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Design for life

March 1, 2010

Germany has traditionally had a knack for design, says Andrej Kupetz from the German Design Council. Its trademarks have always been functionality and efficiency, but now another ingredient is coming into play: emotion.

Porsche 911
The Porsche 911 - a perfect piece of German designImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Andrej Kupetz has been managing director of the German Design Council since 1999. Today, the institute is one of the world's leading competence centers for communication and know-how transfer in the design field. DW-WORLD spoke to him about the roots of German design and its relevance in today's globalized world.

Deutsche Welle: How influential internationally has German design been over the last 100 years?

Andrej Kupetz: Very, although almost by accident. Against the backdrop of increased industrial production in the early 20th century, the Bauhaus movement had gained a lot of influence in Germany, but then many of the Bauhaus designers and architects left in the 1930s because of the Nazi regime. They were welcomed in the US, and in 1932, Philip Johnson organized a major show at New York's Museum of Modern Art called Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. It showed mainly German design, and so this became known as The International Style.

Bauhaus building in Dessau
The Bauhaus tradition emphasized efficiency and modernityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This marked the birth of German design, as developed by Bauhaus, which was modern and very efficient in its shape. So, because German designers had to leave Germany for political reasons, their work was introduced to the world. Moreover, it was easy to implement in industrialized countries because it was based on the idea of using the machinery and materials of the time in the best and most efficient way.

Another heyday of German design was the Braun era….

The Braun era was in many ways a continuation of the Bauhaus tradition. In 1953, the German parliament decided to found the German Design Council in response to the fact that after the war, German companies taking part in international fairs - such as the consumer goods fairs in Chicago in 1948 and New York in 1949 - had failed with their products due to bad design.

The government was therefore keen to reactivate the roots of the successful design tradition of the 1920s. So by the 1950s and 1960s, Germany saw Braun reinforcing the ideas of the Bauhaus and applying them to other areas of production. While Bauhaus was very tied to "living" - furniture, tabletop industries and so on - Braun moved into the area of electrical appliances, but with the same underlying aim: to make design as functional as possible.

Is that what characterizes German design?

Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius always talked about "efficiency of design," and even today, German design has a certain minimalist appearance closely linked to the idea of efficiency. German design has a reputation for engineering quality but it often looks very functional and a bit unemotional.

Braun SK-SK 2/1 radio, 1955
Braun design continued the Bauhaus tradition, said KupetzImage: Christoph Bickel

But there's a certain pattern: The designers who left in the 1930s were ambassadors of the German idea in the world, and the German design style is certainly one that can easily be used by other companies. Take Apple. In recent years, the company has very successfully used the design language of Braun from the 1950s and 60s to transport new ideas in the world of consumer electronics.

Where is the current center of German design?

A city like Berlin is very attractive for international designers due to its cheap rents, working spaces and conditions, as well as its creative atmosphere. It has a very vital scene, with a lot of small and medium-sized companies making the most of openness to design: Companies know how important good designers are for their work. But although it's the hub in terms of international awareness, the clusters in terms of making money and thriving relationships between industry and designers are actually the Munich and the Stuttgart regions.

Is design affected by the financial crisis?

The financial crisis has sharpened our self-understanding, our idea of what design is and should be. In the last 20 years, industries have been very marketing-oriented in terms of design. It was used as a way to distinguish products from competitors' products, to differentiate products within a range - very linked to the idea of getting money out of a product or a company.

These days, designers are more critical of this idea, and keen to return to their roots. That involves expressing the best way to meet the needs of society - with sustainability and affordability, for instance. And while a lot of companies that had long-term good design policies and a recognizable brand-related design language are still in good shape, other companies, which lacked a long term view and saw design merely as a marketing tool, have come to grief. Companies with a long term perspective and an understanding of design as a tool to express a relationship with the consumer are doing fine.

Guenter Kupetz' mineral water bottle
Guenter Kupetz' mineral water bottle became an iconImage: Rainer Zenz

As well as sustainability, what are the other major trends in design these days?

One trend we're seeing in Germany - which has always been function and technology oriented - is increased emotionality. The premium sector of the car industry, such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes, is still our biggest industry. Their designers have started introducing much more emotion in their designs in the form of expressive shapes and new materials. This is a very new approach in German design.

You're the son of Guenter Kupetz. He created some icons of German design, such as the mineral water bottle for the Deutsche Brunnengesellschaft. Could you explain what makes an iconic design iconic?

A lot of things need to come together. You need to express customer needs: You can't create an iconic product without a need. The mineral water bottle was closely tied to the development of the soft drink market in Germany in the 1960s. An iconic design needs to suit the times, so it's not just about shape, it's also about the market situation. And sometimes it takes time for a product to become an icon.

Take the 1972 "Tizio" lamp by designer Richard Sapper, another icon of German design. It was 10 to 15 years before this desk lamp really caught on, even though it was always seen as very innovative. But Artemide, the company who made it, believed in it, and eventually it became an iconic desk lamp. So you also need a company with a vision.

Do you have a personal favorite German design object?

Andrej Kupetz
Andrej KupetzImage: German Design Council

The Porsche 911 developed in 1963 by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche. Its shape has never been changed. It's an iconic sports car. He said he wanted to create a car that was neutral. So in a way he failed!

Are you optimistic about the future of German design?

Not necessarily design that's "made in Germany," because many internationally active companies don't actually produce in Germany any more - but "designed in Germany" could definitely last. Germany's design language is very attractive to the world at large.

Is design a luxury or a necessity?

A necessity, absolutely. We can't afford not to invest in design as a German industry. We live in a global world, and Germany needs to offer something special - and design could be that specialty. Designers express changes in society and changes in public needs. Design can change the world.

Interview: Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen