art as a hobby is a horrible concept. I think the most appropriate term would be, “an experimentation interested tinkerer”. I would however be very pleased with the adjunct: “not stupid and with some talent!!”

smow blog: And is there a piece of advice you always give your students?

Wolfgang Laubersheimer: …. Use your time here to try everything that you want to try and always do something that you think you wont get the chance to later. Here you can design everything and try anything. Use the time here to generate some dreams, they will serve you well in the future.

Schrill Bizarr Brachial Das Neue Deutsche Design der 80er Jahre Bröhan Museum Berlin Pentagon Wolfgang Laubersheimer Detlef Meyer Voggenreither

Verspanntes Regal by Wolfgang Laubersheimer and Mai ’68 by Detlef Meyer Voggenreither, both Pentagon Design Cologne, as seen at Schrill Bizarr Brachial. Das Neue Deutsche Design der 80er Jahre, Bröhan Museum Berlin

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