In 1909 the German Werkbund, an organization dedicated to improving society by promoting the highest standards of design and manufacture, declared that women were “unequal to the demanding design tasks of architecture.” Eleven years later, the Werkbund nominated the first woman to its board of directors: Lilly Reich. The ensuing three decades saw Reich produce an innovative body of work in fields as diverse as architecture, fashion, and industrial and exhibition design.
Reich’s training included a period at the Wiener Werkstätte, where she worked in textiles and interior design, these being among the few careers in design available to women in early-20th-century Germany. Through this early experience she gained a mastery of texture, color, and how the human body occupies space—skills that informed projects throughout her career. In her writing about fashion, Reich distilled her formal philosophy: “Clothes must and can grow together, form an organically inseparable whole with the woman wearing them, give a picture of her spirit, and enhance the expression of her soul and the feeling of life.”
The organic interplay of material and the human form in space was dramatically manifested in an installation Reich designed for a Velvet and Silk Café at a 1927 fashion exhibition in Berlin. Using a sinuously hanging fabric wall to delineate the space, Reich created zones of visual and auditory quiet within the vast volume of a cluttered exhibition hall. The flexible wall system Reich employed in Berlin was later used to great effect by the architect Mies van der Rohe, with whom Reich collaborated closely over the next decade.
Reich and Mies’s partnership on furniture, building, and exhibition projects changed both their practices, resulting in an injection of bold individualistic styles, which emphasized dramatic uses of color and luxury materials, into the functionalist program that dominated modern architecture and design. The period during which they worked together resulted in some of the most iconic designs of the modernist era, including the Barcelona chair (originally a bright kelly green). Their numerous architecture projects include designs for exhibitions at the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung, the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona, and the 1931 Building Exhibition in Berlin. During this busy period they also jointly oversaw the final years of the influential Bauhaus school in Berlin—with Mies as director and Reich as head of the weaving studio and the interior design workshop—before its closure under pressure from the Nazi regime.
It was common for women architects of the early modern period to have their work overshadowed by that of their partner; this was true of Reich as well. Mies emigrated to the United States in 1938 (leaving behind both his family and his creative partner) and outlived Reich by more than 20 years, a period during which his prolific output of iconic buildings cemented his fame as one of the leading architects of the post–World War II period. More recent research and reappraisals have recentered women like Reich in the story of the modernist project, both as collaborators and—as in Reich’s case—influential creative voices in their own right.
Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, Department of Architecture and Design, 2023