Obituary Luigi Colani
The internationally acclaimed yet ostracised designer died in Karlsruhe at the age of 91 on 16 September 2019.
“Don't be so shy! Come here and take a perch,” were the first words Luigi Colani said to me. I sneaked round his stand at Paperworld 2007 and didn't quite understand how to address the bearded, cigar-smoking, already elderly man in a white knitted sweater. His directness, (he was not backward in coming forward), endeared him to me, even if I was soon to find out that opinions about him diverged widely. The internationally acclaimed yet ostracised designer died in Karlsruhe at the age of 91 on 16 September 2019.
At the time of the fair, I knew nothing about design other than that I wanted to study it after taking my Abitur [high-school leaving exams]. I needed preliminary internships to follow this course of study, so my stepmother, who worked at Paperworld, got me an admission ticket with the words: “Luigi Colani is a designer. Talk to him!” He had designed everything from crockery, furniture and clothes to glasses, consumer electronics, sanitary equipment, to cars, trains and planes. Our conversation, which was made possible thanks to him, ended with the prospect of an internship that I undertook in his studio in Karlsruhe the following summer.
Colani and five interns were sitting at the huge glass table in the Nancyhalle in Karlsruhe. We modelled in plasticine, cast plaster models, sanded them, typically drew on black cardboard with bright-coloured pencils and chatted, while he took the opportunity to lecture us from time to time, got worked up about current world events and gave his opinion on most things. The same thing happened in the workshop on the outskirts of Karlsruhe, where lifesize models were created from glass fibre and plastic, the only difference was that, in this location, we sat at garden tables. For lunch, there were sandwich rolls or a cooked meal. Despite the aura of the great master, which he obviously cultivated, the conditions were cordial. Everyone had their task, contributing to a project or the daily business. So there, I developed my initial impressions of what designers do and what design is. Even after studying design and acquiring more work experience, this period remains a formative reference point for my own work, as does Luigi Colani, a person whose work is worth slaving over despite, or because of, his controversial nature.
Not a day went by when he was not productive, when he did not create a drawing or model. They were an expression of his never-ending stream of ideas and urge to create. Decades of perfecting the connection between hand and brain was expressed in every line and surface. This mastery of the working material and tools - the craft – impressed me, as did the fact that this then almost 80-year-old man dedicated his entire life to the design of things.
Accordingly, no area of life was excluded from his design. Those who visited the exhibition of his life's work in the Nancyhalle in 2008 saw all sorts of things. The range was enormous: from hand-sized objects such as glasses to a model vision for an ecological city whose traffic and supply flows focused on the human organism. However, there were not only exhibits of successfully mass-produced products on show, but also numerous prototypes, studies and designs that never found a manufacturer. This is certainly not only due to his productivity, but also to his exemplary existence as an auteur designer: his attitude was more like that of a brilliant artist who wanted to be recognised and courted. Marvellous at scolding other designers, German industry and politics (often crossing the boundaries of political correctness), he made himself unpopular in many places. His public behaviour and way of presenting himself as a brand at the same time, however, also altered the view of the potential of his design. His approach of focusing on both people and nature - whether as a role model or as a resource - has not lost any of its relevance, quite the contrary. Embracing issues outside of commercially workable commissions, developing visions of the future, and taking a stand all testify to a creative will that is often lacking today. Even though Luigi Colani seems to have dropped out of time in some respects - and not least because of his distinctive formal language - the lines of force around which design, its scene and self-reflection expand can be read from his work. Even after his death, he should give us motive enough to question these.