Tom Thomas

20th Century European Decorative Arts


October 20 - November 18, 2004
Images of Marianne Brandt, Peter Behrens, Christian Dell, Erich Dieckmann, Herbert Hirche, William Wagenfeld and Max Bill

An Exploration of Craft in Early German Modernism (1900-1930)


The common perception of the Bauhaus (1919-1933) was as being machine and mass production oriented;
the interaction with craft and handmade objects has frequently been overlooked as being part of the inspiration and production of this avant-garde design school.
Objects have been selected which demonstrate the handmade process. Likewise, the compelling industrial lighting of Bauhaus Metal Shop Director Christian Dell has been set in counterpoint. While dispelling the myth that the Bauhaus was a byproduct of a 'machine age mentality' the exhibition explores the vital relation between craft and machine in early German modernism (1900-1930).


Erich Dieckmann: Handmade Chairs

As one looks back on 20th century Art and Design Movements there is a tendency to encapsulate them into neat separate categories representing either the different values or philosophies of each movement or different aesthetic stances. While this makes it easier to see the contributions of each movement it isolates one from noticing the greater commonalities they share. It is easy to miss how succeeding movements can overlap each other and set the stage for what is to come next. Such was the case in turn of the century Germany where the Jugendstil movement and Deutsche Werkstatten expressed an arts and crafts approach favoring mostly pure sober designs performed by hand. Its key artist- designers such as Peter Behrens and Richard Riemerschmid laid the philosophic foundation that would serve the basis for other movements including the Bauhaus. Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer even worked in the firm of Behrens early in their career.

Peter Behrens: Ceiling Fixture

Although the Bauhaus was perhaps the most well known of the early modern movements, its origins and focuses are not well understood by the general public. The common image of the Bauhaus is that of the mass, machine production and the cold tubular steel designs that Marcel Breuer initiated. While mass production is important in serving the greater good and needs and of society for well designed products, little attention is paid to the importance of craft or handmade objects within its scheme. The Bauhaus started as most reform movements did as a way to reunite art and industry, craft and industrial design and with a purpose of a utopian vision to make a better world for all through better designed objects and environments.

Handmade Umbrella Holder: Anonymous

Although it is questionable if any design movement can deeply reform society, the Bauhaus succeeded in introducing modern principles into design and architecture and in the process radically reforming the notion of what a building can be. It served the function of opening up interiors to nature and offering sober furnishings that could let the inner truth of the object speak for itself. A further result became a society where people have become more design conscious and more personally active in the design of their interiors. In the process, the word Bauhaus and modern became synonymous and for good or bad the International style of architecture grew out of the Bauhaus.

Christian Dell: #6580 Super Lamp or
sculpture with anthropomorphic qualities

In the mind of many the original aims of the Bauhaus have been forgotten and people do not see the importance of hand work and its relation to industrial. What is also ignored is that craft had always been as a staple in German design especially in the late 19th century. Likewise, little attention has been given to the importance of the Jugendstil movement and Deutsche Werkstatten which preceded the Bauhaus.

Bauhaus Era: Craft and Machine is an attempt to understand the Bauhaus from the perspective that individual creativity, the hand, and machine are all integrated and work together. It offers evidence of this through exhibiting hand made pieces from the era shown in counter point to the industrial designs of Bauhaus metal-shop director, Christian Dell. Furthermore, it explores the continuity that has existed between the early 20th century movements in both hand and machine work. The exhibition presents chairs, lighting and objects that broaden the understanding of the Bauhaus as a movement which transcended the machine and demonstrates that the handmade object is an integral part of all human endeavor.

Christian Dell:Very early prototype
made from machine parts
Photo Courtesy Modern20

3 Tea Kettles: Behrens c. 1900 - Behrens 1912
- Raichle 1930
Each hand hammered, each
demonstrating modern sensibility

It is difficult to define where the modern movement really began but most decorative arts historians agree that William Morris, a founder of the English Arts & Crafts movement had a significant role. He had a strong influence on Richard Riemerschmid and Peter Behrens whose work formed the basis for the Bauhaus with their sober, practical designs. Behrens, the chief designer at German industrial giant AEG, designed objects such as teapots, bowls in hand-hammered metal. One series of teapots initiated in 1912 had 35 variations off one theme. Each was hand-made and was a unique way to present the hand-made and the machine together. Riemerschmid is identified with the German Jugendstil movement and Deutsche Werkstatten and his designs were original and refreshing in their combination of craft and modernity. Surprisingly, such important works by these artists are still a bargain today at auction.

Christian Dell: Type K c.1929

In the early days of the Bauhaus the craft aesthetic dominated and Bauhaus director Gropius grew rightfully concerned when this became focused on objects like jewelry because he wanted to see the school serve the larger aims of society with useful designs and products for society as a whole. Thus, he replaced metal work shop director, Slutzsky with Christian Dell. Under Dell students were able to transcend the pure mystical theories of form and color gained from Form Directors: Johannes Itten and Paul Klee and learn to work with materials and transform them into iconic designs. Dells work while largely industrial in nature nevertheless shows evidence of craft in it. In an early prototype of his famous lighting designs for Kaiser Idell, Dell assembles parts from various machines to form a modern desk lamp. Dell somehow maintained this 'folksy' sensibility that machines are our friends in his work. As one views his lighting designs they all seem familiar too us with joints, arms and levers outstretched and ready to perform. Perhaps, these industrial creatures are familiar to us because they simulate the human body itself.

3 water vessels
Water can attr. Richard Rimmerschmid c.1907
Hand hammered vase c.1900
Silver Urn c. 1920-30

Erich Dieckmann, an unsung hero of the Bauhaus, is it's most important furniture designer next to Marcel Breuer. Dieckmann worked in wood, wicker, straw and occasionally in metal and his pieces are mostly hand-made. Dieckmann was in continual search for the perfect form and designs exhibit classical proportions, harmony and stunning sculptural vision. The pair of wood and straw chairs exhibited are incredible sculptures from every vantage point with their bold counterpoints of positive and negative space.

Christian Dell: Scissor Lamp c.1930

Along with pieces by Behrens, Dell, Dieckmann the exhibition presents works by other Bauhaus students and faculty: Marianne Brandt, Karl Trabert, William Wagenfeld and Herbert Hirch along with several unknown works. Amazingly, even in the unknown works there lingers a spirit of harmony, freedom, color, expressiveness and individuality in the midst of quadratic designs.

In conclusion, it is the contention of this exhibition that in the period from 1900 to 1930, a period of great upheaval and social change that witnessed the turn of the century, a world war, massive inflation in Germany and the early rise of Hitler there are nonetheless consistent strands of artistic-design effort that run through it and bind it together. Modernism is not something that came about from the Bauhaus, on the contrary a full flourishing modernism was present well before it. Furthermore, early German modernism, the Bauhaus included has always included the handmade object no matter in wood, metal or other material. Viewed this way, it is an opportunity to enjoy the early beginnings of Modernism from a more humanistic viewpoint.

Tom Thomas
New York City, October 2004

Side Tables c.1930 anonymous

Leather strapped chair attributed to Deutsche Werkstatten c.1907

Herbert Hirch: Trolley 1956

Umbrella holder: detail