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Luxury and Modernism:
Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900–1933
Leslie Van Duzer

Robin Schuldenfrei
Princeton University Press

In Luxury and Modernism, Robin Schuldenfrei revisits the inconsistencies between modernism’s rhetoric and its accomplishments, offering a generous reassessment of its proponents’ proclivity for luxury. Drawing on the economic, social, and cultural histories of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, the author closely examines luxury in modernism in terms of space, material, technology, and psychology, proposing a reconsideration of the movement’s apparent failings. “Luxury embodies modernism’s critical shortcomings but was also employed toward constructive ends [. . .]. By repurposing the notion of luxury away from being solely a taint, a more nuanced understanding of the depth, complexity, and challenges of modernism as it was practiced, sold, and consumed comes to the fore” (5).

Through detailed analysis, Schuldenfrei presents the complex relationships between modern designers, industrialists, and consumers. The lead design protagonists in this volume, all members of the Deutsche Werkbund, had distinct affiliations with industry. Peter Behrens served AEG as an artistic consultant; Walter Gropius sought partnerships with manufacturers to industrialize the Bauhaus workshops and create a standard house type; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich designed luxury villas and showrooms for wealthy industrialists. While none of these partnerships successfully delivered on modernism’s fundamental promise to elevate culture by bringing affordable, technologically advanced, industrially manufactured products to the masses, Luxury and Modernism suggests modernism’s ambitions may have been realized by different means.

The book is organized in six chapters, each a case study of a complex relationship between makers and consumers. In each, the author goes beyond descriptions of the design and production of canonical modern products and buildings to include the histories of their promotion, display, and reception.

The opening chapter features Peter Behrens’s commission by AEG to create the company’s most public designs: luxury products and the factories that manufactured them, promotional materials and the showrooms that displayed them. While Behrens demonstratively succeeded in creating new forms in response to emerging technologies, he did so for very select objects. His luxury designs for electric tea kettles and fans catered to the norms and aspirations of the bourgeois elite, remaining entirely inaccessible to a general population as yet unable to electrify their homes. AEG and Behrens consciously chose quality over quantity production.

To the Werkbund, street-level display windows were an ideal venue for promoting quality products and good taste. Convinced by the value of these public showcases, the association established an educational initiative aimed at small business owners, supported the development of a new German Museum for Art in Trade and Industry, and opened a trade school for “display window decoration” (93). In stark contrast to the popular, over-stuffed, narrative-based displays in department stores, the Werkbund-approved windows promoted a new objectivity with their sober, architectonic displays. As part of the urban fabric, these shop windows were visually accessible to all, but the displays, like the products within them, appealed to an elite clientele.

Figure 2. German Werkbund, The Dwelling exhibition, Stuttgart 1927. Image Credit: Schuldenfrei, Robin. Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900-1933. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2018.

In 1923, Bauhaus director Gropius organized the construction of Haus am Horn, an unsuccessful attempt to design a standard house type. Lacking adequate funding from industry, showcasing new technologies the average person could not afford, and coming in grossly over budget, the model house was simply irreproducible. Once again, the incongruity between modernism’s ideals and its actual production was on display, only this time on an architectural scale.

The fourth case study describes Gropius’s failed efforts to transition the Bauhaus from its artisanal roots to the industrialized production of “standard types for practical commodities” (152). Belying Gropius’s concerted efforts was his personal predilection for luxury, evidenced by the selection of the Bauhaus’s most elite designs for the sales catalog—bourgeois objects of luxurious materials unsuitable for reproduction. Schuldenfrei offers the following as consolation: “Through their very failure as objects of reproduction and mass consumption, the products of the Bauhaus paradoxically retained both their authenticity and their aura” (156).

As the son of a stonemason determined to transcend his humble background, Mies shared Gropius’s penchant for luxury, embrace of technology, and appreciation for the unique. He left behind any pretense of democratic ideals when he and his associate Reich focused their attention on the design of extravagant villas and furnishings for wealthy German industrialists at the end of the 1920s. In the two chapters dedicated to these lavish residences, the author explores Mies’s interest in subjectivity, the aura of the authentic, and the privileged autonomy of the individual. In these chapters, Schuldenfrei’s definition of luxury stretches far beyond Mies’s material style or Reich’s sumptuous furnishings.

At the end of these six studies, the reader is left with a provocation. Schuldenfrei acknowledges the “top-down, elite-driven process, in which luxury and modernism were closely, and often inextricably, linked to each other” (25), but she offers that perhaps modernism’s predilection for luxury provided an alternative means of elevating German culture. Luxury is, after all, aspirational. If providing well-designed architecture and industrially produced objects for mass consumption was out of reach due to unfavorable economic conditions and the general public’s lack of culture, perhaps good taste could eventually trickle down. If so, one measure of modernism’s success might be the widespread embrace of a new aesthetic, one that presents the potential, if not the reality, of artist-industry collaboration.

Luxury and Modernism presents eloquent, well-researched, and courageous scholarship. Schuldenfrei walks a thin line successfully, repeating well-worn facts about canonical works already exhaustively examined while deftly repositioning their designers as public tastemakers. Her extremely thorough descriptions of these luxury products and interiors, as well as the contemporary habits of sales and consumption, are welcome, but at times the excessive details obscure the author’s nuanced position, one that oscillates expertly between critic and apologist. This elegant and substantial volume is not for the casual reader but for those interested in a more complex and controversial history of modernism. With her major contribution, Robin Schuldenfrei has given us much to reconsider.

Leslie Van Duzer is a Professor at the University of British Columbia. She has taught in a dozen architecture schools in North America, Europe, and Japan. She has authored four books—Villa Müller: A Work of Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe: Krefeld Villas (with Kent Kleinman), Adolf Loos: Works in the Czech Lands (with Maria Szadkowska and Dagmar Cernouskova) and House Shumiatcher—and is currently completing a monograph on the Tokyo-based practice, Atelier Nishikata. She co-edited Rudolf Arnheim: Revealing Vision (with Kleinman) and, most recently, seven monographs in the new West Coast Modern House series (with Sherry McKay and Chris Macdonald.)

How to Cite This: Van Duzer, Leslie. Review of Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900–1933 by Robin Schuldenfrei. JAE Online. November 22, 2019. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/review/luxury-and-modernism#/.