How German design immigrated to America – and stayed

For most Americans, encounters with Apple’s iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad don’t immediately conjure up thoughts of Germany. And yet the master-mind behind Apple’s iconic designs, British-born industrial designer Jonathan Ive, is quite open about the profound influence German industrial designer Dieter Rams has had on his work. Rams, in turn, has said that Apple is one of the few companies that genuinely understands “good design.”

Place the iPod next to one of Rams’ 50s and 60s product designs for Braun, and it’s easy to see why. Rams’ 10 principles for good design, which include innovation, the ability to help us understand a product, and the key “good design is as little design is possible” permeate Apple products to the core.

And Apple is just one example. German designers’ focus on simplicity, intelligence, craftsmanship and innovation has held great appeal for Modernism -loving Americans for decades.

It started with Bauhaus. Founded in Germany by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the hugely influential Bauhaus school sought to create a total work of art that brought all art forms together, reconciling unique craftsmanship with mass production.

Under Nazi pressure, the school closed in 1933. It was a tragedy for the creative minds associated with the school – but for the United States, it meant the arrival of a wave of Bauhaus teachers and students who would influence American art and architecture, as well as its graphic, interior and industrial design.

Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus school’s last architect-director, were among the émigrés. Rohe, whose work the Nazis had rejected as not being German enough, quickly made a name for himself in the US. He became head of the Department of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and introduced the influential Second Chicago School, with a new way of designing skyscrapers like his IBM Plaza in Chicago. Rohe’s famous Barcelona chair, created for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, is also popular in the US.

A few more items from Bauhaus’ American portfolio: Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House outside Chicago and Gropius’ 1938 Boston area house  impacted the work of such leading American architects as Philip Johnson, who designed the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian-born modernist and Bauhaus student and teacher, designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Artist Josef Albers greatly influenced art education.

And today? True, German design does not get the instant look of recognition enjoyed by its Scandinavian or Italian counterparts (the German Design Council attributes this to Germany’s marketing mechanism). But, like their Bauhaus predecessors, contemporary German designers share a passion for reinventing everyday items that resonates across the Atlantic.

In 2010, Konstantin Grcic’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his MYTO chair got the attention of The New York Times  for its ultra-eco-friendly design and trademark logical, inventive approach. His work, along with that of fellow German designer Werner Aisslinger, is now part of the prestigious MoMA collection (as are Dieter Rams’ Braun designs).

German-born multi-disciplinary artist Timothy Schreiber, winner of three prestigious red dot design awards, is represented by the Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia. And Elisa Strozyk, (who won the 2010 German Design Award for Newcomers for her parquet floor/fabric hybrid designs) is attracting attention with her experimental work with wood.

Looking to incorporate German design into your life? You can find a wide range of modern classics, like the Barcelona chair, here.

If you like learning about industrial design, you might enjoy the 2009 documentary Objectified.

Anastasya Partan, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a guest blogger for She was born in Moscow, raised in the US, and has lived in New York, Washington, DC, London, Paris, and Copenhagen. With both a corporate and creative background, she writes for international brands and explores topics related to lifestyle, culture and the arts.

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4 Responses to How German design immigrated to America – and stayed

  1. Pingback: German and Scandinavian design in America | Just off the boat.

  2. Pingback: German and Scandinavian design in America « Art Wrap

  3. Pingback: German and Scandinavian design in America « Art Wrap

  4. John Blee says:

    Interesting the influence on Apple!

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