The practical and analytical “making” and “thinking” – are taught and practiced hand-in-hand at HfG Karlsruhe. In order to be able to create new things, it helps to understand existing things. In order to be able to better understand them, it helps to know how they are made and which social, historical, epistemological significance, among others, ensue. How can theory and other art and design practices complement each other in getting to the bottom of an ever-growing complexity of things?
The problem I see in our immediate context is that design theory is fundamentally not firmly rooted at HfG. All of us who have taught art research, art history, media theory and media philosophy, were clearly focused in different directions. Design theory has been left rather under-represented, with the exception of Mr. Hornuff. When we comprehend, however, how we eat, listen, work, etc., it becomes easier for us to understand changes. It would be very important to ground this knowledge. We have not had this so far at HfG and consequently, there were no intensive exchanges between the theory and design departments.
There is a definite problem in the parallel flight of departments that indeed, perhaps move in the same air space but have not yet crossed paths and addressed common projects. But there is also a problem in academic art history itself that limited itself one day solely to art in a completely inexplicable way, missing the whole point of its original common practice – namely the consideration of all things designed. Just think of Alois Riegl and his analyses of everyday objects.
Art history is, in its origin, a design history. A design theory in a holistic sense in which all designed objects, be it art or from an everyday context, are analyzed with the same depth. In this respect, I don’t see it necessarily as an abandoning of art history, rather to take it in earnest in order to now be able to think about design-theoretical questions. I have actually been actively offering design-theoretical topics in the theory department for some time, thereby attracting product and communication designers. They now suddenly come to the theory sessions, which is a great experience and conveys a very concrete impression of lived inter-discipline.
“But there is also a problem in academic art history itself that limited itself one day solely to art in a completely inexplicable way, missing the whole point of its original common practice – namely the consideration of all things designed.” – Daniel Hornuff
For the designers it is very interesting to gain an additional analytical knowledge, helping to understand the objects. How is it the other way around? Is there an endeavor to gain practical knowledge amongst the theorists?
It seems more as if the practitioners attend the theory seminars. The theorists come less frequently to us. It would be of great interest to us to have more visitors from the theory department. If I am asked, “what defines the new?,” I always say, for one, it is the technological development and the other, of course, also our changing behavioral patterns. These are changing rapidly at the moment. We are in the middle of an extreme paradigm change, which we try to bring into expression through the projects we offer. Currently, I am offering a seminar with the title, Eat Wear, about our “equipment” for eating: for instance, when on the move, or for the eating that takes place parallel to work or play with a mobile phone or computer.
In this context, I observed among other things, that eating with chopsticks is absolutely congenial as one can eat with one hand and keep the other free to operate a keyboard. This is not possible in our culture as we always have two pieces of cutlery. Or previously, eating itself was the main focus. When my children eat today, their activity on their mobile phone takes center stage, and not the eating. I perceive it as essential to reflect on such a theme. This is exactly why theory is so important to me: That one reads for example Norbert Elias and his statements on cutlery culture.
“If I am asked, “what defines the new?,” I always say, for one, it is the technological development and the other, of course, also our changing behavioral patterns.” – Volker Albus
That means theory can help us especially with the critical analysis of how we use new technology and how much attention we give it?
You wouldn’t find a project such as “draw an office chair” or “a car with a rear spoiler” with us. A typical topic for us might be “sleeping in the office.” Something that used to be completely taboo. This is about pure convention, as everyone sleeps at lunch in China and it is absolutely ok.
At the same time, one cannot simply put a mattress in an office. How do I deal with the situation of the workplace that corresponds to the space, but allows me to sleep for ten minutes. This is about behavioral patterns, technologies, changed conventions and influences from outside etc. I always say, we are the moderators who have to link these elements. It would of course be ideal in this case, to have correspondence with a design-theory field.
One should also not forget, that there are people from Art Research and Media Philosophy at HfG who study with a pure focus on theory and their prime interests are not design theory or the phenomenology of things.
It would be very difficult for me to say, “we don’t need this or that anymore.” I would rather say, for our project-based system of studies, it would be appropriate that we establish this or the other additional work site.
What Mr. Albus describes, appears to me as the permanent development of new cultural techniques. Where things change, cultural techniques change and new needs emerge to cope with those things. In this respect, I – like Mr. Albus – would not want to tell the story of the loss of culture around eating. Something is changing on a larger scale. A cultural technique is emerging that was not even heard of some years ago. A younger generation is perhaps ahead and has already developed skill sets that are to us, the professors, intuitively not yet accessible.
A design theory – this I find exciting about this approach – is not an independent theory, but more a pulling-together of existing approaches and theories. Media analysis, media theory, sociology, cultural history, aesthetics, and philosophy. All this plays into designtheoretical approaches, and not least the design practitioners themselves who have only just started to contemplate on the development of everyday objects in a theoretical way. This is why this theoretical requirement is already established within the conception of theory as well as of product design at an art university. One ought only to lend it an institutional structure.
“Where things change, cultural techniques change and new needs emerge to cope with those things.” – Daniel Hornuff
At HfG we do not educate people towards a particular job description. This is a model that technical colleges follow. For us it is about working together in a constellation of around thirty to forty people and to follow, analyze and reflect on developments in society. We try to deduce particular consequences from them and develop suggestions that might come into effect in the next five to ten years.
Two years ago, a car company came to us and said they would like to do a project with us. They had unbelievable technologies and practically didn’t know what to do with them. I answered that it is wrong that they should come to me. They ought to go to a kindergarten or to ten-year-olds, because only the really young will tell them things that could lead them down particular pathways. But not myself in my late sixties and the mid-thirty-year-olds also possibly not.
I have seen it in my LED seminar LED it move. There were many students who genuinely thought in classic categories and as an example, designed a floor lamp which just had an LED bulb instead of a normal bulb. Through LED technology, however, we are in a good position to completely re-think lighting, not only in terms of scale, but also regarding placement. A lamp would normally hang from the ceiling or stand on the table. Yet I can carry the new LEDs in my bag and use it everywhere. Of course, this must be transferred to a particular form and use. And this is exactly what we do.
In design, certain spaces of possibilities and perspectives open up for the first time through working in a design studio, a company, or even as a freelancer when working on projects of a certain scale and complexity. To have made a particular product, to have completely produced it and brought it to its conclusion from A to Z, lends a totally different form of working experience than the whole acting as if it were real within the university.
How does this play out with the theorists? Can such an observation be transferred to theoretical work? Is this an area where theorists might learn something from the designers when it comes to realizing a project from A to Z?
Absolutely. And I would even go further and assert that theoretical work itself constitutes a creative design task, if not even product design. We just have different means – another medium – at hand to the classic product designer. But we construct our own theses and theories. These are highly creative endeavors. Even if many researchers would not admit or say so, but what theory does, has of course much in common with production, with making-visible, making-representable, and bringing it into form.
There has also been much conversation about this in my design theory seminars: To what extent is the work of theory a forming action, and the same for the other way around. No product designer just does things. Design is much more a highly reflective process of constant learning. How many designers write about their own actions, thereby bringing them into a different form of expression? The point I want to make is that I simply do not see these categorical differences between product design, design in general and theory, because theoretical work itself is a creative practice and the work of creators is very often one that is enriched through theory.
“I simply do not see these categorical differences between product design, design in general and theory, because theoretical work itself is a creative practice and the work of creators is very often one that is enriched through theory.” – Daniel Hornuff
Do you think that it is also due to the context of the design university that one realizes the fact that theoretical works are also a material practice – in contrast to a pure humanities faculty at a large university, where theorists are completely amongst themselves?
Where else, if not here? This is why theory now faces the challenge, more so than in the last few years, to properly consider which platform they can occupy, how they can show and represent themselves, and how they can think even more like product designers.
Of course we are always aware that the students learn their craft. Everyone should get their “driver’s license.” This means that each person should know how their particular technique works. Our graduates should of course be in the position to get a particular job somewhere, to present their works and so on. That in addition, they pick up the ability to make drawings, make models, design a functioning chair, unlearn a static understanding or to develop a comprehension of function, is actually obligatory and comes with it.
But our self-conception goes even further, as it would not be sufficient to limit ourselves to that. For us, it is about developing students’ selfconception in work, which centrally focusses on, reflects, implements and models the two said sources of information, namely the changes in behavioral patterns and technological developments.
That can really be transferred one-to-one for theory. One has to know how an assignment is written, how a scientific text should be written. You have to have the basic education as your tool. After that, it is only a matter of using it in order to open up new contexts. I find Mr. Albus’ description elucidates again how similar our working processes and structures are. In each case it is about a creative process.
In the interview with Michael Bielicky and Matteo Pasquinelli, we spoke on a very interesting point, namely that working with digital tools has brought the different disciplines closer together. Suddenly very different things emerge from the same origins, everyone sits there with their laptops, one is writing a text and the others are making graphics or building something with a CAD program for the CNC milling machine.
Perhaps you could say that computer work has flattened out the disciplines to a certain degree: the computer as a common denominator and normative impetus of creative work in the early 21st century. Does a strong necessity for a medium-specific professional identity emerge again through this? Perhaps depending on each generation working with these tools?
“Art researchers who visit lectures in Exhibition Design and Scenography begin, for instance, curating exhibitions. The question never surfaces, ‘Am I now an art researcher, am I a curator, or an exhibition designer?’” – Daniel Hornuff
I think that a very powerful leveling and neutralization takes place through the structural standards of computer software, the menu navigation etc. The main differences in identification are indeed only visible in the results. But I also think that it makes a difference how thoroughly you work with these tools and how far you let it drive you.
For example, I recently issued an assessment which required an evaluation of the principle of transfer from gestures and dance to a formation process. This is really something quite different. Gestural exercises that wholly de-couple the formation process from this prosthesis, that is the computer, and to limit it to primal modes of expression. I find such an archaic approach incredibly exciting.
I think I would agree with the diagnosis of your question, just not in the deduction that there is a stronger need for a specialist identification. With our students I observe exactly the opposite. Art researchers who visit lectures in Exhibition Design and Scenography begin, for instance, curating exhibitions. The question never surfaces, “Am I now an art researcher, am I a curator, or an exhibition designer?” They just do it and then they distinguish themselves based on each of their results.
The people who come to my theory seminars from Product Design or Communication Design do not come as “design practitioners,” they integrate themselves into affairs and want to think about design with vigor and then create something that is often accompanied by a theoretical work. Practical works have also been produced like this from the theory seminars. I don’t think the need to identify oneself within limited borders plays such a large role, as what is far more attractive is mixing and the taking in of the other.
*Also originally published in the [Annual Report 2015/2016. The interview will be re-published online soon.
Find out more about the Annual Report 2015/2016