German Objects Design Culture and Feeling for Life

Stuhl A660 by Thonet, Design: James Irvine
Stuhl A660 by Thonet, Design: James Irvine | © Gebrüder Thonet GmbH

What do Thonet chairs, Braun appliances or new designer fashions from Berlin reveal about Germans’ view of the world? Is there a specifically German type of design, and if so, what distinguishes it? Joana Breidenbach, an ethnologist and cultural studies expert, in an interview with Goethe.de.

Portrait Joana Breidenbach Portrait Joana Breidenbach | Photo: private Is there in fact a specifically German feeling for life, and do products such as Bulthaup kitchens, Mercedes-Benz or fashion by Jil Sander and Joop transport aspects of this inner German landscape?

A blanket answer to this question is of course impossible in a nation with over 80 million inhabitants. We speak habitually about German culture, but this is a fiction. When in doubt, a Berlin Internet entrepreneur has more values, norms and behaviour patterns in common with a Hungarian or Colombian colleague than she does with a German farmer’s wife from Chiemgau.

However, in Deutsche und Dingwelt (i.e. the Germans and the world of objects), I was able to show that a highly conscious movement existed at the turn of the 20th century that attempted to create a link between supposedly German characteristics and objects “Made in Germany,” and succeeded, too. But since the 1970’s at the latest, we have been seeing a great differentiation of lifestyles – in Germany as well as world-wide – and it is increasingly difficult to speak of a German feeling for life that finds expression in consumer goods.

Can one describe the transfer of national characteristics to the world of objects as a process inherent in every culture, or has “German-ness” been deliberately constructed and transported here?

Thonet “Bugholzstuhl” Thonet “Bugholzstuhl” | © Gebrüder Thonet GmbH On the one hand, a certain pictorial and formal language evolves among design students, that is expressive of their attitude towards life. On the other, designers naturally make use of the inventory of forms from recent decades to give themselves a profile, and in this context, referencing “Germanness” is definitely a winning strategy, since “Made in Germany” still has an excellent reputation internationally. If there is such a thing as a German style in design – engineering aesthetics, practical, made with high-quality materials and therefore durable – then in my view this is less an expression of German lifestyle culture, and more a consciously selected stand-out feature in an increasingly fiercely competitive international designer scene that is struggling to find uniquely distinguishing features.

Do objects retroactively affect their users, or in other words: does design per se have a cultural impact on German identity?

From an ethnological viewpoint, objects – including consumer goods – are essential constitutive elements of the self. Do I shop in an organic foods shop or at a discount supermarket, do I wear fur or hemp fabric, do I choose a stainless steel kitchen or the one with a Provence-look? We communicate with each other and give off signals to our surroundings about who we are by means of these supposedly superficial phenomena. The question here is, once again, whether this mechanism can also be transferred to a large-scale unit like “the Germans.” I’d say no, and instead just state that there definitely are population groups in Germany in which a BMW or a Braun alarm clock play a part in shaping their identity and actions.

Label “Frau Wagner” Label “Frau Wagner” | Photo: Anja Bleyl © Frau Wagner Label “Frau Wagner” Label “Frau Wagner” | Photo: Anja Bleyl © Frau Wagner A side visit to the world of fashion design: while until recently, German fashion was represented by severe cuts, functional apparel and Birkenstock shoes, today, especially in Berlin, a number of young fashion designers have established themselves, who have tailored together innovative design, elegance and the Berlin scene-look into a new German format that is currently being received in both the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as in Japan. Is the German psyche changing?

Berlin is a cosmopolitan city where many influences converge. For me, a designer like Susanne Wagner, who reinvents old sportswear under the label “Frau Wagner” – Adidas tracksuits are turned into cool shirts or elegant evening dresses – exemplifies the Berlin feeling for life: her fashion is egalitarian, imaginative, creative and sustainable. The only constant in culture is change.

Do you prefer a particular national design style for yourself?

Braun SK 61 Braun SK 61 | Photo: xavax via Wikimedia Commons No, in design I live out a whole range of facets: in our flat in Berlin, next to a few heirlooms, we have mostly modern furniture that designer friends of ours did for Italian, German or French firms. For our house in France, we collected things from Provence. And again, one probably notices from my clothing style that I was socialised as a teenager in England and today work in a Kreuzberg Internet start-up. And there are objects all over the place that we have collected on our trips. All pretty much creolised.
 

Dr. Joana Breidenbach (born 1965) studied ethnology in Munich, Berkeley and London. She has published numerous books and articles on the cultural consequences of globalisation, among them Tanz der Kulturen (i.e. dance of cultures), (with Ina Zukrigl) Verlag Antje Kunstmann 1998, Maxikulti, Campus 2008 and Seeing Culture Everywhere, (with Pál Nyiri) University of Washington Press 2009. She worked for many years as a columnist for the business magazine brand eins. Breidenbach is a co-founder of betterplace.org, the German platform for social engagement, where she directs the betterplace lab.