Overlooked: The Female Modernist Behind Iconic Bauhaus Designs

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Barcelona chair advertisement from the Knoll Archi
Barcelona chair advertisement from the Knoll Archive

In the first part of a new series focusing on overlooked designers, Milly Burroughs explores the life and legacy of German modernist Lilly Reich

The history of design is dominated by white men. In a new series titled Forgotten No More, Milly Burroughs shines a light on the influential but often criminally overlooked figures, who left an indelible impact on the field.

  1. Who are they? Lilly Reich
  2. When were they around? 1885-1947
  3. What did they do? Modernist designer and second female Bauhaus master
  4. What are their most celebrated designs? Barcelona chair, Brno chair, Weißenhof chair
  5. What was their impact? Lilly Reich’s largely uncredited collaborative work with architect and husband Ludwig Mies van der Rohe produced some of the most iconic pieces of furniture in design history

When it comes to overlooked designers and architects there are two main categories: those who never received recognition for the significance of their work, and those whose work is widely celebrated but whose names have been resigned to the shadows of their collaborators’ legacies. Modernist designer and Bauhaus master Lilly Reich falls into the latter camp. While you occasionally see Reich’s name tacked onto the end of credits citing architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the designer of instantly recognisable furniture pieces such as the Barcelona chair, the Brno chair and the sinuous Weißenhof chair, more often than not she goes entirely unmentioned. Meanwhile, many historians in the field have formed astoundingly convincing arguments to suggest that Reich was in fact the engineer of many of the ideas that shaped these pivotal works. Some even suggest that the Barcelona couch – still sold by Knoll, who credits the design only to Mies van der Rohe – was actually designed by Reich.

2019 marks the 100-year anniversary of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus school. While the architecture and design school is widely considered the most progressive in the modern era, many exhibitions and books are now dedicated to the “forgotten women” of the movement and it is increasingly apparent that the pivotal roles played by the likes of Reich, Anni Albers, Marianne Brandt and Gunta Stölzl have been buried among the legacies of their male counterparts and partners.

Reich met Mies van der Rohe in 1926 and collaborated closely with him on the design of a flat for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition held in Stuttgart in 1928. Following the overwhelming success of the pair’s work as artistic directors of the German section of the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona, Mies van der Rohe began to work on the design for the famed Tugendhat House in the Czech town of Brno, completed in 1930. The house, alongside the Barcelona Pavilion, is considered a monument of modern architecture and cemented Mies van der Rohe’s name in history. Despite its relentless receipt of academic and cultural acclaim, the credit for the interior design of the Tugendhat House, created in collaboration with Reich, is predominantly awarded solely to her husband. 

Unlike many of their male colleagues, Reich and Brandt refused to flee Germany as Nazi rule prevailed, signifiying the premature end of both careers. Writing to a friend in 1935, Reich admitted to struggling to find work. “I have had a few smaller jobs, but now again there is nothing,” she explained. “It is not a pretty situation, but we are so helpless to change it.” Following a debilitating illness, Reich died in 1947 at her home in Berlin, only two years after the end of World War Two. Prior to this, the designer had the great foresight to archive around 3,000 of her husband’s drawings and 900 of her own, hiding them in her friend Eduard Ludwig’s East German family home. Following many arguments and legal battles, and years after the death of his wife, Mies van der Rohe negotiated the release of this precious documentation from the Eastern Bloc in 1964, eventually donating them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, in a bittersweet turn of events, preserving a joint legacy that in reality only recognises his contributions.