Friend or Foe? The Bauhaus and the Wallpaper

Friend or Foe? The Bauhaus and the Wallpaper
Summary of lecture held by Werner Möller at the Mies van der Rohe Haus, Berlin, 21/09/2011

The relationship of the avant-garde of the modern with wallpaper was ambivalent. On the one hand, there was an extremely deep aversion to wallpaper with its historicizing motifs and architectural spatial illusions as an expression of bourgeois home décor in the 19th century. On the other hand, representatives of Jugendstil and the Viennese Modern or the circles of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation) made use of wallpaper in order to put their colourfully floral, figurative or abstract worlds of shapes on the wall.

In more precise terms, wallpaper’s radical image as the foe was limited to a very restricted period of the 1920s in which New Building fought for its breakthrough. Wallpaper simply stood in the way of the architect’s new concepts of space. Their goal was the visible use of the building materials and components. Colourful coats of paint and special surface treatments did not serve as a substitute for wallpaper but as supporting elements in the architectural concept and perception of space. Prime examples of this are the Dessau Bauhaus structures, especially the school building according to the design of Walter Gropius with the participation of the Bauhaus workshops. The people at the Weimar Bauhaus did not have such a radical attitude against wallpapers and wall decorations. Ornamental wall decor and reliefs were realised as a matter of course. The Masters’ Council of the Bauhaus discussed wallpaper patterns during this period.

The wallpaper industry watched this development with much concern. With the progressing establishment of New Building and the New Objectivity, it was threatened by a drop in sales. In addition, it was difficult for the wallpaper industry to the access the new market of the large settlement projects under such preconditions.

Seite aus Rasch Muster-Originale Bauhaus 1930-31

Seite aus Rasch Muster-Originale Bauhaus 1930-31

Die erste Bauhaus-Kollektion 1930, Musterbuch
Bauhaustapete "b4"
Bauhaustapete "b6"
Seite aus Rasch Muster-Originale "MAY", 1931-32
Seite aus Rasch Muster-Originale "Weimar", 1935
Rasch Prospekt "So wohnen die Wilden und wie wohnst Du?", 1937

In consideration of this background, Emil Rasch introduced himself to the Bauhaus in 1928 for the purpose of cooperating in a new wallpaper collection. The contact was ultimately established by his sister Maria. She had studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar from 1919 to 1923 and had subsequently worked for Walter Gropius. The new Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer was initially quite sceptical about the request. What tipped the scales for the decision to risk offering a Bauhaus wallpaper with Rasch was probably the political and economic pressure that weighed upon Meyer and the Bauhaus. Otherwise, wallpaper did not even play a role in the Bauhaus structures that were built under his direction: the ADGB school in Bernau and the Laubenganghäuser (apartments with balcony access) in Dessau.

Already in autumn of 1929, the blue Rasch Book presented the first Bauhaus collection with 14 designs and 145 pages for the wallpaper season of the year 1930. The collection was characterised by fine line and dot patterns, as well as grids in light and friendly colours. The experiences gained in the workshop for murals were translated to the medium of wallpaper and taken into mass production, completely corresponding with the motto by Hannes Meyer of “the people’s needs instead of the need for luxury.” This was because not only the settlement wallpapers from Rasch’s company did justice to the standards of New Building with this step as a full-fledged building element. The training at the Bauhaus for this cooperation was also an important experience on the path from artistic or craftsmanship drafts to the applied designs for the industrial mass production.

However, this modern form of settlement wallpaper was not an invention of the Bauhaus. For example, Hans Leistikow had already realised the settlement solid colours and grids as an employee for the Marburg wallpaper factory Das Neue Frankfurt (The New Frankfurt) under Ernst May in 1927/28.

The reason why Emil Rasch absolutely wanted to win the Bauhaus for a cooperation was because it already had a significant market value as a trendsetter. In retrospect, Emil Rasch described this as follows in 1952: “… The exponent of the modern direction was the Bauhaus (...) and it was correspondingly hostile to wallpaper. (...) I instinctively sensed that the greatest danger for our industry was developing in Dessau, and I thought that if it was possible to cause our main adversary to bring out a collection under its own name, such a circumstance would be the most effective signal for a change in mood among the wallpaper opponents.”

The Bauhaus card initially proved to be a flop: Just four dealers added it to their programme. But Emil Rasch did not become discouraged; instead, he started an offensive by bypassing the intermediary trade and strengthening the advertising activities. Consequently, the sales figures increased dramatically and the Bauhaus wallpaper already became the company’s supporting pillar and the main source of income for the Bauhaus GmbH during its initial year.

Due to the economic dependence on the Bauhaus wallpaper, the company also became directly affected by the political differences between the Bauhaus and the City of Dessau. In January of 1930, the National Socialists rose to become the leading political force in Dessau and the conflict with the Bauhaus – which had become more Communist-oriented under Hannes Meyer – was decided. As of 1 August 1930, Meyer was fired without notice and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe assumed his office as the new director in the winter semester of 1930.

The change could hardly have been more conspicuous for Rasch: from the architect of the “people’s needs” to the major building artist of the Classic Modern. In Mies’ concepts of space, materiality and surfaces, there was no room for wallpapers. Only the contractual obligations and the indispensable profits from the provisions of the wallpaper business secured the continuation of the cooperation. 

For Mies van der Rohe, the cooperation became necessary for survival starting on 22 August 1932 with the resolution of the Dessau city council to close the Bauhaus as of 1 October. When dissolving the contracts with the city, Mies succeeded in having the rights to the name of Bauhaus and the licence income assigned to him, as well as a partial continued payment of the teacher salaries until 1935. Under these conditions, he assumed the risk of taking over the Bauhaus as a private institute under his own responsibility. Nevertheless, the newly founded institute was searched and sealed by the police on 11 April 1933 – once again at the instigation of the Dessau National Socialists.

Emil Rasch, who had a law degree, took action once again. Two weeks after the police seizure, Rasch and Mies van der Rohe cancelled the contract between the wallpaper company and the Bauhaus GmbH. All rights, including the right of use for the name of Bauhaus wallpaper were signed over to the company in Bramsche for 6,000 Reichsmarks. This meant that the Bauhaus wallpaper escaped the state access during the liquidation of the Bauhaus on 19 July 1933. In front of the Magdeburg district court on 6 September of that same year, Rasch additionally won the verdict that prohibited the reviling of the Bauhaus wallpaper as degenerate – which would have been the same fate that had befallen the artistic work of his sister and Bauhäusler Maria Rasch.

As a further measure for securing and obtaining better placement of the product on the market, Emil Rasch already alluded to the new Maria-May collection of 1932 as the supplement to the Bauhaus wallpaper. This was a typical double strategy for Rasch: On the one hand is the emancipatory act of presenting the modern woman as a new actor of the wallpaper business; on the other hand, there is the intention of advertising the woman as traditional keeper of the home and kitchen for the sober Bauhaus wallpaper in combination with the more feminine May card.

In the following year, Emil Rasch even went a step further in his business politics. The merchant not only announced that the 1934 Bauhaus card was produced by the company itself and had been fundamentally redesigned but made an almost Faustian move. Based on the designs by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, he introduced a new Weimar collection that was sold and advertised together with the collections by Maria May and the Bauhaus in a harmonious triad until the factory had to be closed due to the war. Parallel to these strategically motivated but morally dubious activities for the safeguarding of the company, Emil Rasch still supported Mies van der Rohe with commissions from the business with the Bauhaus wallpaper for a number of years after the closing of the Bauhaus.

Rasch resumed the wallpaper production in 1948. Already in 1949, the first post-war collection of the Bauhaus wallpaper appeared for the year 1950. The design of the updated collection was in the hands of the former director of the mural workshop at the Bauhaus, Hinnerk Scheper, as well as Werner Schriefers, who later became the director of the Cologne School of Applied Arts. Rasch continued to follow his well-known dual strategy. He juxtaposed the Bauhaus wallpaper with the collection of the Rasch Artist Wallpaper in which more than 25 artists from ten countries participated. Following the sinister years of the NS regime, German industry once again focused on internationality and open-mindedness. In the striving to build bridges between politics, business and modern design, Emil Rasch was one of the most important personalities of the early post-war period in West Germany. Soon after he resumed production of the wallpapers, he sought contact with the former Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Werner Möller


For additional information and sources see:

Tapetenfabrik Gebr. Rasch GmbH & Co. and Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (Publ.):
Bauhaustapete. Reklame & Erfolg einer Marke (Bauhaus Wallpaper: Advertising & Success of a Brand), Burckhard Kieselbach, Werner Möller, Sabine Thümmler (Ed.), Cologne, 1995.

Tapetenfabrik Gebr. Rasch GmbH & Co. (Publ.): Rasch-Buch/Book. 1897-1997, Burckhard Kieselbach (Ed.), Bramsche, 1998.

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