Recognized as a distinct group on the occasion of the Third German Exhibition of
Applied Art in Dresden in 1906, the Deutscher Werkbund (German Arts and Crafts
Society) was an association of artists, architects, industrialists, and merchants contending
with the revolutionary changes in the economic, social, and cultural fabric of 19thcentury
Europe and America. Founders of the Werkbund included Berlin architect
Hermann Muthesius; Friedrich Naumann, author and Arbeitskommis s ar (Director of Work) for the Berlin
“industrial combine” Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft (AEG); and Karl Schmidt,
director of the Dresdner Werkstätten für Handwerkskunst (Dresden Workshop for
Manual Art). Muthesius and Naumann authored two books that provided much of the
Werkbund’s platform: Muthesius’s Das Englische Haus (1904; The English House), a critical overview of
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what he perceived as an ideal model for a native craft culture, and Naumann’s Die Kunst im Mas chinenzeitalter (1906;
Art in the Epoch of the Machine), a treatise on the role of craft and industrial production.
Initial membership of the Werkbund included 12 architects and 12 industrial firms.
Architects included such important figures as Peter Behrens, Theodor Fischer, Josef
Hoffmann, J.M.Olbrich, Bruno Paul, and Paul Schultze-Naumburg; associated firms
included both associations and traditional firms, such as Peter Bruckmann and Söhne,
Kunstdruckerei Kunstlerbund Karlsruhe, and the Wiener Werkstätte. Yet the Deutscher
Werkbund was not only a recognized organization but also a coalescence of myriad
points of view into a movement—a movement that continues to resonate across the full
array of contemporary design disciplines.
With the industrial revolution, the traditional roles of art and architecture—modes of
cultural production that had been heretofore understood as institutionalized extensions of
state and economic power—were increasingly called into question. Gottfried Semper, a
19th-century Dresden architect, teacher, and political exile, wrote two books on the
influence of sociopolitical conditions on style that were to become seminal works for
members of the Deutscher Werkbund: Wis s ens chaft, Industrie und Kunst (1852; Science, Industry and Art), a treatise
examining industrial production and mass consumption on the entire field of applied art
and architecture, and Der Stil in den technis chen und tekton is chen Künsten oder praktis che Äs thetik (1860–63; Style in Industrial and Structural Arts or
Practical Aesthetics). Coupled with contemporary scientific, economic, and industrial
developments, Semper’s writings—publications that were themselves influenced by
anthropology and the natural sciences—provided much of the impetus for a rethinking
the role of art and architecture in modern German society during the 19th and 20th
centuries. Accordingly, members of the Deutscher Werkbund recognized that the shifting
attitudes toward the arts and crafts were not merely based on stylistic motivations but
were the result of a more generalized critique of cultural production and its place within
society. Thus, individuals associated with the Werkbund recognized the social
responsibility of the artist and architect. This led to the Werkbund’s acknowledgment (in
the footsteps of 19th-century English theorists Augustus Welby Pugin, William Morris,
and John Ruskin) of the significance, indeed power, of a coherent, exemplary range of
industrial and consumer products on the world stage.
Germany (a loose federation of duchies and nation-states until 1866) had long suffered
from the perception that its art and architecture exposed a general ignorance of tasteful
“culture.” Although Germany was traditionally recognized for the manufacture of
efficient, practical, and cost-effective goods and products (most notably its instruments of
war), these products were usually criticized—often rightfully—as being of inferior design
quality. The Werkbund sought to correct this perception, if not reality, by seeking to
broadly inculcate a seamless marriage between economy, form, and artistic taste. This
new vision—as a practice and an idea—was referred to by the term Zweckkunst, a word that
translates literally as “functional art.” As a new approach to design, the application of
principles derived from Zweckkunst would better not only consumer products for use by the
Germans themselves but also competitive products for export purposes. In promoting the
nation’s manufactured goods, the Werkbund also sought to articulate a fundamental
revision of the nation’s Kultur (culture). Germany was to be perceived no longer as a
militarist—if efficient—nation devoid of the cultural élan of the rest of Europe but as a
participating, sophisticated equal on the world stage. Thus, the strength, wealth, and spirit
(in accordance with Semper, among others) was implicitly, if not explicitly, rendered by
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the products that it produced. (It should be noted that this faith in domestic products was
not specific to Germany but exemplified a more general trend throughout Europe and the
Americas whereby capitalist economic models for industrial production and economic
development were increasingly seen as extensions of national culture.)
In the 1910s, Walter Gropius, who, with fellow German architect Adolf Meyer,
advanced some of the newer techniques and materials in their architectural work of the
period, expressed the need for Germany’s advance of the arts and architecture as key to
its general economic development. In so doing, Gropius also extended the Werkbund’s
vision of a vernacular aesthetic bearing the true spirit of German Kultur: “Compared to other
European countries, Germany has a clear lead in the aesthetics of factory building.”
Stating that America was the “motherland of industry,” Gropius pointed to the industrial
architecture of the Americas, “whose majesty outdoes even the best German work of this
order. The grain silos of Canada and South America, the coal bunkers of the leading
railroads and the newest work halls of the North American industrial trusts, can bear
comparison, in their overwhelming monumental power, with the buildings of ancient
Egypt.” These “humane and aesthetic sensibilities” (Banham, 1980, 80) were not
completely in line with all members of the Werkbund, in particular Hermann Muthesius,
the architect who would become the de facto spokesman of the Deutscher Werkbund for
a period of time, setting the stage for the Werkbund’s internal divisions.
Documents and activities of the Werkbund serve to chronicle the emergence and
subsequent development of the organization’s approach to the allied arts and architecture,
including the inherent conflicts of the Werkbund’s position. In 1907, Muthesius
published his “Aims of the Werkbund” on behalf of the society. His earlier reports on
British domestic architecture (1904–07), showcasing the advances of the English Arts
and Crafts movement for his German audience, along with his advo cacy of engineering
and standardization in projects such as the Eiffel Tower, station halls, and bicycle wheels,
had already lent Muthesius notoriety, if not credibility, among his peers. In “Aims of the
Werkbund,” Muthesius proposes what may be regarded as a “call to arms” for artists,
architects, and their associates, an argument that he supports with the suggestion that
cultural production has not enjoined the revolutionary changes of the day and that it is not
only the social but also the spiritual responsibility of his compatriots to embrace change.
Indeed, Muthesius not only emphasized the material and technical problems confronted
by his contemporaries but also heralded a “spiritual purpose” for the arts and architecture,
a purpose that extended to the economy as a whole—what Frederic Schwarz (1996)
refers to as the pursuit of a “spiritualized economy” (75). Accordingly, architectural
culture “remains the true index of a nation’s culture as a whole…without a total respect
for form, culture is unthinkable, and formlessness is synonymous with lack of culture.
Form is a higher spiritual need” (Conrads, 27). In addition, Muthesius saw his project for
the arts and architecture as a logical expression of Germany’s vocation, a nation that
enjoyed, according to Muthesius, its “reputation for the most strict and exact organisation
in her businesses, heavy industry, and state institutions of any country in the world.” For
Muthesius, the will to “pure Form” (elaborated as Zweckkunst, the synthesis of form and function)
was an extension of the nation’s “military discipline” and, consequently, a manifestation
of its inners te Wesen (inner being).
Seeking to counter Muthesius’ arguments in “Aims of the Werkbund,” the Belgian
architect Henry van de Velde joined Muthesius in propounding what became the
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internally contradictory document “Werkbund Theses and Antitheses”—irreconcilable
differences that both architects expressed publicly during the proceedings of the
Werkbund Congress of 1914. Whereas Muthesius proclaimed “concentration and
standardization as the aims of Werkbund design” (a statement implicitly supporting the
collective project of the design arts, including architecture), his colleague, van de Velde,
defined the essential nature of the argument as a struggle between two opposing ideals:
“Type ( Typsierung) versus Individuality.” Although it is true that van de Velde was espousing what
was already a rear-guard position by suggesting that artists are first and foremost
“creative individualists,” the argument did not end with the imminent success of a
standardized economy. Dispensing with any attempt at dialectical fusion, both architects
wrote several axioms supporting their stances regarding standardization and creative
freedom. Presented on the occasion of the first great exhibition of the Deutscher
Werkbund in Cologne in July 1914, the document, coupled with the ideologically diverse
designs for the exhibition (as in Peter Behrens’s Neoclassicism versus Gropius and
Meyer’s model office building and factory, Faguswerk), continued to affect discussions
surrounding cultural production and arts and design education well into the future. It
should be noted, however, that both Muthesius and van de Velde maintained a belief in
the spiritual nature of cultural production, but Muthesius sought a universal set of values,
reflected by a dominance of “good taste.” It is also significant that Gropius, founder of
the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar in 1919—a program that, not incidentally, was housed in
the building where van de Velde had directed his own state-funded School of Arts and
Crafts—partook in the discussions surrounding the aims and directions of the Werkbund.
These same ideological differences would have a bearing on the formulation and
development of Gropius’s Bauhaus pedagogical programs as well.
The Deutscher Werkbund Austellung (Exhibition) of 1927 in Stuttgart, also referred to
as the Weissenhofsiedlung Stuttgart, exhibited built prototypes of experimental housing.
The exhibit, including houses and apartments designed by an international array of
architects (Le Corbusier, Mart Stam, J.J.P.Oud, Mies van der Rohe, Hans Scharoun, and
Gropius, among others), represented the maturity of the Werkbund’s vision. The 1927
exhibition underlined the transition of the Deutscher Werkbund from an organization to a
movement, a movement no longer confined to Germany but international in scope.
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