Image above: Hans Boettcher, Stadtarchiv Stuttgart Stuttgart, Germany
Stuttgart, 1927: as the architecture of the modernity era emerges, on a hill above the city the paths of two unusual men intersect: Walter Knoll and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Together, they begin their careers. And a friendship.
Overnight, a white blanket has covered Swabia. Mies van der Rohe looks out of the window – he likes the glittering snow. Indoors, in his office, there is less cause for joy: waiting for him are the countless jobs that a construction manager must deal with. The Taut brothers, Max and Bruno, want to know when they will finally be able to build their houses. He has just found out that the town planning council suddenly wants to build streets through the Estate. To make matters worse, the secretary from the “propaganda office” is piling on the pressure: when will Mies finally get around to writing the foreword to that exhibition catalog, which, after all, need only be very short? “Mercy me,” he might have muttered. “That will take some time.”
This is what a day in the life of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe might have looked like in Stuttgart in February 1927. In five months’ time, the Deutscher Werkbund’s exhibition “Die Wohnung” (“The Dwelling”) is supposed to open on the Killesberg – a hill to the north of the city. Mies van der Rohe has roped in the brightest and best architectural talent from across Europe, including Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, the Taut brothers and Le Corbusier. The roughly 30 apartments of the Weissenhof Estate will be the symbol, in brick and mortar, of the “Neues Bauen” movement. But no brick has yet been laid. Instead, Mies is having to wrangle with local politicians, officials and architects. As he leaves his office in the south-western district of Heslach at noon, he takes a deep breath. The air is crystal clear and the sun is shining. He is looking forward to the half-hour walk alongside the snowy forest up to the Hasenbergsteige. This is where he intends to meet a furniture maker, a proponent of modern living. He’s an energetic man with a good sense of humor to boot. Meeting Walter Knoll will be good for him.
Unfortunately, little is known about the meetings between Mies van der Rohe and Walter Knoll. But they must have gotten along well. Both loved geometric forms. They were both forward-thinking men. And both saw the Werkbund’s exhibition as a great opportunity. Walter Knoll furnished five apartments in Mies van der Rohe’s exhibition building – more than any other manufacturer. But what happened during their encounters? The two shared a naturally happy and carefree disposition. Even their trajectories in life are similar.
Methodical and visionary: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, star architect and exhibition manager, is considered as much of a genius as he was a bon vivant. Image: Mies van der Rohe: ullstein bild / ullstein bild via Getty Images
In work coat and evening collar: Walter Knoll, here as a 32-year-old man, has many talents – furniture manufacturer and brand visionary, entertainer, singer and dancer
Both men come from devout families of craftsmen, one from the staunchly Catholic Rhineland, the other from Pietistic Swabia. Mies van der Rohe is born Ludwig Mies. He grows up in a workshop in Aachen run by his father, a stonecutter, whose own father had worked marble before him. Walter Knoll’s grandfather was a shoemaker, and his father learned the tanning trade before opening a leather store in the center of Stuttgart. School life ends early for both Walter Knoll and Mies van der Rohe. As young men, they take to their heels. This is how they discover their talents and interest in art and philosophy, and how they meet their wives.
Flexible walls, versatile furniture
When Mies van der Rohe moves from Berlin to Stuttgart in 1926, he is forty years old. Walter Knoll is fi fty. The architect works in a humble office belonging to friends in south-west Stuttgart. In the front house there is a grocery store and on the first floor is a chicken coop. Walter Knoll lives a stone’s throw away in the imposing Villa Vollmöller. It belonged to Robert Vollmöller, one of the most important knitwear manufacturers in the world. Walter Knoll married his daughter, Maria. He probably invited Mies van der Rohe to the villa, who no doubt accepted with great pleasure.
The men almost certainly fell into conversation – about architecture, design, crafts, art and the new modernity movement. “The modern interior will break away from the traditional paradigm. We will now focus on making versatile furniture, without considering the broader décor.” This is how Walter Knoll puts it in the founding program of his company. They mingle, perhaps, with Walter Knoll’s friend and brother-in-law, Karl Gustav Vollmöller, a celebrated poet who is currently writing the script for “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich. And perhaps Walter’s sister-in-law Mathilde comes to visit – she is a modern painter who was taught by Henri Matisse and who later married the painter Hans Purmann, an Expressionist and also one of Matisse’s students. Mies van der Rohe may have sat on one of the curved upholstered chairs.
A modern relationship: an angular upholstered armchair by Walter Knoll next to a cantilever chair by Mies van der Rohe in one of his apartments. Image: Werner Gräff – Deutscher Werkbund (Hg.): Innenräume. Räume und Inneneinrichtungsgegenstände aus der Werkbundausstellung »Die Wohnung« – insbesondere aus den Bauten der städtischen Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, Stuttgart
He likes what Walter Knoll is saying. He is also looking for versatility and variability. He wants the apartments on the Killesberg to be open-plan; using movable room partitions, the tenants are to decide for themselves whether they want to use a space for sleeping or as a living room, or both. “For pity’s sake, make sure the place is big enough,” he says to one of his colleagues. “So you can walk around freely, and not just in a rigidly defined movement. We don’t yet know whether people will use it as we intend.” Walter Knoll talks of his “psychology of sitting” – about individual pieces of furniture that can be easily rearranged. They allow the user to shape the space themselves.
It was not an easy road to this concept, or to his own company. Originally, Walter Knoll was supposed to take over his father’s leather shop. But in his father’s eyes, he was a failure. He did badly in school, liked to go out, he was a bit dandyish, he danced and sang, and was always joking around. A charming scalawag. He was completely unlike his younger, ambitious brother Willy, who left school with a glittering track record and who presented himself as the perfect successor. For a while, both brothers try to run the business together but they are like chalk and cheese.
In the company of artists and intellectuals
Walter tries his luck in the USA. He lives there for several years from around 1900 and tries his hand at various things. He works in imports and exports, runs his own business, learns English, boxing, and even opera singing. He then returns to Germany and falls in love with Maria Vollmöller. He had already crossed her path as a 19-year-old. Thanks to Maria and her family, a world free of dogma unfolds before Walter Knoll – a social, liberal, modern world. The father is friends with Robert Bosch and with artists, adherents of the “Lebensreform” movement and bankers from all over Europe. Maria’s siblings paint and pen poetry, cite Ancient Greek classics in the original language, take part in car races, tinker with aircraft and shoot movies.
Mies van der Rohe has a similar experience, if less colorful. As a child, he helps in his father’s stone-cutter’s workshop; as a 15-year-old apprentice, he hauls bricks onto building sites; subsequently, he works for a plasterer. An architect discovers his talent for drawing and recommends him to an artist in Berlin. There, Mies designs his very first furniture and soon he will be allowed to build his first house. The contractor, a philosophy professor, takes a shine to the confident man with the striking facial features. He arouses Mies’s interest in art and philosophy, and invites him to evening gatherings in the newly completed house. It is here that Mies comes into contact with artists, collectors, the literati – and, soon enough, his wife as well.
No frills: récamière with a geometric design by Walter Knoll in the Weissenhof House by Hans Scharoun. Image: Werner Gräff – Deutscher Werkbund (Hg.): Innenräume. Räume und Inneneinrichtungsgegenstände aus der Werkbundausstellung »Die Wohnung« – insbesondere aus den Bauten der städtischen Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, Stuttgart
And so, both men step into new worlds – one in Stuttgart, the other in Berlin. They meet artists, intellectuals, businessmen and patrons. And, while on their separate paths, they find their purpose in life: as catalysts for international modernity.
Just like Russian Avant-Gardists and Dutch Constructivists, Mies van der Rohe calls for the abolition of mere decoration: “We reject all aesthetic speculation and all formalism.” He shows us what he meant by this from 1924 onward. Inflation is over, the Roaring Twenties have begun, and cities are investing in the construction of housing estates. Architects are seeking out new, light-filled homes and modern, lightweight furniture.
The launch of Walter Knoll’s company in 1925 goes without a hitch. He has a simple factory building constructed in Stuttgart-Feuerbach. Barely one year later, in 1926, dealers in thirty German cities are already selling his furniture, as well as three stores in Switzerland. Turnover doubles in the space of two years, reaching just under half a million marks. Coincidentally, the factory stands at the foot of the Killesberg – the hill on which the municipality is to build the Weissenhof Estate.
Mies van der Rohe probably has the odd prototype or two presented to him in the burgeoning factory. It would be reasonable for us to surmise that they then both ascend the Killesberg to inspect the building work. Spring 1927: the snow has long since melted and wild flowers, grass and fruit trees are in bloom on the hillsides. The beautiful view stretches south wards, down into the basin of the city center, and east wards into the curve of the Neckar Valley. The two men stand there in the middle of it all, in the mud.
Finally, in March, the first sods are turned – the groundbreaking ceremony has been postponed. Mies van der Rohe, the “Rhenish Hardhead,” as some people call him, was unfazed. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the artistic director. The site manager is the one responsible for the deadlines, he says. It’s his job to direct the masons, roofers and foremen, who cope remarkably well with the new materials – reinforced concrete, hollow blocks, reinforced bricks, plasterboards and plywood.
The Estate is an experiment. Architects from Germany, Holland, France, Belgium and Switzerland are drawn to it, not only to play around with different shapes, but also different building materials and statics. Foremost among them is a gangly man with horn-rimmed glasses. Approaching Mies, he gesticulates wildly with his pipe. Le Corbusier comes up with probably the most daring design.
The apartments are meant to be affordable, the roofs flat and the facades snow-white – such is Mies van der Rohe’s demand. But Le Corbusier insists on bright red, blue and lime-green rectangles. Inside, he breaks through the ceiling to create a maisonette with a continuous window and gallery. He counters Mies’s objections by declaring that he is an artist. It is no coincidence that he has adopted an artist’s name; he used to be called Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. Ludwig Mies has done the same: he has borrowed the “Rohe” from his mother’s maiden name and invented the connecting “van der”.
Extravagant exhibit: a chaise longue by Walter Knoll, organically rounded with unusually strong quilting, in the Adolf Rading exhibition house. Image: Werner Gräff – Deutscher Werkbund (Hg.): Innenräume. Räume und Inneneinrichtungsgegenstände aus der Werkbundausstellung »Die Wohnung« – insbesondere aus den Bauten der städtischen Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, Stuttgart
Forays into the night
Slowly but surely, Walter Knoll gets to know the architects on the Killesberg and discusses geometric reduction and new, elastic steel structures with them. Could these perhaps be extrapolated onto the architecture of a piece of furniture? Four more architects will go on to commission Walter Knoll to furnish their apartments: Ludwig Hilberseimer, Adolf Rading, Adolf Schneck and Hans Scharoun.
Stuttgart is booming. The streets are filled with the sounds of more and more car horns and the ringing of electric trams. Department stores open their doors, dozens of newspapers hang on the kiosks, and at night variety shows pull in the crowds. It’s a bit like Berlin, but smaller.
Walter Knoll probably takes some architects out on the town. It’s possible he takes Mies van der Rohe to the Excelsior, where high-spirited people dance the foxtrot and the Charleston and where Joachim Ringelnatz recites lewd poems in his sailor suit. Nearby, in the Friedrichsbau, the dancer Jospehine Baker will appear on stage in her banana skirt.
During their forays, the men pass the building sites of a new era. The Schocken department store by Erich Mendelsohn is emerging on Eberhardstrasse – the rounded glass facade becomes a showcase for “Neues Bauen.” Opposite, the 18-storey tower of the daily newspaper “Tagblatt” is springing up, the first reinforced concrete high-rise in Germany. Walter Knoll talks of the impression made on him by the skyscrapers in Manhattan. Mies van der Rohe mentions his lofty 20-storey ambition for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, with a continuous glass curtain.
However, just a few blocks away a bone of contention rears its ugly head: the central station by Paul Bonatz. Bonatz and his conservative colleagues railed against the Weissenhof project. They decried it as “inappropriate,” “formalistic” and “amateurish.”
Mies van der Rohe almost certainly takes this criticism personally, as he himself is not sure he is on the right track. In articles, he presents himself as a rebel, sets out his case against “meaningless jumbles of shapes” and welcomes the “mechanistic age.” But, in reality, he keeps his options open. Of the fourteen projects he has already realized, he built most for wealthy contractors in the traditional style with gabled roofs and window shutters.
The exhibition opens on July 23, 1927 and is a resounding success. Within the space of just two-and-a-half months, 500,000 people from all across Europe come to have a look. The Estate gives both men’s careers a tremendous boost. Walter Knoll then goes on to develop the Prodomo armchair, which uses springy steel bands to streamline the upholstery. He gets this idea patented: the innovative chairs are the first pieces of upholstered furniture to be made in the modern way. In 1929, he kits out the “Do X” with these chairs – the largest airplane in the world at the time with twelve engines – as well as the “Bremen” – the most advanced passenger liner of the time. In the same year, Mies van der Rohe celebrates success at the World Exhibition in Barcelona – the cubic glass pavilion with slender leather seats becomes an icon of modernity.
Today, over ninety years after they worked together in Stuttgart, the men cross each other’s paths once more. Just not in person this time. However, the Walter Knoll company is making sure that Mies van der Rohe’s concept of flowing space lives on in its furniture, such as The Farns and Living Landscape 755. What a friendship!
THE FUTURE AT WEISSENHOF
For more than ninety years, the art of living has been studied above the rooftops of Stuttgart. With furniture by Walter Knoll
Clear contours, a lavish use of glass, high energy efficiency and elegant furnishings: the B10 active house. Image: Zooey Braun, Stuttgart, Germany
A comfortable future: the Bao armchair, Bahari carpet and Oota Table. The electric Smart car awaits in the background. Image: Zooey Braun, Stuttgart, Germany
Stuttgart, Bruckmannweg 10: the world’s first active house, known as B 10, now stands across the way from the Mies van der Rohe building. It produces almost twice as much energy as it consumes. Its interior design proves that revolutionary, forwardthinking architecture can also be comfortable – thanks to furniture by Walter Knoll. Fitting out the B 10 active house marks a return to Weissenhof for the company. In 1927, Walter Knoll furnished nine prototype apartments; today it is once again the first choice among leading architects.
The modular bungalows by Stuttgart-based architect Werner Sobek are prime examples of his building style: geometrically pleasing, light-flooded, Inexpensive and eco-friendly. The B 10 was industrially prefabricated and erected by crane in two days. The front face is glazed in three vacuum-insulating layers. Walter Knoll furniture ensures that the 85 m2 area can serve equally well as either a comfortable office or a modern apartment: the Bao armchair, the Bahari carpet from the Legends of Carpets collection, the Oota Table and Liz chairs. Technology is behind the rest of the conveniences. A photovoltaic system supplies energy for heating, showering and lighting; it powers an electric Smart car, two e-bikes and the Weissenhof Museum in the Le Corbusier House next door. A computer, accessible via tablet and smartphone, controls electricity and ventilation. B 10 is transportable. And recyclable: wood, glass, aluminum, the textile facade covering – in the end, everything can be sorted by material.
Bungalow, garage, office and living space – multifunctionality with Liz chairs and a Lox Table. Image: Zooey Braun, Stuttgart, Germany
Text: Carsten Jasner