The Ulm Design School and Mercedes

Is this the best car there will ever be?

1991 Mercedes S-class: austere, robust and big.
1991 Mercedes S-class: austere, robust and big: bestcarmag.com

Just before Christmas I took a train trip, the last direct rail service from Aarhus to Berlin, itself part of the discontinued direct Copenhagen to Berlin service. Determining the fate of this service was Deutsche Bahn’s decision to phase out diesel trains. The ICE train running the Aarhus-Berlin route remained the only diesel main line train in Germany. The diesel carriages have no future in Germany and, as far I know will either be sold or scrapped. We won’t see trains like this again.

Apart from being a rather heavy consumer of fuel, the train set seemed to me to be the rail equivalent of the 1991 S-Class. Do they have something in common besides size and a propensity to consume fuel while in motion?

Ulm School of Design: wikipedia
Ulm School of Design: wikipedia

By coincidence around the same time as Deutsche Bahn and the Danish rail service ended the ICE’s Aarhus-Berlin service I was doing some reading on the successors to the Bauhaus school of design. The direct successor to the Bauhaus is generally assumed to be the Ulm School of Design in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The architect of the school’s buildings was Max Bill who studied at the Bauhaus under Kandinsky, Klee and Schlemmerer. He served as the school’s first rector.

None other than Walter Gropius opened the school with a lecture on the misunderstandings of Modernism. Having read the outline of the school’s curriculum and a list of some of the graduates, I realise that both the 1991 Mercedes S-class and the now-departed ICE, designed by Siemens and Bombardier are possibly the unique and final significant fruits of a design attitude that demanded excellence and had the resources available to implement it. Graduates from Ulm populated design offices all over 60s and 70s Germany.

1990 ICE Train (Series 2): wikipedia
1990 ICE Train (Series 2): wikipedia

What did these graduates learn? The basic curriculum included “Visual experiments: two- and three-dimensional studies based on the perceptions and teachings of symmetry and topology” (Wikipedia). The product design departments curriculum is worth listing in full actually as it is breakdown of what design is.

  • Instruction in manufacturing: product design, operational organization, processes, procedures, calculations.
  • Technologies: Ferrous metals, nonferrous metals, wood, plastics and forming technologies.
  • Construction techniques.
  • Mathematical analysis of operations: Group theory, statistics, standardization.
  • Scientific theories.
  • Ergonomics: Human-machine systems.
  • Theories of Perception, especially social
  • Mechanics: Kinematic, dynamic and static.
  • Copyright and miscellaneous.

What do the car and the train have in common? The Mercedes (1991) and the first generation of ICE (1989) were launched at a similar time. The designers and engineers on both projects were men and women at the top of their careers, in their 40s or early 50s. Many must have graduated from the Ulm School of Design or were influenced by people who had. The Ulm School is recognised as one of the most influential schools in 20th century European design (actually the second, after the Bauhaus). This was the most technically demanding and intellectually concentrated design course ever offered.

If you ever wondered why German designers notice things like curvature, joints, and have a preference for durability as well as robust functionality (think Dieter Rams or 1980s VW interiors) it’s because the  Ulm courses drew students’ attention to these through the courses listed above. You can easily interpret German cars of the late 70s to early 90s in the light of this exacting design approach. And, as it happens, the trains produced by Bombardier-Siemens for Deutsche Bahn were conceived along the same lines.

Exacting standards are all very well. One must also have a customer willing to pay and a society tolerant of different ideals. When the S-class was conceived global warming was not on the horizon in the way it is today. Western Germany was at the height of its powers, unshackled from the weaker eastern states (which historically had always been a bit poorer – that’s geography for you). So there was the design talent to conceive of this car and the resources to put it into production.

At the same time, Deutsche Bahn was able to direct resources at a train capable of challenging the French TGV (1981). When the ICE was conceived the goals were high speed, ride quality and the highest standards of passenger comfort. That list is not unlike the one that might apply to the Mercedes.

Stylistically, the Mercedes is the last hurragh of austere modernism. The materials are excellent. Fit and finish are perfect and yet there is nothing superfluous here, no ritz or razzle-dazzle. It´s not needed. We find the same character inside the ICE train, unsurprisingly.

I wrote elsewhere about the Toyota Century having an interior resembling high-class public transport. The W-140 is out of the same mould. It announces corporate responsibility. Only the sheer scale of the car might send a signal counter to this. Such is the simplicity of the car you may not even notice its vast size. The train interior parallels the Mercedes though it’s more affordable to gain access to its comforts. Imagine, public transport as well-designed as the MD’s limousine. Nothing is too good for the common man, said Lubetkin the architect. You don’t hear that said today.

I remember where I was when Kurt Cobain died. And I remember where I was exactly when I heard about the Twin Towers attack. And I remember precisely the moment I first saw a W-140. These cars were events. Their era has passed. We might have greater technical competence but the almost moral seriousness of the design would not be accepted today and designers think along different lines having been educated in ways very unlike those practiced in the post-war period in Germany.

Thankfully the ICE is still in service as an electric set.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

33 thoughts on “The Ulm Design School and Mercedes”

  1. Thank you for that Richard. My own education in the UK as an industrial designer was along similar lines, but watered down. There were excellent lecturers but, in a way, they were compromised by the attitude in arts education in the UK in the 70s. Design courses were part of art schools and, although by comparison with, say, fine art painting that took place two floors above us, the course was very disciplined, the lecturer’s attitudes couldn’t help but be influenced by the general notion that you should let students find themselves. I’m not suggesting that was the lecturer’s own teaching philosophy, just that they felt obliged to accommodate this attitude.

    The students who prospered were the ‘mature students’, those who had already been out into the world and appreciated what the course could offer, and benefited from their lecturer’s knowledge. I was firmly in the ‘immature student’ category and, although I responded well to various projects, on one occasion I felt I had the right to refuse to carry out a project I felt was too dull. Looking back, I’m appalled at that. The staff at my college were incredibly decent and concerned – so much so that they sent me off to see a psychotherapist. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been happened at Ulm – they’d have kicked me out, and quite right too. So, knowing that, at Ulm I would likely have done the project.

    Although I don’t pretend I was typical, is my generation the reason we have lost continuity in that disciplined attitude? I realise that I’m in danger of sounding like the sort of old git who infuriated me back then (“Bloody whippersnappers. No discipline. Spell of National Service is what they need. And a haircut”) but I think you can have more liberal attitudes socially, without having to apply them to design, much of which, today, is self-indulgent, meaningless and archly humorous, but in a very unamusing way.

    That said, I really disliked the W140 at the time.

    1. The question asked by the article does leave open the possibility that the answer is “no”. It also asks one to consider the meaningessness of “best”. I didn´t like the S-class at the time. Actually, I didn´t understand it at all.

  2. One lessson from this is that although artists look like crazy people they are in fact highly disciplined. Hockney never stops painting. Uglow was the same. And until his heart attack in 2006, Bowie was ceaselessly doing new work. Writers the same. Work, work, work and then occcasionally take a break. It´s a pity creativity got entangled with the idea of slacking and messing about.
    By the time I did my MA there was almost no sign of the discipline needed. Tutors would kick off a course and vanish until the end. Lectures were non-existant apart from one chap who taught us engineering. The only thing that got people through the course was natural talent and the help of the occasional good tutor.

  3. Pleasure to read! Next article on Grange’s HST125 and a British car? Can’t think of one that resembles the train’s qualities though!

    1. That’s an interesting point, Richard. On one of my occasional holiday purchases where I’ve delved into another world, I bought a classic bus magazine. Apart from coming across one of the most surrealistically dull articles I have ever read, all the illustrations were of the outside, with nothing at all regarding the interior furnishings. Why is that? Are interiors too girly for the macho world of train and bus enthusiasts?

  4. I think the picture of the ICE is actually a much more recent version – it certainly doesn’t look like a late 80s / early 90s design to me.

    This one looks more like it, and makes more sense alongside the S-Class:

    1. Compare and contrast with the streamliner ornate look of the 50’s Trans Europe Express rolling stock – whilst humming-along-a-kraftwerk of course.

  5. I do understand the appeal of the W140 as the ultimate expression of (long gone) classic Mercedes values, however, i consider the W124 the ultimate expression of a rationally designed car for the Bunderbürger. Aerodynamic, not too big, spacious, filled with clever design details like the rear headrests that fold down at the push of a button. It was also built to last from quality materials. The pillarless C124 coupe is a gem, too

    1. It’s hard to disagree too violently with that assertion. The W-140 gets the title because I was thinking of 1990 as the turning point. I could rewrite the whole thing and swap the car and train for the earlier ones, the Mk1 ICE and W-124. It would make sense anyway.

  6. I have the feeling that Brown Bag’s steady hands were loosening on the reins by the time the W140 job got underway.

    1. I seem to recollect an article where Sacco roundly defended the W140, though he reflected that, in hindsight, it was too high. He’s even credited with instigating the W201’s round headlamps. Does that show a man losing his grip at the end of his reign, or a leader who was commendably loyal to his team? Or both?

    2. My own understanding is that Sacco was over-ruled by D-B bosses who wanted a more ‘important’ looking car, so the design was altered against his intentions. Certainly from some angles, the body’s relationship between width and height lack harmony and due to this, the car’s stance isn’t entirely right. More taper in the rear would have helped, as would a wider rear track width. In short wheelbase form, its not too bad and one can see where Sacco was going with it.

      Would be be unfair to describe the W140 as Mercedes’ Zenith? There’s certainly a hint of the Mark Ten in its proportions.

  7. The W-140 is very plain and built to an exacting standard. If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that it is not plain enough. It’s very Ulm otherwise. Sacco probably reacted to pressure from a generation for whom austere good taste meant less.

    1. You’re right about not plain enough. Because of its simplicity, the bit of fridge trim across the rear really jarred at the time – and still does.

    2. Obligingly, someone has run a coachline along their W140, just to underline its oddities. It particularly emphasises a specific DTW problem, the drooping lower window line.

      This image is the header image on Wikipedia’s W140 page. It shows up a problem I’ve noticed on Wikipedia. Although they go to great lengths to try to vet and improve the text, some of the images for specific cars are not so rigorously vetted. A car entry should be iillustrated with a good quality example in original condition. Instead, individuals are so eager to get their own photos or cars included that you end up with odd alloys, paint schemes and Ill-applied coachlines like the above.

    3. The coachline’s presence shows how many people just don’t look at designs in a coherent way. Presumably the owner recognises that the W140 is aesthetically austere for a luxury car. They also know that many up-market cars have coachlines. So they apply one, with the assumption that it will say ‘I’m Classy’. The coachline is in that position because it’s the only place on the car with an uninterrupted run from nose to tail. But it’s also the worst place to put it.

  8. The design of the first ICE was translated in car design – the first VW Sharan was (in my opinion) nothing else than a ICE on wheels.
    The adoption of the ICE-look was quite clever – so the Sharan looks modern, but not revolutionary. Just like a new member of a family.

    I don´t like the new versions of the ICE with their international quite ananymous design. Could be a japanese Shinkansen or a chinese High-Speed–train too.

  9. Sean: that coachline makes the slight curve in the window line look even less convincing. It´s so slight as to be subliminal when you see the car in reality. The coachline gives on a reference to see how the window line drops a faint amount. It´s not as if it was thus going to line up with anything. The base of the windscreen is not close enough to relate to the DLO´s base.

    1. That’s true. Though really that coachline reminds me of a modern Mercedes in one way. As a design element, it lacks coherence and is visually wrong. But it creates a narrative of ‘upmarketness’, at least for the owner, just as the swages and scoops of an A Class do.

    1. I’m risking getting a bit too snarky here, because it’s mean-spirited criticising an individual’s improvements to their own car but, if I pretend for a minute that he paid Dany Bahar €6,700 to have it customised, the way it cuts through door handles and filler cap is quite wrong. An 80s Jaguar, the usual recipient of this sort of thing, at least suits it better. Is this an older owner, with very fixed attitudes as to how a prestige car should look, or a much younger one with a retro obsession? In any case, applique coachstripes always were horrid though, if you’ve ever seen an old-school painter putting one on by hand, you’d at least appreciate the craftsmanship.

  10. This article ought to have performed better. I had forgotten about it in the interim. There’s a case to be made that the W-126 deserves the Ulm attribution more. And why didn’t Ulm affect Audi more than it did? Was it that the brand couldn’t afford the high ideals? Ingolstadt is almost as near Ulm as Stuttgart.

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