On Behalf of Progressive Design
Two Modern Campuses in Transcultural Dialogue

Regina Bittner
publication date: 12.2018

“The Indian state has only existed for 13 years. And world history would be unthinkable without its unorthodox influence. India has delivered more new content in the last decade than any other country.” HfG Ulm founder Otl Aicher’s report on his trip to India in 1960 and the slides he took during his journey across the country are impressive observations of a country in upheaval. From today’s perspective, this material reads like an overture to the future collaboration between two design schools: the HfG Ulm and the NID in Ahmedabad.



“The Indian state has only existed for 13 years. And world history would be unthinkable without its unorthodox influence. India has delivered more new content in the last decade than any other country. He, not Russia, brought the concept of coexistence into the discussion. It has established the concept of positive neutrality. It has conceived non-violence, the idea of the third force, non-alignment towards the power blocs. It has softened classical diplomacy and the politics of power. His path of liberation from colonialism was an example for a number of states. It has produced political personalities of unusual moral authority: Gandhi and Nehru. Although it is a speculative assertion, there is some evidence that without India we would be in a massive confrontation between East and West today.”[1]



Otl Aicher’s report on his trip to India in 1960 with the strange title Prerequisites for Development is a fascinating document testifying to the mood of a generation that had experienced National Socialism and war, and then watched with concern the postwar geopolitical tensions of the Cold War. It is a report on the country’s economic, social, political and cultural situation—not free of exoticism—but at the same time full of sympathy for the subcontinent’s desire to modernize. In addition to this typewritten manuscript, there is another document of this journey in the Ulm archive: “India 1960: Thoughts on the occasion of a visit to India in May 1960.” In sketches and texts, the designer made concrete suggestions for solving traffic problems, organizing settlement structures and building houses. The slides that Aicher took during his journey across the country are impressive snapshots of a country in upheaval. From today’s perspective, the materials gathered on this journey by HfG (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm) founder Otl Aicher read like an overture to the future collaboration between two design schools, which has had a lasting influence on post-war modernism in design and architecture: the HfG Ulm and the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.

Both campuses were exemplary platforms in the struggle for a contemporary design attitude, which generally determined the discourses on modernism in architecture and design of the 1950s and 60s. The American architectural historian Sarah William Goldhagen speaks of “Anxious Modernisms,” of the search for creative positions in a changed global order, shaped by Western mass consumption and the emergence of welfare societies, of the systemic competition between East and West, and new alliances within the global South. The fact that in the 1950s people distanced themselves from “classical modernism” had not only generational causes. It was above all indicative of social, economic and cultural shifts which assigned a new role to the designer.[2] Newly founded universities and colleges emerged around the globe, part of the promise of modern interventionist governments to facilitate education and social advancement. These institutions served as a breeding ground for debates focused on re-establishing a critical design practice capable of intervening in everyday life. In the geopolitical context of the Cold War and national independence, the two universities HfG and NID, integrated as they were within international networks of experts, institutions and actors, were special places for the redefinition of the relationship between design and society.


After the Bauhaus: Ulm

Together with Inge Scholl and Hans Werner Richter, Otl Aicher was one of the founders of the HfG Ulm. First of all, the university, determined by the spirit of anti-fascism, was charged with producing a new generation of democratically oriented journalists, academics, cultural actors and publicists committed to the public. The idea of such a new and independent school was based on the adult education center initiated by Inge Scholl. The elder sister of the Hans and Sophie Scholl—core members of the White Rose student resistance movement executed for treason by the Nazis near the end of World War II—had established HfG as a place for political debate and democratic education in Ulm. Scholl was convinced that the search for an intellectual and cultural new beginning after the disaster of National Socialism had to begin with the schools. In 1949 Inge Scholl worked together with Otl Aicher and Hans Werner Richter on a curriculum for contemporary/political “re-education.” Thanks to their broad international network, they also came into contact with Max Bill, a former Bauhaus student and president of the Schweizerischer Werkbund (Swiss Werkbund). Bill, for his part, regarded the focus on political education as too exclusive. In his opinion the political portion was better understood as an integral part of the entire curriculum. Possessing an authentic Werkbund-ish attitude, Bill began to teach political education within everyday life, applying it to the design of everyday necessities, urban planning and architecture. Bill was offered the post of school director on account of the cultural capital he possessed, including his Bauhaus past and his relationship with Walter Gropius, and thus, with the American occupation forces. Paul Betts has pointed out that the Bauhaus, as the cultural representative of a past uncontaminated by National Socialism—namely the Weimar Republic— offered the example of Germany’s liberal democratic heritage in the project of reorientation towards Western liberalism. Walter Gropius in particular occupied a privileged position in postwar West German/American cultural policy. According to Betts, Gropius and the "Americanized" Bauhaus now embodied what the culture of the Cold War was all about, namely the cultural values West Germany’s shared with the United States: antifascism, anticommunism, international modernism. The cleansing and de-politicization of Bauhaus history from a past interwoven with leftist tendencies was part of this strategy.[3] Against this background, the Bauhaus represented a persuasive, ideologically unimpeachable cultural legacy in the founding of the HfG, which also helped to justify the financing of the school with funds from the American Re-Education Fund. Many former Bauhaus actors, including Walter Gropius, were present at the opening of the Ulm-Kuhberg campus designed by Max Bill. But as important as their support for the formation of the HfG may have been at the outset, in its curriculum, its architecture and its products, the school constantly struggled to establish a contemporary reference to the Bauhaus.

Max Bill’s university building is still regarded as a model for creating a cooperative living and working environment between students and lecturers. In both its organization and structure it refers to the Bauhaus building in Dessau, but in its rationalism Bill’s building radically rejects hierarchies, and environs tendencies towards representation and subjectivity. In the early years, the curriculum, too, was still organized in the Bauhaus tradition: at the HfG there was a basic apprenticeship—initially taught by Josef Albers (who had previously conducted the preliminary course at the Bauhaus) and Walter Peterhans (former head of the Bauhaus photography class)—and the training took place in workshops designed after the Bauhaus model. But while Bill’s intended to train the “artist designer” as a cultural mediator between industry and the market, charged with creating good forms for everyday objects as “cultural goods,” his successor, the Argentine Tomás Maldonado, distanced himself from Bill’s moral idealism. What Maldonado wanted was a school that could handle the current tasks of industrial design, ascribing a completely new role to the designer. The designer, Maldonado thought, should be an active partner of modern industry; more a coordinator than a mediator.[4] And his orientation towards a scientific design theory based on rational criteria imparting the latest technical knowledge, along with his introduction of so-called development groups, also found international recognition. In the intellectual climate of post-war Germany, however, this was considered controversial, since the belief in technological progress had been so deeply shaken by the Nazi killing machines and the atomic bomb. After all, it was also the National Socialist legacy, in which aesthetics and politics were so closely interlinked, which had forced the Ulmers to adopt a creative attitude based on science and rationality.[5] Supported by a network of international designers and theoreticians such as Abraham Moles, Bruce Archer, Charles Morris, and Charles and Ray Eames, a design culture was promoted at HfG, opposing the flood of mass-produced consumer goods with rationally justifiable consumer goods.

In the school’s own magazine, ulm, Maldonado asked in 1963 whether the Bauhaus was still topical. With certain restrictions, this question, he said, could be answered in the affirmative: not the Bauhaus introduced as an educational institution or art and architecture movement of the 1920s, but the attempt “to uncover a humanist view of technical civilization” was once again relevant in the 1960s. In contrast to a more restorative understanding of the Bauhaus in post-war Germany, Maldonado called for “a ruthless examination of conscience” in examining the reasons why the Bauhaus was closed three times. Even though the comprehensive volume on the Bauhaus edited by Hans Maria Wingler contributed to this project, once again hardly any note was taken of the work of Hannes Meyer, who in particular should be considered a role model for the HfG Ulm.[6] 

The examination of the legacy of the Bauhaus finally forms something like the basso continuo of the school on the Kuhberg. While Maldonado distanced himself from the “expressionist Bauhaus,” which in his view was represented by his predecessor Max Bill and the former Bauhäuslers still teaching at the school, whose position, in his estimation, was that of an outmoded neo-academic formalism. Already in the HfG’s founding phase Max Bill had to deal as well with accusations from the artist group The International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, with Asger Jorn, one of the group’s chief protagonists, expressing his desire to use the international movement of an imaginary Bauhaus to promote free experimentation, the ecstasy of expression, and waste in play. The correspondence between Jorn and Bill is an impressive testimonial to the cultural conflicts of those years, of the misunderstandings, irritations, and divergences that characterized the period.[7] They are to be understood as the quest of a new generation—confronted with mass consumption, Cold War hostilities and environmental destruction—to ask how the Bauhaus could be inherited as modernity in postwar Europe. While Jorn spoke of the Bauhaus as an “artistic inspiration,” Bill vehemently denied this: “The Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the name of a movement that represents a very well defined doctrine.”[8] As untimely as the HfG’s adherence to the principles of functional and systematic, rationally and scientifically justifiable design was, in view of the growing international criticism of functionalism—from the post-war debates of the CIAM initiated by Team X to the debates between Marguerite Wildenhain and Charles Eames in 1957 on the role of crafts in Pacific Grove at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in California[9]—the Ulm position remained vitally important: “Bill`s endeavor to re-enchant everyday commodities as un-alienated ‘cultural objects’ and Maldonado`s attempt to rationalize design education as an alternative, engaged consumer science were related responses to the cultural crisis of the postwar design object.”[10] 

When, at the height of the international student protests in 1968, the exhibition 50 Years of Bauhaus opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, an event where Walter Gropius was among the speakers, he was not understood by the students protesting against the closure of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. It was a historical moment at which Bauhaus museums met a living successor institution. The cultural orientation needs, generational conflicts and identity debates occurring in West German post-war society, in which the struggle for the cultural classification of the Bauhaus was embedded and upon which the Ulm University of Applied Sciences finally disintegrated, were publicly staged here. Against this background, Gropius’s speech, with its appeal to HfG students not to worry about politics but concern themselves instead with developing their expertise as designers of a new aesthetic, could only cause misunderstandings.[11]


Design for Independence: The NID

Two years before Otl Aicher undertook his trip to India in 1960, Charles and Ray Eames had presented their India Report (sponsored by the Ford Foundation) on behalf of Jawaharlar Nehru, president of a youthful independent Indian state.[12] The origin of this cooperation went back to Pupul Jayakar, founder of the All India Handicraft Board and her contacts to the influential textile entrepreneur family Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, capital of the Indian textile industry. The intention of this report, now regarded as the founding document of the National Institute of Design, was to examine the conditions and possibilities for modern design education in independent India and to make proposals for the curriculum of a design school. Nehru’s modernization agenda also included an active design and architecture policy. Massive infrastructure projects, the expansion of large industry, and the promotion of modern educational institutions—all these were aims of the government’s five-year plans for a modern India, which would thus leave its colonial past behind. Modern architecture and design were not only symbols of this transformation but also agents for practicing a modern way of life.

It was precisely here that the possibility of the bloc powers accruing political influence within a country publicly committed to the Non-Alignment Movement seemed on offer. The Design Today in America and Europe exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959—conceived for India and featuring a best-of selection of Western design presented in a domed building designed by Buckminster Fuller—was not only an exciting case of cultural diplomacy in the context of the Cold War but also proof of the political importance attached to the design of modern consumer goods. It was agreed that the exhibition choices for this show would be left to the newly founded National Institute of Design (NID) as a teaching collection. Like the HfG Ulm, the NID was conceived from the beginning as a global platform for design education. A whole series of international experts had committed themselves to supporting the establishment of the NID as the first modern design school in India, including Louis Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Claude Stoller, George Nakashima and Hans Gugelot, and their consulting activities were underwritten by the Ford Foundation. At the same time—and the Eames emphasized this in their report—India possessed its own rich heritage of quotidian design objects. The Lota, a water vessel made of clay, became a metaphor for this culture of shaping, making and fabricating that the Eames admired, albeit not without a certain exoticism. Thus the NID had from the very beginning to fulfil two tasks: on the one hand, it was to become a motor for modern industrial product design; on the other, it was also charged with contributing to the promotion and improvement of regional cottage industry. The curriculum of the new institute was therefore firmly anchored in so-called “craft documentations”—that is, student field studies exploring local craft culture.

This was, however, a difficult undertaking, precisely because the NID saw itself as a postcolonial design institute whose mission was to refrain from repeating the colonial project of “craft improvement.” The intention of the Institute was that “design” be developed as a modern profession within existing conditions prevailing within India’s consumer goods market.[13] Kumar Vyas, a lecturer at both the HfG and the NID, later wrote that the school’s mission was to establish a postcolonial design discourse in which Western international post-war design represented one resource among many, but whose core, however, was to develop the country's indigenous pre-colonial design practices. This coexistence of modern design thinking and traditional practices must determine postcolonial design culture, a project already implicit in the term Kalaa—a word whose translation references the unity of artistry, a scientific conception of craftsmanship and technical knowledge—which was suppressed in the course of the European formation of the Arts and Crafts movement.[14] In this respect, the starting positions of these two pioneering institutions of modern design education were extremely different. As the flagship of a new India, the NID was confronted with the task of integrating low-income consumers from a mostly rural population into design thinking while at the same time responding to the dynamics of a modernization project oriented towards industrialization. The Ulm University of Applied Sciences, on the other hand, fought for a relationship between consumerism and moral demands on the production of consumer goods in a society driven by the Marshall Plan, the resulting economic miracle and the inexorable growth of consumer society that followed.[15] The two schools were seeking concepts for contemporary design education against the background of these contradictory problem horizons. It was the Ulm Institute, following the thoughts of Kumar Vyas, that offered the NID an alternative to the colonial legacy.


Object conversations: India Lounge and Milk Kiosk

When Hans Gugelot was invited to teach a workshop in Ahmedabad in the summer of 1965, he brought with him an eighty-page curriculum paper in which he suggested students should first have a diploma in engineering or architecture prior to embarking on the practical study of product design. In his summer course, Gugelot was to work with Indian colleagues and students on a tangential fan, a cylindrical device that allows even air distribution without additional baffles and vanes. Following a letter Gugelot wrote to his wife, the India Lounge Chair, which he designed together with Indian colleagues, including the architect and designer Gajanan Upadhyaya, was a by-product of this workshop:



“In the meantime I have made a small armchair, the model is ready on Monday. very simple. The seat is covered with fabric only at the front and at the top, the inserted seats (from below) make it hang well. ... I want to show that you can get results with simple things too.”[16]



The low seat height was probably inspired by the stools discovered on site. At the same time, this lightweight piece of furniture, which has become known in design history by two names—India Lounge or 24/42 Chair—made of teak wood and woven Indian textile, was the product of a formal dialogue between two design orientations, the system design of the HfG Ulm and the “low-cost design” of the Indian designers; a dialogue that increasingly shaped the work of the NID in the following years. (For instance, in the 1970s M P Ranjan and the Center for Bamboo Initiatives paved the way for a design culture committed to local problems and whose knowledge and experience was then transferred to industrial production.)

In the same year Hans Gugelot traveled to Ahmedabad, Sudhakar Nadkarni presented his diploma thesis for the design of a milk kiosk in Ulm. Nadkarni came from an Indian middle-class family and had studied applied arts at the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay. The profession of industrial designer had only just been developed in India. In 1962 Nadkarni travelled to Ulm to study product design with Gugelot and his colleagues. During his studies in Ulm he met Kumar Vyas, who had studied at the Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London.[17] Both would later teach product design at NID. Nadkarni experienced the HfG at the stage of its consequent orientation towards a design theory linking the interaction of science, technology and industry. He, too, wanted to make a contribution to the modernization processes of his country, and was convinced of the social role of the designer.

Sudhakar Nadkarni’s diploma subject, “The design of a milk kiosk” is proof of the designer’s social awareness and desire to contribute to the immediate needs of the Indian population. The thesis consisted of two parts: a scientific analysis and a design section. Beginning with a detailed study of the surroundings of the milk kiosk—including its normal location in urban space, its relationship to traffic, residential areas and urban infrastructure—Nadkarni the proceeded in the following section to describe the social composition of the typical consumer, the processes and activities comprising the everyday life of such a distribution center. This included a survey of milk kiosk operators and users carried out in Bombay as well as research on the climatic conditions and movement sequences within the kiosk.[18] This systematically acquired knowledge formed the basis for the milk kiosk’s design. The material selected by Nadkarni were inexpensive because they were modular, standardized, durable and readily available in India, and its size was sufficient to accommodate two people working inside it. Functional, ergonomic and climatic aspects were taken into account in the design with regard to the users.

Although the milk kiosk’s implementation never extended beyond creating a prototype, Nadkarni’s thesis is not only an interesting document of the Ulm method, the systematic approach to a design task, where scientific analyses serve as justification for the respective design steps. It also offers direct insights into the social circumstances and material conditions of 1960s India, where the infrastructure of daily milk supply was indeed foundational to satisfying the basic needs of the Indian metropolis. The work was based on a conviction, shared between Ulm and Ahmedabad, that only a rationally founded design could deal with the basic systems of society—infrastructure, health care and food supply—and thus take the everyday needs of people seriously. As illustrative of the two school’s shared attitude, one viewing design as a tool for improving the everyday lives of the many, it is an outstanding document.[19]



While the HfG Ulm was unable to withstand the stresses that generational conflict, cultural crises and political disputes arising from the student protests of 1968 had brought to light, the NID continued to pursue the design agenda it formulated in its founding years. The international conference Design for Development held at the NID in 1979 was the culmination of this design discourse, which from its outset sought to create a distance between its notions and practices and the hegemony of the Western design paradigm. In the context of Western exports of modernization models to developing countries, the NID sought out alternative practices for economic and social change. In Ahmedabad in 1979, the international delegates now advocated for a postcolonial understanding of design without reference to Western influences. They wanted to detach themselves fully from the West’s hegemony, where design was associated with formal aesthetic values. They instead turned to vernacular and “appropriate technologies” in proposing designs for objects of everyday use.

Saloni Mathur described this change within Indian design culture, “with proposals for adapting indigenous forms, from the tiffin lunch box to the automated rickshaw, entering conventional design media” as “design in an Indian idiom.”[20] This also included the critique of a design education oriented towards technocratic functionalism and formal aesthetics. According to Alison Clarke, the Ahmedabad Declaration advocated “design as a tool for social change within a humanist paradigm that crossed both post-industrial and so-called developing nations.”[21] Here an “alternative design movement underpinned by theories of anthropology, intermediate technology, development studies and neo-Marxist critique of Western consumer culture” was formed.[22] Had the National Institute of Design bid farewell to what Saloni Mathur called the “problem-solving spirit of the Nehruvian era,” including its alliance with the Ulm Institute? If today the Ahmedabad Declaration is undergoing a re-evaluation in the design discourse of social and critical design, then the conversations and misunderstandings between these two Campuses, so influential for post-war modernism, decisively contributed to this paradigm shift.





  1. ^ Otl Aicher: “Voraussetzungen der Erschließung 1960.” Otl Aicher Estate Ai.Az.2074 Nr.1.98, p. 19, HfG- Archiv/Ulm Museum.
  2. ^ Sarah Williams Goldhagen & Rejean Legault (eds.): Anxious Modernisms, MIT Press, Cambridge 2002.
  3. ^ Paul Betts: “Das Bauhaus als Waffe im Kalten Krieg. Ein Amerikanisch-Deutsches Joint Venture,” in: Philip Oswalt (ed.): Bauhaus Streit. 1919–2009: Kontroversen und Kontrahenten, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern Ruit 2009, pp. 196–213, here: p. 206.
  4. ^ Paul Betts: The Authority of Everyday Objects. A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design, University of California Press, Berkeley 2004, p. 170 ff.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Tomás Maldonado: “Ist das Bauhaus aktuell.” in: ulm, No. 8/9, 1963, pp. 5–13.
  7. ^ See: Asger Jorn: “Notes on the Formation of an Imaginist Bauhaus,” www.bopsecrets.org/SI/bauhaus.htm (Accessed 5 November 2018).
  8. ^ Quoted by Jörn Etzold: “Unreines Erbe. Das Imaginistische Bauhaus und das Neue Babylon,” in: Sonja Neef (ed.): An Bord der Bauhaus. Zur Heimatlosigkeit der Moderne, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2009, pp. 29–43, here: p. 34.
  9. ^ Marguerite Wildenhain & Charles Eames: “Asilomar Conference Proceedings 1957,” in: Glenn Adamson: The Craft Reader, Berg Publishers, Oxford 2009, pp. 570–576.
  10. ^ Betts: The Authority of Everyday Objects, 2004, p. 177.
  11. ^ Frederic J. Schwartz: “The Disappearing Bauhaus. Architecture and its Public in Early Federal Republic,” in: Jeffrey Saletnik & Robin Schuldenfrei (eds.): Bauhaus Construct: Fashioning Identity, Discourse and Modernism, Routledge Chapman & Hall, London 2009, pp. 61–82, here: p. 79.
  12. ^ The 1958 India Report by Charles and Ray Eames can be downloaded free of charge from the Research Archive of Edition Moving Away of this online journal.
  13. ^ Farhan Sirajul Karim: “MoMA, the Ulm and the development of design pedagogy in India,” in: Shanay Jhaveri & Devika Singh (eds.): Western Artists and India. Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, The Shoestring Publisher, London 2013, pp. 122–139, here: p. 132 (also available free of charge in the Research Archive of the Edition Moving Away of this online journal.)
  14. ^ H. Kumar Vyas: “Design History. An Alternative Approach,” in: Design Issues, Vol. 22, No. 4, Autumn 2006, p. 28.
  15. ^ Karim: “Moma, the Ulm and the development of design pedagogy in India,” 2013, p. 132.
  16. ^ Hans Gugelot, Letter to his wife, Ahmedabad 1965, HfG- Archiv/Ulm Museum.
  17. ^ Biography of Sudhakar Nadkarni: www.dsource.in/sites/default/files/resource/history-product-design-india/design-mentors/prof-s.nadkarni/file/Prof_Sudhakar_Nadkarni.pdf (accessed 5 November 2018).
  18. ^ Sudhakar Nadkarni: Gestaltung eines Milchkiosks, diploma thesis, 1966, Inv.-Nr. K_68_1_1, HfG-Archiv/ Ulm Museum.
  19. ^ The research on the milk kiosk was part of the Bauhaus Lab 2017, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation: Between Chairs. Design Pedagogies in Transcultural Dialogue, Spector Books, Leipzig 2018.
  20. ^ Saloni Mathur: “Charles and Ray Eames in India,” in: Art Journal, Vol. 70, No. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 34–53, here: p. 39.
  21. ^ Alison Clarke: “Design for Development ICSID and UNIDO. The anthropological turn in 1970s Design,” in: Journal of Design History, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1 February 2016, pp. 43–57, here: p. 46.
  22. ^ Ibid.

At the Ahmedabad Declaration, Gajanan Upadhyaya chairs in the auditoriums at NID 1978.

More articles on the topic

To the top