200 Years of Form Follows Function

200 Years of Form Follows Function

When the 15th European Art Exhibition opened its doors in Berlin under the title of “Tendencies of the Twenties” in 1997, it was possible to admire tubular steel furniture, desk lamps and glass tableware next to the high art in the exhibition section of the New National Gallery. The Bauhaus motto of “Art and technology – a new unity” came to life. Yet, while the noble works of art were brought together from Europe’s most important museums, the weighty catalogue just had a summary entry for many of the catalogue numbers: “Berlin, Manfred Ludewig.” It apparently was a source that made any further search unnecessary.

Bollerwagen, 1918
Gerrit Rietveld

Bollerwagen, 1918
Gerrit Rietveld

Armlehnsessel B 3 "Wassily Chair", 1925/29
Marcel Breuer
Firma Thonet
Manfred Ludewig vor der Präsentation der Sammlung in der Falkengalerie im Stadtschloss Weimar

This was already 33 years ago, and nothing has basically changed since then. Even for more recent exhibitions such as the Century Exhibition of 1999 by the state museums, the loans from the private citizen were urgently in demand. But the visitor could not (yet) get an impression of the collection’s size. However, this source will not only be familiar to experts in the future but also sparkle in public – in Weimar, where the Heimstatt Bauhaus Museum and the exhibition site of the Ludewig Collection will be in its most recently decided future new building. This new building, located just outside of the old Weimar with its preponderance of German literary Classicism, can only play the role assigned to it due to the Ludewig Collection. The path into the present, which has basically been a consistent problem for Weimar since Goethe’s death, is suddenly revealed with this collection – not as a graft but as an unrelated additional offer, as a compelling continuation from the development and inventory of the collections.

During the Sixties of the last century, Manfred Ludewig had already begun collecting design objects. He had just moved into a flat that was obviously pre-WWII, opened the door to the suspended ceiling – and “one of those tubular steel chairs came at me,” as the collector likes to tell the story. He brought the chair to his teacher for architecture, Wils Ebert: The latter explained that it was “from our master Mies” and gave Ludewig a book about the Bauhaus: “Find out about it!”

As it turned out, Ludewig did this in a very thorough way. Piece by piece, the furniture of the Bauhaus came together; however, objects before and after its short lifespan were soon included as well. When questioned about his concept, the collector responds with an image: His collection is like the fuselage of an airplane, which means the “200 years of design history” and is crossed by a pair of wings – which is around 1925 – with “the early Bauhaus on the left and the late Bauhaus on the right.” He says that “the fuselage cannot fly without these wings.” (…)

This is about the emergence and development of functional design since the beginning of the 18th century until the immediate present. In this historic range, the collection fits ideally into the context of the intellectual history that is connected with the name of Weimar. As an epoch of art history, Biedermeier is simultaneously the time of literary Classicism. Jugendstil found an intermittent home in Weimar through Henry van de Velde. The Bauhaus was founded in Weimar as school of craftsmanship that transformed after some meandering into an industrially oriented design forge before it had to leave the city. And the immediate modern age – well, it must be anchored time and again in Weimar, if only to keep the traditions cultivated here alive and fruitful.

Yet, the relationship to Weimar should not be overused. In the stormy one-and-a-half decades at the beginning of the 20th century, functional design blossomed in an industrial standard. The significance of the AEG electronics company with its head designer Peter Behrens has been recognised in the meantime. Behrens created what is now called corporate design, the main artistic feature that connects all of the concepts with each other. The series of table, wall and ceiling fans that Behrens designed around 1908 has acquired an almost iconic character since the publication of Behren’s design activities under the fair title of Industrial Culture at the end of the Seventies. Next to such space-consuming objects, the collection of packaging, cups and advertising materials for the Kaffee Hag coffee company is easily comprehensible – and yet still sprawling. (…)

The young Bauhaus was confronted with the Dutch De Stijl in Weimar. Ludewig has assembled an exquisite collection of objects by Gerrit Rietvelds, one of the main representatives of this strict formal school; each of them was still individually produced even decades after the 1918/19 design by Rietveld’s cabinetmaker Gerrit van de Groenekan. The young Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer responded to the Stijl movement’s formal thoughts with his Lattenstuhl (wood-slat armchair) of 1923.

In the same year – and this shows the speed and volatility with which the Bauhaus surged forwards – Wilhelm Wagenfeld adapted a design by Karl Jucker for his famous, truly timeless modern table lamp with one version of the base and shaft in nickel-plated brass and the other in glass. A number of these lamps obviously now offer their completely even lighting in Ludewig’s empire. And it is also obvious that the collection includes a complete set of Wagenfeld’s glass designs, of which Ludewig speaks with the greatest respect as those that have most consistently realised the Bauhaus concepts.

Wagenfeld is also a special Weimarian since he remained in the city on the Ilm River after the Bauhaus relocation to Dessau at the end of 1925; he first became an assistant and soon thereafter the director of the metal workshop at the newly founded School for Architecture (Bauhochschule), but it was only granted a brief life. Wagenfeld’s major period as an industrial designer for the United Lausitzer Glass Works (Vereinigte Lausitzer Glaswerke) only began afterwards. This is where the Ludewig collection once again arrives at the “industrial culture,” which – in addition to the overarching terms of usefulness and functionality – represents a special aspect of this collection that presumably integrates a central Bauhaus role into the general current of object design. After the Second World War, Wagenfeld worked for the Swabian WMF company, which was style-defining in the Fifties and Sixties for West German households. It also goes without saying that Ludewig owns a complete collection of the vases by Wagenfeld, as well as the salt-and-pepper shakers, the mustard dishes and the jelly jars – and obviously also the metal bread baskets that decorated the progressive middle-class dining tables at that time. And didn’t they drink punch in the summer that was ladled from the punchbowl by Wagenfeld? Even this is already history.

Progressive – this is the key word for the city of Ulm, for the Ulm College of Design (HfG) that countless housewives – usually unknowingly – connect with the Junghans wall clock by Max Bill of 1955. In turn, the HfG was the bridge to the Braun electronics company with the radio of 1955 that was still designed in Ulm. The “gramophones” – especially the lovingly named “Snow White Coffin” with its glass cover hood in slightly deviating variations designed by Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams in 1956 – were legendary. The assertion of radio as the medium for everyone in Germany had already begun with the legendary Volksempfänger VE 301, which Walter Maria Kersting had designed in 1933 and was virtually the prelude to the propaganda wave that was to pour over Germany for the next twelve years.

The Braun company with its radios, and later also its television sets, with its movie cameras and slide projectors, but primarily its hairdryers, hand mixers, juicers and other kitchen devices, defined an epoch of design until its major heyday came to an irrevocable close at the end of the Eighties with the economic failure of the last modular “Studio,” which is still highly esteemed to this day by design fans. Braun has its own sub-collection devoted to it that is in a category of its own in comparison to the other collections that are organised according to materials and types of objects; and rightfully so because the shared design attitude is only evident when the devices for a great variety of purposes are displayed next to each other.

The Ludewig collection includes 1,524 pieces. Experts have unanimously appraised their monetary value at 10.5 million euros. Based on this monetary value, about one-third is now coming to Weimar as an acquisition, as a permanent loan and as a gift. The necessary funds have been provided by the cultural foundation of the states, the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation and the Weimar Classics Foundation itself through special allocations from the German Federal Government’s Commissioners for Culture and Media and the State of Thuringia. But what can such figures say about the content and wealth of this collection? Nothing. It is unique, and probably not just in Germany. The Council of Europe Exhibition of 1977 would have remained incomplete without it, just like many other subsequent exhibitions on design as a whole or the Bauhaus in particular. Ludewig emphasises that “I only became aware that a real collection had been created” from the rather coincidental beginning “when I was asked to put together the corresponding section of the ‘Tendencies of the Twenties’ with my pieces in 1977.” In other words, there was a gap, a shortfall by the museums and it will be Weimar’s good fortune that its own gap in the collection profile will be closed all at once in the future. Even before the opening of the new building around 2015, the inventory – which is interlocked with its own treasures – will be presented in a special exhibition. Then the public at large will become aware that this is not just the third Bauhaus collection destined to exist along with those in Berlin and – on the more rudimentary side – in Dessau, but a panorama in which the Bauhaus will be “located” in terms of intellectual history. In simpler terms: It will make the Bauhaus more understandable with regard to what it was and what distinguished it, as well as what it was not and what was imputed to it as glorification in later decades. (…)