Still Modern: Ulm Design Exhibition Opening Night

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Trays of fresh baked bretzels were carried into RMIT Gallery for the opening night of the Ulm School of Design Exhibition on Thursday 31 July…and by the end of the night, the crowds had snaffled up every last one. Not a bretzel crumb in sight.

The international touring exhibition was opened by Michael R Pearce SC, Honorary Consul-General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Melbourne (pictured below left, with Ulm exhibition curator Dr Martin Mäntele, Director of the HfG Archive), who merrily tucked into a fresh bretzel as soon as he arrived. 

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A large crowd braved the stormy weather to view the exhibition of the renowned Ulm School of Design. Regarded as being second only to the Bauhaus, the Ulm School of Design reflected the spirit of change in Germany in the post-war years, and revolutionised artistic and architectural thinking and production.

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The audience loved the iconic Ulm designs – from the revolutionary Braun SK4 ‘Snow White’s Coffin’ radio and record player to Lufthansa’s corporate branding and the ubiquitous stackable white tableware.

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RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies said in her opening remarks that the relationship between RMIT Gallery and the Goethe-Institut, and Ifa, was finely matched and mutually rewarding.

“RMIT Gallery has introduced many leading European artists to Melbourne and facilitated workshops and skill exchange with photographers, designers, architects, town planners, musicians and gold and silversmiths over the past 30 years,” Ms Davies said.

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Among the audience at the opening were designers and design students who had come to see products and rigorous design exercises produced by the famed ‘Ulm Method’. As Dr. Martin Mäntele explained in his opening speech, in rejecting design as an artistic activity, and focusing instead on inter-disciplinary work, social responsibility and objective design analysis, designers trained at the Ulm School of Design produced work that resulted in iconic mid-twentieth century designs that remain utterly modern and practical.

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Dr Malte Wagenfeld, Head of Industrial Design at RMIT (pictured above, left), will explore the social focus, thinking and impact of the Ulm School and German design in the 60 – to early 80s in a public program talk at RMIT Gallery on 12 August from 12.30 – 1.30 pm.

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The audience were invited to try out the Ulm Model designs themselves by sitting on the Ulm Stool as they watched films from the Ulm Archive and documentaries about the School. Designed in 1955 (and still in production), the Ulm Stool’s construction is simple and inexpensive, with three spruce boards connected by mechanical dovetailing; a strip of beech completes the edging. With postwar austerity and a lack of funds, the stool worked hard as a multi-purpose piece of equipment – it was a chair that could be carried to classes; upside down it could be used to transport books and equipment. One stool placed on a table formed a lectern. it also served as an occasional table or a shelf unit. Bonus!

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After an international tour that has taken the Ulm Model to many countries across the globe, Melbourne is the finale for the exhibition. Melbourne, which did not suffer bombing during the second world war, is a long way from the large photograph of postwar Ulm in ruins (above). But the design philosophy that emerged from the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung or HfG) from 1953 until it closed in 1968, resonated around the world. And on July 31, on a cold and wet Melbourne night, a large crowd gathered to gain a deeper insight into one of the world’s most important contemporary design academies.

The Ulm School of Design Exhibition is at RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne, from 1 to 30 August 2014. 




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