European Architecture/Crafts Series
Deutscher Werkbund

German Work Federation/Labour League.

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AEG Turbine Factory (1908-9)
Berlin, Germany. Designed by
Peter Behrens, one of the founder
members of the Deutscher Werkbund.

Deutscher Werkbund (1907-33)
German Work Federation - Labour League


What is the Deutscher Werkbund?
Aims and Ideals
History and Development
First Werkbund Exhibition: Cologne 1914
1919-33: Exhibitions and Standardization of Design/Materials

For a short guide to terms
see: Architecture Glossary.

For details of art movements,
see: History of Art.
For dates of key events,
see: History of Art Timeline.

What is the Deutscher Werkbund?

Born out of a desire for greater efficiency in the crafts industry, better design for industry, and a more modern approach to architecture, the Deutscher Werkbund - German Labour League or German Work Federation - attracted several of the top modern artists and all the greatest architects in pre-war Germany, as well as industrialists and manufacturers. This state-sponsored mixture of art and industry, set up by Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), reflected the Werkbund's initial aim to improve the competitiveness of German industry in global markets. The extent of its interests was relected in its motto: "Vom Sofakissen zum Stadtebau" (from sofa cushions to urban construction). Like the Bauhaus design school, which opened a decade later, the Werkbund involved Germany's two most promising young designers, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), who would become hugely influential in 20th century architecture. The Werkbund was a strong supporter of the modernist concepts "Neues Wohnen" (New Living) and "Neues Bauen" (New Architecture), and made use of numerous publications to champion their aims. As well as "Mitteilungen des DWB" (Werkbund News), which appeared from 1915 to 1919, it published the monthly journal "Die Form" (1925-1934) which covered experimental design, typography and photography. (See also: Art Photographers).


By the end of the nineteenth century in Germany, the impact of rapid industrialization on national culture was a major topic of debate. (See also: German Art: 19th century.) The numerous Jugendstil craft workshops established towards the end of the century were founded on the belief that high-quality applied art (and also folk art) could improve the nation's quality of life, as well as its international economic standing. Such debates gathered momentum with the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund in Munich on 9th October 1907 by architect and statesman Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), the author of the three-volume "The English House" (1905), a study of the English Arts and Crafts movement. Other founders included political theorist Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919), and Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957), founder in 1897 of the Deutsche Werkstatte, a coalition of progressive crafts workshops. (The latter's full name was Vereinigte Werkstatten fur Kunst im Handwerk [United Workshops for Art in Handcrafts], originally Dresdner Werkstatten fur Handwerkskunst, then Deutsche Werkstatten fur Handwerkskunst and now Deutsche Werkstatten Hellerau.) The goal of the Deutscher Werkbund was "the improvement of professional work through the cooperation of art, industry and the crafts, through education, propaganda, and united attitudes to pertinent questions." Twelve craft firms and artists were invited to join, including many leading figures in Art Nouveau as well as progressive figures in the Munich Secession (1892), the Berlin Secession (1898) and the Vienna Secession, including Peter Behrens (1869-1940), Theodor Fischer (1862-1938), Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), Wilhelm Kreis (1873-1955), Max Laeuger, (1864-1952), Adelbert Niemeyer (1867-1932), Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), Bruno Paul (1874-1968), J.J. Scharvolgel, Paul Schultze-Naumburg (1869-1949) and Fritz Schumacher (1869-1947).




Like many workshops dedicated to decorative art, the Werkbund was loosely modelled on the British Arts and Crafts movement set up by William Morris (1834-96), especially the functional aspects that Muthesius praised in his book "The English House" (1904-5). He believed the way forward for German design lay in high-quality, machine-made products that were at once recognizably German and modern. His goal was "not only to change the German home and German house, but directly to influence the character of the generation. To assume leadership in the applied arts, to develop its best in freedom and to impose it on the world at the same time."

This belief in both the moral and economic power of art and design was also behind the thinking of nationalist politician Friedrich Naumann. He argued, in articles such as "Art in the Epoch of the Machine" (1904), that craft and industry must unite - to adapt design to machine production, and to cultivate both producers and consumers in this new aesthetic. Schmidt, the third founder member, represented, along with his brother-in-law Riemerschmid, the aspirations and ideas of the group on a practical level. Riemerschmid designed a line of simple furniture derived from vernacular styles that were suitable for machine production. This Maschinenmobel (machine furniture), mass-produced by the Deutsche Werkstatte, was one of the first examples of well-designed, inexpensive furniture.

History and Development

In the same year as the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund, Peter Behrens travelled to Berlin and was appointed artistic director of the firm AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft), a position he held until the outbreak of war in 1914. His role proved remarkable on a number of levels - the evolution of a house style for the company is a pioneering example of corporate identity, and the products designed by Behrens are inaugural examples of industrial design. His commission for AEG allowed him to make the transition from applied arts to industrial design, and from decoration to functionalism. The designs he produced for AEG graphics and products, inspired by machine forms, asserted industrial power as the new heroic labour of Germany. The monumental turbine factory constructed for AEG (1908-9) was the first German building in glass and steel. Its huge barn-like shape and temple-like front powerfully proclaimed that art and industry, rather than agriculture or religion, pointed the way to the future. For Behrens, form and function were of equal importance:

Don't think that even an engineer, when he buys a motor, takes it to bits in order to scrutinize it. Even he buys because of the external appearance. A motor ought to look like a birthday present.

From 1908 the Werkbund held annual conferences and published the results, first as pamphlets, later as influential yearbooks devoted to specific topics, such as "Art in Industry and Trade" (1913) and "Transport" (1914). These carried essays and illustrations of a variety of projects by members, including factories by Behrens, Hans Poelzig (1869-1936) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), later director of the Bauhaus design school; steamship interiors by Bruno Paul; designs for the Garden City of Hellerau by Heinrich Tessenow (1876-1950), Riemerschmid, Fischer, Schumacher and Muthesius; tram interiors by Alfred Grenander and applied arts by the Deutsche Werkstatte.

First Werkbund Exhibition: Cologne 1914

The first Werkbund exhibition was held in July 1914 in Cologne. An enormous festival celebrating German art and industry - for which Gropius designed the "Musterfabrik" (Model Factory) - it introduced the "New Architecture" and demonstrated the diversity of styles of its growing membership. Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde (1863-1957) designed the Werkbund Theatre in late Art Nouveau organic lines, and Muthesius, Hoffmann and Behrens designed buildings in a style of Neoclassical architecture. A fantastic pavilion of glass and steel for the German glass industry by Bruno Taut (1880-1938) heralded the Utopian Expressionist architecture of the 1920s. The office building of a model factory complex by Gropius and Adolf Meyer (1881-1929) included exposed spiral staircases encased in a glass skin, an architectural motif that would become a feature of many modern buildings. The exhibition also featured a transport hall with a railway sleeping car by Gropius and a railway dining-car designed by August Endell, which contained built-in floor and wall cupboards, a space-saving feature which would influence post-war apartment design.

German designers were also influenced by modernist designs from America, such as the "Prairie School" houses of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).


The Deutscher Werkbund expanded dramatically, from 491 members in 1908 to 1,972 in 1915 to almost 3,000 members in 1929, growing into a formidable coalition of artists, designers, architects, craftsmen, teachers, publicists and industrialists. Its members represented a wide variety of different types of art and commercial concerns, from craft workshops to industrial giants such as AEG, Krupp and Daimler. There were constant debates about whether design should be dictated by the needs of industry or individual artistic expression. In his address before the assembly at the 1914 exhibition, Muthesius proposed that the Werkbund advocate 'typical' objects and standardized design for industry. Van de Velde and others of the 'artists' group' - Behrens, Endell, Hermann Obrist (1862-1927), Gropius and Taut - interpreted this as an attack on artistic freedom, and forced Muthesius to withdraw his proposal.

1919-33: Exhibitions and Standardization of Design/Materials

Perhaps only the outbreak of World War I prevented the immediate implosion of the Werkbund. Its members spent the war working on propaganda exhibitions and the design of military graves, published in the Werkbund yearbook of 1916-17. After the Armistice, the Werkbund met in Stuttgart in 1919 to discuss its future and the debate over standardization - whether it should involve machine-led or artist-led design - instantly resurfaced. Poelzig was elected President after a speech in which he condemned industry and advocated regeneration through hand-craftsmanship. However, support for Poelzig's radical expressionist stance was short-lived, and in 1921 he was replaced as President by the more conciliatory Riemerschmid.

Throughout the 1920s the Werkbund moved further away from handicraft and Expressionism towards industry and functionalism. Members interests focused on the social aspects of architecture and urban planning. A number of new exhibitions were staged: the first, entitled "Form ohne Ornament" (Form without Ornaments) occurred in Berlin in 1924. This was followed in 1927, by a major Werkbund exhibition "Die Wohnung" (The Apartment) organized by Mies van der Rohe and held in Stuttgart to showcase the latest developments in domestic architecture and construction. A number of the participating architects - including Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe - made a point of using as much standardization (in materials and design) as possible. This approach allowed urban planners to construct housing units on a large scale while minimizing their unit-costs. A similar show, "Wohnung und Werkraum" (Home and Workplace), was staged in Breslau, in 1929. After this, in 1930, came the project "Das vorbildliche Serienerzeugnis" (The Ideal Series Product) in Hanover.

Note: The early designs of Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe became known as the International Style of modern architecture, and later spread to the United States, where it was developed by the Second Chicago School (1950-70).

The Deutscher Werkbund was also involved in the 1930 Paris Exposition of industrial design and building. This was organized by Walter Gropius, together with Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer. As in Stuttgart, the Werkbund's display - "Gemeinschaftsraume im Wohnhaus" (Recreation Rooms in Apartment Buildings) - focused on the increased convenience and reduced costs to be gained from employing standardized materials and design. In 1931 the Werkbund show "Der billige Gebrauchsgegenstand" (The Inexpensive Object of Utility) was staged in Berlin, and a year later the exhibition "Wohnbedarf" (Living Neccessities) was held in Stuttgart.

Like the Bauhaus design school, the Deutscher Werkbund did not survive the coming of the Nazis. It was disbanded in 1933. (See also Nazi art 1933-45.) However, it was revived in 1949 after World War II. In 2008, a joint meeting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Deutsche Werkbund was held in Berlin, under the joint auspices of the Bund Deutscher Grafik-Designer (Federation of German Graphic Designers, or BDG-Mitte), and the Verband Deutscher Industrie Designer (Association of German Industrial Designers, or VDID).


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