Bernd + Hilla Becher - gas tanks

THE BEAUTY OF INDUSTRY

With the prominence of heavy industry in the 1950’s, there were visibly a lot more designers working within this area, experimenting with it and actively promoting it. Maybe it’s the region I live in or the clients I work with that’s had an influence on me. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider to it, but there’s something that I find really interesting – the sociology of it, the interaction of workers or maybe it’s merely the beauty and drama.

I’m sure when you’re working in close proximity to a blast furnace with temperatures reaching up to 1200°C, then you probably won’t see the beauty of it. However, when you’re looking in from the outside (with designer eyes) – the foundries, the dirt, the machines and the materials all become quite appealing. They’re certainly visually dramatic, and in the dramatic there’s always beauty. It takes a real artist to capture the drama and beauty of heavy industry, and I am quite often drawn to the austere or the utilitarian. I find it strangely compelling, that said, there’s also the real tangible beauty of industry – just look at silicon carbide, a beautiful piece of metallurgical bling (like the MacBook Pro of metallurgy!).

The reason that spurred me on to write this blog, was an article I came across on the dutch graphic designer (one title of many) Jurriaan Schrofer – a name that had cropped up many times within my design career – but not until Unit Editions released ‘Restless Typographer’ had I rarely explored his work.

Within the article, it was his ground breaking photo book ‘Vuur ann Zee’’ that particularly interested me, designed for the iron and steel company ‘Koninklijke Nederlandse Hoogovens en Staalfabrieken’ in 1958. Essentially a piece of promotional material that had adopted the photo book format featuring some work by several photographers, expressing the drama of industry with great dynamism and aesthetic beauty.

Which then brings me on to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. A couple best known for their typologies work documenting German industrial architecture in the mid-century. They rigorously documented industrial buildings and structures – water towers, coal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos, warehouses.

They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design.

In contrast their work was much starker and austere than Schrofer, taking a more matter of fact approach. Almost an objective point of view, applying the same approach to every photograph (black & white, straight-on, flat light under overcast or featureless white skies). The formal beauty of their investigations has long been appreciated, and has earned Bernd and Hilla Becher widespread acclaim as art photographers.

Their work has had a big influence on me, if I could afford then (or even locate them) I would happily have these photographs covering every wall in my house. In my opinion these are some of the most beautiful shots ever taken, but they do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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