For those who have seen a lot of student design work in America, the quality of student work coming out of Germany can seem staggeringly high in comparison. At the ICFF in New York you'll see some nice pieces from American design schools, the students standing behind them maybe 20, 21 years old. At Holz-Handwerk in Germany you'll spot something that's practically a masterpiece, and find out that the kid who created it is barely 18.
How is this possible? Well, we first need to understand that the German educational system is radically different from America's. As an example, your average American design student of 18 is a freshman who's taking their first Foundation courses and won't even get to touch a table saw until sophomore year. In Germany, someone who's 18 might already have three years or more of shop experience.
That's because Germany has a system of placing students in different "tracks" from a relatively young age. From age six to roughly age ten, all German students are in the same sort of primary school. But after that, their paths begin to diverge as they enter one of three types of secondary school:
This is for kids who are going to college (er, "university"). It's basically a prep-school for university. The emphasis at a Gymnasium is on academic learning, and kids will spend nine years studying here, meaning they get out one year later than what would be the 12th grade in America, at around 19 years of age. Approximately 30% of German kids attend Gymnasium.
The majority of German kids--some 40%--are tracked into a Realschule. While this is technically below a Gymnasium in terms of academic standards, it still offers education of a higher quality than American high schools. (Well, these days, what doesn't….) Kids in a Realschule get their diploma around 16 or 17 and can then enter the workforce or pursue more specialized schooling.
The next 30% of kids are tracked into a Hauptschule. These provide a general education while preparing students to enter vocational trades, and it is here that they learn Arbeitslehre ("Introduction to the world of work"), which is absent in the two other types of schools. Hauptschule students can finish their education as early as 15, at which time they can enter the workforce, gain an apprenticeship or attend an upper secondary trade school to study a particular specialty. Chances are high that a furniture designer/builder in Germany attended a Hauptschule.
In my opinion, this is a brilliant system. I realize it can sound abhorrent to entitled American parents who like telling their kids that they can all run for President (which is of course ridiculous; not everyone is cut out to tell campaign trail lies while blowing through hundreds of millions of dollars). And the explanation I was given of the German system is that the country pragmatically understands that society needs doctors and garbagemen, lawyers and plumbers, engineers and construction workers. Each of these professions have value and contribute to the greater good in their own way, and it makes good sense to prepare each trade for their work at an early age. I believe that this contributes to the high levels of competence that one witnesses across all levels in Germany.
In a nutshell, that explains how a talented designer in Germany could start gaining shop experience from a very early age, and how his or her skills could be so advanced compared to, say, a same-aged ID sophomore at RISD. It's also possible for a German designer/builder to have attended a Gymnasium, subsequently attended university and majored in proper Industrial Design, which would put him or her at the same skill level at roughly the same age as their American counterparts. But attending a Hauptschule essentially gives them a head start, and lets them avoid studying a lot of topics that might not be needed in their later work.
Lastly I should say, what I've laid out here are the broad strokes of German education, which may quickly become outdated. In recent years there have been experimental hybrid or alternative secondary schools popping up, as in liberal Berlin. Also, these tracks are not final sentences; it's possible, if statistically unlikely, for students in any of the three tracks to transfer or to wind up in fields alongside students from a different track.
Next we'll show you some of the fine work that students who have gone through the Hauptschule system, and subsequently attended an upper secondary trade school, have produced and put on show at Holz-Handwerk. We've also got an upcoming interview from an educator who explains how his school produces master craftspeople. Stay tuned!