by Albert Pfeiffer
Almost 50 years after her death, Lilly Reich a German born designer, received some recognition for her contribution to design at a small show of her work held last spring at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This show precipitated a few magazine and newspaper articles and enough interest in her work, not to make her a household name unfortunately, but at least to be more than just a footnote.
Picture 1: Lilly Reich
Reich's career flourished because of her overwhelming love of her country's contributions to product and architectural design excellence. It was ultimately overshadowed by her personal and professional relationship with Mies Van der Rohe and was finally almost extinguished by the rise of the Third Reich
Lilly Reich, born in Berlin in 1885, began her career as a designer of textiles and women's apparel, which was one of the few fields in design open to women at that time. In 1912 she became a member of the Deutsche Werkbund which was a government sponsored organization dedicated to the promotion of German made products and design. Before WWI she worked in the studio of Josef Hoffman and by 1915 she had developed a professional reputation sufficient enough to be placed in charge of a fashion show for the Werkbund held in Berlin. In 1920 Reich became the first woman to be made director of the Deutsche Werkbund, an unprecedented achievement because women at that time were not expected to have the same abilities in the arts as men. For an exhibit held at the Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey, Reich selected sixteen hundred objects of German design. Although the show was not considered a success, because of American animosity regarding anything German, it began a movement in the U.S. towards consumer awareness of aesthetics in products.
Through their common involvement with the Werkbund Reich's relationship with Mies flourished. From about 1925 to 1938, when Mies emigrated to the U.S., they were constant companions. Even after Mies left Germany she continued to manage his personal and business affairs until her death at age 62 in 1947. A consummate professional endowed with a sensibility as keen as Mies's own, she bowed to his authority playing the roll of the traditional European woman at the time leaving the overall concepts to him while compulsively attending to refinements and details. Reich was extremely articulate and participated in the design process with Mies through conversation. Mies rarely solicited anybody's comments but was always eager to hear her opinions.
Mies and Reich collaborated on many exhibitions for the Deutsche Werkbund which critics indicated elevated installation techniques to a minor art. It became more than a coincidence that Mies's involvement and success in exhibition design began at the same time as his personal relationship with Reich. In the late 1920's and early 30's, they used in their various projects, furniture attributed to Mies. One of the refinements made to the original MR chair (see Picture 2) was the one piece roll and pleat cushion (see Picture 3) which according to Ludwig Glaeser curator of an exhibition of Mies's furniture at MoMA is attributable to Lilly Reich. She continually explored the visual as well as tactile play of contrasts between polished metal and textured surfaces. Another example is the cane seat and back she applied to the MR Chair. It is interesting to note that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich.
Picture 2: MR Side chair
When Mies assumed the directorship of the Bauhaus in 1930, Reich followed and became the first woman (at a time when few women were teaching) to teach interior design which included furniture design.
Picture 3: MR Side chair with one
piece roll and pleat cushion
attributed to Lilly Reich.
In September 1939 Reich visited Mies in the United States. She and Mies spent a few weeks together. She wanted to stay, but Mies did very little to persuade her to remain. She managed to get back to Berlin at the height of the war where she faithfully began a long and dutiful correspondence with Mies. She never saw him again.
Ironically it was Lilly Reich who was responsible for saving approximately 4000 drawings and documents from Mies's Berlin office which are part of the Mies Archives at MoMA in New York by smuggling the drawings to a farm outside of Berlin to protect them from the bombing during the War. Nine hundred of these documents were of work which Reich had completed and were used for the exhibition of her work at MoMA.
In 1943 Reich's studio was bombed and she was drafted into a forced-labor, civil engineering organization in which she remained until 1945 . In October of that year she participated in the first preparatory meeting to revive the Werkbund. She did not live to see the Werkbund finally receive its legal status which was obtained in 1950, three years after her death.
Information on Lilly Reich's contribution to design will continue to develop. She is a legend worth following. A photo caption in a book on Philip Johnson by the noted author and historian Franz Schuze reads, "Barcelona chairs, ottoman, and lounge by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe in collaboration with Lilly Reich". This begins to give her accreditation beyond that given by MoMA at its show. The wall that has hidden her talent has begun to crack. Hopefully it will come tumbling down and she will gain the place in design history that she deserves.
The Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition on Lilly Reich this past spring. Albert Pfeiffer, Vice President of Design Management at Knoll, has been researching and lecturing on Reich so we asked him if he would write an article about her. We thank him for his contribution. - AWID
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