Modernity exhibits manifold attempts to shake off all that is old and to start up new again, to give what is happening a radical new direction and to take on a new identity. At the same time, the present is just as inseparable from the past as it is oriented toward the future. History is a “sticky person,” a ghost that time and again hovers amongst the new, peering in just when one wants to get rid of it and work toward continuity into the future. But the past cannot be gotten rid of.
A look back at all of the successes, enthusiasm, disruptions, crises, and irritations of history is an integral part of finding your own identity, regardless of whether we are dealing with cultures, people, or institutions. Anything that has become something has a history. History is not a continuous flow of results, not a list of events that follow one after the other with telescopic intent like the modern age would sometimes like to think. History is rather full of contradictions, disruptions, breaks, and continuities. The supposed “one” history splinters into many histories, which act alongside each other, with each other and against each other. “History must disturb, provoke” (Burguière).
The HfG Offenbach has – one could say – as least two histories: a long and a short history. Different slices of time are embedded in the school, various conceptions of goals of what the school should be, what it was and is. Like an archeologist, the historian removes and examines the sediment, layer by layer, in order to understand its current form today.
The short history of the HfG begins in 1970 when it became an arts university.
On September 15, 1970, the practical and vocational arts and crafts school became an official arts university of the State of Hesse – an important jump and a new beginning which has shaped the HfG’s development right up to the present day. A development which is by no means complete. But already in 1970, the newly formed HfG was able to look back on a long history of over a hundred years – a history that also shapes our identity. Over the course of the past 175 years, the institution that today calls itself the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main, Kunsthochschule des Landes Hessen, has had no less than ten different names. They show continuity, but also shifts, directional changes, and discontinuities.
The roots of the HfG reach back to the early nineteenth century. To be exact, to 1832, when the surveyor Georg Fink founded a handicraft school in Offenbach, which had its first rooms already in the Isenburger Palace. This represents the first and longest temporal strand in the HfG’s history. Besides its origination as a handicraft school in the 1830s, there is a second thread that has shaped the HfG’s history – the foundation of the Offenbach Art Industry School in 1868, which stressed artistic training, and which in 1877 merged together with the handicraft school founded several decades earlier to form the “Vereinigten Kunst-Industrie und Handwerkerschule” (United Art Industry and Handicrafts School).
These two threads shed light on the contrasts that have shaped the history of the HfG in the last 175 years – the tension between theory and practice, which was already apparent in 1832, and the tension between the poles of art, industry, and handicraft.
The location of the university, Offenbach – historically a place of exile for the Huguenots, a city with a trade fair and a city of printing presses, where Alois Senefelder developed the lithograph, a city in which the Klingspor Museum preserves writing and book culture, and at the same time a city of machines and leather – has influenced the long story of the university just as much as have broad western European developments of modernization and technicalization, which time and again led to shifts, new directions, and quite deliberate further developments of existing trends. This includes the discussion of the role of handicrafts in industrial society, technology as a whole, and machine-based work world since the industrial revolution, national debates on the quality of German products and their aesthetic value – discussions which were held in the second half of the nineteenth century and particularly in labor organizations. It also includes the Nazi period with its reactionary design sensibilities and brutal treatment of non-Aryans. And, to come back to the short history of the HfG, the debate includes the new media, digitalization, and today’s new technologies like nano- and biotechnology, as well as current ideas on European educational systems in the context of a knowledge society. Social transformation processes are forcing educational institutions to come up with a response, to take a stand, to react – as they are so clearly active participants in these developments.
Whether as a handicrafts school, an art industry school, as a technical institution (as the HfG was known up to the turn of the twentieth century), or as an arts and crafts school (as it was known after the World War II), time and again the school has sought to emphasize its work in applied design, coupled with a theoretical focus, as well as its close connection to the handicraft and industry of Offenbach. The foundation of the HfG as an arts university was a clear statement of its artistic orientation, yet one which set it apart from two alternatives: the ivory tower of academia and the entirely applied orientation of the technical universities. This profile of the university as a working artistic experimental university with an additional emphasis in theoretical research and teaching (which never stray far from practical application), will continue to be strengthened in the future. The HfG will defend itself against demands for justification and expectations of short term efficiency.
Prof. Dr. Martina Heßler
Prof. Adam Jankowski