Monday, 12 February 2018

The Braun Identity: The Emergence and Development of Braun Design in the 1950s


The transformation of West Germany from post-war-austerity to international design powerhouse remains one of the more remarkable events in the history of twentieth century design. In just a few short years, the relatively isolated realms of industrial design, consumer product manufacturing and the gute form (good design) movement coalesced into a potent force for change. At the centre of this change and in the larger historical narrative that situates and describes twentieth-century German design, the consumer product manufacturer Braun enjoys an almost mythical status. Following the company’s formulation of a new design program in the mid-1950s, Braun products have been showcased and celebrated at more exhibitions than any other comparable company. This achievement led the global media company Forbes to recognise the company as being responsible for one of the greatest demonstrations of design culture. For some scholars and critics alike, Braun’s products from this era reflect basic human values including authenticity, integrity and honesty. For others, they are the very incarnation of German perfectionism. Braun, according to Bernd Polster, “is not merely a trademark; it stands for an all-encompassing concept”.





Revised logo - Wolfgang Schmittel 1952.


The story of Braun’s meteoric rise in the early 1950s and 1960s has been reiterated so often by historians that it has seemingly become accepted in the popular consciousness. Undeniably, Braun’s pursuit of a particular set of ideals was so remarkable that in a single decade it transformed the German company from a small, though well-established, consumer product manufacturer, into the ultimate standard-bearer of West German modern design. During this period, Braun were unrelenting in their adoption and implementation of a global philosophy. Their ability to exhibit more than physical products — to link their design output to a lifestyle, world-view and even pseudo-philosophical system — made them synonymous with a type of design excellence that would become West Germany’s calling card for international and cultural acceptance during the 1950s and 1960s.

Braun’s process of transformation began with the formulation of a new company philosophy in the mid-1950s. Under the direction of brothers Erwin and Artur Braun and Dr. Fritz Eichler, Braun’s cultural and structural realignment quickly expanded well beyond the design and manufacture of consumer products. Spurred forward by their creative relationship with the educational institution Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (Ulm School of Design), Braun began to not only implement a holistic design pattern in their products, but they began to pay detailed attention to other elements of the industrial and consumer purchase process. Such elements include an almost unprecedented (for the era) fascination with graphic art, typeface, packaging, point of sale merchandising, exhibitions and visual communication in print advertising. Throughout the mid-1950s and 1960s, these processes were examined, refined and standardised, before finally becoming what graphic designer Wolfgang Schmittel describes as “the consolidation and realisation of a profusion of ideas and impulses to form a clear conception of the company”. This supposedly “clear conception” implemented through a modern lifestyle and communicated to the world through its visual communication (advertising), is the focus of my present dissertation.





Braun Phonosuper SK4 (Snow White's Coffin) - 1956
Designers: Dieter Rams and Hans Gugolet
Images: HfG-Archi Ulm, Ulm.



These ideas about morality and honesty in representation are close to the heart of the research question my dissertation seeks to answer. One of the very few academics to have critically evaluated Braun’s attempt to visually communicate a lifestyle in their advertising, is Erica Carter. In her article: The Aesthetics of Rationality - Braun in 1950s West Germany, Carter revaluates the widely-held view that Braun only played one role in post-war West Germany: that of the leader in consumer product design and technical innovation. She argues instead that the impact of the company on post-war modern design in general, should be revisited within the context of political, economic and social debates of the time. This requires acknowledging the power Braun wielded as a force for culture generation and transmission. In this way, Carter reaffirms that the company’s new direction presented the consumer with a lifestyle, one which she specifically terms a “Braun lifestyle”, marketed through a specific strategy in their advertising campaigns. Indeed, Carter even proposes that Braun’s approach to “lifestyle marketing” was so potent that it “paved the way for future generations of lifestyle promoters”. The argument illuminates the disparity between HfG’s guiding vision for design (honesty and morality), and Braun’s own corporate and design philosophy, which was distorted by the consumerist and capitalist framework in which they operated. The company’s efforts to promote a gute form lifestyle, however laudable, served to shape an entirely new set of social norms, pressures and burdens.



Braun D 55 Stand and various products - 1955
(mockup installation at the HfG)
Image: HfG-Archiv Ulm, Ulm. 


It remains to be argued if indeed Braun sought to perpetuate a specific consumer ideology, or if they reinforced any dominant political agenda in post-war West Germany through their advertising. Currently, the assessment is that Braun had made a deliberate move into the same philosophical space occupied by the HfG; a space in which honesty, integrity and functionality were essential, and incorporated into their advertisements at a foundational level. However, though this move was undoubtedly commendable, the new advertising direction exposes two conflicting dimensions. The first, and perhaps the most obvious break from the Max Braun era, is that from 1955 onwards, all Braun advertising material adhered to one reference concept –developed by Otl Aicher of the HfG in Ulm. Second, and an aspect which is central to the analysis of the main material of this thesis, is that the products are shown in their corresponding idealised environment, acting as document evidence of a modern lifestyle – a Braun Lifestyle. Thus, to pursue these issues, and uncover the layers of significance embedded in Braun’s advertising, they must first be conceptually transformed from physical objects into vessels of meaning. The introduction to my theoretical framework will be my task for the next blog…



'High Fidelity: Information for Architects' - advertisement - 1962
Image: Braun Archive, Kronberg.

Carter, E. (1995). How German is She? Postwar West German Reconstruction and the Consuming Woman. University of Michigan Press.
Polster, B. (2010). Braun: Fifty Years of Design and Innovation. Axel Menges.
Schmittel, W. (1978). Visual Process: Development of a Corporate Identity. Konrad Baumann.

Ian Owen is lecturer in Architecture at the School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire.