Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 4, 2022
Robin Schuldenfrei Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900–1933 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. 336 pp.; 74 color ills.; 126 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691175126)

In a reappraisal of German modernism, Robin Schuldenfrei’s Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900–1933 highlights issues of taste, class, and luxury in modern German design and interiors, ultimately underscoring a necessary distinction between objects actually suited to mass production and handcrafted objects made with a modern, mass-produced aesthetic. Schuldenfrei examines the tensions of the Bauhaus, which was founded on progressive principles but ultimately fell short of producing financially accessible products, instead reaching an elite class of consumers. The book’s introduction considers the retouching of a seemingly prosaic photograph taken by Lucia Moholy for the 1930 book Bauhausbauten Dessau. Schuldenfrei discusses the retouching and removal of what might seem like inconsequential marble veining in the photograph of Walter Gropius’s bathroom sink. This small editorial act––removing a signifier of material luxury in order to seem more “modern”––is in fact revealing of the complex circumstances of taste, class, and manufacturing surrounding the image of modern German design and luxury.

The book is organized into six thematic chapters—“Consumption,” “Objectivity,” “Capital,” “Production,” “Subjectivity,” and “Interiority”—that draw on Peter Behrens’s work for Allgemeine Electricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), the German Werkbund exhibitions, the Haus am Horn and the early Bauhaus, and Mies van der Rohe’s architectural interiors. In the first chapters, Schuldenfrei builds on Frederic J. Schwartz’s work on the German Werkbund and commodity culture, assessing Behrens’s window displays for AEG. Schuldenfrei also provides valuable insights into the design process of AEG’s products, noting that during his lifetime Behrens was not a brand unto himself: his name was not often associated with his designs in AEG displays or advertisements, despite his celebrated status in the German Werkbund and subsequent studies of modern German design that have foregrounded Behrens as a key figure. While not seeking to undermine Behrens’s stature in architecture and design history, Schuldenfrei instead stresses how modernist aesthetics were designed to give the effect of luxury—what she terms “aura.” Companies like AEG used this aura to market modernist designs to consumers. Scholars of the modern department store and consumerism will relate Schuldenfrei’s examples to other comparative studies such as Emily M. Orr’s recent book, Designing the Department Store: Display and Retail at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Janet Ward’s influential study, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (University of California Press, 2001).

A complement to Schuldenfrei and Jeffrey Saletnik’s Bauhaus Construct: Fashioning Identity, Discourse and Modernism (Routledge, 2009), the middle chapters recapitulate Schuldenfrei’s earlier analysis of luxury, production, and the irreproducibility of many familiar Bauhaus objects, such as Marianne Brandt’s 1924 tea infuser and Josef Hartwig’s 1923 chess set. Schuldenfrei argues that objects of purported everyday use made at the Bauhaus were often far from being financially accessible to a wider audience, and instead remained signifiers of elite culture and upper-class taste. The discussion of Bauhaus and AEG objects draws on a valuable analysis of cost and price structures, which are related in detail to relative exchange rates of today. The mass-produced products from AEG were indeed expensive items even at the time, showing that mass production did not always lead to affordable consumer prices.

The final chapters discuss the work of Mies van der Rohe and his use of luxurious materials, considering the argument that modernism was defined in many ways by its reliance on materials like steel, glass, and ceramics to reinforce aesthetic values. Schuldenfrei suggests that Mies’s use of materials underscores rarity and expense to assert different manifestations of luxury in his built projects. It is valuable to consider that certain materials––like onyx, travertine, and marble––are laden with luxe meaning. The author also usefully illustrates how these materials were part of a larger supply and distribution system, by reassessing their deployment in famous examples like the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona and the Villa Tugendhat in Brno.

Schuldenfrei adopts an ambitious theoretical framework that combines extensive primary and secondary research with many illustrations. However, most of the images will already be familiar to specialist readers. Schuldenfrei’s contribution lies in the reinterpretation of these sources. Her study shows the difficulties of representing the concerns and desires of everyday working-class people. Theorists and critics including Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Adolf Behne, and others act as the author’s primary illustrations of the broader discourse on working-class culture, dwelling, and modernism, but this ultimately presents an incomplete picture. A wider study of midrange and low-cost industrial design brands, sales figures, and retail strategies could provide more insight into popular consumer patterns and the extent to which modernist ideas were adopted or rejected in Germany on a broader scale. For example, Wolfgang von Wersin’s exhibitions on affordable product design and household goods at Munich’s Neue Sammlung in the early 1930s would have been a useful comparison to the author’s choice of retailer case studies and consumer prices. Exhibitions of inexpensive industrial design and interiors staged by the Austrian Werkbund in Vienna during the same period also provide insight into the question of affordability and the politics of taste in modern design in the German-speaking world. 

Schuldenfrei’s reassessment of German modernism and luxury, particularly the discussion of the Bauhaus, is worthwhile in light of how often students of design today encounter the Bauhaus as an idealized, utopian project oriented toward democratic design for a mass audience. However, her argument also calls to mind an earlier reconsideration of the Bauhaus: namely, Gillian Naylor’s The Bauhaus Reassessed: Sources and Design Theory (E. P. Dutton, 1985). Naylor’s emphasis on the Bauhaus pedagogical model in relation to craft, Expressionism, and artistic practice is worth considering in comparison to Schuldenfrei’s study, which tends to isolate individual objects from some of their original contexts in design education. Schuldenfrei’s book nevertheless remains a valuable addition to the extensive literature on the history of the Bauhaus and German design, and it raises questions about the essence of luxury and mass production that continue to plague many aspects of design practice, industry, and consumption today.

Michelle Jackson-Beckett
Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna