The new Hooks from Iserlohn
Design Theory by Prof. Dr. phil. Siegfried Gronert
Iron has been worked in the region round about Iserlohn since the Middle Ages. Translated, the name Iserlohn means something like “iron forest” and refers to the fact that in the past both iron ore and smithsonite (a zinc spar used in the production of brass) were also mined here. In the 19th century, Iserlohn, the “iron town”, was seen as Germany’s equivalent to Manchester. The firm of Hermann Schwerter Iserlohn has been operating in this region as an export and trading business since 1905, focusing on items made of iron for decorative indoor use, and in particular metal coat hooks, coat racks and coat stands. In the last 20 years, through expansion and acquisition, the company has also increasingly moved into production and is therefore now also directly faced with questions of design - i.e. a completely new challenge. And that is also the reason for a new design project for coat hooks. Some brief remarks on the background to the project will serve as an introduction to the design task involved.
Like the huge range of applications, the universe of objects made of iron is virtually immeasurable: rings, rolls, wires, chains, straps, rods, pins, hooks, screws, handles, fittings, bolts and many other things. A further dimension is added by the different production techniques involved (forging, casting, pressing, cutting), which determine the repertoire of technical forms of the objects. The effects of the Industrial Revolution brought about a shift in production - away from traditional manual working on a restricted regional basis, to centralized, industrialized production facilities.
While that is only partly true of the traditionally rooted iron industry in Iserlohn, where there is still a predominance of small firms, it is a factor for the weakness of the region in the competitive international environment. For about 30 years now, inexpensive decorative furniture fittings and hooks have been coming from southern Europe (Italy and Spain), where businesses invested in good time in lower-cost die-cast production methods. Today, furniture and clothes stand fittings are being increasingly imported from China, the land of low wages. Like all other branches of industry, ironware production today is exposed to worldwide economic and technical conditions. In the field of interior decoration and visually preferred objects, however, it is changing current fashion trends that really count.
Already once before, around the year 1900, the Iserlohn region experienced a period of trend-setting development in objects and forms. From the end of the 19th century up to the start of the First World War, in the wake of the artistic impulses triggered by the Arts and Crafts reform movement, a whole number of small and medium-sized businesses located in the towns and cities ranging from Hagen and Wuppertal to Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen and Krefeld, became involved in a movement that was later to become known as the “West German Impulse” and whose products found their way into the museums of the region. In the metalworking field, former Lüdenscheid-based firms such as Hueck or Gerhardi established contact – in some cases arranged by the directors of the regional arts and crafts museums – to up-and-coming design artists of the time: Peter Behrens, Henry van de Velde und Joseph Maria Olbrich. As a result, alongside what were then the centres of Jugendstil (Art nouveau) in Darmstadt and Weimar, a vibrant design scene also grew up for a short time in the “iron region”, with eminent designers and outstanding products. The impetus subsequently became lost, with the result that with very few exceptions (bathroom fittings from Grohe and Dornbracht), the region failed to produce any further artistic impulses. Even the Post-Modernism of the 1980s which, like Jugendstil, triggered a broad modernization movement in the field of everyday objects, had only little impact on the businesses in the Iserlohn region. However, the technical and economic production factors have now become so tough that the only response can be through design.
At international level, particularly in the metal sector, the last 20 years have seen some remarkable new design impulses, which have ultimately also led to significant economic success. Starting in the 1970s, the north Italian firm of Alessi sorted its traditional product range into new “programmes”, culminating in 1983 with the launch of its highly regarded design project “Tea and Coffee Piazza”, with the participation of celebrated Italian and international architects and designers. In the wake if this, Alessi was able to initiate a reassessment in the field of household goods, generating a sustained renewal with sustained demand. But as this example shows, one spectacular design project by itself is not sufficient to give the entire production of a company the new impulses it needs; rather, the product range, the production process and sales & marketing all have to be reviewed in their entirety in the context of the Corporate Identity and reworked as necessary. But when one has great goals in one’s sights, it is necessary to start somewhere – and in the present case with one challenging aspect of the project.
Therefore, the starting point chosen for renewing the Hermann Schwerter Iserlohn corporate culture is hooks, and more particularly: clothes hooks. After all, there are many kinds of hooks. Some look to us like fossils from another age (“athlete hooks”, “church hooks”, “emergency hooks”, “volo hooks”); others, on the other hand, are still perfectly familiar (picture hooks, boat hooks, snap hooks). Clothes hooks, meanwhile, form a category all of their own, since they consist not only of a hook but a wall fitting as well. And it must be remembered in this context that the further out from the wall the hook projects, the greater the forces acting on the wall fitting become. Also in production terms, a distinction has to be made between older types of clothes hook made of shaped wire, and cast and wrought designs. The clothes hook typology also encompasses subtle variants, such as hat pegs (terminating in a ball or such like shape) or coat hooks, which sometimes appear not much bigger than a towel hook. And finally, there are single hooks and racks with several hooks, which may already be seen as a halfway house to a coat stand. In the industry, clothes hooks count as the “coat stand of the common man” – and it is clothes hooks that the design project seeks to redesign.
The Hermann Schwerter Iserlohn product range encompasses a wide variety of clothe and coat hooks with different styles and characters. However, it does not appear to incorporate one particular design product that could point the way into the future.
It is a fact that not many designers in the past have concerned themselves with this product field in general or clothes hooks in particular, but one outstanding exception should be mentioned. In the 1920s, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, one of Germany’s greatest designers, created coat stands for the Berlin-based firm of S. A. Loevy, and when Wagenfeld was later designing pressed glass products for Vereinigte Lausitzer Glaswerke, one of the objects he created was a clothes hook – actually made of pressed glass.
The “new hook from Iserlohn“ is also about a long tradition in the Iserlohn ironware industry which the design project seeks not only to preserve but to give a new dimension to for the present day. Hermann Schwerter Iserlohn is, after all, the last major company in Germany that still produces clothes hooks. Moreover, the sales channels have also become rather fragile. Specialist ironmongery stores will play an ever decreasing role in sale of the goods to the customers; therefore, alternative sales routes will have to be explored in the wholesale field. The communication opportunities offered by a design project that arouses publicity should also not be ignored.