In 1977 Ludwig Glaeser, curator of the Mies van der Rohe Archive at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opinioned that “it is certainly more than a coincidence that [Mies van der Rohe’s] involvement in furniture and exhibition design began in the same year as his personal relationship with Lilly Reich.”1
A statement that has in many regards come to define understandings of the furniture designs of both Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich.
An understanding that “is certainly more than a coincidence”. It is wrong. Certainly in terms of furniture design.
And a statement and understanding whose clarification not only provides an excellent starting point for an exploration of the furniture designs of Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but also for some reflections on the (hi)story of furniture design……..
As previously noted, the exact date and location of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s first meeting is lost in the mists of time, is however regularly put at around 1924 in Frankfurt, where and when Reich was co-responsible for the management and operation of the Deutsche Werkbund’s Werkbundhaus, a permanent exhibition space on the grounds of Frankfurt Trade Fair.
And, as also as previously noted, by the time of that first meeting Lilly Reich had a long and established career behind her. And her first furniture.
Lilly Reich’s first recorded furniture designs were realised in 1911 for a Jugendheim, Children’s Home, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, a project developed by the architect Hermann Dernburg and which saw Lilly Reich commissioned to design a number of rooms; and from which remains alone photographs of a children’s dining room and living room.2 Photographs which indicate that although both were furnished with similar object types, Reich developed differing furniture collections with varying formal accents for the two rooms; collections Sonja Günther3 compares to the 1906 Maschinenmöbel by Richard Riemerschmid and/or Bruno Paul’s Typenmöbel from 1908, and thus (perhaps over enthusiastically?) placing Reich’s designs in context of a very specific moment in the (hi)story of furniture design, in very specific understandings of early 20th century furniture design.
Whereby, Günther’s observation that in context of the chairs in the children’s dining room “as in Riemerschmid’s Machine chairs, the backrest was placed upon the stiles”4 is not unimportant; although Riemerschmid wasn’t the very first to fix the top rail of an open backrest to the vertical stiles with screws rather than integrate the two components via a carpenter’s joint, he was, arguably, the first to do such so deliberately, conceptually and programmatically. And while such a construction system would become increasingly popular, in the first decades of the 20th century carpentry joints were still very much the preferred construction method.
Equally important, Reich’s construction, and to judge as best one can from the available photo, although placing the top rail on the stiles, rather than employing Riemerschmid’s exposed screw, hides the nature of the connection; again a not unknown construction principle at that time, but one that, arguably, would first achieve a popular fame through the 1918 10 S coffee house chair from Horgenglarus. The photo from 1911 thus tending to imply that Reich can be considered an early adopter of such construction principles, that she was aware of and interested in developing understandings of furniture construction and furniture design. While more generally, the formal expressions of both collections, save for a couple of elements of the living room furniture, display none of the florid of Art Nouveau, all are very much pared-down, sober, quadratic works, based around relatively simple, construction systems, but not without character. And as such (perhaps over enthusiastically?) bequeathing Reich’s designs a decisively forward looking temperament.
And formal expressions and construction systems reflective of the context of providing useful, stable, durable furniture for a children’s home, and which allows one to freely echo the words of Robert Breuer, who, presumably, had visited the actual Jugendheim, and praised the manner in which Reich achieved “great economicalness … without comfort and good taste suffering” .5
And works which can thus be considered to reflect the focus on “simplicity, affordability, practicality”6 Reich placed on the pine furniture she presented in context of a model interior for an Arbeiterwohnung, a working class apartment, at the 1912 exhibition Die Frau in Haus und Beruf,7 The Woman in the Home and at Work; a model interior which featured a bedroom and combined living/dining room where, according to Reich, “particular emphasis was placed on good materials, good workmanship, simple shapes and achieving a comfortable overall impression”.8 A model interior of which images are rare, and those that do exist not particularly useful in helping one approach an understanding of the furniture9; save to note that the baby cot appears to be collapsible so that it can be stowed when not in use. We’re not sure if that is the case, but really hope it is.
And an overall impression whose comfortableness we are thus unable to judge, but which, according to the Vossische Zeitung, found “much approval” amongst the exhibition visitors for its “practicality, solid construction and hygienic properties”10; the latter being an increasingly important factor amongst progressive designers in the first decades of the 20th century, a move related to developing understandings of the relationships between home and health, developing understandings which played a not insignificant role in the development of reduced, visually lighter, furniture designs in the early decades of the 20th century, for all a move away from heavy fabrics and textile lampshades, and which may have been the reason the unnamed female correspondent from the medical magazine Medizinische Klinik stopped by Reich’s installation.
And of which she remarked approvingly, noting that it demonstrated “how much can be achieved with limited resources as soon as female taste and practical views are employed to solve such problems”.11 Praise, if that’s the correct word, which reminds of that which deems that Margarete Lihotzky’s 1927 Frankfurter Kitchen was so successful because it was designed for women by a woman. Whereby according to Lihotzky, “until the creation of the Frankfurt Küche, I had never ran a household, had never cooked and had no experience in cooking.”12 Rather the kitchen was developed methodically based on research and observation. And thoughts of Lihotzky which automatically pose the question if in the course of developing her Arbeiterwohnung interior Reich visited any of the working class areas in Berlin, as Lihotzky once did in Vienna while preparing a Arbeiterwohnung proposal? As far as we are aware the answer is unrecorded. But would, we’d argue, be important to have.
One of the more considered reports of Reich’s Arbeiterwohnung is/was by Rosa Urbach writing in Die Frau im Osten, who also praised the “practicality” of the interior, but for all opined that “here is an interior that possesses value as a role model”13
Not that such was an opinion of Reich’s interior shared by all. And certainly not by the German art critic Paul Westheim, who not only, as previously noted, opined that, “a worker’s and a small middle-class apartment show all the bad habits of the tectonically unskilled female”, adding in context of the Arbeiterwohnung not only that, “the little impractical comeliness that the designer brings in here is, if not a misjudgment of the whole task, a concealment of weaknesses”14, but also, and in contrast to Medizinische Klinik‘s assessment of Reich’s practical solution, opining that “the core of the problem has been sacrificed to the will of decoration”.15 Albeit, as Despina Stratigakos notes, without offering any “examples to support or illustrate his objections”.16 Whereby there is a good case to be made for an argument that Westheim’s objections were based on an early 20th century sexism as much as on the actual objects. That even without seeing the works he would have come to the same conclusion. Something tended to be underscored by his opinion that in context of the exhibition in general, “I can’t say that there was artistic work to be admired. But the women did achieve what the average man would not have done better.”17
An understanding of the skills and faculties of female creatives in the early 20th century which helps underscore the very real nature of the very real problems that were faced, the very real success that any freely acquired and completed commission represented, the very real singularity of a Gertrud Kleinhempel and a Margarete Junge in establishing themselves as both designers and educators.
And an understanding of the female creative repeated, and given full exposure, in a 1915 article by Robert Breuer; an article whose title, Die Frau als Möbelbauerin18, The Woman as Furniture Maker, and its illustration with works by Ilse Dernburg, Marie Tscheuschner-Cucuel, Fia Wille and Lilly Reich, and thus four of the leading Berlin based female protagonists of the period, could lead one to think it was about Die Frau als Möbelbauerin, not least because four years earlier Breuer had spoken warmly and favourably of Reich’s Jugendheim.
No. No. Definitely no….
Much more it is a polemic rant about females being not as good or naturally talented furniture designers as males; opining that because females posses “a certain natural tendency to follow” the work and experience of men, “it is certainly only correct when women also follow the man’s footsteps” in their furniture designs, that in doing such she is doing no more than obeying a natural law, and that “the woman’s work is a variant” of the more talented and informed male. If a “variant” which although inherently of lower value, occasionally produces “leidlich“, tolerable/passable, examples, works arising on occasions where “the woman has skilfully seized the opportunities that presented themselves and has shown herself to be a natural helper of the male in the previously remote realm of construction”, even if, “certainly she always remains closely dependent on some models by some man.” And a tirade of prejudice and jaundice that in many regards only wanes as he turns his ire on the furniture retail industry. Which he clearly does not like. At all. Does however find time to end with the reflection that “the woman will probably never be able to compete with either Michelangelo or Schinkel; but she has many talents, the Kindergarten education…”19
Such was the opposition a Lilly Reich faced in 1915. And today? Honestly…..? You sure…..? Honest………?
In terms of the bedroom suite by Reich illustrated in the
article polemic, Breuer notes, “not many furniture warehouses have such an orderly bedroom as that of Fraulein Reich”, which we take as a compliment, even though Breuer clearly doesn’t think much of furniture warehouses or the wares they house.
For our part, the bedroom suite is not only “orderly” but for all a very articulate antidote to Breuer’s venom, is much more than the “leidlich” status he affords it, representing, as best one can judge from the photos, an approachable, universal, suite, one arguably pitched more to a middle class income than a working class one, and which openly presents itself in white painted wood, the lattice work on the wardrobe door simply and elegantly allowing for movement from circular to quadratic forms and thus an ever varying composition, and a suite whose highpoint for us is the use of a repeating structural and formal motif in the construction of the legs, a varied repetition which gives each object their own character while underscoring that they are very much a family. Sadly Breuer in all his rancour fails to note when and in which context the bedroom suite was created, thus not allowing it to be properly assessed in context of Reich’s oeuvre. Similarly the living room ensemble she created for the 1914 Deutsche Werkbund exhibition in Cologne, a work from which no known photographs exist, and from which, on account of the loss of the majority of Reich’s archive in the course of the Second World War, no known description remains. And so whether it was intended for a working class home or that of a wealthier clientele, what object types it included, from what materials it was constructed and how it expressed itself formally, we no know. But, again, that would be important to know.
And then shortly after the Werkbund exhibition came the full force of the Great War and Lilly Reich’s focus shifted, predominately, to clothing design. But fortunately for Lilly Reich ⚠️ 🚨 ⚠️ 🚨 ¡¡¡ SARCASM ALARM !!! ⚠️ 🚨 ⚠️ 🚨 post-War she would meet a man to whom she could serve as a “natural helper” in whoms footsteps she could dependently follow to the otherwise, for her alone, completely unreachable, “remote realm” of furniture design.
A man who, despite Ludwig Glaeser’s assertion, had also enjoyed his first professional experiences with furniture.
[Here should stand a photo, but not only is the choice restricted, but those that do exist are inaccessible to us. And so we sadly can present no photos. Sorry!!]
Ludwig Mies’s20 first recorded furniture project was realised in context of his 1911-12 house for Käte and Hugo Perls in Berlin-Zehlendorf21, his second house commission, and where he created a Gondel, a gondola stool, a simple stool genre, an object which tends to imply a Neoclassicist flavour, and an object so-called because its concave form reminds of the transverse section of a….. gondola.
That Mies designed more than just a Gondel, and potentially also furniture for his first commission, a house for Sofie and Alois Riehl in Neubabelsberg and realised in 1906-07, can be gleaned from comments made by Mies concerning his early years in Berlin, after having moved there from his native Aachen. And where and when he was confronted by the fact that although he understood and was well versed in stone, brick, stucco and “all sorts of things”, he had no experience with wood. A situation he sought to rectify in that he joined the office of Bruno Paul, “to learn how to do detailing, furniture details, panelling”.22 Whereby one notes it was construction he wanted to learn, rather than formal aspects, and thus underscoring the Mies’s canon is as much one of construction principles and developments as it its about formal or aesthetic developments and principles.
And the young Mies obviously discovered, for all in the furniture details, something very much to his liking, so much so that when Paul offered him the chance to design and build a tennis clubhouse project, he declined, “I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to give up my furniture”, he recalled later, adding of his early years in Berlin, “and so I stayed with Bruno Paul and made furniture”.23 And also attended classes Paul taught at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, and where he met Sofie Riehl, and thereby opening the path which led to that first house commission.
And thus, given that Mies was with Bruno Paul, a man much better known for his interiors and furniture than his architecture, and that +/- at the time when Paul’s Typenmöbel, Type/Standardised furniture system, was certainly in development, was possibly being released, and given that Mies was obviously very much into furniture during his time with Paul, it is very likely that he developed at least some of the furniture for Haus Riehl. Sadly the few contemporary texts about the project make no reference to the furnishings24; however, the form and construction of the both the chairs with their large shield-esque backrests with wide splats, and also the circular tables with the visible and accentuated leg/frame joints, could (perhaps over enthusiastically?) be considered as being informed by Bruno Paul and thereby possibly, possibly, from Mies. What is more certainly definitely from Mies is the in-built bookcases on the first floor, more certainly definitely because they can be considered part of the architecture, and a feature that would find an echo two decades later in Haus Ester in Krefeld where Mies likewise included in-built book and display cases.25
While a belief that Mies created the furniture for Haus Riehl, and more than the Gondel for Haus Perls, can be (freely, irresponsibly?,) extrapolated from the dining room ensemble he developed for his 1912-13 house for family Werner in Berlin-Zehlendorf26; an ensemble featuring a glass vitrine, a sofa, table, side chairs with an unmistakable klismos silhouette and a wooden armchair featuring a curving, sweeping armrest that reminds of the Thonet curve, and a sweeping curve that a decade a bit later would become a near defining feature of Mies’s furniture design.
And objects which, as with the chairs from Haus Riehl which may or may not be from Mies, and the Gondel from Haus Perl which is but which we haven’t seen, have, inarguably, something of the Neoclassic about them, tend to reflect the architecture of the houses Riehl, Perls and Werner, and thereby imply that in his furniture design Mies was in the same place as his architecture in the early 1900s. And, we’d argue, in terms of form and construction a little bit behind Lilly Reich. If we, admittedly, have very little conclusive to go on. And certainly no actual objects.
References to Mies and furniture are sadly non-existent in context of his other pre-Great War commissions, or perhaps more accurately, we’ve not found any; although given the very real interest in furniture that he appears to have acquired from Bruno Paul, and his cooperations with Peter Behrens, a committed Gesamtkunstler, it is not inconceivable that Mies contributed furniture to all his early projects. Whereby one particularly enticing thought is Behrens’ 1911-13 Imperial German Embassy in St Petersburg, a project for which Mies had responsibility for the interior and, in context of whose development, saw him spend time in Russia as Behrens’ local representative. That he contributed to the furniture appears to us more than probable, especially given his Neoclassicist persuasion and the Neoclassicist grandeur of Behrens construction. Evidence we, sadly, have seen none.
And then, once again, came the Great War.
In the early 1920s Mies’s most significant furniture project was, inarguably, the development of those works which featured in his own apartment in Berlin27; and for all a very satisfyingly scaled and proportioned, quadratic chair with a solid, and relatively low, backrest, and an equally pleasing quadratic veneered table; works which are formally, constructively and conceptually aeons away from his pre-Great War designs, or at least those that are known, and thus pose the very obvious question, where did they come from? How did that happen? Eh!?!?
One of the numerous unanswered questions in the Mies van der Rohe biography is the reason for his move from the Neoclassic and Landhaus understanding of his early architecture to the International Modernism he is best known for today. Dietrich Neumann notes28 that in 1919 Mies had submitted a work for an Exhibition of Unknown Architects being organised by Walter Gropius. A work which Gropius rejected because it wasn’t reflective of the contemporary understandings the exhibition sought to promote. A moment which as Neumann notes Detlef Mertins postulates made Mies realise “that he was in danger of being left behind”. Thus possibly motivating his move to more Modernist tendencies. And, as noted above, Mies’s earliest furniture designs reflected his architecture, so why not his later designs? It is surely only logical that if Mies’s formal architectural understandings shifted in the early 1920s, so did his formal furniture understandings.
While in terms of actual, possible, supporting evidence, in conjunction with his Haus Eichstädt in Berlin-Nikolassee from 1921-23 there is a photo of the dining room featuring high-backed quadratic chairs, chairs which could be considered an early attempt at such a shift.29 If there is no indication that they are from Mies. The lower backed chairs from Mies’s apartment could however be considered as a refined and advanced version of that design, and thus a further, later, development of the Haus Eichstädt chairs. Judging from the photos. Which is never ideal.
There is however the question, problem, of correctly dating the chairs and table from Mies’s apartment.
Werner Blaser dates them as ca. 1920.30
Which could be considered as placing their genesis in context of his separation from his wife Ada. In 1915 Ada and Ludwig had moved into an apartment at Am Karlsbad 24 in Berlin, and for which Mies designed furniture, their daughter Georgia recalling, “my father devised the play room and bedroom lovingly and in a modern fashion … My father designed all the Empire-style furniture himself”31 Following Ludwig and Ada’s separation in 1921, Ada and the children left and the apartment became Mies’s studio, and as Xiangnan Xiong notes, “no one else ever recalled any Empire-style furniture in Mies’s apartment, so perhaps they were taken by Ada when she moved out”.32 And so thus as Mies was, most probably, forced to refurnish in 1921, the chairs and table could have been realised in that context.
Alexander von Vegesack dates them as 1925/26.33
Which opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Of wood and upholstery, the Wolf furniture followed the conservative, austere lines of Mies’s designs for his own Berlin apartment”, note Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst.34 The “Wolf” not being a particularly domesticated, and wealthy, Canis lupus, regrettably, but the German textile merchant Erich Wolf for whom in 1925-27 Mies built a villa in Gubin, on the contemporary Polish/German border, one of Mies’s earliest Modernist informed constructions. And the first recorded joint project by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich.
And, as far as we can judge from photos alone,35 the Wolf furniture doesn’t follow that from Mies’s apartment. But is identical.
And thus the question, for which project were they developed, and by whom?
Nor are they conservative or austere. They are joyous and joyful objects. The chairs with tapering backrests and light leather padding making elegant use of the construction to allow for some logically simple detailing on the back, and thus ensuring they are engaging from all sides, while the table does nothing particularly notable, but does so with enormous grace and dignity. And is arguably a, the?, forbearer of the ubiquitous IKEA Lack.
But, we digress……. for which project were they developed, and by whom?
Yes, we want the answer to be: by Mies and Reich for Haus Wolf. Evidence we, once again, have none.
Whereby, if we were to look for formal models, for inspiration, an argument could be made for Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte, where such quadratic chairs were a popular, recurring theme. And which (potentially) could bring in Lilly Reich who, allegedly, had spent time working at the Wiener Werkstätte around 1908, and whose early furniture designs are certainly much more expressive of a quadratic, geometric, rational formal understanding than Mies’s. An understanding presented in the table and chairs for Mies’s apartment and Haus Wolf. And which thus, could, (perhaps over enthusiastically?), indicate Reich’s influence on the works, and thus make them joint a project.
For which project were they developed, and by whom?
All we can say for certain is that the chair wasn’t just used in Mies’s Berlin apartment and Haus Wolf, but was also employed by Mies van der Rohe and Reich, albeit with a slightly curved backrest, in Haus Lange in Krefeld (1928-30)36. And, with leather padding on the back of the backrest, in Haus Lemke, Berlin (1932-33)37. And thus was clearly a favourite object of the pair. And thus worthy of a concentrated effort to track down its fuller (hi)story.
And what we can also say for certain is that the question “and by whom?” is one that can be regularly posed in context of the furniture designs of Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for all once tubular steel enters the picture.
But that is considerations for another day…………
1. Ludwig Glaeser, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: furniture and furniture drawings from the Design Collection and the Mies van der Rohe Archive, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1977 page 10
2. See Robert Breuer, Jugendheim, Fachblatt für Holzarbeiter, Vol 6, 1911 page 41ff The dining room is also printed in Matilda McQuaid, Lilly Reich: designer and architect, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996 page 11 Accessible via www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/278
6. Lilly Reich, description of Arbeiterwohnung in Die Frau in Haus und Beruf catalogue, reprinted in Sonja Günther, Lilly Reich 1885 – 1947. Innenarchitektin. Designerin. Ausstellungsgestalterin, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1988
7. see Despina Stratigakos, Exhibiting the New Woman: The phenomenal success of Die Frau in Haus und Beruf, in Despina Stratigakos A women’s Berlin: building the modern city, Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008
8. Lilly Reich, descripition of Arbeiterwohnung in Die Frau in Haus und Beruf catalogue, reprinted in Sonja Günther, Lilly Reich 1885 – 1947. Innenarchitektin. Designerin. Ausstellungsgestalterin, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1988
9. see Despina Stratigakos A women’s Berlin: building the modern city, Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008 page 122 for an example of the bedroom. There may be other photos, but we are unaware of them and current restrictions make the research particularly awkward.
11. Aerztliche Tagesfragen, Die Ausstellung “Die Frau in Haus und Beruf” in Berlin von 24. Februar bis 24. März, Medizinische Klinik Nr 9 3rd March 1912, Berlin, page 382 The author is listed as “Fr.” which we take to be “Frau”. Her name wasn’t printed, just the salutation.
16. Despina Stratigakos, Exhibiting the New Woman: The phenomenal success of Die Frau in Haus und Beruf, in Despina Stratigakos A women’s Berlin: building the modern city, Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008 page 122
18. Robert Breuer, Die Frau als Möbelbauerin, Fachblatt für Holzarbeiter, Vol 10, 1915 page 101ff We have quoted from it here more tha perhaps is necessary for a post on Lilly Reich’s funriture, but feel it is important and relevant. And, yes, we have read it about a 1000 time looking for an indication that it is a satire or parody, but have found none.
19. We have quoted from the article more than perhaps is necessary for a post on Lilly Reich’s furniture, but feel it is important and relevant. And, yes, we have read it about a 1000 time looking for an indication that it is a satire or parody … and have found none.
20. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was originally Ludwig Mies; however, at some point in 1922, he took his mother’s maiden name, “Rohe”, and added a Dutch “van der”, according to popular theory because at that time most of the successful architects and designers were Dutch. For many years he used the even more contorted, and Dutch looking, “Mïes van der Rohe”. Thus much as Lutz Colani became Luigi Colani in 1957 because, allegedly, all the best designers come/came from Italy, so Ludwig Mies who thought sounding Dutch would be helpful.
24. see Architekt Ludwig Mies. Villa des Herrn Geheime Regierungsrat Prof. Dr. Riehl in Neu-Babelsberg in Moderne Bauformen. Monatshefte für Architektur, Vol IX, Nr 1 Stuttgart 1910 page 42ff and also Anton Jaumann, Vom Künstlerischen Nachwuchs, Innen-Dekoration, Vol XXI, Juli 1910 Darmstadt, page 265ff The date of the articles also tends to support the belief that Haus Riehl was created later than the 1906/07 that it is popularly dated as. Implies more that it was more probably completed in 1909.
31. Georgia van der Rohe, La donna e Mobile, quoted in Xiangnan Xiong, From Am Karlsbad 24 to the Tugendhat House: Mies van der Rohe’s Quest for a New Form of Living, PhD Thesis, Universty of Texas at Austin, 2016