The German architect and designer Ferdinand Kramer didn’t just translate the new principles of construction and design which arose in the inter-war years into his architecture, furniture and industrial designs, he was also a very eloquent writer on such matters, and thus helped, and continues to help, explain the motivations behind, and fascination with, functionalist ideals.
Born in Frankfurt am Main on January 22nd 1898 Karl August Friedrich Ferdinand Kramer initially studied architecture at Munich Technical University before moving to Bauhaus Weimar in 1919. A move which lasted only a matter of weeks: the lack of an architecture course worthy of the name and, in Kramer’s opinion, focus on applied art/handicraft objects rather than contemporary design for contemporary industry, saw him return to Munich to complete his studies, before establishing his own practice in Frankfurt. In 1925 Ferdinand Kramer was seconded by Frankfurt’s new City Building Director Ernst May for his so-called Neue Frankfurt project: an ambitious social housing and urban regeneration scheme which sought answers to the city’s housing crisis – and by extrapolation the numerous European housing crises of the period – and which represented one of the first large scale functionalist urban planning programmes. When in 1930 Ernst May swapped Frankfurt for Moscow, Ferdinand Kramer remained in Frankfurt, working in private practice, before in 1937 the Nazis declared him an Entartet – Degenerate – Architect and banned him from practising; a ban which led Ferdinand Kramer to emigrate to America where over the course of the next 14 years he developed numerous architecture, interior design, retail design and furniture design projects. And the paper umbrella Rainbelle. In 1952 Ferdinand Kramer returned to Frankfurt where he was appointed Buildings Director at Frankfurt University in which context he was responsible for the post-war rebuilding and expansion programme, a position he carried out until his retirement in 1964. Post-retirement Ferdinand Kramer remained active as an architect and in 1981 was awarded Honorary Doctorates by both Stuttgart University and the Technical University Munich. Ferdinand Kramer died on November 4th 1985. In Frankfurt. The city to which in many was he had dedicated his career.
In addition to architecture Ferdinand Kramer was also a highly respected and multi-faceted product designer. In many respects was a designer more than an architect: Ferdinand Kramer first attracting public attention in 1925 with his paired-down, affordable, cast iron Kramerofen – Kramer Stove. An object which has lost none of its charms over the intervening 90 years. Ferdinand Kramer’s first furniture designs were premièred during the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition in Stuttgart where they graced the houses of J. J. P. Oud and Mies van der Rohe and over the course of his career there followed numerous further furniture collections, often created in context of architecture projects, and, and as with many of his contemporaries, conceived as integrated systems. In addition Ferdinand Kramer realised numerous furniture projects in cooperation with Thonet, most famously arguably being his B403 bentwood chair, while in context of his tenure at Frankfurt University Ferdinand Kramer designed, pretty much, all the furniture and furnishings. Right down to the ashtrays.
Today many of Kramer’s architectural works are sadly no more, existing solely as photos, a fate shared with much of his furniture design, save a recent re-edition by German manufacturer e15 of selected pieces from across Ferdinand Kramer’s varied career.
His texts however survive intact.
Although not as prolific an author as many of his contemporaries Ferdinand Kramer’s writing encompasses, more or less, all the stages of his career – alone from his exile years in America there is next to nothing, sadly, because it would have been very interesting to follow his thoughts on the post-war developments in American architecture and design – and as such accompany the functionalist, modernist, ideals from their infancy in the mid 1920s through their post-war maturation and, thanks to some delightful grumbling by Kramer, on to the post-modernism of the early 1980s.
Ferdinand Kramer was no story teller, his words don’t bring the pages to life, there’s no painting of sceneries, no intricate inter-weaving of layers, for that his style is too direct, too matter of fact: yet it is this straightforwardness, this lack of twists, turns, literary embellishments which makes the subject matter so clear and accessible. Allows such a concentrated focus on the essentials of his position.
More proficient design journalists would invariably compare his writing style to his architecture and design. We’ll say his texts explain the theoretical position that underscored his architecture and design. Through his texts one gets to know not only Kramer the standardiser, Kramer the industrialiser, Kramer the rationalist, but one understands the attraction of standardisation, industrialisation and rationalisation in architecture and design. And one understands that more clearly through Kramer’s writings than through those of his, story telling, contemporaries. .
As ever when one reads texts by architects and designers from previous epochs, much sounds patently obvious.
“Why are you writing that? It’s obvious!” You want to scream at the page. And occasionally do.
But when written it wasn’t patently obvious: it only became patently obvious because architects such as the respective author helped make it become patently obvious. Because they recognised and understood the changes that were either taking place, or more importantly, were necessary, and responded. The fact that a Ferdinand Kramer is able to so eloquently write about such subjects is because he understood them. Which, yes, sounds patently obvious. But try writing about something about which you know nothing, or about which you have only a vague understanding, or perhaps lay claim to more understanding than you truly posses – and you’ll understand how hard it can be to create a coherent text. Far less one that will still be coherent, logical and appealing X decades later. Another nice parallel there to architecture and design.
Sure some of Ferdinand Kramer’s positions have proven with time to be wrong, or at least misguided, over enthusiastic even, but that doesn’t take away from their relevance, for only through understanding why things go awry can we do it better next time. And to do that we need to understand the full context of the original motivations.
And so by way of a birthday celebration, a few quotes, nay words of wisdom, warning and wonder from Ferdinand Kramer. Words which in many cases remain as pertinent and relevant today as when first penned………
Happy Birthday Ferdinand Kramer!
“Through its wide reaching resonance Pessac represents an important step progress. In contrast to the many theorising exhibitions, here, with great boldness, a new fruitful thought has been put into practice. Le Corbusier has undertaken pioneering work in Pessac”
“Architektur des Auslands. Le Corbusiers Siedlung Frugès in Pessac” in Stein, Holz, Eisen, Heft 1 1927
“The main objection raised against the transfer of such factory methods to other “household goods” was an aesthetic, or rather, a personal one. Everyone should express their own individuality at home, the stamp of his personal identity. But we may well ask whether the furniture of our fathers was individual in this sense. What did it express? Repetitions of borrowed historical styles. Was that the individuality of the last generation or that of your ancestors?”
“Individuelle oder typisierte Möbel?” in Das neue Frankfurt, Heft 1, 1928
“The problem of systematisation is the standardisation of the form, or of the processing elements. The individual production and processing of single objects is abandoned in favour of a factory, which has as its goal the serial production of precision machined models. This process, which today is particularly important, is not only historically interesting: it alone explains the immense sales of the Thonet industry, and provides a very interesting reference for the further development of rationalisation in the furniture industry. The Thonet example is all the more illustrative, as it proves that with the concentarted development of factory production formal problems are also solved, and that in a manner which permits the highest aesthetic standards.”
“Die Thonetindustrie” in Die Form Heft 8, 1929 (Whereby one must remember Kramer was cooperating with Thonet at that period……)
“The advantages of the housing block are obvious. They allow for the realisation of the apartment house, complete with a centralised kitchen. ….. The centralisation of services, catering, laundry, child care can only bring advantages compared to uneconomic single family households …. Collective living forces a mutual cooperation and discipline.”
“Die Wohnung für das Existenzminumum” in Die Form, Heft 24, 1929
“The production of all kinds of products is a combination of purpose, material, and process. From these three factors the form results, which in its basics is not invented but rather a necessary consequence. Despite this, the form is regularly conceived purely externally without any internal connection with the process of formation. Thus represents not new creation, but plagiarism! A danger, which is always very close, where a new style is considered solely in terms of external form.”
“Die Mitarbeit des Künstlers am Industriellen Erzeugnis” in Die Form, Heft 8, 1930
“The visitor observes with astonishment that in spite of the overflowing of the market with ever more artesian and factory “novelties” which seek to outdo one another, a lot of practical, self-evident and beautiful objects of use are available. It would be desirable to have such a overview in every city, and the applied art museums would undertake a thankful task if they made such a selection permanently available to the public for information.”
“Wohnbedarf” in Frankfurter Zeitung 21.05.1932, from Kramer’s review of the exhibition “Wohnbedarf” which had opened in Stuttgart on May 13th. Interestingly, with the “Good Design” exhibitions of the 1940s and 1950s the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA, in New York did just what Kramer suggested. And in doing so helped establish the legend of American Mid-century Modern.
“Through a heavy, far too narrow, ornamented lattice door, one reached the vestibule… The outer entrance was overloaded with columns and bad sculptures from the age of the “mauvais goût”. The inside of the hall had eight sandstone columns which served no static function and were a major obstacle for movement”
“Umbau der Universität” in Bauen und Wohnen, Heft 9, 1954 and where Ferdinand Kramer describes the Neo-classic main entrance to Frankfurt University – before he replaced it with a glass and steel construction. An act which famously saw him denounced as a “Barbarian”
“The burnt-red paint of the heat vents on the roof is not art, but nature – industrial nature. For the vinidur, from which they are fabricated, is this colour. An aesthetic impression is as such there – for some, of course, it is negative. But be assured: it would have been easy for such a functional building to become ugliness itself, like some older factories. That we wanted to make this building beautiful, that you can believe. Only for us, beauty must never embarrass the function, act as if it had nothing to do with it.”
“Rede eine Baumeisters vor Naturwissenschaftlern” reprinted in Bauwelt Heft 32, 1958
“Yes, but where is the cosiness? I understood in what was being said. Between the tavern “Zum Schlagbaum” and the “Mexicana-Bar”, this house is so strange. Old and new cosiness compete here for the attentions of the young people. The longing for the cave, as so perfectly represented by the old Fraternity Houses in Heidelberg, demands broken, unclear colour, occasional angles, here and there a piece of antiquated furniture or wallpaper, on which the impoverished contemporary can slouch. I didn’t want to offer all that. The walls are ruthlessly white, the concrete pillars and beams are not even smoothed, with holes like the bark of a tree”
“Wohnen im Stundentenheim” in Bauwelt Heft 17 1959 – reprint of speech by Kramer on the occassion of the Einweihung des Studentenheimes Bockenheimer Warte
“I hope to have shown with this report that the manifold interpretations of the architecture of the 1920s, which with the term Functionalism make it responsible for today’s mistakes, are not true.
The work of those times was by no means devoid of psychological and formal aesthetic aspects – they arose in a time of great need – without nostalgia, but full of hope for the future”
“Ferdinand Kramer. 50 Jahre Architektur – Bericht aus meinem Leben” in Der Neue Egoist, 2, 1976
“However, the situation today seems to me to be grotesque. In the Federal Republic, which in relation to the Weimar Republic is exceptionally rich, there is once again a need for housing, and there are dramatic global political and economic tensions in terms of energy and ecology crises, famine in the Third World.
Yet, unaffected by these alarming problems, “post-modernism” attempts to dominate the current architecture.
Where is our contemporary, determined youth, the rousing avant-garde, which realises a new orientation, the revaluation of values necessary for our survival, in its architecture”
“Diese überraschende Ehrung”, unpublished speech by Ferdinand Kramer on occasion of the award of an Honorary Doctorate from Stuttgart Univeristy, 17th July 1981 – Printed in Hans M. Wingler, Ferdinand Kramer, Architektur und Design: Ausstellung im Bauhaus-Archiv, Museum für Gestaltung, Berlin, 9. Dez. 1982 – 23. Jan. 1983
“At no other moment in my turbulent life would this award from my former technical college have pleased me more than now, at my age and – in today’s situation of the “New Inobjectivity”, post-modernism and perverted functionalism”
“Zu diesem Zeitpunkt” in Bauwelt Heft 14, 1982 – reprint of speech held by Ferdinad Kramer on occasion of the award of an Honorary Doctorate from the TU Munich