Max Bill: Design and Craft

Max Bill: 1957 wall clock - Junghans

The Swiss polymath designer Max Bill (1908-1994) who studied at the Dessau Bauhaus in the late 1920s, produced some classics of product design that stand for the virtues of simplification and clarification. His watches and wall clocks and his so-called “Ulm Stool” are cases in point.

Max Bill: c1951 hand wound watch - chronomaster.co.uk

The timepieces, still made by Junghans, the largest German manufacturer of watches and clocks, date from the period immediately following the 1951 founding of the Institute for Design at Ulm which Bill established with Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher the graphic designer. Utilitarian and effortless, Bill’s timepieces seem to be founded on an insight to present a time keeping device in the most easily read, direct way. These are objects of daily use, yet they have the hard to achieve quality of appearing inimitable.

Max Bill: 1954 Ulm Stool

The Ulm Stool, also known as the Sgabillo and designed in the early 1950s – possibly with input from Ulm students – is still made by the Italian firm Zanotta. It is a seat with a range of other uses such as a footstool, a carrying tray, a display plinth and it can also be fitted with a drawer. It is multi-functional. Again, simplicity and clarity are hallmarks of a product which appears almost modest, self-effacing even. Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, during his period as editor of Domus in the late 1990s seemed to speak for products like these designs of Max Bill when he said:

Amid the clangor of the latest fashion fads, at the epicenter of the earthquake of stimuli that is uprooting the craft of designing, we must, if we really do have something to say, step forward and keep quiet.

2 thoughts on “Max Bill: Design and Craft

  1. Glad to see that Max Bill is getting some recognition again. A highly influential designer. I’ve had one of his watches for a while, not only a beautifully designed object, but a constant reminder of how good design can be distilled and expressive simultaneously.

  2. This is entirely conjecture, but I’d imagine that the Ulm stool is similar to the Eiermann table (now €174 & €369 respectively) in that they were designed to be both simple & beautiful, but also very easy to make. I can imagine that 1st year design students might make one as their introduction to woodwork. Oxford Brookes is full of Eiermann tables that were made over a summer of brazing practice.
    It’d be interesting to see if these really were examples of very early (and perhaps unconscious) open source design that were later taken up by manufacturers.

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