The WA 24 table lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld is without question one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of Bauhaus design, so much so that it is often referred to as simply “the Bauhaus Lamp”. Designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in 1923 the WA 24 was quickly followed by a series of variations on the theme, yet all maintaining the same pared-down grace and uncomplicated functional elegance of the original. Characteristics which can just as easily be applied to Bauhaus itself as to Wagenfeld’s lamp.
Yet despite the unshakeable union that exists between the Wagenfeld lamp, Bauhaus and the ideals of Bauhaus design, the WA 24 was nearly little more than a historical footnote. That we have it today, and that we can enjoy it today for all its easy splendour, being thanks to a delightful twist of fate and one very direct sentence.
In 1976 the Bremen businessman and art collector Walter Schnepel was browsing through an archive in the north German town of Worpswede when he stumbled across some early, unknown, woodcuttings by a certain Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Aware of Wagenfeld as an industrial designer, impressed by the woodcuttings and keen to learn more Walter Schnepel contacted Wagenfeld and subsequently visited him in Stuttgart, primarily to find out more about Wagenfeld the artist. That initial visit became the first of many, during one of which the conversation turned to a lamp designed by Wagenfeld in his early years at Bauhaus and one depicted in all popular literature on Bauhaus, “Why doesn’t anyone produce this lamp?” asked Walter Schnepel.
“Dann machen Sie es doch!” replied Wagenfeld. Then you do it!
The rest, as they say……
To learn a little more about the development of the Wagenfeld lamp, the problems of the copies and the relevance of Bauhaus for contemporary design, we spoke with Walter Schnepel, and began by asking what for him is the attraction of the Wagenfeld Lamp……
Walter Schnepel: I think it is this reduction of a lamp to its basic elements that fascinates me most about the object, for me the only other lamp that achieves such is the floor lamp from Gyula Pap, who went even further and reduced the lamp down to just the light bulb, and it’s this symbol character that I think fascinates me most with the Wagenfeld Lamp.
smow blog: Wilhelm Wagenfeld is well known as someone who designed for industry, and as someone who designed lamps for industrial partners, did he give any indication as to why this particular lamp never entered production, did he try to find a producer?
Walter Schnepel: It was produced in a small series in the 1920s, but that stopped with the war. And later Wagenfeld didn’t consider his earlier works so important, he was much more focussed on his current projects and objects such as the lamp were for him simply something he had created in the early part of his career. And so maybe our discussions about the lamp reignited his interest in it.
smow blog: And then having been, effectively, challenged by Wilhelm Wagenfeld to manufacture the lamp, was the subsequent development as smooth a process as one could hope for?
Walter Schnepel: No, initially it was very trying! On the one hand it was the first time any of us had manufactured a lamp, then we had problems with unreliable suppliers and when all was, finally, ready, the German furniture stores didn’t want to stock the lamp and so we had to market and distribute them ourselves. Which hadn’t been part of our original plan. The initial production was 250 lamps and we deliberately set the price so that if we sold all 250 we would get back the 100,000 DM we had invested in the project. Initially the plan was just to produce those 250, however they sold out in three weeks, a fact which greatly pleased Wilhelm Wagenfeld, and naturally myself, and so because it had been such a positive success and because I understood better how the market worked, and for all knew what not to do, we decided to produce more. And we’re still producing them.
smow blog: And not just the Wagenfeld lamp but also other Bauhaus lamps, how did the further cooperations arise?
Walter Schnepel: We started with the version of the Wagenfeld lamp with the metal base, which is the oldest of the designs, next came the version with the glass base and then it was a logical progression to look at which other lamps were of interest. Gyula Pap was the first, and most obvious, I visited him in Budapest and then slowly started to attempt to make contact with those other former Bauhäusler in whom I was interested, something that was very difficult with Marianne Brandt. She was living in East Germany and consequently we could only really communicate indirectly, via intermediaries, however over such ways I secured the rights to her works and I promised to send examples of the finished lamps to selected museums in East Germany as soon as they were available, something which again was only possible indirectly, we couldn’t just send them.
smow blog: So, what, you were sending them in pieces via various individuals, or…
Walter Schnepel: …… in effect yes. One member of the museum staff was sent one piece, their colleague another piece and then the complete lamp was assembled in the museum. Completely unimaginable these days but back then it was the only option.
smow blog: Coming back to the Wagenfeld Lamp, that was designed in the 1920s, entered production, properly, in 1980, in how far were changes required or could you take over Wagenfeld’s design 1:1?
Walter Schnepel: We needed to make technical changes. We could largely keep the dimensions of the original but changes in technology meant, for example, we had to use a different cables or socket types.
smow blog: And how was the cooperation with Wilhelm Wagenfeld during this process, how did you experience him as a partner?
Walter Schnepel: I had to take every new variation or adaptation to him and he would inspect it and approve it, or not. He was very exact, but as a process it worked very well and he was very easy to work with.
smow blog: One can’t discuss the Wagenfeld Lamp without discussing the copies. Were they there from the very beginning or…..?
Walter Schnepel: For the first five or six years we had our peace, and then it started and hasn’t stopped since.
smow blog: Which poses the question as to why it hasn’t stopped, is it not something you can legally suppress?
Walter Schnepel: The biggest problems we have are on the one hand the differing legal situations, for example in countries such as England we have no real protection and it is very difficult, but even when a legal framework is in place we don’t always get the support from national authorities that we need. There are countries such as Switzerland or Holland where things work very well but then there are countries such as France where it is complicated, or Italy where it can take seven years just to get a court appointment, and even when the court decides in your favour that needn’t mean anything. So it’s difficult, but we remain as committed as ever and our lawyers are kept busy.
In addition we continually try to educate consumers as to the quality advantages of the original, and for all the safety aspects, a lot of the copies that we see are extremely dangerous, we’re talking about an electrical object and so not something where one should take chances.
smow blog: To end, you’re clearly convinced of the enduring importance of Bauhaus, but do you think today’s young designers can learn from Bauhaus, is Bauhaus still relevant?
Walter Schnepel: When you look at, for example, art, there are always movements who make a decisive cut, and then there are other movements that are simply an indirect repetition of something similar which has gone before. Expressionism, for example, finds a indirect repetition in Tachisme, but then there are moments that are decisive changes, for me that is Duchamp and Magritte. It’s similar with design. For me the functionality, the form follows function, that Bauhaus brought to design and through which they enlivened design, that for me that is cut Bauhaus created and is the central importance and relevance of Bauhaus. Ultimately the whole design world is and was deeply influenced by what Bauhaus taught.