Lilly Reich

by Radmila Durasinovic

Lilly Reich

Name Lilly Reich is perhaps best known in relation to that of one of the most prominent figures of modernism – Mies van der Rohe. The pair worked together during the heyday of the modernist era on numerous furniture designs – including the famous Barcelona chair – leaving a lasting mark in design history. However, despite their close partnership on some of the most influential and pioneering pieces of the twenty-first century, Reich’s name is considerably lesser known, even omitted altogether from some of her greatest designs.

Forging an exceptional career on many fronts – as a fashion and display designer, interior and furniture designer, as well as exhibition organiser and Bauhaus master – Lilly Reich’s creative output was as significant as that of her better-known male colleagues, and according to some historians, her contribution to major furniture designs like the Barcelona chair possibly greater than Mies’. Hers is an all-too-common tale of inequitable attribution for invaluable contribution, but one that is slowly being rectified as attention is drawn to the often-overlooked collaborators of modernism’s giants. The following sheds light on Reich’s beginnings as an embroiderer at the turn of the century, through to the thirties marking the pinnacle of her career, and her legacy, including the uphill battle for professional acknowledgement and attribution, which continues to this day.

Early Career

Lilly Reich was born in 1885 in Berlin and trained as an embroiderer, which took her to Vienna to work at the Wiener Werkstätte under the wing of its co-founder Joseph Hoffmann. The Wiener Werkstätte (engl. Viennese Workshops), a “productive cooperative of artisans”, was established in 1903, at a time when the issue of reforming art, craft and design was sweeping throughout Europe. The aim, inspired by the English Arts and Crafts Movement, was to merge craftsmanship and design with industrial processes, to create high-quality products for daily use. Having evolved from the Vienna Secession, the furniture, homeware and textiles produced in the workshop were characterised by the simple and geometric style of modern design.

Lilly Reich joined the enterprise in 1908, and during her few years at the workshops, she worked with Hoffmann on his iconic Kubus armchair and sofa – exemplary pieces of the architect’s geometric style and his interest in quadratic forms. In 1911, she returned to Berlin to study at the Höhere Fachschule fur Dekorationkunst (engl. Higher Technical School for Decorative Art), where she came under the influence of her teacher, architect and designer Else Oppler-Legband. This experience encouraged Reich to branch out from the field of textiles she started out in, to designing shop window displays and interiors. 

In 1912, she joined the Deutscher Werkbund, a German association of craftsmen, founded upon similar principles to its predecessor, the Werkstätte. The integration of separate disciplines like art, craft, architecture and industrial production to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, was at the heart of the Werkbund, with the aim of transforming German production a and making it a frontrunner, as well as improving German society. The modern utilitarian values of the association had a great impact on the development of Reich’s work, visible in her interior design of an apartment the same year for an exhibition titled Die Frau in Haus und Beruf. Praised for its simple forms, cost-effectiveness and high quality, it foreshadowed the core values of her work to come.

Reich worked within the framework of the organisation for over a decade, as one of the most productive members, earning a name as a respectable designer and becoming its first female director in 1920. However, parallel to this, she continued working in fashion, maintaining her own dressmaker’s shop, and applying her design philosophy developed within the Werkbund in this field. Careless ornamentation, cheap imitation of iconic designs, fast-changing styles, etc., were issues both in fashion and furniture, and Reich sought to reform this by placing a focus on the honesty of materials and standardisation, to create a true German style which reflected the modern woman in fashion, and the modern way of life in interior design.

For the 1914 Cologne exhibition, besides being a participant, Reich also worked as one of the organisers, greatly expanding her contacts, and earning valuable experience in exhibition design, which would become a major preoccupation in the following years of her career in connection to the Werkbund. A critical moment for Reich’s career as an exhibition designer was the 1926 exhibition Von der Faser zum Gewebe (engl. From Fiber to Textile), in which she placed a focus on natural, raw materials and industrial production processes, as opposed to the finished forms typically presented at exhibitions.

Another major event was the 1927 Werkbund exhibition Die Wohnung in Stuttgart, led by Mies van der Rohe, for which Reich was one of the organisers and designers. Mies and Lilly worked together on the designs of the exhibition areas – their first collaboration. The great success of the exhibition strengthened Reich’s reputation as a designer, and set her on a new chapter of her career – one that would ultimately define her legacy.

Lilly Reich and Mies

After the exhibition, Reich and van der Rohe began working together in Berlin. They were partners both personally and professionally, and the majority of her projects from this point in her career were developed alongside Mies. The innovations they created together for the Stuttgart exhibition, reflected in the floating walls partially defining open spaces that flow into one another, were further developed by Mies in his arguably most famous project – the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

Reich and Mies designed the famed Barcelona chair for this exhibition, as a monumental piece fit for the presiding Spanish royalty – as Mies remarked. The flat steel frame evokes the shape of traditional folding stools, while the seat offers a feeling of luxurious comfort. The design is in line with Mies’ maxim “Less is more”. The chair is considered an icon of modern furniture design, and is still produced by Knoll, although Lilly remains uncredited as an author on the firm’s website.

During the same period, Mies realised another exceptional project, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, for which he designed the interior in collaboration with Reich. The pair produced several notable furniture designs, including the Tugendhat Chair and the Brno Chair. Reich developed similar open and flowing interior concepts for the 1931 German Building Exposition, an event that MoMA termed the “pinnacle of her career”, in which she participated as artistic director and as an architect. She designed several spaces for the exhibition, the most notable of which was the Ground Floor House. 

During this time, Reich still worked in the Werkbund, but also became the second female master at the Bauhaus, leading the weaving workshop and the interior design studio. Her time at the school was brief, however, as not long after, the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazi regime. A similar fate befell the Werkbund – the association was disbanded in 1933. 

Lilly continued working with Mies on exhibitions and interior projects, until they parted ways in 1938. The Nazi regime narrowly restricted the acceptable forms of design in the country, causing van der Rohe to emigrate to the US, while Reich chose to continue her career. This ultimately led to the couple’s parting, and while Mies’ career continued to flourish, Reich struggled to maintain her practice in war-torn Germany.

Her Berlin studio was destroyed in an air raid and without her foresight to transfer a great deal of her and Mies’ drawings to another location, much less would be known about their design process during their most productive years before the Second World War. In the years before her death, Reich taught at the Berlin University of the Arts, and upheld her studio in order to get by. She was also a pivotal figure in the efforts to revive the Werkbund, but she died before its re-establishment in 1950. 

Favouring simple, flowing forms and functionality, Reich designed spaces that evoked the spirit of the modern age. Regarding her collaboration with van der Rohe, it has been disputed where Mies’ input ended and Reich’s began. A close friend, the architect Herbert Hirsche once remarked that “Mies did nothing without first speaking to Lilly Reich.” Reich’s valuable expertise greatly influenced Mies’ style, and more should be done to reinstate her name as a partner on the famous works often attributed solely to him. And her own fruitful independent career as a modernist fashion, interior, furniture and exhibition designer makes her more than the woman behind Mies, an artistic genius in her own right. 

Featured image: Lilly Reich, portrait, 1914. Image © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

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