Lilly Reich. Designer. Architect. Hero.

Updated: Oct 27, 2020


Never heard of Lilly Reich before? Neither had I before researching this blog, so shame on me. Lilly was the only woman included in Philip Johnson's ground breaking show at MoMA in 1932, introducing what we now call Modernism (but was then called the International Style) to America. But the exhibit did more than introduce modernism to the US, it defined the style for the world, and most importantly who got to be included in this very elite club. But more on this exhibit (and Philip Johnson) later, this post belongs to Lilly.



Lilly got her start working in the studio of Joseph Hoffman in Vienna at the turn of the century. By 1911 she had already founded her very successful studio for interior design, decorative art and fashion in Berlin. She went on to become the first female board member of the National German Association of Craftsman, known as the Deutscher Werkbund, and was the director of the German entries for the Barcelona World's Fair in 1929. It was here that her collaboration, (romantic as well as professional) with Mies Van der Rohe began. She is widely acknowledged with collaborating on, if not wholly designing, the famous furniture designed for the Barcelona Pavilion.

Lilly went on to collaborate on many of Mies' most famous projects, designing the furniture for the Tugendhat house and even Philip Johnson's own apartment in New York in 1930. That same year when Mies became the director of the bauhaus , Lilly went with him, becoming the director of interior design in 1932. Her tenure was rife with division as some students felt she got her position due to her romantic relationship with Mies', rather than on her own merit. Additionally she and Mies were caught between a rock and a hard place, as they placated the Nazi regime in an effort to keep the school afloat which enraged the politically active student body. In 1933 the faculty voted unanimously to dissolve the school. due to economic and political diffilculties. Although no longer romantically involved by the mid-thirties, Lilly and Mies continued to work together on various projects for the German government until war became imminent in the late thirties. In 1938, Mies received a teaching opportunity in the US, and emigrated to America ditching Lilly. She visited him in Chicago in 1939, at the Illinois Institue of Techonology but she didn't stay. She returned to an increasingly dangerous Berlin where she remained throughout the war, safeguarding Mies' drawings and archives from the Nazi’s and then Allied bombing. Although she claimed it was her choice to return to Germany to maintain their business and defend their shared copyrights, one can't help but wonder why Mies never offered to help her escape . As Matilda McQuaid puts it diplomatically in her catalogue on Lilly Reich, " The question of why he did not take Reich with him has never been satisfactorily answered."

Lily Reich died in 1947 at the age of 62. According to my recent coversation with famed architect Robert Stern, Mies van der Rohe never forgave himself for allowing her to remain in Germany. Contrary to popular belief, Lilly Reich was not Jewish, which allowed her to stay in Germany throughout the war. Although she did not sign the Aufruf der Kultureschaffenden in 1934, in which many of the artistic elite, including Mies vand er Rohe, declared their loyalty to Hitler, she did approve the Nazification of the Deutscher Werkbund and participated in the regime's propoganda exhibitions. During the war, when there was little to no work, she found employment within the office of a bauhaus student who worked for Nazi architect Albert Speer. (1) Eventually her career was all but halted, as the Nazis frowned upon women having careers outside of education and women were discouraged from any sort of public life at all.

Like many women, her contributions to design and architecture were overlooked for decades.The combination of her early death soon after the war and losing much of her archive when her studio was destroyed in 1943 made it easier for her contributions to be forgotten and dismissed. However, in 1996 curator Matilda McQuaid at the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a major retrospective of her work and scholars have begun the arduous process of trying to authenticate her contributions (when most of her letters and drawings were destroyed). The Mies van der Rohe foundation launched the Lilly Reich Grant for Equality in Architecture in 2019, to "deepen the knowledge and dissemination of this essential figure in the history of modern architecture." Architectural historian Christiane Lange notes that Mies van der Rohe did not develope any furniture before or after his partnership with Lilly Reich. In 1948, one year after her death, Mies van der Rohe granted Florence Knoll the exclusive rights to re-produce the furniture he and Lilly collaborated on, such as the Barcelona suite and the Tugedhat suite. (Coincidence? I don't think so) This collection is still highly sought after today.

Thirsty for More? An Apple Jack Sidecar, is the perfect accompaniement to the life and work of Lilly Reich. Get the recipe for this classic cocktail here.

Sources/Recommended Reading

1. Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rossler "bauhaus women :a global perspective" p.187