German Industrial Design in the Holy Land – A Short Overview on Israeli-German Design-Relations

German Industrial design in the holy land was quite unthinkable after 1945. But since the 1960s designers from Israel and Germany came again in touch. In this short overview I will discuss the relations of the West German Industrial designers to Israel from the 1960s to the 1980s. I will argue, that personal relations were much more important than institutional connections, as one might think.

The beginning of the diplomatic relations between Israel and the FRG in the year 1965 was a kind of a breakthrough. After the Shoah relation with Germany, as the country of the enemy, was a controversial topic in the Israeli society. With the first steps of the Reparations Agreement from 1952, Adenauer and Ben Gurion laid the basics for diplomatic relations in the future. They came thirteen years later by a diplomatic agreement between Bonn and Tel Aviv. With this it became easier for privates or economical connections between West Germany and Israel. It is also important to mention that East German design was hardly unknown, because the GDR had no connections to Israel. East Berlin supported the so-called PLO, like the USSR and other countries from the Eastern Block did, and had no diplomatic relations to Tel Aviv.

Visit of Konrad Adenauer in Tel Aviv, May 1966, Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P092350, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Industrial Design was far away from being the post important point at the cultural or economical relations between the two countries. But anyhow, in the 1960s the design connections started growing. They are an interesting point for a transnational design history to study, how the relation between two states came in touch. I will show in the following two parts, that the relationship between these two countries was more based on personal than on institutional connections.

Institutional Connections

First a lot of West German politicians, industrialists, and designers in the 1960s were very much interested in a connection. Looking into the historical sources, the national socialism, the Shoah or the Second World War, were neither not used as a references nor even mentioned. The Germans as well as the Israelis were much more interested in a design exchange of ideas and goods, bounded with an economical connection. Even after Israel became a member of the International Council of Industrial Design Societies in 1969, the industrial designers of both countries came regularly together.

But after the Six-Day-War in 1967 things went more difficult for German design in Israel. After that, many West German companies were frightened to present their consumer goods in Israel, because they expected as a result a boycott by Arabian states. The Yom Kippur War from 1973 made things even worse, so West German companies and authorities became more careful with their engagement in Israel.

This is also example to show, that a design network had not to go via institutions but can use the personal networks. Because the personal than the institutional connections characterized more the design relations between Israel and the FRG. For example the German Design Council – as state founded institution – planed to show an exhibition in Israel since the end of the 1960s.1 The financial support should come from the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn. In particular Gustav Stein – managing director of the German Design Council and member of the West German Parliament – pushed the idea of a design exhibition in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem forward. But the idea was postponed many times. The background was the fear of a boycott by Arab countries, if companies would present their goods in Israel. So they asked the authorities in Bonn and the German Design Council to postpone the exhibition until the idea was dropped. Till the end of the Berlin Wall, there was no Israel or German design exhibition, it first changed after the German reunification.

Personal Connections

Now in the second part, I will give some example how a personal network between Israel and the FRG brought the industrial designers from the two states together. This is important, because as I would argue, most of the connections between Israeli and West German since the 1960s came on a personal way via designers themselves. In the following I will give three examples from each decade to visual this.

In the year 1965 the “form” – the most important West German magazine at that time – published a first reportage on Israeli design. In it Moshe Kohen described the current status of industrial design in Israel. The country was characterized by a lot of migration, thus the Israeli authorities had to build fast but with quality a new livelihood for newcomer in the Holy Land. Following the author design had a very strong position in fulfilling this task. Beside that, the reportage informed the West German readers about the institutions, universities, and the economical situation, the Israeli designer were dealing with in the 1960s.2 It was remarkable, that historical references of design history – one might immediately think about the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv or German architecture sights in Jerusalem or Haifa – were not mention in this article or else where later.

The design connection between Israel and West Germany put on current issues and not reflection history. For example, the article author Moshe Kohen was part of the most important design school in the FRG. Kohen graduated in 1963 at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. His diploma thesis in the field of product design was on dishes, supervised by Gert Karlow, Leonard Bruce Archer and Horst Rittel.3 Thus Kohen was an design expert, who was trained in Southwest Germany and worked later in Israel. So Kohen is one example for the personal network between both countries. It is a pity, that his binational design biography is not in the focus of the design history till today.

Another prominent example is the visit of 1973 by Julius Posener – by this time head of the German Werkbund – together with Wend Fischer – director of the Neue Sammlung in Munich – and Wilhelm Wagenfeld – a famous German product designer.4 The three important German designers were invited to an exhibition vernissage in Jerusalem, where the design by Wagenfeld was shown to an Israeli audience. All three were also guests at the new permanent exhibition on Israel design in the Israel Museum. Posener wrote fascinated about the welcome address by Teddy Kollek, the famous major of Jerusalem by that time. Especially the biography of Posener could be worth to have a look at, because he was forced to emigrate after 1933 to Palestine due to the National Socialism in Germany and later came back to Germany. Via Posener there could be a strong connection between i.e. the German Werkbund and Israel, but this needs more archival research in the Posener Archive in the Academy of Arts Berlin.

The last example is the personal exchange in design education. The Siemens designer Jens Reese gave in the end of the 1980s a design seminar series at the famous Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. In these seminars he taught his ideas of creativity methods. Especially his visual permutation methods – a kind of elemental design method – were widely asked by the Israeli design students. Reese was also interviewed by the “form” on his impressions about Jerusalem, Israel and the design there. He gave an interesting overview on Israel design education, difference between continental Europe and the Holy Land as well as his experiences from the design courses at Bezalel.51 Rat für Formgebung, Tätigkeitsbericht 1970, pp. 15.

2 Kohen, Mosche (1965): Briefe aus Tel Aviv – Design in Israel, in: form (31), p. 10-11. Very similar to that was the article Steiner, Simon D. (1966): Design in Israel, in: Industrial Design (5), pp. 68-71.

4 Posener, Julius (1973): Besuch in Jerusalem, in: Werk und Zeit (7), p. 7.

5 See Unknown (1986): Spinner gesucht, in: form (114), p. 78 and Reese, Jens (1988): Mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit gestalten… in: form (121), pp. 23-25.