Lilly Reich was born in Berlin, Germany in the year 1885. In 1908 she put her embroidery training to use when she went to Vienna to work for the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), a visual arts production company of designers, artists, and architects. She returned to Berlin by 1911. There she began to design furniture and clothing. She also worked as a shop window decorator at this time. The following year she joined the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation, a group similar to the Vienna Workshop whose purpose was to help improve competitiveness of German companies in the global market. That year she designed a sample working-class flat in the Berlin Gewerkschaftshaus, or Trade Union House. It received much praise for the clarity and functionalism of the furnishings. She contributed work to the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne in 1914. In 1920 Lilly became the first woman elected to the governing board of the Deutscher Werkbund. From 1924 to 1926 she worked at the Messeamt, or Trade Fair Office, in Frankfurt. There, she was in charge of organizing and designing trade fairs.
It was there that she met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Deutscher Werkbund. This sparked a period of involvement of furniture for van der Rohe as the two collaborated on many projects together. In 1927 the two worked on “Die Wohnung” in Stuttgart for the Werkbund. She designed many interiors for this exhibition including “Wohnraum in Spiegelglas.” During her career she designed store windows, exhibition displays, and fashion. In 1929 she became the artistic director who was to be responsible for the German contribution to the Barcelona World Exposition, where van der Rohe designed his world-famous pavilion. This is where the famous Barcelona chair made its first appearance. This pavilion was considered the highlight of their design efforts. In 1932 Lilly was asked by van der Rohe to teach at the Bauhaus and direct the interior design workshop. The Bauhaus was closed shortly after in 1933 by the Nazis who saw their work as “degenerate art, probably influenced by Jews.” She taught at the Hochschule für bildende Künst after the Second World War, but not for long because she became ill and had to resign. She died a few years later in 1947 in Berlin.
Formative professional experience
Reich was born in Berlin. She started her career as a designer of textiles and women's clothes. This experience was to be formative for her - giving her a particular interest in contrasting textures and materials, as well as specific skills with regard to the use of textiles in furniture.
She worked in the studio of Josef Hoffmann in Vienna from 1908. Hoffmann was a celebrated modernist designer, responsible for designs such as the Kubus chair (1918), Cabinet (circa 1915), Koller (1911), and Broncia (1912) chairs.
In 1912 she joined the Deutscher Werkbund, a government sponsored organization dedicated to the promotion of German-made products and designs. This was to be a lasting passion and recurring theme in her career.
Making a name for herself
She opened her own studio in 1914 at the age of 29, quickly developing a good professional reputation. So good, in fact, that six years later in 1920 she was made the first woman director of the Deutsche Werkbund. It was her responsibility to plan and curate design exhibits hosted by the Werkbund and intended to promote German designers.
One of the exhibitions that she was responsible for took thousands of German designs to a show at the Museum of Arm in Newark, New Jersey. The show itself was poorly received, because in the years between the First and Second World Wars anything or anyone German was poorly received in the U.S. This was particularly true immediately before the Second World War. In spite of the inhospitable climate, the show had a profound effect on American design, and its influences may been seen in the work of U.S. designers after this date.
Lilly and Ludwig
Through her involvement with the Werkbund Reich, Lilly also met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1926 she moved from Frankfurt to Berlin to work with Mies. She was Van Der Rohe's personal and professional partner for 13 years from 1925 until his emigration to the U.S. in 1938. It is said that they were constant companions, working together on curating and implementing exhibitions for the Werkbund, as well as designing modern furniture as part of larger architectural commissions, such as the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929 and the Tugendhat House in Brno. Two of their best known modern furniture designs from this period are the Barcelona Chair and Brno Chair.
Albert Pheiffer, Vice President of Design and Management at Knoll, has been researching and lecturing on Reich for some time. He points out that:
"It became more than a coincidence that Mies's involvement and success in exhibition design began at the same time as his personal relationship with Reich."
"It is interesting to note that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich".
When Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus School of design and architecture in 1930, Lilly Reich joined him there as one of few female teachers on staff. Reich taught interior design and furniture design until the late 1930s.
The German born interior and product designer Lilly Reich was given some credit for her modernist designs 64 years after her death. The MoMa in NYC presented a series of discussion groups in 2010 on women who were artists of the Bauhaus period. Otherwise, she would still be barely mentioned as a footnote. Lilly Reich began her career in textile design which was the acceptable professional path for women designers during the early part of the twentieth century. She played an integral part during the Bauhaus movement in Dessau and Berlin in Germany and served on professional boards, such as the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). Lilly Reich managed her own interior design firm and was a faculty member at the Berlin University of Arts.
Lilly Reich collaborated and co-designed the Brno Chair, the famous Barcelona Chair, and the Barcelona Pavilion along with Mies van der Rohe on behalf of the German government for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona, Spain. The Barcelona Pavilion is considered to be a masterpiece of modern design, however, Lilly Reich is rarely mentioned in textbooks, nor given proper credit for her contributions. She also worked with Joseph Hoffman on the design of the Kubus armchair and sofa.
Lilly Reich traveled to the United States, England, and Austria to study and work with the designers of her time. She also curated exhibitions on behalf of her government.
The War Years
In 1938, just before the Second World War, Mies emigrated to the U.S.. Reich continued to manage his affairs in Germany, until her death. She visited him in the U.S. in September 1939, but did not stay, returning instead to Berlin.
Her studio was bombed in 1943 and she was sent to a forced labour organization where she remained until 1945. After her release at the end of the war, she was instrumental in the revival of the Deutsche Werkbund, but died in Berlin before its formal re-establishment in 1950.
- Lilly Reich by Albert Pfeiffer, Vice President of Design Management at Knoll (company)
- Biography from the Werkbundarkiv (German)
- Webpage of Lilly Reich organization.
- Biography from the Kettererkunst.