During this period, the Neues Deutsches Design changed the appreciation of design, and aimed to strengthen the link between art and music. One of the key groups that spearheaded this movement was the Cologne-based, avant-garde design group Pentagon which gained international recognition in 1987 by designing the much-praised Café Casino at documenta 8. It was started in 1985 by Gerd Arens, Wolfgang Laubersheimer, Reinhard Müller, Ralph Sommer and Meyer Voggenreiter. In January of 2020, the five minds behind the group come together for the first time in nearly 35 years to present a retrospective of their work at the Cologne Museum of Applied Arts (MAKK), which will run parallel to imm Cologne and Passagen 2020.

Although employing differing practices, the group came together to ruffle the feathers of German design, which they saw as burdened by the weight of functionality, and instead employed imaginative narratives and were driven by an unyielding desire to experiment resulting in work that was radical and provocative. I had the pleasure of speaking to Meyer Voggenreiter and Wolfgang Laubersheimer.

Pentagon Groupe, 2019
I catch Voggenreiter between meetings during his business trip to Berlin. Early on in the conversation he establishes a significant distinction between different kinds of designers—those who are preoccupied by making products for industrial production, and those who focus on making objects. Pentagon, Voggenreiter clarifies, positioned itself firmly in the latter category. “A product can be seen as an object, if it were to become iconic, for example, but an object that doesn’t have the qualities of a product, that doesn’t eliminate risk, will never be a product.” Voggenreiter tells me about his most iconic object, May ’68, which is a series of three wooden apple crates with metal arms and legs attached. It can be assembled in a number of ways: as a stackable shelf, perched or leaning against a wall, resembling the stance of someone being patted down by the police. He shares an anecdote of when the piece was used as decoration as a stacked shelf in a shop during documenta 8, onto which he placed a tome from Karl Marx on the bottom rung and an issue of Olympia Press, a pornographic publication, on the top. The object sold to a collector in Berlin who was surprised to receive the piece without any of the printed matter on it. He mischievously chuckles throughout the story, explaining how much he enjoys such “productive misunderstandings”.

He recounts the group being inspired, to a certain degree, by the work that was coming out of Italy at the time, Arte Povera or the Memphis group for example; not in terms of aesthetics—Memphis favoured an optimistic colour palette and a slickness, while Pentagon created objects that were more rugged, clinically cool and jaunty—but sooner in terms of the group’s tongue-in-cheek, playful and unexpected approach. The group took the whole process—design, production and distribution—into their own hands, which sometimes resulted in unusual, but functional production methods, and in some cases, they developed the tools for the production itself. I ask Voggenreiter if they were punks, because to me this hands-on, dynamic, all-rules-out-the-window temperament felt that way. He pauses to think before hesitantly agreeing with a coy smile. Today, Voggenreiter runs MV Projekte, a design firm specialising in exhibition design, in the broadest sense of the word. He carries with him the idea of the object—the artefact—and just like in May ’68, he continues to play with ways in which to re- and de-contextualise artefacts; although nowadays he favours clarity and readability. Which means, yes, he hates immersive exhibition rooms.

Gerd Arens, Pentagon Chandelier, 1987, Ink drawing by Meyer Voggenreiter, 1990
Keen to know more, I speak to Wolfgang Laubersheimer via Skype. He explains that, as far as he saw it, the work of Pentagon was the reaction to what he called the “spießigkeit” in German homes. Roughly translated, they wanted to revolutionise what they saw as the boring, bourgeois ‘average’ German living room. Laubersheimer tells me that design—what we surround ourselves by at home (and elsewhere)—could lead to living a life less ordinary.

Take one of Laubersheimer’s designs, the Amazonas Desk, for example: someone could be sitting at their desk in Frankfurt, reviewing documents, and there in front of them, there’s the Amazon river. Laubersheimer trades in the description of himself as a punk for more of a romantic. “I tried to bring poetry into my designs. People using my work could be pioneers, they could have an adventure—have a bit of fun!” Today he sees much the same phenomenon of “spießigkeit”, most people making similar stylistic choices and living rooms looking largely the same: mostly Eames and Jacobsen. He’s still challenging this notion as a teacher and academic researcher at the Köln International School of Design (KISD) where he focuses on product development and process design. It strikes me as a good fit: being able to help broaden the minds of young creatives in an environment ripe for experimentation. He says the Pentagon times and the mentality he developed during those years have continued to be the basis of his daily life. “The way of being obsessive and ambitious, that’s what I learned. I made such extreme experiments, and I failed a lot; but I learned that sometimes the effect of failing is often more helpful than succeeding on the first try.” This is a lesson that any student looking to push boundaries could learn early on.

Pentagon Group Inner Tube Shelf Unit, Ink drawing by Meyer Voggenreiter, 1990, c. 1980s
Reinhard Müller Chambre à Air, c. 1980s Steel, inner tube 83 H x 35.75 x 16 inches 210.8 H x 90.8 x 40.6 cm Photography by Andy Romer Courtesy of Demisch Danant
Jumping back to present day, the exhibition at MAKK in January will be split into two parts—one part in the main hall designed by the Pentagon group themselves, which will draw viewers into the context of the 1980s to help understand the conditions in which the group were creating, and the second, more biographical part, created by the museum’s curatorial team. A retrospective exhibition somehow suggests a finality; that the legacy has already been written. In a way, perhaps the legacy of the Pentagon group will be written in this exhibition—through the many works they created and the ways that their adventurous spirit, dynamism and experimentation influenced the course of German Post-Modernism. The legacy of the members of the Pentagon group, however, is yet to be finalized.

Wolfgang Laubersheimer Rhine Desk, 1988 Stone, steel, water circulation system 29.33 H x 55.12 x 28.74 inches 74.5 H x 140 x 73 cm Photography by Daniel Kukla Courtesy of Demisch Danant
Wolfgang Laubersheimer, Amazonas Desk, 1988, Ink drawing by Meyer Voggenreiter, 1990
Wolfgang Laubersheimer Kangaroo Chair, 1990 Steel, foam, vinyl 32.28 H x 22.05 x 27.56 inches 82 H x 56 x 70 cm Seat height: 18 inches (45.7 cm) Unique work Courtesy of Demisch Danant
Ralph Sommer Desk, 1988 Steel, Plexiglas, neon 28.74 H x 66.93 x 27.56 inches 73 H x 170 x 70 cm Unique work Courtesy of Demisch Danant
Ralph Sommer Desk, 1988, Ink drawing by Meyer Voggenreiter, 1990
Meyer Voggenreiter, Cabinet, 1987, Ink Drawing by Meyer Voggenreiter, 1990
Pentagon Group Casino Model ‘d8’ Chair, 1987 Steel, black vinyl 31.1 H x 21.06 x 22.05 inches 79 H x 53.5 x 56 cm Photography by Thierry Depagne Courtesy of Demisch Danant
Pentagon Group Casino Model ‘d8’ Chair, Sectional Drawing, 1987