On October 24th 1793 the French introduced a new concept in calendars which was, quite literally, revolutionary. Out went the old monthsJanuary to Decemberand 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 Berlinnot to mention the difficulty, in the current economic climate, of coming by more conventional client-oriented workallows 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.