Knock-down foldable furniture, the New Frankfurt social housing project, standardised private houses and the Kramer Oven: Ferdinand Kramer’s oeuvre is one of the most multifaceted and innovative of the modern movement. The architect and designer also studied a few months at the Bauhaus in Weimar.
Carl Friedrich August Ferdinand Kramer was born on 22 January 1898 in Frankfurt am Main. In 1919 Kramer began his architectural studies under Theodor Fischer at the Technische Hochschule in Munich. On Fischer’s recommendation he enrolled in the same year at the recently established Bauhaus Weimar. But disappointed with the lack of regular architectural studies, Kramer left Weimar after just a few months. Even a letter from Walter Gropius, in which he expressed his deep regret, was not enough to prevent Kramer from leaving. He returned to Munich and completed his architectural studies in 1922.
Because architectural commissions failed to materialise due to inflation, Kramer designed small pieces of furniture, lamps and other utility objects that were shown in the German Work Federation’s 1924 touring exhibition “Die Form”. He also designed the “Schiffermanns-Ofen” for the interior, furniture and fashion designer Lilly Reich (later partner of the third Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). This was a precursor of the “Kramer-Ofen”, different models of which were mass-produced from 1925 by the company Bruderus. In 1924 Kramer travelled with Lilly Reich to the Netherlands and London, where they viewed buildings designed by the architects of the De Stijl group and other new types of housing estates.
From 1945 Kramer collaborated on town planner and architect Ernst May’s innovative social town planning programme, New Frankfurt. Employed by the building office in the department of standardisation, Kramer mainly designed lightweight plywood combination furniture as well as expensive solid wood combination furniture, a range of lamps and everyday objects such as door handles for New Frankfurt’s standardised housing programme.
At the exhibition for the 1927 opening of the Weissenhof estate, a housing estate in Stuttgart, Kramer demonstrated the assembly of May’s “prefabricated house” according to the so-called Frankfurt assembly method. He also furnished not only this building but also one of J. J.P. Oud’s houses and a flat in Mies van der Rohe’s housing block with furniture of his own design. Kramer was also originally chosen to design a house for the Weißenhofsiedlung, but he first learned of this in 1984.
In 1926 Kramer designed the central garage of the “Frankfurter Automobildroschken-Gesellschaft”. In 1929, together with Eugen Blanck, he designed nine balcony access houses, the main laundry and the distance heating plant for the Siedlung Westhausen in Frankfurt. He also taught functional architecture and model making at the Kunstgewerbeschule Frankfurt. As a freelance architect in Frankfurt from 1930, Kramer worked on numerous new buildings, building developments and interiors for flats, offices, shops and institutes. In 1933 he left the German Work Federation. The NS vilified his work as “degenerate architecture”. Considered politically unreliable, he was prohibited from working in 1937 and emigrated to the USA in March 1938.
Initially employed as an architect in various offices, in 1939/1949 Kramer became the head of two housing associations affiliated to the Institute of Social Research founded in New York in 1934. In 1940 he became a licensed architect. He also designed the mobile electrical mini kitchen “Service Wagon” (1941), the flexible, fold-away “Knockdown Furniture” (1941) and a set of garden furniture (1944) that was also installed in the White House. With designer Calvert Coggeshall, Kramer designed a standardised house made from prefabricated elements with mobile dividing walls and 'Visual' (1945–1947), a completely new system for visual sales in department stores. He also designed a fold-away, adjustable tubular steel sun bed (“Feather-Lite”) and the paper umbrella 'Rainbelle' (1951), which was a commercial success.
In 1952, acting on the initiative of Max Horkheimer, rector of the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Kramer returned to Germany and took over as director of the architecture department of the university in Frankfurt am Main. In the twelve years under his leadership twenty-three institutional buildings designed for broadly flexible use were built. From 1964–1984 Kramer worked again as a freelance architect and built houses in Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Bad Homburg and Switzerland. He wrote for specialist magazines and lectured at international universities and other institutions. Kramer’s work as an architect and designer has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions since the 1980s, e.g. at the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin in 1982–1983. Ferdinand Kramer died on 4 November 1985 in Frankfurt am Main.
Bauhaus-Archiv Museum für Gestaltung Berlin (1982): Ferdinand Kramer – Architektur & Design, Berlin.Eichhorn, Bernd (1991): Sichtbeton und Stahlskelett. Ferdinand Kramers Universität, in: diskus. Frankfurter StudentInnenzeitung, No. 4, p. 50–53.Hansen, Astrid (2001): Die Frankfurter Universitätsbauten Ferdinand Kramers. Überlegungen zum Hochschulbau der 50er Jahre, Weimar.Hilpert, Thilo (1961): Ferdinand Kramers Hochhaus der Philosophen, Frankfurt 2001.
Jourdan, Jochem (1974): Ferdinand Kramer Werkkatalog 1923–1974, Schriftenreihe 3 der Architektenkammer Hessen.
Lichtenstein, Claude (1991): Ferdinand Kramer – Der Charme des Systematischen, Zürich.
Lichtenstein, Claude (1991): Ferdinand Kramer – Der Charme des Systematischen, in: Werkbund Archiv, Vol. 23, Berlin.
Wurm, Fabian (1989): Bauten für den zweiten Blick – Die Architektur des Ferdinand Kramer, in: Die Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte, Februar 1989, p. 142–147.