Before it was shut down by the Nazis, the Bauhaus school was a veritable who's who of leading architects, artists and designers. But among household names like Mies van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, there are other names less likely to roll off peoples' lips. Wilhelm Wagenfeld is one such designer. The man behind one of the Bauhaus' most famous products is not nearly as well known as his extensive output.
The new exhibition "A Lasting Impression: Wilhelm Wagenfeld" seeks to give the designer the attention he deserves. Open to the public on Friday, his work is on show in an appropriate setting -- within the sleek modernist walls of the Bauhaus school in the German city of Dessau. Glass display cases house a wide range of his creations, chronicling his development from a silversmith to industrial designer, showing the work of a man who went from creating one-off artistic items to designing mass-produced lines for leading German firms including Braun, the kitchen supplies giant WMF and Lufthansa.
"This show is more than a retrospective," said Head of the Bauhaus Foundation Phillipp Oswalt, speaking at a press conference ahead of the exhibition opening. "Wagenfeld's work remains modern and continues to inspire and affect us. He was a man ahead of his time."
Walking around the exhibition, the idea of Wagenfeld as a visionary is confirmed by the fact that many of the objects seem strikingly familiar. Copycat versions of his vases, glass dome lampshades and household crockery have long since become household standards. "That's the butter dish from my mom's house," one journalist sniffed at the press viewing.
It was his ability to make simple, practical products which has made Wagenfeld's designs so enduring. Some items, such as his Max and Moritz salt and pepper shakers, designed in 1952, are still rolling off the conveyor belt today. Meanwhile the WG 24 light, a semi-circle glass lampshade atop a simple metal and glass stand, has become one of the most famous Bauhaus creations.
Laboratory Glass and Stainless Steel
Rather than creating expensive collectors' items, Wagenfeld made his name by making straight forward and practical designs for the average household. Through a contemporary lens it is hard to appreciate the stylistic jolt his approach would have represented in the 1920s, a time when consumers were used to fiddly and embellished styles.
But Wagenfeld's message slowly caught on. Part of his success came from his early appreciation of the importance of advertising and product placement. Trainee chefs and waitresses worked with his designs in training kitchens, a clever tactic which meant that they were subsequently more likely to buy the products for work or home.
Advertisements, meanwhile, sought to persuade consumers to buy his designs, often showing them in everyday familial settings, suggesting that despite their minimal lines, they were more homely than many assumed. "Everything tastes better from a Jena glass," enthused the slogan of a black-and-white advert from 1934, featuring the winning smile of a neatly dressed father and his two small children.
'Making' not 'Designing'
But it was not just the neat unfussiness of Wagenfeld's designs which shocked consumers of his day. His choice of materials also clashed with established tastes. Early on in his career he worked with laboratory glass, which he used to create thin plates, cups and other kitchen items. "At first people didn't want to have it on their tables," said Beate Manske, curator of the Dessau exhibition. "But Wagenfeld gave the material a light elegance and people began to use it."
A standout from his range of Jena glass items was a simple, delicate teapot, designed in 1931. Using the expertise of the Jena/Schott glassware company, he convincingly showed how the thin and resistant glass, traditionally used for test tubes and acid jars, could be turned into aesthetic kitchen items. The teapot is still manufactured today and sells for €130 ($185).
Despite his widespread acclaim both during the Bauhaus and post-war eras, Wagenfeld never referred to himself as a "designer," rather saying he "made" things. Instead of a fixation on design, he focused on customers' needs and ease of production. His straightforward stainless steel egg cups, for instance, are tipped upwards on the side. What looks like a decorative feature in fact enables busy kitchen staff to pick them up with one hand.
After World War II, Wagenfeld created a range of items in synthetic materials. One of the few colorful sections of the Dessau exhibition shows his plastic designs from the 1950s to the 1970s, including a lemon-yellow colander and plastic mustard pots. Many these items were produced for decades after they were first sketched on Wagenfeld's drawing board, showing their continued relevance. But such long-lasting success was not always the case. By far the most peculiar design on display is a so-called ladies make-up set "smoothie," a red and white electric face massager, designed to massage the skin smooth, an item which Wagenfeld created for the american market in 1955.
And the exhibition suggests that Wagenfeld was even "ahead of his time" within the context of the Bauhaus, an institution famed for its modern, taboo-busting approach. Wagenfeld's move away from handicrafts and towards mass production was emulated by others.
"In Weimar (site of the Bauhaus until 1925) he began trends which were then continued and taken up by other departments of the school," said Phillipp Oswalt. "He was very quick to embrace industrial mass production and create functional products, an approach which was new...Others followed his lead."
The exhibition runs from June to Oct. 30, 2011.