Reich, Lilly (1885–1947)

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Reich, Lilly (1885–1947)

German designer and architect who collaborated with the renowned Mies van der Rohe and was a significant creative force in her own right. Born in Berlin, Germany, on June 16, 1885; died in Berlin on December 11, 1947.

Began career as a designer of textiles and women's apparel; directed exhibitions of the influential Deutscher Werkbund, becoming the first woman member of its board of directors; extensively influenced the work of Mies van der Rohe (1920s–1930s), playing a crucial role in designing furniture (the Barcelona Chair) and the interiors of the German pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition (1929); has begun to emerge from his shadow.

Born in Berlin in 1885, Lilly Reich received additional inspiration for her already abundant talents in 1908, when she studied with Joseph Hoffmann in Vienna. There, at his famous Wiener Werkstätte, a group of artists and artisans believed that even in modern times a fusion of beauty and appropriate design could be achieved in fabrics, jewelry, and furniture. Upon her return to Berlin, her career flourished as she moved from being a designer of textiles and women's apparel, one of the few fields then open to women, into other areas of design. In 1912, she became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund (DW), an organization emphasizing the uniquely German aspects of design but clearly influenced by such foreign precursors as the Arts and Crafts movement in England and Austria's Wiener Werkstätte. Even before joining the DW, Reich had been commissioned to design the interior finishing and furnishing of a Youth Center in Charlottenburg. In 1914, she not only helped to organize a DW exhibition in Cologne but was also one of the designers of the section titled "Haus der Frau" (House of Woman). By 1915, her professional reputation was such that she supervised a DW fashion show in Berlin.

At the start of World War I, Reich converted her designer atelier into a dressmaker's shop, which it would remain for the duration of the conflict. By 1920, she had resumed her prewar interests, working as the artistic director of the fashion craft exhibition held in Berlin in February of that year. In October, Reich became the first woman to be elected a member of the DW board of directors, an unprecedented achievement for the time in view of the lingering prejudice that women's capacities in the arts were constitutionally less than those of men.

In 1924, Reich first met the already famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). Within a short time, they had become both professional collaborators and constant companions, a relationship that would end only when he emigrated to the United States in 1938. A consummate professional like Mies, Reich worked from the beginning of their collaboration in the subordinate role that had been the norm for women in the pre-1914 world of her youth, letting him provide the overall concepts of a project while she worked to fill in the details and refinements.

Once the Mies-Reich collaboration began in earnest around the year 1925, critics began to write with ever more enthusiasm about the quality of his exhibitions. It appears to have been more than a coincidence that Mies' successes in exhibition designs can be dated to the years that he and Reich were artistic and personal partners. These successes included the pathbreaking German pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. Reich's input into the design of tubular-steel furniture, for which Mies has traditionally been given credit, was significant if not indeed crucial. Ludwig Glaeser, curator of an exhibition of Mies' furniture given at New York's Museum of Modern Art, has shown that important refinements to the famous tubular-steel side chair are attributable to Reich. She continually explored the visual as well as the tactile play of contrasts between textured surfaces and polished metal. Several scholars have noted that Mies did not fully develop any contemporary furniture in a successful manner either before or after his collaboration with Reich. Such landmarks in the history of modern design as the "Barcelona Chair" and the furniture for the Tugendhat house in Brünn/Brno, Czechoslovakia, should be reinterpreted in light of the fact that Reich's artistic contribution to these and other major works of Mies van der Rohe was a significant one.

In 1932, Reich followed Mies to Dessau, where he had become director of the world-famous design school, the Bauhaus. She accepted an appointment as the director of the Bauhaus' weaving studio and workshop of interior design, but this was a time in German history when elegant and original designs were overshadowed by violence in the streets and the imminent seizure of power by Adolf Hitler's Nazi movement. Not being Jewish and having generally avoided involvement in radical politics, neither Reich nor Mies believed themselves to be threatened by the Nazis, and when Hitler established his dictatorship over the German Reich in 1933, both decided to remain, at least for the time being. Reich participated in the DW meeting that voted unanimously to conform to the new "German path" of the National Socialist regime, based on purging the nation of "Jewish-Bolshevik," "degenerate," and other allegedly alien cultural influences. Over the next few years, both she and Mies were able to co-exist with the Nazis by concentrating on refining architectural and furniture concepts dating back to the heyday of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.

By 1937, however, Nazi pressure to conform to an increasingly narrow concept of acceptable norms of design had increased significantly for both Reich and Mies van der Rohe. Although they had been commissioned to participate in a Reich Exposition of the German Textile and Garment Industry, scheduled for Berlin in March and April 1937, only a few weeks before the opening their commissions were revoked. On the other hand, Reich was permitted to participate in the German textile industry exhibit at the Paris Exposition that ran from May 24 through November 26, 1937. Realizing that the situation was deteriorating, Mies visited the United States in 1937 to investigate his opportunities for continuing his career there. In 1938, he relocated permanently in Chicago, becoming director of the architectural department of the Armour Institute (renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1940). In September 1939, with World War II already underway, Reich visited Mies in the United States, but although she made clear her desire to stay, he did little to persuade her to remain. The two would never meet again.

Reich managed to return to Berlin, maintaining a correspondence with Mies that was as much about managing his business affairs in Germany as it was personal. Even as bombs rained down on Berlin, Reich continued to design furniture, including a built-in cabinet for a record player and the furnishings for a corporate conference room. But normal life became increasingly difficult to maintain, and in 1943 Reich's studio on Berlin's Genthiner Strasse was destroyed in an air raid. To escape the deadly bombardments, she moved to the town of Zittau, then, with Berlin in ruins, she returned to the destroyed German capital. As early as June 1945, Reich participated in meetings of architects and designers making plans for a revival of the Deutscher Werkbund in post-Nazi Germany. She began working as an architect, and was commissioned by Hans Scharoun to remodel houses. In August 1945, she wrote to her lawyer: "I have to get back to work, if only so as to exist financially. Our family has become very, very poor, but I do hope that my profession will give me the chance of finding satisfactory employment." This opportunity never presented itself to Reich, whose health collapsed. After a long illness, she died in Berlin on December 11, 1947.


Da Costa Meyer, E. "Cruel Metonymies: Lilly Reich's Designs for the 1937 World's Fair," in New German Critique. No. 76. Winter 1999, pp. 161–189.

Dietsch, Deborah K. "Lilly Reich in Her Own Right at MoMa," in Architecture. Vol. 85, no. 3. March 1996, p. 35.

Filler, Martin. "Late-Blooming Lilly," in House Beautiful. Vol. 138, no. 3. March 1996, pp. 90, 92.

Hochman, Elaine S. Architects of Fortune: Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich. NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Lotz, Wilhelm. "Die Halle II auf der Bauausstellung," in Zeitschrift für gestaltende Arbeit. Vol. 6, no. 7. July 15, 1931, pp. 241–249.

McQuaid, Matilda. Lilly Reich: Designer and Architect. NY: Museum of Modern Art-Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Ourousssoff, N. "Lilly Reich," in Artforum. Vol. 35, no. 1. September 1996, pp. 113–114.

Pile, John F. Dictionary of 20th-Century Design. Reprint ed. NY: Da Capo Press, 1994.

"Die Wohnung unserer Zeit," in Zeitschrift für gestaltende Arbeit. Vol. 6, no. 7. July 15, 1931, pp. 249–270.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia