SYSTEM DESIGN. Over 100 Years of Chaos in Everyday Life

20 January to 7 June 2015

Systems shape our everyday life, yet, most of the time, we aren’t aware of them: from the metric system and the standard A paper sizes to our smartphone’s operating system and to system catering. We define our location in the cosmos within a solar system but when we look up into the starry night sky, we only see a chaotic pattern of countless sparkling points of light.

The system idea is rooted in the desire to manage chaos by connecting a manageable number of discrete elements and, by so doing, to create context.

For over 100 years, design has tackled tasks by providing solutions from specific to overarching ones, including all facets in between. Sometimes the focus is on a single product, sometimes on the overarching context and sometimes design moves between those poles.

The so-called ‘contour bottle’, designed in 1904 by Alexander Samuelson for Coca-Cola, is an example of an object without reference to its context. The bottle is an autonomous object.

A series represents a first step towards a system: once a chair is developed, it seems sensible to not only produce it in one size but in three or four sizes.

The next step in development is a programme. We speak of a programme when individual objects relate to each other only in form or aesthetics or in their dimensions. For example, Thonet’s tubular steel furniture by Marcel Breuer (chair, stool, desk, shelf, from 1925 onwards) creates such a context by its design language alone. A wooden construction set is the best example of a programme where the dimensions of individual components are perfectly matched to each other.

If such a programme is built in a modular way and firmly connected, we have an analogue system. There are two preconditions: firstly, the modules are simplified into just a few standardised basic elements. Secondly, another element is introduced to create connections that can also be reversed. The small knobs that have been on the upper surface of Lego bricks since 1958 mark such a transition from wooden construction set to system. As elements can be connected temporarily, the number of possible applications explodes into infinity. The connection establishes the system.

The visible knot joint by USM Haller (1963) is one of the most widely known connection elements in furniture design. Similar approaches, however, can be found much earlier, for example in the first Leica 1a camera, for which, in 1925, Oskar Barnack developed the first design with separate casing and lens, thus establishing a system. Peter Behrens’ visual identity for AEG (from 1907 onwards), developed from just a few basic elements, is also based on the system idea, as is Otl Aicher’s design for the 1972 Munich Olympics. We also find the system idea in most recent products, for example in Werner Aisslinger’s add system, developed for furniture manufacturer flötotto. add also features a knot joint, which, however, is not visible in the completed configuration.

Since the 1970s, the system idea has formed the conceptual basis for many business models and for the digitisation of our life, making systems a determining factor of everyday life.

In global logistics, the euro palett represents a connecting element at the centre of all essential processes. The credit card plays the same role in payment systems, and in system catering we have the espresso capsule.

Digital systems do not need connections based on formal-aesthetic or measurement attributes: overarching functional coherence is generated by hardware interfaces and by immaterial, programmed API interfaces. The smartphone, the wireless network in system catering and the car sharing system do not have any visible connection: their interrelation cannot be touched but only experienced in use.

Each system is an attempt to create a final coherence that unites all the elements of a system. But each system also has breaks and simultaneously competes with other existing systems. Therefore, each new system also contributes to increasing existing chaos.

The SYSTEM DESIGN exhibition presents more than 120 exhibits by over 80 international designers such as Otl Aicher, Werner Aisslinger, Peter Behrens, Mario Bellini, Marcel Breuer, Wim Crouwel, Ray + Charles Eames, Egon Eiermann, Willy Fleckhaus, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Konstantin Grcic, Hans Gugelot, Fritz Haller, Josef Hoffmann, Jonathan Ive, Ferdinand Kramer, Le Corbusier, Enzo Mari, Ingo Maurer, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Bruno Munari, George Nelson, Otto Neurath, Frei Otto, Verner Panton, Joseph Paxton, Dieter Rams, Richard Sapper, Mart Stam, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Massimo Vignelli, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Marco Zanuso.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a bilingual catalogue (German – English).

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