Avant-garde in the Lower Rhine region
Frau Lange, why should one visit Krefeld of all places in order to discover Mies van der Rohe?
Mies’s surviving European oeuvre is small. Not including his early villas in Berlin, it comprises just nine buildings, of which three are in Krefeld: His only villa ensemble, consisting of the Lange and Esters Houses, 1927–1930, and his only industrial building, the so-called dye works and HE building of the Vereinigte Seidewebereien AG (United silk mills corporation), 1930–1931/1935. If you want to study Mies’s architecture, there’s no getting around Krefeld.
How did this connection between Mies and Krefeld come about? What kind of atmosphere prevailed in the city at the time? Which people or networks were behind it?
The actual driving force of this development in the 1920s was the European silk industry, the centre of which at the time was found in Krefeld with its protagonists, who had as affinity for the arts. But this did not grow from nothing: Since the reform movements of the turn of the century, the agile museum director Friedrich Deneken had prepared the ground for a certain openness in Krefeld’s industry towards avant-garde tendencies in art and what we would now call design. The Deutsche Werkbund (German Work Federation) had been active since its foundation through an informal local group. There is evidence that there were links to the Bauhaus as early as 1922. At the same time, contemporary art played a significant role.
In addition to the three realised projects, from 1927 Mies received six further commissions from the Krefeld silk industry.
That’s right. In this period two groundbreaking exhibitions architectures were also realised: the ‘Café Samt und Seide’ (Velvet & Silk Café), a representational stand for the German silk weaving association for the 1927 exhibition ‘Die Mode der Dame’ held in the Berlin fairground and the silk industry’s contribution to the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona. These were followed one year later by a complete set of interior furnishings and fittings, which presents a representative cross-section of Mies’s oeuvre of furniture designs. Added to this are designs for a Court house and an administration building and a design for a golf club house, the importance of which has long been underestimated.
Your great-grandfather, the silk manufacturer Hermann Lange, played a central role at the time. Why did he want to have his house built specifically by Mies van der Rohe?
When Herman Lange and Josef Esters started to look for the right architect for their envisaged houses around 1924, Lange had already been active for many years as a collector on the avant-garde art scene. This has schooled his eye and shaped his intellect. Esters also collected art, but the two of them practiced a kind of division of labour: Lange was responsible for art matters, Esters for financial matters.
Incidentally, the search for an architect led the two of them first to J.J.P. Oud and also to Theo van Doesburg, the most important exponent of the Dutch group De Stijl. The two friends and founders of the Vereinigte Seidewebereien AG (United silk mills corporation) were thus definitely looking for an ‘avant-garde’ architect. Why they finally chose Mies is unknown. A visit in 1927 to the Wolf House, which Mies was just finishing in Guben, appears to have played a role.
When did you first become aware of Mies? Was he a subject of family discussions?
He wasn’t a topic, but of course we had an idea who Mies was and Lilly Reich too, Mies’s renowned partner. The furniture that they both designed in the framework of their commissions for the family is still being used.
I regularly visited the Lange and Esters Houses when I was young, although not because of their architecture, but to see exhibitions of contemporary art. Lange House had grown to become an important venue for exhibitions of avant-garde art since the 1950s under the directors Paul Wember and later Gerhard Storck. Esters House was added to this in 1980.
But my professional involvement with the architecture and furniture designs of Mies and Lilly Reich began around ten years ago.
What is your favourite story about Mies in Krefeld?
I don’t have a specific favourite story, but the extensive correspondence between architect, client and employees that always accompanies building projects is full of in part amusing passages that not only provide important information about building history, but also offer a look behind the scenes: Whether it’s a employee that gets worked up about Mies, or Theo von Doesburg, who boasts to a colleague that he has lined up a big contract in which ‘money is no object’ – a reference to Lange and Esters.
In 2010 you founded the association Projekt MIK e.V. How did that come about?
It had become clear that the research into the Krefeld projects of Mies and Reich was of interest beyond professional circles. This hidden history of the connection between the artistic avant-garde and the silk industry in Krefeld, which remained important into the 1960s and was a major employer, also generated a lot of interest locally. Against this backdrop the idea arose of dedicating an exhibition to the topic. The foundation of the association was based on the very practical grounds of being able to realise this and other exhibition projects.
In 2013 for the exhibition ‘Mies 1:1 The Golf Club Project’ the association brought to life Mies’s 1930 competition entry for a golf club house in Krefeld as a life-size architectural model in the original location. What was the idea behind the project?
Both architecture exhibitions and documentary exhibitions are demanding undertakings that are often only accessible to a specialist audience. We therefore reversed the exhibition concept:
As a temporary update of a design by Mies by the Belgian architects Robbrecht en Daem, the 1:1 model said more about Mies’s idea of space than plans, photographs or models ever could. The design for the golf club is of exceptional quality and demonstrates like a kind of manifesto Mies’s concept of architecture at the peak of its European development.
[Translate to English:] headline
For the Bauhaus Centenary 2019 you will be working together with the artist Thomas Schütte. What can we expect? You already invited him in 2013 for a discussion at the Golfclub-Model.
We are interested in Thomas Schütte’s complex artistic thinking and his approach to architecture. The Bauhaus was conceived as a school of design, but seminal exponents of fine art such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky played a major role in teaching. The fine arts also occupied a central position in the network in Krefeld. It supported and informed the thinking of many of its protagonists.
It is therefore not architecture or design, but fine art, which forms the base and point of departure for our involvement with the Bauhaus and its impact in Krefeld.
[Translate to English:] headline
Project Mies in Krefeld e.V
"Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Architecture for the Silk Industries"
Nicolai Publishers 2011