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"No, it wasn't Mies, it was Lilly Reich". A conversation with Christiane Lange, art historian

22 of January '24

Art historian Christiane Lange's research focuses on the collaboration between Bauhaus members and the German silk industry. It's no coincidence that she tackled this topic she is the great-granddaughter of Hermann Lange, an entrepreneur with ties precisely to this industry and owner of Haus Lange, a Mies van der Rohe design house. In a conversation with Anna Bas, curator and writer, however, she talks not about the legendary Mies, but about his longtime partner Lilly Reich and her work. The conversation arose on the occasion of the exhibition "Bend the Folds of the Curtains" at the Nuremberg House Gallery in Krakow.

Christiane Lange, historyczka sztuki

Christiane Lange, art historian

© Illustrations courtesy of the Nuremberg House

Anna Bas
: In Krefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, there are two houses designed by Mies van der Rohe, known as Haus Lange and Haus Esters. Today we meet Christiane Lange, an art historian. Let's reveal right away that the concurrence of names is no coincidence. Christiane Lange is the great-granddaughter of Hermann Lange, a textile-related entrepreneur, the man who commissioned Mies to build the house. However, it is not Mies, but his partner both in her professional and private life who is the main character of our meeting. Lilly Reich was born in the late 19th century. What was the situation like for women of that generation?

Christiane Lange: We could consider this topic on the basis of individual biographies, but first of all, it is necessary to start with the fact that although the time of the Weimar Republic is the moment in history when women received the right to vote, this did not change their family situation at all. The man was still the head of the family, and he was still the one who had the right to decide on a woman's property and social status, for example. So, on the one hand, a lot had changed, but complete equality did not quite prevail. Young women were still under the guardianship of their fathers, and when they married, this guardianship was taken over by the husband, who was supposed to ensure their material well-being, but also made all decisions for them. Unmarried women enjoyed greater freedom and pursued various professions. However, if a woman was a teacher, for example, once she married, the law forbade her to continue in her profession. So she had to make a choice: either marriage or career. In fact, it was only in the 1920s that the type of new woman who drives a sports car, dresses sportily, and plays sports emerged. Lilly Reich was not part of this generation, because these were women born after 1900. She was born much earlier, in 1885.

Lilly Reich

Lilly Reich

© Illustrations provided courtesy of the Nuremberg House

: So let's talk about a woman who decided not to create a family, not to marry, not to have children, but to practice a creative profession. The beginning of Lilly Reich's work and creativity was learning skills considered typically feminine, namely sewing, embroidery. How does it happen that she abandons them and becomes one of the pioneers of a new profession, an interior designer, a designer?

Christiane: In those days in Germany, to become an architect, you didn't have to study architecture. You had to create. For example, Peter Behrens, an architect, industrial form designer and painter, did not graduate, but ran an architectural office. Women, on the other hand, were denied the possession of spatial imagination by the intellectual circles of the time, and they, for this reason, were excluded from certain areas available only to men.

: Lilly Reich's career began with exhibition design. Please tell us about it, especially the exhibition "Velvet and Silk", a breakthrough in the way fair exhibition space was designed.

Christiane: To tell us about it, again we have to go back in time, when we begin to deal with industry on a mass scale. The environment in which Lilly Reich rotated noticed that she was not only a very good designer, but also a very good organizer. It was at this time that the Deutscher Werkbund was founded, an organization founded in 1907 that brought together architects, artists and engineers related to the construction industry, and you couldn't just join. To become a member, one had to be invited to join. In Lilly Reich's case, this happened in 1912 and meant the opportunity to make new contacts and receive better commissions. At the time, Lilly Reich was actually the only one that designed exhibitions to promote industrial products in an extremely professional manner. Exhibitors, not only did not feel any apprehension about her work, but they gave her respect. She had the unique quality of being able to distinguish the better from the merely good. In 1925 she met Mies van der Rohe, and in 1927 she became curator of a major exhibition in Stuttgart presenting model apartments of the future on the Weissenhof estate. Reich was not only in charge of organizing the entire project, she also created a sample apartment for a working family. Reich and Mies already knew Hermann Lange at the time, thanks to whom they gained the opportunity to work on the next exhibition, which was the Berlin exhibition "Mode der Dame" (Women's Fashion), which included the cafe "Velvet and Silk".

w 1920 roku Lilly Reich została pierwszą kobietą wybraną do zarządu Deutscher Werkbund, odpowiedzialna była za promowanie niemieckiego wzornictwa

In 1920, Lilly Reich became the first woman elected to the board of the Deutscher Werkbund, and was responsible for promoting German design

© Illustrations provided courtesy of the Nuremberg House

: Hermann Lange was an industrialist with ties to Krefeld, and it was such a German Łódź at the time, the textile industry, especially silk, developed strongly there.

Christiane: Krefeld was home to the largest factory producing silk for ties. Hermann Lange was also a patron of the arts, a collector, and it was he who brought together a group of people who had the financial means and were interested in modern architecture and in working with avant-garde artists. Lange was a member of the Werkbund's board of directors, and it is most likely to him that Reich and Mies owed the commission to design an exhibition that would present the textile industry's products in a modern way. Unfortunately, the contract for the realization of this exhibition has not survived, so we do not know whether the two were signatories on equal terms. On the other hand, it is very clear from the correspondence that she is the one in charge of this project. The exhibition was such a success that in 1929 they were both commissioned to create a German presentation at the World Exhibition in Barcelona. I would like to emphasize that they worked for Herman Lange together, the two of them. Up until then, fabric presentations looked like they were draped decoratively in display cases. Mies and Reich completely changed this way of thinking, using fabrics to create a spatial installation. The fabric created the space, and was both the subject and the theme of the exhibition. It was the first time a product was presented in such an innovative way. After fabrics, linoleum and glass were similarly presented. We all know what the booths at the fair look like. Each has a different designer, a different description and looks different. Lilly Reich, on the other hand, managed to convince exhibitors to make all these booths have the same design. This idea was later much appreciated, not only by the principals, but also by the media at the time.

wnętrze willi Tugendhat

Tugendhat villa interior

© Illustrations provided courtesy of the Nuremberg House

: In the case of the collaboration between Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe, we are talking about achievements that many are familiar with: the Barcelona pavilion, the Tugendhat villa, or the Lange and Esters houses. In books on architecture and design, these realizations are usually attributed solely to Mies van der Rohe. Lilly Reich appears much less frequently, although their collaboration was extremely intense and close. She is constantly removed into the shadows. Why is this the case?

Christiane: Lilly Reich was first and foremost a furniture designer, and we are very familiar with her bent-steel furniture designs, which unfortunately did not go into production and have been forgotten. The exhibitions were temporary projects: they were assembled, visited and then dismantled, later came the era of National Socialism, in which they could no longer work so intensively. The political system of the time had a big impact on their further fate: Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the United States, starting his second career path, while Lilly Reich stayed in Germany. After the war, she very quickly began to work hard to rebuild her position, but unfortunately a fatal illness took her away in 1947. Perhaps that's why she fell into oblivion, because she had no students capable of saving her legacy from fading into obscurity. She only worked at the Bauhaus, of which Mies van der Rohe was the last director, for one year. The National Socialists closed that school in 1933. Mies van der Rohe, on the other hand, had students and admirers who made him exist after the war.

: Western culture has long held the cult of the genius, and this genius was usually of the male kind. Women were left out. For a long time, people didn't ask who the woman at the side of Mies van der Rohe was.

Christiane: This is what happens when male historians write about male architects and the presence of a woman is deliberately omitted. It was long ignored that the collaboration between Reich and Mies was the work of a two-person team, that one man was not behind the projects.

: In addition to Lilly Reich, we could still cite the example of Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier's collaborator, and many other women standing in the shadow of a genius. Fortunately, a new history is being written, referred to as herstory. It is a story told from the point of view of women and restoring women to their rightful place. Today, looking through newer publications, catalogs or design websites, we notice that the captions of objects are changing. Of course, this raises the question of authorship, copyright and what is the flow of ideas and what is appropriation, a chauvinistic gesture appropriating someone else's idea.

Christiane: As far as Reich and Mies are concerned, these are events from a century ago, and it's hard to explain how exactly this happened. Certainly it must be said that while Lilly Reich was very confident and knew her own worth, Mies van der Rohe was an absolute star, she remained in the shadows and didn't take the initiative to change that. Nowadays things are different. If a woman wants to act then she just acts, either alone or with other women. She no longer needs to associate with a man to further herself. Lilly Reich has been completely stripped of authorship for some of her projects. For example, the so-called daybed. This piece of furniture was created in 1931 as part of a Berlin exhibition, as furnishings for an apartment presented there, and was signed only with her name. It was a design characteristic of her style. Later, Mies van der Rohe began working with Knoll and was asked to do the so-called redesign of various pieces of furniture, including the Barcelona chair and just the daybed. At first he resisted, but then signed the Lilly Reich project with his name. This piece of furniture was also designed for my aunt in 1936 and the drawings that were made then were published under the name Lilly Reich. In the art world, intellectual property is constantly being challenged. People say, well, yes, there was a Lilly Reich, but it was definitely invented by Mies van der Rohe, she may have designed those pillows, or maybe she just put them on that sofa. This has changed a lot in recent years, first of all there have been new studies, especially of the Barcelona pavilion. We owe a great deal to Laura Martinez, who during her research proved that many of these designs belong to Lilly Reich. And critics point out that Mies van der Rohe became interested in interior architecture and furniture making just when he met Lilly Reich. So one can certainly fault Mies van der Rohe for never mentioning Lilly Reich in the post-war era. But we should also add that he was not effusive and did not care about himself either, and did not think about how to write himself into the pages of history. Maybe, living in the US, he simply thought that the past was left behind and it was necessary to live in the present, deal with the now and go ahead. Lilly Reich was certainly important to him, but he spoke little about her.

fotel MR Chaise Lounge        fotel LR 36/103

MR Chaise Lounge Seats and LR 36/103

© Illustrations provided courtesy of the Nuremberg House

: I would still like to ask you how it came about that you took up these figures, researching their work, organizing exhibitions and other projects related to them?

Christiane: It's a long story that started basically by accident. I came across photos that showed furniture and interior designs by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe for our family home. They were unknown and after consulting with the family, we decided to buy them. Then I began to develop them, but still with the idea of placing them in our family archive. When the publication was created, it was first brought to the attention of Mies van der Rohe researchers, and then it turned out that many family members still owned the original furniture. I remember being at my aunt's house and there was a table there by, what we thought, Mies van der Rohe, but she said: "No, it's not Mies, it was Lilly Reich". She made it clear that it was Lilly Reich, because she had met her personally (it was Mildret, the daughter of Herman Lange, who, after getting married, asked Lilly Reich to furnish her apartment in Berlin, and this furniture, when moving, she always took with her). Later it turned out that all the furnishings in this house were by Lilly Reich. In this research work of mine, I am not alone, I collaborate with others and thanks to this we were able to fill this research gap.

Anna BAS

Illustrations provided courtesy of the Nuremberg House

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