Momus | Essays


On October 24th 1793 the French introduced a new concept in calendars which was, quite literally, revolutionary. Out went the old months—January to December—and in came Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, Germinal, Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor. The French didn't stop there: they also introduced a new clock which divided the day into ten hours of a hundred minutes, each of those minutes in turn containing a hundred seconds.

Of course, the French didn't change time itself. That would be beyond the powers of even the most enthusiastic revolutionary. All they changed was the way time was described, talked about, measured. Not so much a design, more of a redesign.

In 1806 Napoleon reinstated the old months and clocks, effectively redesigning the redesign. Now, two hundred years later, the decimal day reappears in the manifesto of German conceptual design group REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND. There it is, point six in their ten point plan to redesign Germany from scratch: "Introduce decimal system in all areas. 1 day have 100 hours. 1 hour have 100 minutes. 1 year have 1000 days."

The reason the English sounds so strange in this manifesto is that it's "Redeenglish", another of REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND's scarily reductionist projects. Redeenglish and Rededeutsch are redesigned versions of the English and German languages which, like George Orwell's Newspeak, simplify the grammar. The manifesto recalls another Orwell text, Animal Farm, when it proclaims that "simplest solution be goodst solution". There's something sinsterly Pol Potty about point 8 of the manifesto: "REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND offer solutions that function global. REDESIGNEUROPE and REDESIGNWORLD follow."

REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND formed in 2001 and have an office on the Torstrasse in central Berlin. Their work is perhaps best seen as a Swiftian satire on design itself, a playful Postmodern prod in the direction of Modernism's tendency (especially in German-speaking countries) to reduce everything to a kind of Year Zero of irrational rationality.

The evocation of the French Revolution is apt: this reductio ad absurdum of rational-instrumental values appears in Enlightenment projects like the Encyclopédie, only to be "balanced" by the bloody guillotine and the lusts of the Marquis De Sade. When it re-appears in the 20th century in the form of Bauhaus Modernism, it's "balanced" by Hitler. We ought to know by now to mistrust rationality: as long as the human heart fails to attain the smooth transparency of a Mies facade, rationality will continue be a lie — a cover, most likely, for some dangerously systematic form of insanity.

So REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND are poking fun when they, for instance, propose to replace the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt's DIN system for testing, calibration and certification with their own RIN system. But it's a serious joke, a challenge to the arrogance of universalistic systems everywhere. They presumably have their tongue in their cheek when they contribute to Berlin's Designmai festival a series of plans, pictures and models of their HAUSBAU design, a tiny minimalist living unit in the form of a cube.

HAUSBAU, claims the blurb, "reduces the dream of owning your own home to an absolute minimum." The cramped cube filled with sharp-edged reversible furniture would certainly reduce anyone's desire to own property. But REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND want to present it as a universal and affordable living solution, so it's pictured on top of a Peruvian mountain, sitting like the mysterious god-slab of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a Kubrickian mansion, on a Japanese street and, inevitably, next to the Bauhaus, its spiritual father.

I entered the scale-model HAUSBAU to be confronted by a video screen showing hilariously dry readings of the preface to Goethe's Doktor Faustus translated into both Rededeutsch and Redeenglish, followed by a series of "standard portraits", pictures of people shot with a fixed angle and identical lighting. The discrepancies between one face and the next somehow became exaggerated and monstrous. Rationality seemed haunted by its excluded opposite, its dark twin, and the universal seemed caught in the futile attempt to escape the particular.

So this is design as satire, and satire as design, right? They're being sarcastic, they're saying the opposite of what they mean, right?

If it were as simple as that, REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND wouldn't be saying much. But I think what makes their work interesting is a deep ambivalence about the reductionist utopias evoked. There's an evident appreciation of the beauty of "planning" as well as an appreciation of its grave dangers. There's a postmodern nostalgia for Modernism alongside the nose-thumbing. Satire is often a place where things go fuzzy. Satire is a masked ball where we can be devils or devils' advocates. Satire can be a laboratory where we brainstorm, research and develop, free to explore even forbidden, outmoded or discredited options.

There are reasons that Germany might currently be a good place to do such work. First of all, the amazingly cheap cost of living in Berlin—not to mention the difficulty, in the current economic climate, of coming by more conventional client-oriented work—allows designers to be a bit more experimental than they might be in high rent London or New York. But there's also something deep in German culture which encourages the exploration of poignant contradictions. For here "Storm and Stress" sits in an uneasy dialectic with "Neat and Tidy", Postmodernism sneers nostalgically at Modernism, Utopia slips on a big bananaskin, and satire becomes a strange sort of ambition.

Comments [13]

wow, very interesting.

FYI: a few years back Swatch brought back the revolutionary French time system ;)

Swatch's Internet Time Page


Designafrica would be something new. Redesigndeutschland is an expensive joke. Rasing old solved problems won't make me laught with joy. Let it be... At least they're busy doing good taste anti-design products and not ugly things.

P.S.: Tell me when can I start laughing. Do it everyday!!! (in old french system the same hour changes (a lot) from time of the day to the same time of the next day...)

P.S.2: Are you Momus (musician) that is coming to Portugal soon?

P.S.3: "Your comment was denied for questionable content. "*s.com" was found in your comment: u*. com""
I tried to write this www.imomu*. com
You are not letting americans participate? Is that reasonable?
João Marrucho

Interesting, their manifesto really is nice. I really do appreciate the whole concept, but what about the human element. If you recall Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation building didn't the french inhabitants just decorate everything with their old ornate concepts anyways? Joke or not, good ideas tend to be just that, ideas.
Erik Braun

To apply super-logical systems like these that serve only to give us a false belief that we really can controle time and space, is indeed a joke.
HOWEVER, to use old, inconcistent and illogical systems just because of tradition is just as bloody stupid.
Otherwise, what's really the point with inches, ounces, letter (as in the papersize), stones, feet and whatnot.

Momus, you say that "Their work is perhaps best seen as a Swiftian satire on design itself". But then you go on to say "If it were as simple as that [design as satire/satire as design], REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND wouldn't be saying much."

Have they said anything publicly about their intentions, or have they just left the work to speak for itself?

From their website, they appear to share the Torstrasse address with a design company called Agentur 01, which does routine-looking work for O'Neill, Nike and other "cool" clients. What's the relationship between RedesignDeutschland and Agentur? Are they the same people? Is the Redesign project in essence just a fancy schtick, a mystique-building exercise intended to add interest to the client-servicing side of the operation?

How do their projects reflect issues in contemporary German culture and design and what's actually at stake here?

Rick Poynor

Rick, to explain the background to this piece, it was originally intended to be a text about conceptual design groups. I wanted to write about, and interview, both REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND (RDD) and Åbäke. Both groups agreed to be interviewed, but hadn't responded to my questions by the time the piece was due to be posted. I'll be writing about Åbäke in the near future, but I decided to go live with the RDD piece based on the limited knowledge I had of them. I thought their presentation of the HAUSBAU was the most interesting thing in this year's Designmai.

The HAUSBAU project seems to be mostly the work of Michel Obladen, whereas the conceptual RDD stuff is by Rafael Horzon, who's written design columns for local electronic culture magazine DE:BUG. RDD has a more corporate wing which pays the rent by making websites for the likes of Universal Music. But I must admit that I'm not terribly interested in what pays the rent, I'm interested in the ideas people have "beyond the call of duty". Critique, elegant confusion, and folie de grandeur are inherently interesting, and in a way you don't want the mystique dispelled by too many details. (I suspect feelings about this map quite well to positions taken in the "bullshit" discussion we had last week. Some see bullshit as an art, others see it as a vice.)

The thing I wanted to say "wouldn't really be saying much" was not satire but sarcasm: simply saying the opposite of what you mean. I feel that satire is much more interestingly ambivalent than that, somewhat akin to brainstorming. The satirist is something like a ventriloquist, both attracted to and repelled by the things he makes his dummy say. By freeing himself from the necessity to adopt a fixed position on something, the satirist can entertain startling or taboo notions.

I think Rafael Horzon's ambivalence towards Modernist reductionism falls into this pattern. Rather than seeing RDD's satirical activities as mere window-dressing for the regular design business next door, I'd see them as R&D — an opportunity to throw around much bigger and more suggestive ideas than the average client would even begin to tolerate. To do work that resonates culturally rather than just solving a problem for money.

For me RDD is a mixture of design and publicity strategies to accomplish a single goal: getting "dangerous", tallented, rich costumers. They might as well be honest from the biginning and say it from the start (like I put it in the previous sentence). In this case honesty serves as good as bullshit.

Momus, thank you for taking my questions into consideration. I'm waiting forward for the answers.

Best regards.

Joao Marrucho (the genius behind Nova Emoção)
João Marrucho

João, sorry to have skipped your questions, I'm sometimes keen to keep my parallel life out of these columns but yes, I am indeed that Momus, and I am indeed in Portugal just now to play concerts. As for the "questionable content" thing, I have no idea why that happens. There seems to be some odd programming on the DO site. Perhaps it's an anti-spam thing.

Critique, elegant confusion, and folie de grandeur are inherently interesting, and in a way you don't want the mystique dispelled by too many details.

Thanks for that "corporate wing" link, Momus. The plot thickens. So are there three sides to this, all involving the same people? It's still not clear where Agentur fits into it.

I considered making a link with the bullshit thread, but held back because it didn't seem helpful and may even be corrosive to spray the word around too liberally. But I'm glad you've introduced it here. It's not that I think that RDD's work is bullshit. Without more information, I simply don't know - hence my questions.

I am certainly less interested in what pays the rent in RDD's case, in terms of the work, but I don't think the two can necessarily be disconnected. You don't know how they relate until you examine them and it's better to examine the evidence than base conclusions on wishful thinking. If the ideas and work are strong, then they will survive this examination. If they aren't strong, then who needs them?

Your use of the word mystique suggests that you construe RDD's work as art. But is this what it is? That's why I asked about their intentions. My impression based on this very limited evidence is that it exists in the awkward space between art and design - a space that always attracts me, by the way. But design has its utilitarian, "real world" side and that introduces questions that art, which can rely 100 per cent on its mystique, doesn't have to answer.

Dunne & Raby's work might be a useful counterpoint here. In some ways it looks like art. They initiate their own projects. They do research. They publish and exhibit. But they are adamant that these critical interventions and speculative proposals should be understood as a form of design activity. As designers, they do not want to be sidelined as artists and seen as producing work that is a kind of personal fantasy with no ultimate connection to the conditions of design.

Some more thoughts on the art/design relationship here.
Rick Poynor

As far as the current discussion goes, I feel that many of the comments are led astray by a self inflicted projection that the RDD project is more elaborate and manipulative than it is simple and absolute.

The elimination of all unnecessary information. (purist)

Maybe a good way of understanding the collective is to think about deconstructivism. Redesigndeutschland takes on elements of society (one at a time) and attempts to strip them down to an absolute function which is then presented in the simplest form available.

While I worked there (pre Agentur 01) all projects that were undertaken, were developed based on the most absolute and basic logic at hand for the given client/concept. The goal of which being, to create a neutral form of society based on thought out objects which would allow all members of society to be equal.

As far as the implementation of the decimal system, it is simply a way to develop a mathematical truth and an ultimately absolute system. Anyone can drop in a joke about Germany here.

Redesigndeutschland Industry Norm refers to a square with a specific dimension. As far as "snubbing" DIN, here is an explanation that might explain it. The DIN system of paper sizes is based on the golden section and the subdivisions of it. (DIN A4 being 21.0 cm x 29.7 cm)
In contrast, RIN 4 would be 4 cm x 4 cm. Thus a clearer, less abstract system.

The difference beween Agentur 01 and Redesigndeutschland.
When you look at the portfolios of the two, there is a basic difference.
All of the products on the RDD site are inline with the manifesto. The product numbers, being the date (RDD year) on which they were launched. A key example would be the sale of websites on the www.RDDWEB.de. This is a good example of how RDD fits into the Berlin scene, as well as how standard affordable solutions are being used. The projects which are now posted at Agentur 01 have little to do with the overall RDD manifesto.

While I was there the discussion had started as to how to divide the normal work from project development that supported the manifesto. Agentur 01 must have been the solution.

Another element which seems to have been overlooked here is the Wissenschaftsakademie Berlin. The lectures take place in the RDD space on the Torstr. and include a variety of designers each "semester" who present concepts and ideas. You can access the website for it through the moebelhorzon.de page. However, unless you can understand german, you might not get much out of it except for names and topics.

Hopefully this has helped shed some light on the situation.
Mike Campbell

Humor is good too. It would be fantastic if the ultimate goal of design was to remove all unneeded information, but I don´t know if that is always the reality of the situation.

As a side note, I don´t want to be misunderstood as a spokesman for the collective at present, I was just a part of it, and thought I could help out. The systematic approach to reality, may be German, but this isn´t about planning how to murder millions.

As far as RIN4 goes, it was just an example where the name is logically connected to the end format, like RIN1, RIN63 and so forth. Check out the proportions of any of the furniture products for further examples of the system if you like.

Doesn´t it seem a little ridiculous that a metric system (a base-10 system) uses the "divine proportion"? Irregardless if the A/C = B/A formula has historical precedence, RIN is just one way of looking at the world, which chooses to develop new standards.

I can´t really say much to the italian version of the manifesto, but I would definitely agree that the longer a standard and ideal is developed and critiqued, the better it is.

Mike Campbell

As far as rent goes, there were always some projects which kept finances fluid, and some that didn't. Maybe something that you didn't know was that people that work at RDD have to rent their workspaces, thus keeping the overhead covered.

I would agree that there are certain aspects of the RDD concept which walk a dangerous line where fascists have previously dictated style and time, not to mention habits. A good example would be the fact that the RDD year is 1000 days. Going back to the pope. Initial "Reich" 1000 years, and German history a second 1000 years, then the third reich which was supposed to last another 1000 years. I can see where someone could find a problem with the number. Good thing that a redesign century of 1000 years wasn't proposed.

A second thing to look at as far as a fascist control of design would have to be design in eastern germany. They had large design teams who were forced to uphold odd form regulations, aka non-sex non-materialist forms. There was a book from Taschen, SED, which might shed more light on that.

As far as your opinion that a reductionist approach killed the visual arts with Klee, Mondrian or Kandinsky, I would have to disagree. I would say that the NAZI agenda to eliminate the leftovers of the Avant Garde movement (an attempt at a Universal Non-National aesthetic) and replace it with rural southern bavarian image (what every foreigner now perceives to be German) is what killed the relationship between Germany and the Visual Arts. If Mies hadn't gone to Chicago, can you imagine what the reductionist philosophies of Modernism and the International Style could have done for Germany? Or if the Bauhaus were allowed to develop without being forbidden? What happened to Jan Tschichold anyway?

Based on this comment I think one could make a connection between the Design goals and positioning as Art if one wanted to. However, RDD is a design collective who works for clients based on a manifesto.

On a side note though, maybe it is important to mention here that not all members of RDD are Germans. I am American, and while I was there the collective was roughly one third foreigners and the rest were germans.

I think META does a fantastic job rebranding, and they don't seem to have an army, or fascist control.

Maybe it is just a stronger trend in Berlin than in Italy to actively develop and attempt to determine the direction which public aesthetics will have. But then again Berlin is unique as to its split history, and even today there is still construction going on to destroy symbols of the east and reinvent the way in which history is viewed through architecture. the "volkspalast" former "palast der republik" is being stripped to be replaced by a City Castle which was destroyed post ww2 by russians in order to build a new cultural symbol coming from Moscow and not from Germany. Maybe the discussion is just a little more active here, since much more of the city was destroyed.
Palace tour

I would like to know if similar discussions have taken place in Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Tokyo being that the cities also had to rebuild from the center.

As far as Nationalism goes, I have never met a German who was proud to be a German, in comparison to the countless Americans, Italians or French.

as far as other comments
-the RIN vs. golden section thing has nothing to do with being non-german.
-This isn't a forced fascist aesthetic as in WW2 Italy/Germany or present China
-italian futurism, minimalism, suprematism, modernism, or avant garde are probably among the strongest examples of the intentional development of a reduced graphic language for the communication of universal principals which art history has given us. Of course Botticelli, Rafael, Ruebens, Michelangelo, etc. ad infinitum created a fantastically visual cannon which will, regardless of personal taste be a basis for every student of the graphic arts.
Mike Campbell

Thanks for the discussion mario,
Just when it seems that we are on the same path, new questions come up.

Of course there is a connection between simplicity and power (economic/religious/political). One can look at the historical symbols of any culture to see that. Whether the Golden Arches are more recognizable than the Christian Cross is possibly just a matter of marketing.

As far as simplicity being either a way of "downsizing" or concentrating on the essential, it is just a matter of perspective. I happen to hold one of those. The decision to use sans serif fonts and develop them further in the Bauhaus led to fonts that were easier to read, not to mention communicate a message. And as far as spirituality goes, it probably connects to the fact that the Bauhaus developed while De Stijl was coming to an end.

You may be right that there was a connection between the Nazis and the Bauhaus, but I thought that Gropius left germany in 1934 and Mies left in 36. It doesn´t mean that they didn´t try to be influential with the Nazis, but if your sources make a clearer connection than I have read, I would like to check it out.

As far as I know, and could quickly research, Paul Troost was the first architect for the Reich and the Albert Speer took over the position in 1934 which he held until the Nurenberg trials which would have left no time for the Bauhaus to have an impact on the style.

Conceptually I don´t think that there was any common purpose whatsoever. This is an excerpt from the wikipedia article on albert speer.
"Nuremberg was also to be the site of many more official Nazi buildings, most of which were never built; for example, the German Stadium would have held another four hundred thousand spectators as the site of the Aryan Games, a proposed replacement for the Olympic Games. While planning these buildings, Speer invented the theory of "ruin value." According to this theory, enthusiastically supported by Hitler, all new buildings would be constructed in such a way that they would leave aesthetically pleasing ruins thousands of years in the future. Such ruins would be a testament to the greatness of the Third Reich, just as ancient Greek or Roman ruins were symbols of the greatness of their civilizations.""

And as far as the media presentations of the NS party goes, Leni Riefenstahl was responsible for the photographic and film style. I don´t know of a relation to her vision of the human body and that which Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus constructed. But I certainly don´t think that the Nazi party would have used a poster aesthetic akin to that of László Moholy-Nagy.

Beyond this, the Bauhaus was banned because the Nazis thought it was a front for communist ideas. Since it was considered "un-german" by the party it was finally completely banned in 1933. I guess what I would like to say here, is that to make a connection between Nazis and a Bauhaus form of Simplicity / Modernism is unfounded based on what I have seen and read, and doesn´t really need to be a part of this discussion. (unless proof can be found that states otherwise)

As far as Religious Images, I don´t see a connection to the REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND manifesto, unless you are referring only to the fact that they are a list of basic rules. Then we could be afraid of every cookbook.
Mike Campbell

 Momus Nick Currie, more popularly known under the artist name Momus (after the Greek god of mockery), is a songwriter, blogger and former journalist for Wired.

Jobs | July 23