The curators of the first two Design Display exhibitions discuss why design today is far from elitist, what design has to do with enlightenment, and why design is everyone’s business
Friedrich von Borries (FB): In recent years, the Autostadt has caused quite a stir with projects that at first glance seem unrelated to automobility—the Level Green exhibition on sustainability, for example, or the food program on everything from vital nutrition to organic vegan and vegetarian diets. Next up is the design exhibition area, which until now has been used to show how cars are made. Now, a large display case will show an expanded design concept that raises social and political issues and shifts people into the foreground with its comprehensive individual design options. What do you expect from this new exhibition?
Maria Schneider (MS): If we succeed in reaching people to the extent we did with the nutrition project, we will have accomplished a great deal—by inspiring in every individual an awareness of his or her own creative power. That sounds romantic, of course. But that’s how to mobilize a critical potential that lies within each of us; the potential to reflect on what we take as self-evident in daily life, from the design of our homes and public spaces to everyday processes and structures like bus and train schedules. All of those things are designed. They can remain the way they are, or they can be completely different. That sort of awareness leads to a kind of self-empowerment. It makes people more observant, critical, and uncomfortable. I’m aware that’s not something companies or governments usually want.
FB: So why is the Autostadt doing it?
MS: At the Autostadt, we’ve been working for seventeen years with an approach that’s enlightened in the best sense of the word. And the company doesn’t just tag along; it considers it the right approach, affirmed by its positive reception with visitors and customers. We inspired people to reflect and we made them more critical. If we can also see or feel this in the design area after three years, then we’ve been successful. Our visitors are self-aware and discerning; they notice when we make mistakes. That’s precisely why I like them.
FB: Won’t it bother visitors if the topic of automotive design isn’t directly addressed?
MS: We see our pavilions and other Autostadt exhibition areas as laboratories where we cooperate with company designers. Now we’re starting with a setting that elucidates the aspiration for a more comprehensive understanding of design. At the brand pavilions, the designers working at this company will communicate their own understanding of design through the products they create. Automobile design and mobility will surely also be included in our exhibitions. All designers will immediately see that our exhibition is an open dialogue with people—customers, visitors, interested parties. And the company knows that without dialogue, it can’t survive in the future.
FB: Another important Autostadt design project is the hotel, an incredibly fancy hotel. It doesn’t really fit the Volkswagen target group.
MS: Yes, it’s a five-star hotel. It was conceived at a time when something incredibly important was happening at this company; the development of a so-called luxury strategy. The Phaeton was born during this phase. The model was not designed for its own sake, but rather to democratize state-of-the-art technology. Thus everything developed for the Phaeton can now also be found in the Polo. The idea was to create something in the premium segment, then make it available to everyone. That’s what makes me like Volks-wagen so much. And the same thing applies to the hotel. That’s why we chose Andrée Putman, a designer that broke down barriers with her designs.
FB: You assembled an unusual team for the design exhibition project—designer Konstantin Grcic, architect Jesko Fezer, graphic designer Nicolas Bourquin, and me. I’m known for being critical of cars for environmental reasons, to say nothing of the excesses of global capitalism. What’s your strategic intent in bringing in someone with this perspective?
MS: We wanted someone who’s independent in spirit, and we had the feeling you are. I’m convinced that we can and should critically respond to issues surrounding the automobile and its industry. Volkswagen has many questions about the future of cars, and those questions are answered with more clarity and nuance in the many parts of the company than it may appear to the public. The employees researching and developing behind the scenes are on the cutting edge. A company like Volkswagen is an enormous entity that of course has to think about the future. That’s why it’s important for such a company to allow for and even force these questions. So why did you become involved in this project, despite your critical stance?
FB: I’m interested in questions of efficiency. I think we can change the world through design. But if you want to change something, you have to understand the existing economic structures and get inside them. So it’s only logical to work with “industry” and its organs of communication. What’s the alternative? I could start a Critical Design Theory working group. But who would it reach? Through the Autostadt project, I can reach millions of people with the issues I find important.
MS: So far we’ve had thirty million visitors. But you have to not only understand the structures you want to change, not only get inside them, but also to a certain extent go along with them—or at least edge your way toward the visitors.
FB: That’s why I’m here. When you started at the Autostadt, did you aspire to change something in Volkswagen as a company?
MS: No, that was never my desire. Every process changes when new people enter it. What we do in the Autostadt impacts the company. For me, it’s not necessarily about wanting to change something. I simply address what I think should be addressed. I’m glad if the company absorbs that.
FB: But the context you operate in affects you.
MS: In my experience, that’s a secondary consideration. It doesn’t go deep; it just affects the outward form of things. When the context changes, the outward forms disappear.
FB: I get the impression that in the spirit of conscious self-design, you have to take countermeasures to avoid corrupting yourself and assuring that your own attitudes and beliefs keep their forms.
MS: You don’t get the sense that you limit yourself that way?
FB: I hope not. Ultimately, if you’re excited about design, you’re always operating within a peculiar tension. Design also includes the material plane. It thus has two dimensions; an economic and a sensual. I’m interested in both. Right now, I’m sitting on a chair. Do I feel the chair I’m sitting on? Do I feel the space in which I’m located? And how do I use those sensations to locate myself? These are all physical experiences. They are determined by the design of objects and spaces. Design, in other words, is about the sensual relationship to the world in which we live. We all have to decide how we’ll help shape this world and what impact we have on it. That’s also true for us and our exhibition project, of course.
MS: We’re taking design and fabrication from the elite sphere into the everyday. That’s important and useful at the same time. And we’re making people realize how important design is for their behavior, because only then can they help decide what takes shape in the world. Therein lies a bit of empowerment for every individual—and that changes the world. This approach goes back to Enlightenment ideals. There’s something in it you could call critical of the system, but above all, it’s beneficial to people.