"When I was a student, I only saw these things in pictures," says Leslie Lu as he walks past a collection of Tizio desk lamps, designed in 1970 by Richard Sapper. Thirty-five years ago, Lu was studying architecture at Yale University and the idea of owning an object designed by someone like Sapper, one of Germany's most renowned industrial designers, was wishful thinking for a penny-pinching student.
Besides, if Lu were able to afford a designer lamp, he might have chosen something more outlandish. "Germans did not start with style first - the Italians and the French did the opposite," he says. "In the old days we used to laugh at the Germans for being so simple-minded."
How things change. Lu is now vice-principal of the Hong Kong Institute of Design (HKDI) and he is behind the creation of Hong Kong's first major exhibition of German industrial design. Functional, reliable and authoritatively simple - these are the hallmarks of the German design tradition. "They understand the spirit of the times, which is marrying manufacturing and craft," says Lu. "German design is about taking everyday things to new heights. And it has to last."
German Design Standards: From Bauhaus to Globalisation gathers more than 150 objects in the main gallery of the HKDI's Tiu Keng Leng campus, from early home computers to the steel frame of a Smart car. The exhibits, drawn from the Red Dot Design Museum in Essen and Die Neue Sammlung, one of the world's leading design museums, in Munich, span the history of modern Germany, from the Industrial Revolution to post-war partition and the rise of global capitalism, which has seen German design gain more influence than ever before.
"We tried to do a selection that could tell a story of German design, from the start of industrialisation in the 19th century, the changing of society and everything else - that's the starting point," says Corinna Rösner, chief curator of Die Neue Sammlung, which has the world's largest collection of industrial and product design. "We always try to find objects that say important things about life today."
For that reason, the exhibition is not strictly chronological, starting instead with a few contemporary objects that highlight the essence of German design philosophy, which is "the balance between design and engineering", according to Red Dot director Peter Zec.
One example is the Chassis chair by Stefan Diez, whose lightweight steel frame takes its inspiration from vehicle construction. "It's about absolute efficiency in manufacturing," says Lu. "Product design is not very green, so to make something with a minimum of material, it's both economic and [sustainable]."
Another object that Lu counts among his favourites is the High Noon ring by Timo Küchler, which holds a diamond in place through the pressure exerted by a single band of metal, allowing the jewel to spin on its axis. "You no longer need a craftsman to set the diamond, you just need a machine," says Lu. "It sets the pace for German high technology."
The bent steel of the High Noon ring recalls the curvaceous wooden rocking chair made by the Thonet Brothers in 1856, the oldest piece in the exhibition. The chairs were made possible by a new wood-bending technology and, unlike others of the time, were assembled with screws rather than glued together.
It was a straight line from those rocking chairs to the Wassily chair, manufactured by Thonet and designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925, which was revolutionary in its use of seamless steel tubing and canvas. The chair's modular construction and streamlined form were hallmarks of a nascent German modernism and also key elements of the Bauhaus, a school that attempted to harness art, craft and technology in pursuit of the ultimate functionalist aesthetic.
Though Bauhaus (1919-1933) remains one of the most renowned schools of design, its influence at the time was limited, and the years of Nazism halted the spread of its ideas in Germany. By comparison, the Ulm School of Design, established in 1953, had a more immediate impact. Rooted partly in the ideals of Bauhaus, it went further by disregarding art and instead concentrating on the commercial imperative of design - an approach best seen in the work of Hans Gugelot and his protégé, Dieter Rams, who defined his design philosophy as "less, but better", and whose work for home appliance company Braun was influential.
The Ulm School left a legacy that diverges markedly from the design traditions of most other countries. Italy is a favourite punching bag for partisans of German design. "I drove a Lamborghini once - I could get in, but it was hard to get out," jokes Lu. Zec says Italian design "takes its inspiration from the arts", which is another way of saying it values style over substance. "This is one reason why Italian industry, even the car industry, cannot really compete worldwide," he says.
Rösner attributes German success to a systematic, problem-solving approach to design. "German designers are very strong in analysing situations before they start to design," she says. This has led to success even for non-German companies, such as Apple, which hired Harmut Esslinger - known for shaping Sony's design image in the late 1970s - to design the distinctive, deceptively simple-looking Mackintosh SE personal computer in 1983, which gave Apple a head start in the home PC industry for the rest of the 1980s.
"It's no secret that Steve Jobs loved German design," says Zec. "If you look at Apple products they all speak the same design language. They have innovation but they also have an identity, and keeping the same identity is as important as doing something new. It's a very German kind of culture."
German design has never been purely functional - Rösner says recent decades have seen the birth of an ironic, playful streak, like Frank Schreiner's 1983 Consumer's Rest, a chair shaped like a shopping cart, which pokes fun at modernism and consumerism and heralded a new era of critical, self-aware German design. "It's a very good development because it makes products more human," he says.
In the end, though, simplicity, functionality and minimalist aesthetics always win out over wit and flamboyance, as seen in the exhibition's showcase of Red Dot Award winners, like the streamlined, extremely durable Sarah Wiener knives, each of which is hand-forged in nine steps from a single piece of steel. "For some people, this seems to be a little bit too pragmatic," says Zec. "It's not sexy enough. That's why many people say German design is a little bit boring. The problem is there's no other design in the world that sells so well or at such high prices as German design."
German Design Standards - From Bauhaus to Globalisation ends on March 4.
Details on www.hkdi.edu.hk