Architect and industrial designer
Ferdinand Kramer was an architect and commercial designer with a mid-twentieth century career that straddled the Atlantic. In his design work, he strove to create high-quality yet inexpensive and mass-produced consumer goods. Kramer was born in Frankfurt in 1898 and came to the United States in 1937 after he found himself barred from professional employment in Nazi Germany.While he did not enjoy the success of some of his more famous colleagues with Bauhaus origins, Kramer’s work in the American design profession and his eventual return to Germany made him a crucial transatlantic communicator in his field.
After he had finished his studies in architecture at the Technical University of Munich (including a very brief stint at theBauhaus), Kramer worked in Frankfurt, where architect Ernst May ran the city’s planning department. Kramer became head of the standardization department and his portfolio included a comprehensive effort to set norms and standards for everyday items. In their effort to raise mass living standards May and Kramer reached out to the broader design networks such as the German Werkbund and CIAM, the new international congress of modern architects. Such social democratic pursuits and visions as well as connections with the modernist European avant-garde of architects and designers did not preclude Kramer from having ties to industry and interest in the commercial application of his designs. In fact, like many of his colleagues at the Bauhaus and elsewhere, he was not aloof from, but keenly interested in the possibilities of commercial mass production and the machine age. He was fascinated by the mass production of furniture by the Thonet company, which he expressed in a 1929 article on serial mass production and normed consumer goods. Commercially, he made himself a name with a 1925 design for a simple and inexpensive oven, the Kramer-Ofen, produced in mass by Buderus (a company for which he also designed a successful bathtub).
In the United States Kramer succeeded in establishing himself in the areas of furniture and interior design during the 1940s. He initially found employment with architect Ely Kahn and then in the design studio of Norman Bel Geddes. In 1939, he was slated to design the “Freedom Pavilion” representing émigré Germany at the New York World’s Fair. Kramer worked on the redesign of department store interiors and developed the display system Vizual with a flexible assembly concept that was also prominent in Kramer’s furniture design. His knock-down furniture emphasized practicality and transportability and drew on his German work in standardized quality goods for mass production. His perhaps most famous design was the Rainbelle, a disposable umbrella made almost entirely of folded paper, which became a media hit in 1951. Upon his return to Germany in the 1950s, Kramer drew on connections built in the United States to fellow émigrés Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and became the architect of the University of Frankfurt. Throughout the postwar decades, Kramer continued to facilitate transatlantic exchanges by lecturing on American department store designs and industrial design traditions before audiences across West Germany and Switzerland.