Deutscher Werkbund (1917-1934)

“From sofa cushions to city-building”: seeking to compete with the newly rising star of the United States, Germany founded its “Association of Craftsmen”, a collective of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, tasked with lifting the local industry to new heights, both in quality and production numbers.

Commemorative stamp for the centenary of the Stuttgart exhibition (1924)

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The politics of art

To understand the Werkbund, its birth, its means, and its goals, one first needs to understand the social, economical, and political context that led to its rise.

At the beginning of the XX century, German industry, once set as standard of modernization in Europe, was struggling to maintain its power: not only its most direct competitor, England, had managed to surpass it in both quality and volume of production (thanks in no small part to the evolving relationship between British artisans and their industrial counterparts, exemplarily observable in the Arts&Crafts movement), but America as well had become a beacon of modern industry, thanks to its rising economy and technological innovation. In order to catch up, Germany wished to incorporate traditional craftsmanship with the modern means of production, as to maintain artisanal quality while at the same time maximizing its distribution; an approach to the subject that proved to resonate with people (the Bauhaus school, for example, being one of the greatest adherents to this doctrine).

The first signs of interest towards such proposal emerged in 1899, when the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich left Vienna for Darmstadt, Germany, in 1899, to form an artists’ colony at the invitation of Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse.

As such, in 1907, in Munich, a collective of artists, artisans, designers, and architects founded the eponymous Deutscher Werkbund (its name meaning “Association of Craftsmen”), with the shared goals of adopting architectural standardization as a form of art, mending the rift between industry and applied arts, and above all inspire good design and craftsmanship for mass-produced goods and architecture, through the collaboration between twelve key figures and twelve business firms. (among them the AEG), perhaps less of an artistic movement than a state-sponsored effort, as its all-encompassing motto would indicate.

Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau

From sofa cushions to city-building “
Hermann Muthesius (left) and Henry Van de Velde (right), intellectual leaders of the Werkbund . by rmeycanyegin

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From two certain points of view

Heading the newly formed Werkbund were some of Germany’s most renowned professionals, counting the names of the likes of Peter Behrens, Theodor Fischer (who served as its first president), Josef Hoffmann, Bruno Paul, Max Laeuger, and Richard Riemerschmid among its affiliates; two figures, in particular, became its de facto intellectual leaders, German architect Hermann Muthesius, “instigator” and founder of sorts together with Olbrich, and Belgian-born Henry Van de Velde. Both were influenced by William Morris and the experience of the Arts and Crafts movement, who proposed that industrial production be revived as a collaborative effort of designers and craftsmen – a principle that Van de Velde and Muthesius expanded further upon to include machine-made goods, also proposing that form be determined only by function and that ornamentation had to be eliminated.

These two personalities and their often opposing views eventually caused a split among the Werkbund ranks: those who agreed with Muthesius’ ideas, who saw the association as a semi-official arm of the government of sorts, followed his advocation towards the greatest possible use of mechanized mass production and a renewed focus on standardized design. The other faction, partial to van de Velde, championed the value of individual artistic expression instead, in opposition to Muthesius’ growing interest in the streamlined, industrially produced in-series product.

Eventually, this “conflict” would come to an end once the Werkbund decided to adopt Muthesius’ approach, by 1914.

That same year, following the successful exhibit at the Parisian Salomn d’Autumne in 1910, The Werkbund rose to fame, further cementing its influence, by hosting an exhibition of industrial art and architecture in Cologne in 1914, showcasing some notable examples of buildings in steel, glass, or concrete; among these, a theatre by van de Velde himself, garages and offices by Gropius, and a Pavilion for the Deutz Machinery Factory by Bruno Taut.

The Glass Pavilion at the Cologne 1914 exhibit; only these images remain as a testimony to its existence, Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion

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Ends and beginnings

The Werkbund experience came to a halt, the same year as their successful exhibit, due to the beginning of World War I, and was forced in this state for the entire duration of the conflict and its aftermath, with the nation still reeling from its losses and deep crisis. However, once the nation entered a new period of growth in the 20s, so did the Werkbund, reasserting itself in the significant exhibition in Stuttgart (1927); directed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it was a compendium of contemporary European developments in commercial architecture and construction; many of the exhibiting architects, such as Mies, Gropius, and even the famed Le Corbusier, followed the ideas of Muthesius and employed a high degree of standardization, in choices of materials and design alike, making it possible to build housing units inexpensively on a large scale. Most notably, the exhibit saw the showcase of the Weissenhof estate, acting as a display for what would later become known as the International Style of architecture, featuring 21 buildings (some of which were designed by Le Corbusier himself) between terraced homes, detached houses, and apartments, and sixty dwellings, the result of the total effort of seventeen different architects; despite this, variations are slight, and a strong consistency (simplified facades, flat roofs, and terraces, window bands, open plan interiors, elevated use of prefabrication, prevalence of the color white) is observable; these homes were meant to be a prototype for future workers’ housing, although costs of production were still out of an average salary’s range.

Unfortunately, of the original 21 buildings complex, only half still survives today, the rest irreparably damaged by World War II bombings, leaving nothing of the homes designed by Gropius, Hilberseimer, Taut, and Döcker; two more would be demolished in the 50s.

The Weisenhof building complex, a first foray into the International Style, presented at the 1927 Stuttgart exhibit; the collaborative result of some of Europe’s finest talent.

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After another exhibit in Breslau, in 1929, the association came to an end, as the Nazi party disbanded it under, much like other contemporary entities of similar profession, political pretenses, between 1933 and 1934.

However, after the end of World War II and the fall of the Nazi regime, the Werkbund was eventually revived around 1949, making its way into a brand new world. Of the original Werkbund, most of its archived materials and collections (the so-called “Werkbundarchiv”) are currently housed at the Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things), an institute dedicated to designs and everyday objects of the 20th-century life.

The legacy of the Craftsmen

Even during its active period, the Werkbund and its ideas, a blending of traditional artisanship and modern industry, struck a chord with many other professionals: similar organizations soon came to be, such as the Austrian Österreichischer Werkbund, in 1912; the Swiss Schweizerischer Werkbund, in 1913; the soon converted, Swedish Slöjdföreningen by 1915, and even British Design and Industries Association modeled itself after the Werkbund the same year.

However, one of Werkbund’s most visible imprints can be seen in the Bauhaus, the institute for the formation of future artists, architects, and designers; and its history can be traced back to one of the Werkbund’s very members, Peter Behrens.

Behrens had already worked, within the Werkbund, for one of its main adherents, the AEG electricity company; his turbine factory, in steel and glass, not only had proven an exemplary modern edifice, answering to the Werkbund’s principles of building standardization, but also introduced various notable concepts of modern design, such as the coordinated image, the repetition of structural pattern, and Beherens’ identification of the building as a “monument”.

Under Behrens, many members of the Werkbund learned their trade: Van Der Rohe and Gropius, founders and key members of the Bauhaus school, among them. After their experiences within the Werkbund, these figures would still carry the same principles – standardization and industrial production, without sacrificing quality or personal touch – in their new enterprise.

AEG Turbinefabrik, by Werkbund member Peter Behrens (1909); a landmark for the movement and the profession as a whole. Author: Doris Antony

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