Ferdinand Kramer Original designs according to functional principles

Cane chair for one of the houses of J.J.P Oud, Weißenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart, 1927
Cane chair for one of the houses of J.J.P Oud, Weißenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart, 1927 | Photo: Dr. Lossen & Co., Kramer Archive

Throughout his life the Frankfurt architect Ferdinand Kramer combined the ideal of modern architecture with functionality suited to everyday life. The practical originally and simple beauty of his work still makes it convincing today.

Ferdinand Kramer, 1970 Ferdinand Kramer, 1970 | Photo: Trebor, Kramer Archive The principle is simple, but logical: as with a pattern for a textile skirt, three planks are cut from a rectangular plywood board, with almost no loss of material. Using a few dowels and angles, they can be as quickly assembled into a table as taken apart and space-savingly stored or transported. The variable coffee-table of the series Knock-Down by Ferdinand Kramer is characteristic of the work of the German architect. Geared to mass production, the design from 1951 reflects his highly modern approach and captures the spirit of the advanced industrial age, marked by mobility and a democratic morale.

Between the wars – 1918 to 1925

Coffee table in the house of Albert Metzler, Arnoldshain / Taunus, 1957 Coffee table in the house of Albert Metzler, Arnoldshain / Taunus, 1957 | Photo: Kramer Archive Born in 1898 in Frankfurt am Main, Kramer became acquainted early with the craft of shipbuilding at his grandfather’s shipyard, which “demanded production of the highest quality by the most economical means, which are the result of purpose, material and work”. Moulded by this fundamental stance, Kramer decided to study architecture. But after his school leaving examination and before he could attend university, he had to go to the front in 1916, where he, an infantryman fighting in the trenches, designed presumably his first project: the prototype of the Kramer Oven, which yielded the optimum heat output without revealing the position by tell-tale columns of smoke.

Ferdinand Kramer, “Siedlung Westhausen”, Laubenganghäuser, 1929 Ferdinand Kramer, “Siedlung Westhausen”, Laubenganghäuser, 1929 | Photo: Geschwister Leistikow, Kramer Archive The end of the First World War and the subsequent social upheavals such as inflation, unemployment and housing shortages led to an enormous demand for practical and inexpensive household appliances and functional furniture for small living spaces. As a result, after completing his architectural studies at the Technical University of Munich in 1922, Kramer, again in Frankfurt, began to design mainly furniture and everyday objects. The focus on designing objects was not the result of only inflation and the consequent lack of construction contracts: it was characteristic of the interwar period to see all areas of architecture and design as part of a new project of life – modernity.

New Frankfurt – 1925 to 1938

Lecture hall, staircase, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt, 1958 Lecture hall, staircase, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt, 1958 | Photo: Kramer Archive In his designs Kramer pursued typing as a flexible concept for the solution of problems in both architecture and mass production. Thus it is hardly surprising that he worked from 1925 to 1930 in the Frankfurt Construction Department led by Ernst May in the typing department, building the so called New Frankfurt. This unique housing programme shows how Kramer had taken to heart the social policy objectives of the time and implemented them in architecture and design. Under the title of Frankfurter Register, he designed both standardized components such as windows and doors and cost-effective everyday objects such as doorknobs, light fixtures and combinable furniture oriented to the new type of a rationalized mass society. He also took part in the planning of the four-storey loggia apartment buildings in the Westhausen settlement.

Rectorate, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1953 Rectorate, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, 1953 | Photo: Sigrid Neubert, Kramer Archive

In America – 1938 to 1951

The modernity of his work met with rejection by the emerging Third Reich. In 1937 the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts issued a professional ban against Kramer, who was then working as a self-employed architect, and vilified his architecture as degenerate. In 1938 he followed his wife, who as a Jew had already emigrated, to the United States. In New York he resolved to look upon “the completely different way of life as a challenge”. The thoroughly rationalized mass society, with its pragmatic and mobile style of life, inspired him, and long before companies like IKEA he created flexible furniture that could be easily taken apart, was easy to transport and could be assembled by its users.

Couch “Theban”, 1925, e15 Couch “Theban”, 1925, e15 | ©

Frankfurt again – 1952 to 1985

With his appointment in 1952 as Building Director for the re-construction of the Goethe University, which was badly damaged in the World War II, Kramer returned to Frankfurt. There he developed the master plan for a new campus, which he was able to implement down to the smallest detail in 25 university buildings and the University Library. His restructuring of the old main building became an emblem: for the greatly increased number of students, he replaced the neo-Baroque portal with a seven metres-wide glass entrance cut into the façade. This bright and inviting structure was intended to demonstrate the transformation of the university from a place of hierarchies to one of democratic transparency, open to all levels of society.

Sofa “Westhausen”, 1926, e15 Sofa “Westhausen”, 1926, e15 | ©
While Kramer’s architectural works in post-war Frankfurt are today acutely threatened with demolition, and a few have already been pulled down, his furniture is in great demand. For example, in 2012, with its “Ferdinand Kramer Collection”, the Hessian furniture manufacturer E15 presented the first-ever re-edition of designs from Kramer’s three major creative periods. Among the re-editions are the self-assemble coffee tables of the Knock-Down series, designed during Kramer’s American exile, which not only illustrate the practicality, versatility and space-saving characteristic of the so called Kramer principle, but also show the relevance with which his designs continue to influence the present.

Coffee tables “Calvert” und “Charlotte”, 1951, e15 Coffee tables “Calvert” und “Charlotte”, 1951, e15 | ©