The Darmstadt artists’ colony was founded in West Germany in 1899 by Grand Duke
Ernst Ludwig von Hessen of Darmstadt, grandson of Queen Victoria and the last ruler of
the formerly independent state, which became part of the German Empire in 1871. Ernst
Ludwig was one of the most influential of the new patrons of contemporary architecture
and design movements in the early 20th century. He was familiar with the English Arts
and Crafts movement because of his frequent trips to England and his having already
commissioned Baillie Scott in 1897 to design furniture and interior decorations for the
dining and drawing rooms of his palace at Darmstadt. C.R.Ashbee was invited to design
the light fittings, and his Guild and School of Handicraft in London was asked to make
both furniture and fittings. The colony was a response to a memorandum prepared for the
parliament and important local people by Alexander Kock, proprietor of a local wallpaper
factory. He and others acknowledged the important role that the applied arts might play
in future economic development. Aware of English developments, the memorandum
included ideas for the development of homes for artists and ateliers for applied art. Seven
artists were invited to form the colony on the Matildehöhe, and they were to design and
direct the production of goods by other craftspeople and workshops. The outcomes were
published and promoted by Kock through his journals, Zeits chrift fü r Innendeko ration and Deutsche Kunst und Decoration, the latter a German
imitation of the English The Studio. Twenty-three artists worked there at various times from 1899
to 1914, when the venture ceased.
Parklike grounds (already containing a reservoir), the Russian Chapel, and a number
of villas were offered by Ernst Ludwig. The colony was to be a “living and working
world” and to form a public exhibition, Ein Dokument Deuts cher Kunst (A Document of German Art), to be held in
1901. The intention was to show the public a model style of home decoration in
individually designed artists’ houses. The artists—Hans Christiansen, Paul Bürck, Patriz
Huber, Josef Olbrich, Peter Behrens, Ludwig Habich, and Rudolf Bosselt—were given a
three-year contract and a housing subsidy, although they had to pay construction costs
themselves. Work started immediately, and the resulting villa suburb formed the main
part of the exhibition, creating an event in the field of architecture and interior decoration
that bore witness both to the individuality of the members and to the collective strength
of the colony. Olbrich organized the layout of the exhibition in 1901, designing most of
the buildings himself. Architecture included not only Olbrich’s Ernst-Ludwig-Haus, the
artistic center, and a theater but also various temporary structures and the artists’ houses
themselves. Writings of the artists reveal that they were concerned with aesthetic rather
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than functional considerations. No reference is made to machinery, mass production, or
cost-effectiveness in projects undertaken by the colony. In one of three articles on the
Darmstadt colony by W. Fred in The Studio, Behrens gave a cogent analysis of the aims of the Arts
and Crafts in Germany: “Architecture is the art of building, and comprises in its name
two ideas: the mastery of the practical and the art of the beautiful. There is always
something exhilarating in being able to combine in one word the two ideas—that of
practical utility and that of abstract beauty—which unfortunately have too often been
opposed to each other.” The architecture and design at the colony showed progressive
unification of the practical and the beautiful, going beyond the possibilities of artistic
hand production to the wider field of industry.
Built on a gradient, the two-story Ernst-Ludwig-Haus, a long, low, shedlike design
with unbroken walls, dominates the other buildings. Its principal feature is the omegashaped
central doorway, with richly painted and gilded stucco decoration, flanked by
Ludwig Habich’s colossal statues of Adam and Eve. The two bronze figures in the door
niches, goddesses of victory by Bosselt, harmonize well with Olbrich’s gold decoration
behind them. Internally, the upper story contained a central hall, intended for small
exhibitions. To the right and left, several colonists had two rooms each, placed one
behind the other, to provide useful, well-lit spaces. The lower story contained living
rooms for the bachelors along with the general fencing, gymnastic, and recreational
Grouped around the atelier were the private houses, which adhere to two basic types:
(1) a narrow design with large, pitched roofs and irregularly placed windows with small
panes, derived largely from English Domestic Revival work, and (2) those with flat,
veranda-like roofs, developed by Wagner and Hoffmann, that echo the simplicity of the
Italian villa. The Villa Habich is reminiscent of Hoffmann’s Villa Henneberg (1900) near
Vienna, with its emphasis on the square block of the house with larger windows, sudden
projection, and a flat roof extending far out over the walls. The Glückert II house is a
compromise between the two types.
The exterior and interior decoration witness the diversity and richness of Olbrich’s
vocabulary, in which he repeats linear border patterns and mold forms derived from
nature into stucco and plaster. All his designs provide interesting color harmonies and
demonstrate a simplification of form, tending toward geometry, but all bear the hallmark
of quality, craftsmanship, and respect for materials. The first story of Olbrich’s own
house had glazed tiles on the facade.
Behrens designed his own small villa, employing a compact plan. The exterior shows
the free interpretation of vernacular forms combined with an attempt at structural
rationalism that contrasts with the picturesqueness of Olbrich. He employed brick and
green terra-cotta tiles to invoke the vernacular of the Baltics, which he admired.
Internally, curvilinear echoes of Art Nouveau are outweighed by simplified forms that are
more in accordance with contemporary Viennese trends. The pavement running between
the artists’ houses is designed in a black-and-white linear geometric pattern, formed out
of small flat cobbles and serving to unite the individually designed villas.
The exhibition of 1901 was a financial failure, and the critical reception was mixed,
although it was recognized as an important point in the development of German design.
A less ambitious exhibition followed in 1904, responding to the criticism that objects
were too expensive and sometimes “eccentric.” Olbrich created a “group of three houses”
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representing average homes. Here, modest shapes, simple motifs, and plainer materials
recalled vernacular work.
The colony was represented at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, at Turin in 1902, and at
St. Louis in 1904. In 1907, Olbrich designed the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower) and
the Municipal Exhibition Halls as the crowning feature of the Mathildenhöhe site. The
motif of a five-fingered hand raised in benediction, with its asymmetrically placed
banded windows running around the corners, is thought to have influenced Gropius’
design for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition entry of 1922. Architects such as
Behrens demonstrated their talents in designing architecture, furniture, silver, jewelry,
glass, and porcelain. Behrens left the colony in 1903 and, as was the case of many others
who had begun their careers at Darmstadt, enjoyed national and international acclaim.
A final exhibition was organized at Darmstadt in 1914. Albin Müller, who took over
the artistic management after Olbrich’s death, designed new buildings and facilities
specifically for this purpose. These were destroyed in 1944.
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