May 10th, 2005



I told you the other day about British (well, Swedish-Japanese-French-Australian) conceptual design group Åbäke. Well, I must be getting a taste for conceptual design groups, because I thought by far the most interesting thing at the main Designmai campus, which I visited yesterday, was the presentation by German collective REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND. Despite an exhibition blurb which seemed to downplay conceptual games ("though many young German designers are attracted by the idea of an experimental and conceptual involvement with design, most designers would like to work for industrial clients...", said the sign on the wall, rather reprovingly), the REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND display, and the group's concepts, shone like a beacon in a show mostly given over to rather humdrum, humourless, tired and unoriginal corporate work.

Sometimes satire and innovation are the same thing. Everything is chugging along just fine in a discipline — pop music, design, whatever. There are norms, habits, maxims. It all looks like common sense, although in fact it's just repetition and conformity. Then — bang! — out jump these jokers who mock the whole thing, send it up because they're not really invested in it, terribly bored by it, and have no jobs and nothing to lose. Maybe they live in Berlin, where there isn't much work anyway, and money doesn't constrain what you can say because there isn't much of that either. They want to change the paradigms and put themselves at the centre of a new way of doing things. And on their mockery they build something good, against all the odds. You have to knock something down before you can build something new. I mean, just look around Berlin, all these empty spaces...

REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND's contribution to Designmai was a display of the HAUSBAU, a cubic living unit based on the group's Swiftian parody of the German Modernist fascination with irrational rationalisation and extreme reduction and simplification. "Shaped like a cube," said the blurb, "it reduces the dream of owning your own home to an absolute minimum." I'm not sure if that statement's double meaning is a joke, but the cramped cube filled with sharp-edged cubic furniture would certainly reduce anyone's desire to own property.

Before we go any further, here's REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND's manifesto, drafted when they formed in 2001:

1. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND will arrange a new Germany in all areas.
2. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND will develop strategies and products for a large community of fortunate and equal humans.
3. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND knows: the simplest solution is the best solution.
4. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND is a collective of experts. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND connects designers, technicians, jurists, architects, scientists of all disciplines.
5. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND is a commercial and a community project. All members share the profit equally. All losses are seized from all members.
6. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND wants to introduce the decimal system to all areas. 100 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, 1000 days in a year.
7. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND wants to replace German with Rededeutsch. Rededeutsch has simplified grammar and is easy to learn without prior knowledge in a few hours.
8. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND offers solutions which apply globally. REDESIGNEUROPE and REDESIGNWORLD are coming.
9. REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND is a registered trade mark.

The absurdity of mixing corporate and communist platitudes! The silly homilies, maxims and saws that get bandied around in design talk ("the simplest solution is the best solution" indeed)! REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND grasp the thorny problem of proposing any sweeping utopian project in a land where such schemes are still more likely to evoke nightmares than dreams. Their manifesto has an unreliable narrator. It's a manifesto with some chilly undertones. Does point 8 deliberately evoke Nazism? First we remake Germany, then Europe, then the entire world! And is 6 a satire on Brussels and its metric measures, or an allusion to the French Revolutionary Calendar, which also "redesigned" the day into ten hours of a hundred minutes of a hundred seconds — exactly 100,000 seconds per day? The group clearly has a thing about the Bauhaus, but also about anal and reductive Germanic standards of all kinds: they've developed their own RIN standard measure to replace the DIN system devised by the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (the Federal German Authority for Testing, Calibration and Certification).

So this is design as wry satire — as wry as the Rededeutsch and RedeEnglish readings of the prologue to Goethe's Doktor Faustus playing on a video monitor inside the HAUSBAU. When I visited, elderly German ladies were laughing profusely at the readings. Is RedeEnglish a wink in the direction of Orwell's Newspeak? Is the standarised interior of the HAUSBAU a reference to Truffault's Fahrenheit 451? Does the A01 that greets visitors to the REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND website reference the legendary absurdist matrix numbers of the Factory Records catalogue (FAC101, for instance, appears on the catalogue as "the intention to convert some warehouses into lofts")?

The references to a parade of 20th century anti-utopian classics are unavoidable, and Surrealist and Situationist attacks on rationality come to mind as well, yet it's difficult to say whether there isn't also a measure of admiration or nostalgia for minimalism, tidiness, reduction, simplicity and ultra-planning in REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND's work. These people have a sense of humour, but they are also, finally, Germans. "Storm and Stress" sits in an uneasy dialectic with "Neat and Tidy", Post-Modernism sneers nostalgically in the direction of Modernism, Utopia slips on a big bananaskin, and satire mingles with ambition.

REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND: I understand them all too well.