27.5.1946 – 01.05.2021

Obituary Michael Erlhoff

In deep mourning and with great respect, we bid farewell to an extraordinary person. Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff passed away on May 1st at the age of 74.

We have lost a critical spirit and restless forward thinker who left a lasting impact on design and the study of design. A teacher and researcher who broke the boundaries of the professional discipline, showed new angles and perspectives, but also demanded critical awareness and the assumption of responsibility.
A person who brought people together.

Michael Erlhoff earned his doctorate degree in German Literature, Art History, and Sociology at the University of Hanover. At the same time, he worked as an assistant director at the State Theatre and as a research assistant at the University of Hanover for several years. Together with Uta Brandes, he published the journal “zweitschrift” and was editor-in-chief of the art journal “K”.

For over ten years he was responsible for the “Kurt Schwitters Almanach”. Through his involvement with the artist and graphic designer, Michael Erlhoff first got into contact with design before becoming manager and technical director of the “Rat für Formgebung” (German Design Council) in Frankfurt am Main from 1985 to 1990.
As a member of the advisory board of “documenta 8” and as curator of numerous exhibitions, symposia and conferences, he provided social perception and recognition for an expanded understanding of design—as an undisciplined discipline and comprehensive design of everyday culture.

In 1991, he was appointed founding dean of the “Cologne Department of Design” (today: KISD; Köln International School of Design at the TH Köln), where he researched and taught as a professor of design theory and history until 2013. From 2002 to 2006, he was Dean of the Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences. Parallel to these commitments, he worked as a visiting professor at numerous international universities. In 2016, he was appointed honorary professor by the Braunschweig University of Art.

In addition to his seminars, lectures and publications on design history and theory, Michael Erlhoff worked with his students on social issues in numerous projects. In these projects, he transformed theory into social practice and practice into theory. A “washing machine concert”, for example, under the medieval archway of Cologne’s Rudolfplatz, was an extraordinary event, but also a forceful critique of current product design, consumption and the growth economy. With the no less spectacular placement of an “asylum container”, directly in front of the Cologne Cathedral, he forced the urban-social debate about the right to asylum and appealed with his students for empathy and humanity. In his essay “Nutzen statt besitzen” (Using instead of owning), he already positioned design in the midst of an ecological debate at the beginning of the 1990s and farsightedly anticipated what is now referred to as a “sharing economy”.

As co-initiator of the Lucky Strike Junior Design Award and the Cologne Design Prize, he gave young design graduates visibility and reputation.

Design has always been a global issue for Michael Erlhoff. As a global design ambassador, he initiated worldwide partnerships and, as a sought-after discussion partner and consultant, he supported the design of study courses and programmes in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA.
The networks and friendships he fostered brought a large number of renowned guest lecturers from all over the world to KISD and made Cologne a place of international exchange. The European Master’s programme (MEDes), which has closely linked KISD to design colleges from six countries for over 20 years, and the BA programme, comprised of nearly 50 percent international students, are living proof of an understanding of design that knows no borders.

Michael Erlhoff has influenced generations of designers, promoted open thinking and action, and demanded a critical attitude and the assumption of responsibility.

We, the colleagues, staff and graduates of KISD all look back on Michael Erlhoff, his life and his work, with great respect and gratitude.

We all take great comfort in the thought that his open-mindedness, his wisdom and his kindness will live on in his students.
Thank you Michael.