Bauhaus and back

The Hartz IV programme — an online platform to allow people living on government subsidies to make low-cost DIY furniture — has become a globally networked virtual "factory" that shares the Bauhaus's criticism of industrial production models and sees design as a thrust towards self-sufficiency on a collective scale.


Design / Julia von Mende

This article was originally published in Domus 962 / October 2012

Lack of money was the main reason why, in 1954, Max Bill with his colleague Hans Gugelot and the master joiner Paul Hildinger designed cheap, robust and flexible seating for his students at the newly founded Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm, one of the successor institutions of the Bauhaus. In 1960 the seats are said to have cost just 11 deutschmarks, or about 5.50 euros, apiece. Today the deal stool can be had for 30 or 40 times that price from the current licensee.

But also the non-material value of furniture originally developed to enable a broad range of consumers to acquire cheap and cheerful household items has changed, and so has the target group. Not much has ever been cheaply mass-produced from what had originally been dreamt up by the Werkbund, formulated by Ernst May and his colleagues in Frankfurt in the 1920s in the "basic minimum dwelling", and designed by teachers at the Bauhaus, namely system furniture that could be manufactured on a rational basis. And not everything the Bauhaus people turned out was actually destined for the masses.

Anyhow today, designs by Marcel Breuer and his contemporaries, for example, are labelled "modern classics" and only affordable as luxury accessories for a very limited circle of customers — and are firmly in the hands of Cassina, Tecta, Thonet, Vitra, Manufactum and the like. The original intention to produce good furniture for the masses in the context of Neues Wohnen ("New Living") has metamorphosed into the exact opposite, namely a supply of furniture that, while good and of high quality, is only affordable for the few due to design licences and in some cases expensive hand production. Quality for everyone has been perverted into luxury brands for the elite. As far as prices are concerned, it is Ikea, with its principle of "better furniture for less", that stands as the true heir to the Bauhaus.

Top and above: Stefka Ammon, part of the Le-Mentzel community, during and after construction of the chair. The only favour requested in exchange for downloading the designs from the site is to document the execution of the work with photos. These are then made available to all Hartz IV followers

Today, given the increasing divide between rich and poor, along with social ghettoisation, there is a genuine need for inexpensive housing and furniture. The scale of this need is demonstrated by, among other things, the response achieved by Hartz IV Möbel, an online platform for make-it-yourself furniture. Hartz IV is the term in Germany (named after its prime mover Peter Hartz) for the integrated system of unemployment benefit and social welfare payments. Introduced in four phases as of 2003, the Hartz reforms guarantee no more than the "existence minimum", so by extension the term has come to be associated with life on the breadline. The standard payment is 374 euros per month, in addition to the cost of housing and heating. It is therefore designed to allow the recipient the bare essentials of socio-cultural life, including food, clothing, leisure activities and furniture. At, the architect, former graffiti artist and rapper Van Bo Le-Mentzel offers downloadable instructions on how to build furniture. In our present-day society, which risks being suffocated in things, he translates the motto of "people's requirements, not luxury goods", coined by the Bauhaus's second director Hannes Meyer, into "constructing instead of consuming". His designs are influenced by the modern classics mentioned above, but adapted so as to render them both extraordinarily cheap as well as accessible to people without any diy experience. For example, steel is replaced by deal (spruce).

Thomas Arbenz, another member of the community, with the Kreuzberg 36 chair. Le-Mentzel reckons that between 2,000 and 6,000 pieces of furniture have been made worldwide from his assembly instructions

The website also features links to so-called "open workshops" where anyone who so desires can make their own furniture. In the meantime, Van Bo Le-Mentzel has furnished an entire Hartz IV show flat. His community members have even built a one-square-metre house to his plans. Alongside lamps made from heat-resistant muffin moulds, a glulam chair somewhere between Egon Eiermann and the Frankfurt Kitchen, and a multifunctional sofa for singles' apartments, there is also a stool reminiscent of Johannes Itten's and Max Bill's designs, which can be added to a set of shelves. Nowadays the original design costs between 170 and 200 euros; his version can be knocked together for just 10 euros.

Van Bo Le-Mentzel describes himself as someone "with two left hands". He implemented his first design under the guidance of an adult education course, and out of sheer pride at the result he published photographs of it online. It was the "24-euro chair", which is now legendary among his "crowd". In terms of design, Van Bo Le-Mentzel places this armchair somewhere between Mies's Barcelona Chair, Rietveld's Crate Chair, the armchair by Erich Dieckmann and the Wassily Club armchair by Marcel Breuer, but which in pine looks a little like it came from a Scandinavian furniture firm. Van Bo Le-Mentzel has nothing against Ikea, and has even researched trends for the company as one of two country-specific experts. Van Bo's version consists of a single 18-millimetre-thick pine glulam board plus a few belts and cushions, and it can be put together in just 24 hours. If you have everything sawn to size at the DIY store, the materials can be carried home on public transport, even in cities where turnstiles regulate access to underground railways. Le-Mentzel sees infrastructure as essential. In order to draw attention to the unrecognised qualities of public spaces, for example, in 2010 he temporarily installed his Hartz IV furniture in the entrance to the underground in Berlin's Hansa quarter, and occupied it under the banner of "guerrilla lounging".

Hartz IV concerns the desire for a fulfilling activity in the immediate form of productivity, and for social interaction both in real and digital life

Guerrilla Lounging, a display of Hartz IV furniture at Berlin’s Hansaplatz U-Bahn station

The followers of "constructing instead of consuming" now number some 10,000 (judging by the feedback and number of downloads of his designs). German adult education colleges now offer 24-euro chair courses, and Le-Mentzel estimates that between 2,000 and 6,000 of his items have been made worldwide. In the beginning he never imagined that his project would have attracted such a following. Considered a crowdsourcing expert, he works in the strategy department at Dan Pearlman, an advertising agency specialised in architecture.

Le-Mentzel wanted to draw attention to the unappreciated qualities of public places

His project has grown to become a globally networked virtual "factory". "No employers, no wages, no contracts, only motivated people, all of whom are happy. But I am just as productive as a small company that would otherwise sell the furniture," says Le-Mentzel. The service is free of charge, but in return he asks his community to submit a report of their experience or pictures of the results. He then posts these online for his crowd, in other words all those who follow Hartz IV Möbel on the Web, mainly on Facebook. In addition, in mid-2012 Van Bo Le-Mentzel published all the building instructions, some enthusiasts' anecdotes and his own ideas (for example on the economy of giving and taking, or "karma capitalism") in a book titled Hartz IV Build More Buy Less! Konstruieren statt Konsumieren (HatjeCantz, 2012), financed by crowdfunding, naturally.

Hence the Ulm stool has arrived after half a century. Van Bo Le-Mentzel has subversively shifted an altered form of the elite Bauhaus piece back to where it should be, i.e. in the dwellings of those who need good cheap furniture, but also of those who may be fed up with Ikea. After all, one feels quite differently about an item of furniture that one has taken many hours to make oneself, rather than effortlessly bought. According to Le-Mentzel, only a third of those who make their own furniture to his designs are actually poor. In the end, the material prices are still too high for Hartz IV's intended recipients, and these days it is quite possible to furnish a place even more cheaply via all sorts of second-hand websites. Hartz IV functions here more as a label, something criticised on the Web by a number of actual Hartz IV recipients.

The Doerig family with some of the self-made pieces from the Der Berliner Hocker collection, for which Le-Mentzel drew inspiration from the Ulm stool designed by Max Bill and Hans Gugelot in 1954, and from the stool that Le Corbusier designed in 1952 (currently produced by Cassina)

It represents a society in which there are new forms of neediness besides the material form. Thus he has hardly any echo from threshold countries, as those who have never had the chance to consume do not know where to begin with the new pleasure in construction. The message is aimed at saturated societies that have too much money and too little time to spend it. In this sense, the material economy plays a subordinate role. The focus is on social interaction in connection with a revived do-it-yourself movement. It concerns the desire for a fulfilling activity in the immediate form of productivity, and for social interaction both in real and digital life: one meets new people by building furniture in the workshop, and one feels a sense of belonging to the crowd on the Internet. In contrast to earlier diy movements, the Internet makes it possible to open up interaction between the experience of success, direct communication of this experience, and the rapid presentation of the real, self-made object in a forum. This complex weave could never have been generated by a diy magazine. The open-source variant of diy goes far beyond the critique of industrial production methods; it is a movement of empowerment. As Van Bo explains: "In the past it was 'do it yourself'; today it is 'do it together'."

The Bauhaus and Hartz IV Möbel both have their social dimension, each based in their own period. The essential difference, however, consists in the role of the designer: while the architects of the 1920s thought they knew exactly how they could contribute to the improvement of living conditions, and how other people should best live, today they are no longer as confident about their answers to either housing issues or social issues. Their lack of confidence is connected not least to the increasing diversity in living arrangements, and in people's ideas and desires when furnishing their dwellings. But it is also linked to the increasing mobility of users and to changing conditions of life and work. Designers who are aware of their responsibilities are thus increasingly assuming the role of mediators or teachers who offer users the possibility to realise their own ideas and desires. They see design no longer as object production, but as a guide to collective self-empowerment. Julia von Mende, architecture critic and journalist