"A Decorator in the Best Sense": Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, the Fabric Curtain Partition, and the Articulation of the German Modern Interior
Date of Degree
Rosemarie Haag Bletter
Rose-Carol Washton Long
Architecture | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Interior Architecture | Interior Design | Modern Art and Architecture
Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, Bruno Paul, Tugendhat House, curtain partition, a decorator in the best sense
Contributing to the burgeoning study of the domestic interior, a field of inquiry existing in the interstices of architecture, design, interior decoration, and material culture, this dissertation presents a thematic study of the modern domestic interiors of German/American architect/designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1965) designed in collaboration with fellow German architect/designer Lilly Reich (1885–1947) during the 1920s and early 1930s in Weimar Germany. Inspired by a revealing but hitherto overlooked statement by Philip Johnson in the catalogue for the influential 1932 International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that referred to Mies as “a decorator in the best sense,” it focuses primarily on a particular aspect of Mies’s and Reich’s interiors, the moveable fabric partition wall, through the lens of the modernist bias against decoration and the hierarchical relationship between architecture and interior decorating. Reich’s significance as Mies’s partner, both professional and personal, is considered in relation to that gendered bias.
An underexplored but consistent feature of the Neues Bauen (modern architecture in Germany), the curtain partition was a central functional component in Mies’s celebrated open or free plan that also operated on a number of complex symbolic levels. Comprising both soft furnishing (an element of interior decor) and architectural form, the fabric wall was highly referential and innately opulent rather than reductive and abstract, reflecting key aspects of Weimar culture with its emphasis on dynamic movement, while on a more private level, indicative of a conception of domesticity undergoing profound change.
Using an interdisciplinary methodological approach, this study analyzes the curtain partition of Mies and Reich in relation to a series of significant themes, including functionalism and the nature of materials, interiority, domesticity, the decorative, the European fascination with the “primitive,” the tension between the timeless and the fashionable, constructions of gender and identity, and viewer subjectivity and reception. Operating as a kind of hinge between architecture and interior design/decoration, between opulence and simplicity, structure and surface, and historicism and modernism, the soft partitions of Mies and Reich constitute a dynamic entity that manifests the complex moment in which it was conceived.
Well-recognized Mies models like that of nineteenth-century Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) are reexamined in this study, and the influence of Schinkel’s neoclassicism on Mies is extended to include his interior treatments, in particular, his use of hanging textiles. The impact of another influential nineteenth-century German figure, architect and theorist Gottfried Semper (1803–1879) is considered in the context of Semper’s Bekleidungstheorie (theory of cladding) and his work as an interior designer, with a focus on the key role of soft walls in creating meaning. The significance of Mies’s early teacher and mentor, German architect/designer Bruno Paul (1874–1968), an underappreciated figure of the Wilhelmine era, is also reconsidered, through the lens of the interior decorator and the negative attitude toward it in modernist discourse. The central role of Philip Johnson (1906–2005) and The Museum of Modern Art in fashioning and solidifying the canonical Mies is reexamined, with a new reading of MoMA’s influential 1932 exhibition “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” and Mies’s contributions to it.
By comparing orthodox representations of Mies the architect with a fresh reading: Mies the decorator, this dissertation challenges the notion that his interiors can be understood simply as rational, organic extensions of the open plan—as inevitable extensions of the structural genius of Mies—and highlights the sources, functions, and complexities of the fabric curtain partitions of Mies and Reich. Through a series of formal and theoretical investigations of their oeuvre, with the Tugendhat House, Brno, Czech Republic (1928–30) serving as primary case study, this dissertation provides a new interpretation of Mies’s and Reich’s interiors, expanding the canon and analyzing problematic issues in the history of modernism with ramifications extending well beyond the confines of the architectural sphere.
Eggler-Gerozissis, Marianne E., ""A Decorator in the Best Sense": Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, the Fabric Curtain Partition, and the Articulation of the German Modern Interior" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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