1 x rounded piece of beech, 2 x quadratic pieces of beech, 3 x quadratic pieces of spruce…
1, 2, 3… An Ulmer Hocker1
With the exhibition The Ulmer Hocker: Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol the HfG-Archiv, Ulm, help elucidate that while an Ulmer Hocker is that simple, it is a deceptive, and highly informative, simplicity…….
Arising from the Ulmer Volkshochschule, a post-War institution initiated by Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher concerned with re-establishing democratic education in Germany following the years of Nazi dictatorship, doctrine and dogma, the Hochschule für Gestaltung, HfG, Ulm formally commenced teaching in August 1953 with the Bauhäusler Max Bill as inaugural rector, and Bauhäusler such as, and diverse as, Helene Nonné-Schmidt, Walter Peterhans or Josef Albers amongst its earliest teaching staff. Yet for all that the HfG Ulm can be, and regularly is, considered the official unofficial Bauhaus successor institute, and while, and as previously discussed, it without question carried aspects of the inter-War positions and understandings as expressed and embodied by Bauhaus forward into post-War West Germany, it also rejected much of that on which Bauhaus was founded, or as Tomás Maldonado noted in 1957, “trying to literally continue Bauhaus would be tantamount to a merely restorative endeavour … We only adopt its progressive, anti-conventional stance – striving to make a contribution to society in its own historical situation. In this sense, and only in this sense, are we continuing the work of Bauhaus. “.2
A rejection of components of the Bauhaus ideals that included a move away from the primacy of art in questions of the formal expression of our objects of daily use. A primacy Max Bill was very much an adherent of, or as he opined in 1952, “designers who realise new forms are consciously or unconsciously reacting to trends in contemporary art because it is in art that the intellectual and spiritual currents of every epoch find their visible expression”.3 And thus a move away from a primacy of art which, inevitably, led to differences of opinion amongst the teaching staff and which saw Bill resign from his rectorship in 1956 and leave the HfG Ulm in 1957.
Yet for all that Max Bill was only involved with the HfG Ulm for a relatively short period of time, as The Ulmer Hocker: Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol, helps one understand, a great deal of Max Bill remained within the HfG Ulm; for all embodied in the Ulmer Hocker, an object developed at the school in 1954 and which as the HfG-Archiv exhibition title tends to confirm, has in the intervening decades become both an Idol and Icon.
But before it was, it was an Idea.
Or perhaps more accurately, before it was, it was Ideas.
The scenography of Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol‘s opening chapter, or more accurately, that which we’re defining as Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol‘s opening chapter, places the Ulmer Hocker, and to remain in the language of the HfG-Archiv, at the confluence of ten actants, ten integral elements of the Ulmer Hocker’s narrative which can be considered inter-dependent Ideas of the Ulmer Hocker; or put another way, an opening chapter which places the Ulmer Hocker at the inter-section of ten paths which can be traced to the Ulmer Hocker.
Which of the tens paths you take first, which of the ten actants you engage with first, is arguably up to you, but the most logical is Creativity, as expressed by the four fathers of the Ulmer Hocker: Hans Gugelot, brought to Ulm by Max Bill, and who amongst other functions was Head of the Furniture Design department; Paul Hildinger, head of the Wood Workshop; Josef Schlecker, head of the Metal Workshop; and Max Bill, who is often lauded alone as the designer of the Ulmer Hocker, yet as Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helps elucidate, that simply cannot be.
Something discreetly underscored by the Ulmia 1615 circular saw that physically dominates the exhibition space, an Ulmia 1615 circular saw produced in Ulm, an Ulmia 1615 circular saw which originally stood in the HfG Ulm Wood Workshop, an Ulmia 1615 circular saw on which the earliest Ulmer Hockers were produced. And an Ulmia 1615 circular saw which introduces a discussion on the technology, for all the technological innovation, involved with the production of the Ulmer Hocker, or more accurately, technical innovation involved in the serial production of the Ulmer Hocker. For, as a 1957 seminar exercise written by the (soon-to-be) architect Urs Beutler underscores, the Ulmer Hocker was designed to be produced 20% by hand and 80% by machine4, an objective which required the development of not just a special production process but also special tools, primarily the jig developed by Paul Hildinger and Josef Schlecker which, in conjunction with the Ulmia 1615, enabled fast, accurate cutting of the Fingerzinken, finger joints, that are both so distinctive of the Ulmer Hocker and also bequeath it it is stability and durability, and thereby helped enable fast, accurate production of the first Ulmer Hockers.
Yet while many of the tools and processes involved in the production of the Ulmer Hocker may have been new and unique, the Ulmer Hocker, as Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol elucidates, wasn’t entirely.
Conceptually or formally.
Something perhaps most immediately illustrated by the presence in the chapter Idea of four other stools: Marcel Breuer’s 1926 tubular steel stool for the Bauhaus Dessau canteen; a 1928 stool developed by Johannes Itten for his private, post-Bauhaus Weimar, school in Berlin; an object designed by Rudolf Schwarz in 1929 for Burg Rothenfels, a christian orientated youth hostel and seminar centre in north-western Bavaria; and Le Corbusier’s LC14 Tabouret, a work first draughted in 1952 and which he subsequently used for the interior of the Maison du Brésil student accommodation for the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris. Four stools which although all to varying degrees resemblant of the Ulmer Hocker can’t be considered direct formal predecessors; can however be considered as conceptual precursors of the Ulmer Hocker, as works that embody components of discourses undertaken by, advanced by, the Ulmer Hocker.
Discourses such as sitting as an academic discipline, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helping place the Ulmer Hocker in context of mid-20th century discussions on subjects such as ergonomics or sitting as a cultural act, a cultural expression; discourses such as design theory, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helping place the Ulmer Hocker in context of mid-20th century discussions on form/function/ornament/beauty and for all in context of Max Bill’s understandings of gute Form and and the necessity of achieving “maximum agency with a minimum of material”5; discourses such as the connections between design and art, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helping place the Ulmer Hocker in context of the Concrete Art of which Bill is such a central representative and which demanded artists “endeavour for absolute clarity”6; discourses such as the connections between design and architecture, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helping place the Ulmer Hocker not only as an integral conceptual unit of Bill’s understandings of architecture but also as an integral physical unit of Max Bill’s HfG Ulm building.
One of several understandings of the Ulmer Hocker as an integral theoretical and physical component of the HfG Ulm, of the Ulmer Hocker as an embodiment of the HfG Ulm, explored and discussed in Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol.
As noted above, the Ulmer Volkshochschule arose in a spirit of reinforcing democratic structures in post-War West Germany, a theme previously touched upon in these dispatches from the exhibition Welt aus Glas. Transparentes Design at the Wilhelm Wagenfeld Haus, Bremen, via reflections, pun intended, on Egon Eiermann and Sep Ruf’s West German pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and its very open, transparent, glass, construction. Similarly the Ulmer Hocker is very, very open, both formally and towards use, it actively invites one to use it, invites one to use it as one will.
In addition Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol helps one better appreciate that the Ulmer Hocker is also a reflection of evolving post-War understandings of democracy, post-War democratic thinking, in that it was used by all at the HfG Ulm irrespective of status, was used in all locations within the HfG Ulm, and meant that at the HfG Ulm, all sat at the same height7, literally and metaphorically, and thereby broke down the representations of hierarchical structures that had traditionally defined educational institutes. The hierarchies were inarguably still there, but weren’t enforced through furniture as was normally the case. If one so will, the traditional power of the Chair in academia being replaced by the suffrage of the Stool.
And which thus underscores the more than slight irony that the HfG Ulm closed in 1968, just as Europe was breaking free from long established understandings of hierarchical systems and embracing more equability in society.
A closure after a decade and a bit of operation which mirrors the fate of Bauhaus; as does a central reason for the enforced nature of the closure.
A central reason which, arguably, is also one of the more important and interesting inter-relations between the HfG Ulm and the Ulmer Hocker.
For all the near mythological place the HfG Ulm occupies in the (hi)story of design in West Germany, it existed, as did Bauhaus, very much on a shoestring budget; throughout the 15 short years of its existence the HfG Ulm was chronically short of cash, money problems were never far away and ultimately played a, the, decisive roll in its closure. As with Bauhaus.8 And as Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol explains the Ulmer Hocker reflects this financial need: the first Ulmer Hockers being primarily constructed from donated, and occasionally begged, wood. And built by the staff and students, who also bought their own to use around the campus; every student buying one which they would carry from their accommodation to lectures to seminars to lunch etc. Better off students affording two.
A born of necessity feeling extended by the fact that in the original plans for the school the stool wasn’t envisaged; much more the feeling one gets viewing Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol is that realising there was no money to purchase the requisite amount of seating, the school’s leadership sought a viable, affordable, quick, solution.
And as we all know, necessity is the mother of invention.
And as we all also know, there is a position in design which claims the first sketches, the first drafts, contain the essence of the idea, before the designer loses it all in contemplation and reflection. Before the essence is lost in (over) tinkering and (over) analysing.9 Which as a position unquestionably has something of Surrealism about it; and also something of Concrete Art, for as Otto G. Carlsund, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Léon Tutundjian and Marcel Wantz demanded in their 1930 Concrete Art manifesto “L’œuvre d’art doit être entièrement conçue et formée par l’esprit avant son exécution“, “The work of art must be entirely designed and formed by the mind before its execution”.10
Given not only the urgent financial need at the HfG Ulm but also the speed with which the Ulmer Hocker had to be developed, and the production simplicity and economy it had to meet, there is an argument to be made that the Ulmer Hocker is such a first sketch, such a first draft, such a complete mental image; the lack of time, resources and realistic alternatives meant the Ideas that flowed into the original Ulmer Hocker, and that, arguably, largely subconsciously as innate responses from those involved based on their own experiences and positions, remained. There simply being no opportunity to ruin them with analysis and tinkering.
And thereby also allows an argument that the Ulmer Hocker can be considered an archetype, can be considered, as the curators argue, in context of Plato’s understanding of a physical object being but a representation of a higher idea. An argument reinforced in the chapters Idol and Icon.
Although we define the chapter Idea as the opening chapter, it is physically at the end of the exhibition space; but it is, we’ll argue, where you have to begin viewing Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol. And thus our tip is to wander through the permanent exhibition space, get a feel for the (hi)story of the HfG Ulm, and then, because the permanent exhibition space ends at the entrance to Idea, jump in there, and on your way back pass through the chapters Idol and Icon.11
The former presenting the results of an open call by the HfG-Archiv for photos of the Ulmer Hocker in use, and for all in use in contexts other than as a “standard” stool; alternative uses the Ulmer Hocker has always been subject to, the curators talk of there being some dozen documented methods of use of the Ulmer Hocker at the HfG, while sadly not listing them. But a multitude of possible uses which can be appreciated when one views the gallery of the Ulmer Hocker in use as a side table, as shelving, as a step, as a wall-mounted coat rack, as a “standard” stool…..
And a gallery which also features a few re-imaginings and re-constructions of the Ulmer Hocker which flow neatly into the chapter Icon and its reflections on re-editions, plagiarisms and re-interpretations, re-workings, of the Ulmer Hocker.
Re-editions which can be considered as the inevitable consequence of a need to monetise design, something most easily achieved in context of furniture design with an object we all are continually, and uncritically, informed is a “classic”, but also a very, very, welcome opportunity for all to engage on their own terms with a genuinely joyous, affable and communicative object; plagiarisms which can be considered as the desire to tap into the commercially successful monetising of the authorised re-edition, no-one plagiarises that which doesn’t sell, and also as the inevitable consequence of objectification, which brings with it the echo of Max Bill’s 1949 warning that “it is by no means always the case that things that look valuable are also valuable. Mostly a superficial value belies the lack of real quality”12; re-editions and plagiarisms which must be considered in context of Inge Aicher-Scholl’s statement that the “HfG stool which anyone can reproduce at will and without thinking about an honorarium or license fees”.13 And ultimately re-editions and plagiarisms which must be considered as Maldonado’s “merely restorative endeavour”.
The “progressive, anti-conventional stance – striving to make a contribution to society in its own historical situation” being found in the re-interpretations and re-workings, in the re-imaginings of the Ulmer Hocker in new technological, ecological, economic, social et al realities, re-bootings of the Ulmer Hocker for new contexts and new times, which can, ¿must?, be considered as both an extension of the democracy, democratic thinking, inherent in the Ulmer Hocker and also as the Ulmer Hocker as an archetype: that as an archetype the Ulmer Hocker can be continually re-interpreted, re-imagined, without ever losing the essence of what it is, that the essence of the Ulmer Hocker remains regardless of the context and its physical expression. That the Ulmer Hocker as developed at the HfG Ulm in 1954 can be considered as a specific but not definitive expression of the Ideas inherent within it, Ideas which remain independent of the physical form.14
A bijou if expansive, sweeping, presentation which in addition to stools, photographs and an Ulmia 1615 circular saw, also features original documents, artworks, draughts and publications, supported by concise, accessible, German/English texts, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol allows one to better understand that while Max Bill was without question important in the development of the Ulmer Hocker, that a great deal of Max Bill can found in the Ulmer Hocker, that the Ulmer Hocker can be employed for a detailed study of Max Bill; Max Bill wasn’t the only author of the Ulmer Hocker. That the Ulmer Hocker is very much a HfG Hocker. The HfG as a Hocker.
In which context, if we did have one complaint it would be the brevity of Hans Gugelot’s appearance, aside from his naming as one of the four fathers of the Ulmer Hocker he is essentially absent in Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol, which can’t be right; or to quote a letter from Inge Aicher-Scholl to the Südwest Presse in 1977 concerning an article in the newspaper on the legacy of the HfG Ulm, we “would have preferred greater mention [of Gugelot] in the article”.15
Whereby on the other hand, as an exhibition Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol does very pleasingly allow Paul Hildinger and Josef Schlecker to reclaim their places in the (hi)story of the Ulmer Hocker, and in doing so reminds of the importance of those with technical skills in the realising of design ideas; that much as without civil engineers architects could only dream in 2D, without craftsfolk and engineers and scientists a lot of product design would remain on the draughting table.
Considerations which help underscore that for all that Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol is ostensibly an exhibition about the Ulmer Hocker, and for all that is an exhibition in which one can learn a lot about the Ulmer Hocker, can help move one on from the all too ready objectification that accompanies the Ulmer Hocker, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol is also about using the Ulmer Hocker as a conduit for reflections and discussions on furniture, our relationships with furniture, and the hows and whys of furniture.
Something it can achieve very satisfyingly because the Ulmer Hocker is such an excellent example of furniture arising from responses to realities and in a specific context. The arguments developed through the ten actants helping underscore that an item of furniture design arises out of factors other than the technical functionality or a desired/bequeathed aesthetic alone, and certainly not out of commercial considerations. And also poses questions about why the Ulmer Hocker is the Idol and Icon of the title; why and how does any piece of furniture become saddled with such cumbersome a burden? As an exhibition it challenges, admonishes, us all to focus more on, to engage more with, the Idea of furniture.
Yes, many of the actants are developed backwards, there aren’t, or at least as far as we are aware, any texts or evidence that conclusively and explicitly link the genesis of the Ulmer Hocker with specific, considered, reflections on, for example, Philosophy, Art or Science; rather the curators have worked backwards from the Ulmer Hocker, have taken the Ulmer Hocker as the starting point for their investigations and discussions, many of the paths in the exhibition are technically from the Ulmer Hocker not to it.
Which isn’t a criticism, far from it, for the arguments the curators develop are convincing, if at times only sustainable with the aid of a little good will on the part of the viewer, which again isn’t a criticism, the development of understandings always requires, has always required, stretching arguments and asking your listeners/viewers to help pull; and for all are arguments which force one to reflect on the Ulmer Hocker in a wide array of inter-related contexts, and thereby allows Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol to employ the Ulmer Hocker for wider reflections on the relationships between our objects of daily use and other fields of human activity, on the relationships between our objects of daily use and our cultures and societies, on our own individual relationships with our objects of daily use.
And to employ the Ulmer Hocker to allow for better appreciations that while form can follow function, the reality isn’t always that simple. Even in the most simplest of objects.
The Ulmer Hocker: Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol is scheduled to run at the HfG-Archiv, Am Hochsträß 8, 89081 Ulm until Sunday February 27th.
Full details can be found at https://hfg-archiv.museumulm.de/ulm-stool
And as ever in these times, if you are planning visiting any exhibition please familiarise yourself in advance with the current ticketing, entry, safety, hygiene, cloakroom, etc rules and systems. And during your visit please stay safe, stay responsible, and above all, stay curious……
1. The official title in English is The Ulm Stool: Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol, we however prefer the term Ulmer Hocker as for us it is one of these things that must be expressed in the original form, as with, for example, Gare du l’est, Sagrada Família or Oktoberfest…. It’s not something you translate.
2. UPDATE 10.12.2021 Tomás Maldonado, Speech at the beginning of the 1957/58 academic year, October 3rd 1957. HfG Archiv PA 656.2 Quoted, not entirely correctly but close enough to make no real difference, in Studentenselbstverwaltung der Hochschule für Gestaltung, Output, 1, March 1961 Available via http://www.club-off-ulm.de/1961/03/01/output-1/ accessed 08.12.2021
3. Max Bill, Form and Art, in Max Bill, Form. Eine Bilanz über die Formentwicklung um die Mitte des XX. Jahrhunderts, Verlag Karl Werner, Basel, 1952
4. Urs Beutler, katalog für den hocker der hochschule für gestaltung ulm, realised in context of Eugen Gomringer’s Foundation Course “Language as a Means of Representation”, 1957, as displayed in the exhibition
5. Max Bill, Schönheit aus Funktion und als Funktion, Das Werk: Architektur und Kunst, Vol. 36, Nr. 8, 1949
6. Otto G. Carlsund, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Léon Tutundjian & Marcel Wantz, Base de la peinture concrète, Art Concret, Numeo d’introduction, April 1930 Available via https://monoskop.org/Art_concret accessed 08.12.2021
7. Yes, the Ulmer Hocker offers two sitting heights, but you know perfectly well what we mean…..
8. While the problems with the Nazi’s were key in the closure of Bauhaus Berlin and thus the end of Bauhaus, formally it was a lack of cash that forced the closure. A lack of cash very, very closely related to the problems with the Nazis….
9. The essence of a design can also get lost through serial production, not least through manufacturers demanding modifications to allow them to produce within their existing systems. With the Ulmer Hocker, we’d argue, an argument can be made that the need for quickness and cheapness forced the development of new technology, had they had more time, more room for manoeuvre, the jig wouldn’t have been developed but an alternative production system devised. Arguably….
10. Doesn’t fit 100%, you can obviously still over analyse, but does tend to restrict room for changes once an idea becomes physical ……. Otto G. Carlsund, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Léon Tutundjian & Marcel Wantz, Base de la peinture concrète, Art Concret, Numeo d’introduction, April 1930 Available via https://monoskop.org/Art_concret accessed 08.12.2021
11. Since we visited the HfG-Archiv may or may not have introduced a one way system, if they have please ignore us and follow their route…..
12. Max Bill, Die gute Form, Wanderausstellung des Schweizerischen Werkbundes, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich, 1949
13. Inge Aicher-Scholl, HfG-Hocker, Letter to Culture Editor, Südwest Presse, Ulm, 29.04.1977, as displayed in the exhibition… Original “HfG-Hocker, den jedermann nach Belieben und ohne an Honorar oder Lizenzgebühren zu denken, nacharbeiten lassen kann”. Nacharbeiten can also be, is more normally, re-work, modify, but in our reading of the letter, reproduce is very much the intention. We could however be wrong. And we’re not lawyers.
14. We’re not a 100% certain we’re on stable ground with our argumentation, but we like it, and so we’re going with it …. and in any case Plato’s arguments aren’t without their problems and rough edges…..
15. Inge Aicher-Scholl, HfG-Hocker, Letter to Culture Editor, Südwest Presse, Ulm, 29.04.1977, as displayed in the exhibition
Tagged with: HfG Ulm, HfG-Archiv, Idea ─ Icon ─ Idol, Max Bill, Ulm, Ulmer Hocker, West Germany