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.
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
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 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