Federal President Theodeor Heuss's unofficial visit to the HfG, 28 July 1958
Federal President Theodeor Heuss's unofficial visit to the HfG, 28 July 1958
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv 58/0180

The beginnings

Strongly influenced by the National Socialist dictatorship, two young adults from Ulm, Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher, became involved in setting up the Ulm School of Adult Education (vh ulm) in 1946 to promote a new democratic beginning. Attracting intellectuals from Germany and abroad, this place of intellectual reorientation gave rise to the idea of a university for politics, where a new democratic elite would be educated. When the Swiss Max Bill, a former Bauhaus student, joined the circle, the idea gained momentum and the focus shifted to design, following on from the Bauhaus idea.

The daring and highly ambitious plan succeeded, and teaching began on 3 August 1953. With Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, Walter Peterhans and Helene Nonné-Schmidt as lecturers, former Bauhaus members teach the first 21 students – initially in the rooms of the Ulm School of Adult Education. In September of the same year, the foundation stone is laid for a school complex with a campus on the »Oberer Kuhberg«.

The institution is supported by the Geschwister Scholl Foundation, which was established by Inge Scholl in 1951 in memory of her siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were murdered by the National Socialists.

Construction and opening

of the HfG Ulm

The construction of the HfG buildings was realised thanks to a donation of one million marks from the American McCloy Fund. This was linked to the condition of complementary donations of the same amount, which was achieved through the acquisition of grants from the federal government, the city of Ulm and donations from industry and business. Parts of the interior design and furnishings were designed as project work virtually on site by teams of lecturers and students.

On 2 October 1955, the HfG was opened in the presence of numerous personalities from the worlds of culture and business, including the former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius.

Basic design course in the Mensa or in the large lecture hall, 1955
Basic design course in the Mensa or in the large lecture hall, 1955
Photographer: Eva Maria-Koch, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv Dp 117.004.27
Dancers at the baptism in the Designer Monastery, October 25, 1963
Dance at the baptism in the Designer Monastery, October 25, 1963
Photographer: Michael Penck, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, inventory number: HfG-Archiv Dp 069.60-8

Studying at the HfG Ulm

The overarching aim of the educational concept is to combine scientific-technical and artistic-design skills and knowledge with an awareness of socio-political responsibility and education. Five specialisations are offered: Information, Visual Design (later Visual Communication), Product Design and Industrialised Construction. The Film department, which was initially part of Visual Communication, was spun off in 1961 and from then on was headed by Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz.

The degree programme lasts four years and culminates in a diploma. Practical design work is at the centre of the course.

Bill's resignation and reorientation of the HfG (1956-1961)

The endeavours of younger lecturers such as Otl Aicher, Hans Gugelot, Tomás Maldonado and Walter Zeischegg to open up teaching content and link design and science more closely with one another led to fierce controversy. Max Bill then resigned as Rector and finally left the university in 1957. The management is taken over by a rectorate college consisting of Aicher, Gugelot, Maldonado and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart in 1957/58. As a result, the curriculum was more strongly orientated towards scientific knowledge and its benefits for design: »the ulm model emerged: a model of design based on technology and science, the designer no longer as a superior artist, but as an equal partner in the decision-making process of industrial production«, wrote Otl Aicher.

In basic research, in theory and method, HfG members carried out pioneering work. At the same time, they shaped and moulded the professional image of the designer that is common today. There was no longer any room for the autonomous artist-designer at the Ulm School of Design.

In focus:

The »system«

The focus is less on working on individual designs, however, and more on complex solutions for the phenomenon of transport, for example. In interdisciplinary studies, a specific feature of the HfG, it is comprehensively analysed: from the railcar to the timetable, from the bus stop to the ticket machine.

The approach developed here of designing entire »systems« draws international attention to »ulm«, which has another unique selling point in its strong socio-political orientation – and which indulges in consistent lower-case writing.

Lessons with Otl Aicher, 1958
Lessons with Otl Aicher, 1958
Photographer: Wolfgang Siol, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, signature: HfG Archive 58/0282

First successes

The first successes come quickly, particularly in the field of product design. At the German Radio, Television and Phono Exhibition in Düsseldorf, the company Braun AG caused a sensation with its new phono devices designed at the HfG Ulm under the direction of Hans Gugelot.

At the International Building Exhibition »Interbau« in Berlin in 1957, the HfG Ulm set up two show flats under his direction. At the Hanover Industrial Fair, Hans (Nick) Roericht presents the TC 100 stackable crockery, which consists of just a few parts that can be used in different ways.

A travelling exhibition about the HfG Ulm is shown in Stuttgart in 1962, at the Neue Sammlung in Munich in 1964 and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1965. In 1962, the E5 development group begins work on the Lufthansa corporate design. In 1967, Aicher became the official design commissioner for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, whose entire visual identity would bear his signature.

Although it is part of its programme not to pursue design from a style perspective, the HfG has a style-defining effect: it frees objects from the ballast of all »superfluous« things.

An ongoing experiment

Unlike established institutions, the HfG could not fall back on a tried and tested concept when it started. In keeping with its experimental character, the curricula and the university constitution were therefore constantly revised, and the rectorate changed several times.

In the 1960s, lecturers such as mathematician Horst Rittel and sociologist Hanno Kesting favoured a science-oriented teaching concept. Ergonomic studies are carried out or mathematically-oriented company analyses are pursued. Lecturers such as Aicher or Maldonado, who did not want to reduce design to a purely analytical method, stood in opposition to this. In the end, the dispute over direction was resolved in favour of practice-oriented subjects.

Group picture on the terrace, taken on Inge Aicher-Scholl's birthday, August 11, 1956
Group picture on the terrace, taken on Inge Aicher-Scholl's birthday, August 11, 1956
Photographer: Ernst Hahn, © HfG Archive / Museum Ulm, signature: HfG Archive Dp 090.044-2

The end (1968)

The HfG is repeatedly subjected to fierce attacks from outside, which also call into question its eligibility for funding. The foundation was increasingly in debt, and the cancellation of federal subsidies led to restricted teaching activities. When the HfG Ulm was unable to meet the repeated demands of the state of Baden-Württemberg for a coherent curriculum, the state subsidies were also cancelled in the politically turbulent year of 1968. The Geschwister Scholl Foundation, the sponsor of the HfG Ulm, was then forced to close the school.