The German modernist designer and visual artist Lilly Reich was the first woman elected to the governing board of the Deutscher Werkbund. She is best known for designing the famous Barcelona Chair.
The first woman
Lily Reich was born in 1885 in Berlin. She started to design furniture and clothing when she 26 years old, while working at the same time as a shop window decorator. In 1920, Lilly became the first woman to be accepted among the members of the board of the Deutscher Werkbund, the prestigious German Design and Architecture institution. During one of their trade fairs, Reich met fellow architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, who became her close collaborator, both on the job and in their private lives, for more than ten years. Together, they co-designed various (and soon renowed) furniture pieces such as the Barcelona chair and table; despite this, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Reich never reached the same popularity as her male counterpart. In 1932, she began teaching at the Bauhaus art and design school, acting as head instructor of the interior design workshop; however, just the following year, the Bauhaus school was closed, under political pretenses, by the Nazi party. After the end of the II World War, Reich started teaching again, passing away shortly after in 1947.
What made her famous?
Like several other European modernists during the 1920s, Reich had a strong interest in combining new, industrial production techniques with high tech, functional materials; this led her to be the only woman of that time to design a full furniture set, realized through tubular steel. Since her early years, she displayed interest in the art of embroidery, only however starting to apply her knowledge and skills on the subject to Bauhaus-related projects by 1908. Her claim to fame, due to the design’s popularity, was the creation, together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, of the famous Barcelona chair; although the latter took most of the credit for its inception and creation, many believe that the design was in fact strongly influenced, not to mention authored, by Lilly Reich herself. The exclusive rights for the manufacture and sale of the Barcelona Chair were granted to the Knoll industry in 1953; as such, similarly to many other iconic design pieces of the time, many reproductions (and replicas) still circulate today.
This wasn’t her only contribution to the genre, naturally: Reich designed a cooking cupboard for the 1931 German Building Exhibition, The Dwelling in our Time, in Berlin as well, aiming to show just how functionality could be both beautiful and powerful, sacrificing neither form nor function. From its drawings we can notice the closet-like appearance once closed; however, once opened, a sink, shelves, drawers and several kitchen tools can be seen, thus filling a new niche in the kitchen space . Today, this design can be seen at MOMA – Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
How can we identify her style?
Lilly Reich specialized on working with fabrics and clothes. Between 1916 and 1917, during the war, she had opened a small tailoring shop, selling models designed by her; one the most important traits of her craft was the use of simplicity, as a way to ensure her creations remained timeless: she adopted what she perceived as an essential design (as per the popular “less is more” belief of the time), never giving up a minimalist and elegant taste. In 1922, in a publication on fashion for the “Die Form” magazine, she proposed a new way of dressing, sober and free of adjectives and past labels
The clothes are objects of use and not works of art […] they must form a unitary whole with the woman who wears them, expressing their spirit and contributing to the enrichment of her soul and the way of feeling life.
This philosophy is what ensured her design for the Barcelona chair still remained one of the most recognizable lounge chairs in the world, for both private and public environments, showcasing her strong talent and innovative approach, praised even a century later.