April 14: what went wrong, Peter Behrens?

2012/04/14 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1868 Peter Behrens was born.

For thirty-nine years he was involved in all manner of cool arsty things in Hamburg (where he was born), Düsseldorf, Karslruhe and Munich.  Part of a generation inspired by Art Hero William Morris, he painted, drew, made books and designed furniture with an Arts and Crafts manner adapted by ideals of the local Art Nouveau idiom–in Germany they called it Jugendstil.  Behrens (maybe we should say Berhrens 1.0) was one of Clio’s favorites.  He gathered up traditions and influences and interpreted them in a freewheeling but always delightful, humane, lovely way with traditional materials and forms fused with organic motifs.  Just look at this poster from 1898 and this chair from 1901 and this lamp from 1902 and this cookie jar from 1902 (are you kidding me, a Jugendstil cookie jar?!).  Wunderbar!  In the first years of the twentieth century, and with other Jugendstilers he designed the fabulous collection of buildings in the Darmstadt Artists Colony, including his lovely home and everything in it from the doorknobs to the hand towels (above).  (Even as great as his house is, it’s not even the best thing out there.)  Behrens appeared to be the complete package who could design the complete package, too.

And then.

In 1907 Behrens helped to found of the Deutscher Werkbund, a group of designers and industrialists with many goals shared with the earlier Arts and Crafts movement in Britain; indeed, they sent Hermann Muthesius to England for a kind of reconnoissance mission to see the fruits of Morris’ group in person.  But a significant difference between the nineteenth-century Brits and the early-twentieth-century Germans (and at least one American) was a desire to focus (one might say confine) a designer’s vision to the fabrication process during the design process, necessarily shaping (limiting) the object to fit industrial means and materials.  A rift opened up among group membership over the roles that individual artistic vision and industrial process should play in the design process, prompting Werkbund founder Henry van de Velde to abandon the project and cut a coup de fouet path back to his native Brussels in 1914.  By then, the Werkbund had taken an irreversible, hardline approach to integrating industry with design in which the former demanded an industrial, mechanistic character from the latter.  Behrens’ own work as artistic advisor to the AEG reveals the change.  Just look at this poster from 1907 and this fan from 1908 and this lamp from ca. 1920 and this ashtray from ca. 1910 (are you kidding me, an ashtray?)  Furchtbar!

You’re allowed to like these plain, industrial-looking things that have been knocked off at Ikea and Target (which really raises the question why a person would bid $900 on one of those lamps that bears no distinguishable line nor fingerprint of its designer, but that’s another issue).  Go ahead, prefer them to the earlier work that was so full of life and imagination and verve and delight.  But even ignoring aesthetic differences that might make some celebrate Behrens 2.0 over the original version (although Clio suspects that’s not a lot of her readership), no one can say that Behrens’ story ends well.  Still active–professionally and politically–in 1930s Germany, Behrens (d. 1940) fell in with a bad crowd–serious bullies–to whom he seems to have been very committed, even though the development of their architectural expression that thrilled their leader and overwhelmed the masses would be left to others.  Shouldda stayed in Darmstadt,  Peter.

Image: Behrens’ house in Darmstadt


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You are currently reading April 14: what went wrong, Peter Behrens? at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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