form 282

Modernism in Frankfurt

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Translation: Emily J. McGuffin

Granted that Karl Peter Röhl also gets called Hans Peter Röhl, that some of the dating is wishful thinking and does not represent academic research and the Nazi Party membership of some of the people involved is sometimes mentioned, sometimes ignored; granted the minor unfortunate mistakes and sloppiness which have long been standard for many design exhibitions at the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts.

Pleasing and honest, by contrast, is the statement by a curator of the Frankfurt show, museum director Matthias Wagner K, that they began too late in collecting examples of design and that, given the situation in the market, this can only be compensated to a quite limited degree – so that loan exhibits are a necessity in presenting this subject, which until now has received only fragmentary treatment, with all the omissions and vanities connected therewith.


Let us begin with the content: the subject is the product culture in Frankfurt between the two world wars – park benches and garden plants, city street lighting and new table lamps, chairs and modular furniture, posters and lettering, music and the increasing importance of radio. All these things had typically one thing in common at the time: the adjective “new”. So we have the new photographers; so we have Ernst May, the head of the City Planning Department, making everything new; a new font is called Futura; and the new Adler limousine, looks somewhat old, compared say with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car. The people who created the exhibition have also gone in for the “new” in a big way and place the start and end of the New Frankfurt development no longer in the period 1925–1930, with its own stimuli and long-term effects, but place the development of the Frankfurt Trade Fair & Exhibition Centre at the start and do not deign to stop with the lights designed in the mid-1930s; thus a radio-gramophone manufactured by Braun in 1939 also finds a place here. True, the influence of the Frankfurt Trade Fair, particularly through the work of the justly appreciated Werkbund Association, is certainly worth considering, and chronologies are bound to skip interrelated content at the edges, but to end with Braun equipment six years after the period which it selected itself is due more to a preoccupation on the part of the Frankfurt Museum than any historical logic. Similar strictures apply to the packs of Kaiser-Idell lights with their variants; they needed something three-dimensional. It is not just here that the show fails, but – given the known material – it is here that the failure becomes truly obvious and (it is the same with the examples of commercial art) leads not to a collection, not to a concentration of ideas or exhibits, but to a hotchpotch, an arbitrary muddle. Thought is free, yes; but when a curator, taking the modular furniture of Franz Schuster, thinks of IKEA, then she has simply not thought enough. For IKEA has nothing to do with variability; it is all about producing a set design; it has nothing to do with structures; it is essentially about something unalterable and fixed. The way that chairs are arranged as exhibits is irritating, too; some of the individual items form abrupt opposites, some show merely variants. Did New Frankfurt really draw so much from itself, was it really so obsessed with wood and Thonet’s steam-bending techniques? It certainly was not, but no proper selection has been made here; things have merely been scavenged. Or how otherwise can it be explained that the Erich Dieckmann chairs, which were designed in Weimar in the mid-1920s and produced in great quantities in the Frankfurt workshops for the unemployed – for the Freier Deutsche Hochstift, for instance – are missing and are quite different in quality from Weimar small-scale production? A further irritation is the absence of steel tubing, probably the most innovative furniture material of the period. Then of course Walter Schul[t]z produced the Palmengarten chair on runners; but at this exhibition – no, nothing doing!


Much the same applies to the examples of commercial art. The graphic artist Albert Fuß is spelt on and off, in accordance with contemporary usage, “Fuss”, but an indication that this is to do with fashions in lettering (Expressionism or New Typography) is lacking, nor any mention of the Societäts publishing house, for which Fuß designed at first in an expressive, later in an objective, and even later in a coarsened and traditional style, and which was closely linked with the Frankfurter Zeitung. It would also be useful to have an explanation about the only poster in the exhibition by Kurt Schwitters – that it was an attempt to create a new form of lettering, using new phonetic symbols and ligatures. The captions at knee-height, by the way, make the exhibition rooms into a sort of gymnastics hall, unless you trust to your own knowledge. That can actually be a definite advantage, for in this way you need not notice that the curators were unable to deduce, from the signature R. E. on the cover of a sheet-music collection of Paul Hindermith’s, that the initials refer to the late-expressionist painter Reinhold Ewald of Hanau, with whom the composer was acquainted.


A perfect match with the exhibition, to which a show on the building of the New Frankfurt housing development at the German Museum of Architecture will be attached, is the accompanying book, which leaves out many of the exhibits and ignores authors external to the museum. This ensures that the limited view of the creators replaces the “captive gaze” (“Der gefesselte Blick”), a book title of 1930. You can see this dust cover both in the exhibition and in the accompanying book, but with the add-on of the reprint publisher Lars Müller from 1996. It doesn’t matter: you can still see 1930 in the caption, but the bibliography proceeds to invent the year as 1999 and the place of publication as Princeton instead of Baden near Zurich. Of course there is no index; that would have required care: instead the painter Max Burchartz (spelt wrong) is made a designer (p. 88), in total contrast to his colleagues Willi Baumeister and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, who are allowed to remain artists. The crisis in non-commercial art around 1924, which – consequent upon the introduction of the Rentenmark – entailed the loss of whole markets and led Burchartz, Walter Dexel, César Domela or Herbert Bayer to turn to commercial art – this is not mentioned. The same applies to the title design for the Werkbund magazine Die Form, created by Walter Dexel and frequently depicted; instead, only the much earlier design by the Bauhaus collaborator Joost Schmidt is mentioned without alternating photographs, nor is it reproduced. The curators do not mention the typofilm of those days, an example of which, on a Dexel Form title page, shows the development of the telephone, but – according to many reviews in newspapers and on radio – they have done some great research. So great that, on a picture of the Bauhaus metal workshop (catalogue, p. 129), they mention László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Dell, but not Gerhard Vallentin, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Otto Rittweger (front row) and Marianne Brandt, Josef Knau, Max Krajewski and Hans Przyrembel (rear), though they are in the picture too, which the firm of Tecnolumen knows perfectly well and can be found in their latest magazine TL1. To compensate, the protagonists of New Frankfurt are inked in red, as if imitating the bromoil highgrade printing technique of 1900.

Thus “Modernism in Frankfurt”, hovering between Frankfurt Fair and the needs of the masses, substitutes mere juxtaposition for any sort of common ground. When in 1930, for instance, the architect, author and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer writes in the Frankfurter Zeitung of the threatened middle class, the actual supports of New Frankfurt, that this housing development with its “few inhabitable square metres, not expanded by the radio, [...] corresponds precisely to the narrow lives of this class”, these few words establish a connection between architecture, product, media, politics and economy. This is exactly what the exhibition and accompanying book fail to do.

Jörg Stürzebecher is an author and lives in Frankfurt/Main. He has written monographs for example on Hans Leistikow, Richard Paul Lohse and Anton Stankowski. In form 281 he recently wrote about the exhibition “Serious Play. Design in Mid-century America”.


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