Lilly Reich was a figure in the early Modern Movement in architecture. She became famous after her death because of her connection with one of the most famous architects in the 20th century, Mies van der Rohe. Lilly and Mies were married and people publicly speculated after their deaths that Lilly may have been responsible for some of van der Rohe's success in designing furniture. Lilly has always been portrayed as the supporter to her husband by historians rather than the independent creative that she was.
Lilly Reich was born in Berlin, Germany in the year 1885. In 1908 she put her embroidery training to use when she went to Vienna to work for the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) of Josef Hoffmann, a visual arts production company of designers, artists, and architects. She returned to Berlin by 1911. There she began to design furniture and clothing. She also worked as a shop window decorator at this time. The following year she joined the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation, a group similar to the Vienna Workshop whose purpose was to help improve competitiveness of German companies in the global market. That year she designed a sample working-class flat in the Berlin Gewerkschaftshaus, or Trade Union House. It received much praise for the clarity and functionalism of the furnishings. She contributed work to the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne in 1914. In 1920 Lilly became the first woman elected to the governing board of the Deutscher Werkbund.
From 1924 to 1926 she worked at the Messeamt, or Trade Fair Office, in Frankfurt am Main. There, she was in charge of organizing and designing trade fairs. It was there that she met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Deutscher Werkbund. This sparked a period of involvement of furniture for van der Rohe as the two collaborated on many projects together. In 1927 the two worked on “Die Wohnung” in Stuttgart for the Werkbund. She designed many interiors for this exhibition including “Wohnraum in Spiegelglas" ("living space in mirror glass"). During her career she designed store windows, exhibition displays, and fashion. In 1929 she became the artistic director for the German contribution to the Barcelona World Exposition, where van der Rohe designed his world-famous pavilion. This is where the famous Barcelona chair made its first appearance. This pavilion was considered the highlight of their design efforts.
In 1932 Lilly was asked by van der Rohe to teach at the Bauhaus and direct the interior design workshop. The Bauhaus was closed shortly after in 1933 by the Nazis who saw their work as “degenerate art, probably influenced by Jews.”
She taught at the Universität der Künste of Berlin after the Second World War, but not for long because she became ill and had to resign. She died a few years later in 1947 in Berlin.
Formative professional experience
Reich was born in Berlin. She started her career as a designer of textiles and women's clothes. This experience was to be formative for her - giving her a particular interest in contrasting textures and materials, as well as specific skills with regard to the use of textiles in furniture.
She worked in the studio of Josef Hoffmann in Vienna from 1908. Hoffmann was a celebrated modernist designer, responsible for designs such as the Kubus chair (1918), Cabinet (circa 1915), Koller (1911), and Broncia (1912) chairs.
In 1912 she joined the Deutscher Werkbund, a government sponsored organization dedicated to the promotion of German-made products and designs. This was to be a lasting passion and recurring theme in her career.
Making an international name for herself
In 1914, Reich converted her studio to a dressmaker's shop and maintained it through the duration of World War I. In 1912, two seminal events helped establish her reputation as an influential designer and exhibition organizer. First, she designed well-received interiors for a worker's apartment and two stores for the Lyzeum-Klub exhibition Die Frau in Haus und Beruf (Woman at Home and at Work). That same year, she was elected to membership in the German Werkbund, an organization founded in 1907 that aimed to ally art and industry as a means to improve German-made products and designs. The Werkbund sponsored lectures for shopkeepers and consumers as well as sought the assistance of museums to influence public taste through exhibitions. On October 25, 1920, Reich was formally recognized by her peers when she was named to the Board of Directors of Deutsche Werkbund. She was the first woman to be appointed to the Werkbund's Board. It was her responsibility to plan and curate design exhibits hosted by the Werkbund and intended to promote German designers both in Germany and abroad.
In 1921-22, Reich organized and prepared two large exhibitions to be shown at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. The first exhibition, entitled "The Applied Arts," consisted entirely of women's clothing and accessories, seeking to promote the revival of German fashion and increase cooperation between artists and manufacturers. The second exhibition was an enormous undertaking with the display of more than 1,600 objects, many chosen by Reich, to showcase the quality and breadth of German industrial design. Over 4,000 people visited the exhibition between April 18 and May 31, 1922 and the Newark Museum acquired over sixty-five objects from the exhibition, including a children's clothing design by Reich. The show did not travel in the United States as hoped, given a strong anti-German sentiment subsequent to the First World War. Nonetheless, the show had a profound effect on American design and its influences may be seen in the work of U.S. designers after this date.
Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Through her involvement with the Werkbund Reich, Lilly also met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1926 she moved from Frankfurt to Berlin to work with Mies. She was Van Der Rohe's personal and professional partner for 13 years from 1925 until his emigration to the U.S. in 1938. It is said that they were constant companions, working together on curating and implementing exhibitions for the Werkbund, as well as designing modern furniture as part of larger architectural commissions, such as the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929 and the Tugendhat House in Brno. Two of their best known modern furniture designs from this period are the Barcelona Chair and Brno Chair.
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... It is interesting to note that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich.
When Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus School of design and architecture in 1930, Lilly Reich joined him there as one of few female teachers on staff. Reich taught interior design and furniture design until the late 1930s.
In 1996, the MoMa in New York presented an exhibition on her work "Lilly Reich: Designer and Architect" which for the first time brought attention to this influential but almost forgotten designer. Reich began her career in textile design which was the acceptable professional path for women designers during the early part of the twentieth century. She played an integral part during the Bauhaus movement in Dessau and Berlin in Germany and served on professional boards, such as the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). Lilly Reich managed her own interior design firm and was a faculty member at the Berlin University of Arts.
Lilly Reich collaborated and co-designed the Brno Chair, the famous Barcelona Chair, and the Barcelona Pavilion along with Mies van der Rohe on behalf of the German government for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona, Spain. The Barcelona Pavilion is considered to be a masterpiece of modern design, however, Lilly Reich is rarely mentioned in textbooks, nor given proper credit for her contributions. She also worked with Joseph Hoffman on the design of the Kubus armchair and sofa.
Lilly Reich traveled to the United States, England, and Austria to study and work with the designers of her time. She also curated exhibitions on behalf of her government.
Exhibitions and shows
In 1911, after working for many of Berlin's most fashionable department stores, Reich designed clothing installations for Wertheim. She also was a member of the Deutscher Werkbund since 1912, which worked in collaboration with German retailers to make modern window displays. Their 1913 yearbook carried a series photographs which included one by Reich. One of her larger expositions was during the International Exposition of 1929 in Barcelona. During this, she stressed the need for connection to the industry and serial production. With this she created mass-produced objects, neatly stacked side by side by the hundreds in elegant, tailored contexts, Reich in fact dissolved the individual unit in an abstract and global image.
- German People - German Work, 1934
- The Dwelling in Our Time Berlin, 1931. "Material Show": Wood exhibit.
- Lilly Reich, Elephant Pharmacy, Berlin 1913. Jahr Buch des Deutschen Werkbundes
The war years
In 1938, just before the Second World War, Mies emigrated to the U.S. Reich continued to manage her affairs in Germany, until her death. She visited him in the U.S. in September 1939, but did not stay, returning instead to Berlin.
Her studio was bombed in 1943 and she was sent to a forced labour organization where she remained until 1945. After her release at the end of the war, she was instrumental in the revival of the Deutsche Werkbund, but died in Berlin before its formal re-establishment in 1950.
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- McQuaid 1996, p. 60.
- McQuaid 1996, pp. 14–17.
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- "Lilly Reich: Designer and Architect" (PDF). The Museum of Modern Art. 1996.
- Muschamp, Herbert (9 February 1996). "A Modernist Steps Out Of the Shadows". The New York Times.
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- "Lilly Reich Grant for equality in architecture". Fundació Mies van der Rohe. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
- da Costa Meyer, Esther (Winter 1999). "Cruel Metonymies: Lilly Reich's Designs for the 1937 World's Fair". New German Critique. Duke University Press (76): 161. JSTOR 488661.
- McQuaid 1996, p. 61.
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