Design History: Deutscher Werkbund

The Deutscher Werkbund was a movement formed by patriotic sentiments to ask the age old question “How do we find balance between industrialisation and art ?” Though the Werkbund declined in it’s later years due to shifting goals, the questions it asked still permeate into how we design today.


Founded in 1907, Munich Germany. The Werkbund was formed by artist and industrialist alike who felt thatGerman Culture was being threatened by the soulless path of industrialisation that country had been treading upon up till that point. Though previous movements such as the Arts and Craft movement and the Jugenstile had expressed similar sentiments, these movements were focused more on how they could go against the system. They focused on breaking away from industrialisation by producing works and products that were filled instead with personality and lifet. This method however was seen as inefficient as the works created by the arts and craft movement were too elaborate (takes too much time to make) and were too costly and this did not meet the needs of the common people. Thus the artist and industrialist (which includes workers, architects, designers, manufacturers and even politicians) decided that a new movement was needed to solve the problem that came with the efficiency and wealth of mass production without compromising on its benefits.A meeting was held in Munich October 6th and 7th, 1907 chaired by J.J Scharvogel, a director of a Ceramics factory and with Theodore Fischer, a Professor in Architecture as the first president. This meeting strove to form a union that understood the importance of mechanisation but recognises the materialism and rationalism that came with it, thus the Werkbund as we know it was formed . The Werkbund most importantly, asked how they could reintegrate art into german industrialisation, find a balance between the two and raise the quality of products as a whole.


As with most artistic movements, there are a handful that would be considered the “founding fathers”. The Werkbund is no different. The Werkbund however is more of a union of workers and artist an thus every member who attended the first meeting ,and many more afterwards , are to be considered as founding fathers. Thus has a significantly more founding members than most design movements. In this essay however, I will be focusing three significant figures whose views greatly shaped the Werkbund’s design ethos.

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The first of the three would be Hermann  Muthesisus. An architect by trade(also an author,and diplomat), he is heralded as the founder of the Deutscher Werkbund as most of his views are woven into the Werkbund design philosophy. He had a tumultuous reputation throughout his work life. Most notably however, before joining the Werkbund, he  worked in an embassy in England. Using his position, he established contacts with notable artist within the country at that time and learnt immensely from  the prevailing art movements then. With this knowledge, he strove to reform the art and design scene back in his home country as he felt that the current form of industrialisation was damaging the German culture. He however  faced resistance. He even avoided the innitial Werkbund meeting for he feared the negative connotations that would be attached to the budding group because of his reputation. He strove for a method that would allow the movement to act morally and at the same time restore Germany’s reputation on the world market. Thus he advocated  for the designers to respect the innate qualities of the materials being used and placed emphasis on function while reducing emphasis on sentimentality, artificiality and excessive ornamentation. In short, he valued design where form follows function. Muthesius also distrusted  artistic individualism as he felt that the future was to be heralded by not one genius but by a collective of people working together and thus strove to have the Werkbund move as a cohesive unit.


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The second member would be Friedrich Naumann. Although Hermann Muthesius’ beliefs set the Werkbund’s mission and goal, it was  Friedrich Naumann (who used his position as a politician and an ex-pastor) who gave the movement an organisational structure and greatly increase the influence of the reform movement by establishing many important contacts. Friedrich Naumann believed greatly in the economic power that art held and thus strove to increase the quality of products that Germany held as he believed that it would firstly increase the value of labour and thus increase the worker’s status. Secondly, he knew that it would increase Germany’s  economic power in the world stage and thus worked with the Werkbund. Naumann’s presence in the Werkbund proved that it was union not just for workers and artist, but a movement that was for all and that it held the interest of Germany as a whole.


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Last on the list would be Henry Van der Velde who represented the artists in the Werkbund. Painter, architect and interior designer by trade, he was an artist was also one of the founders of the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium and one of the key influences of the Jugenstile movement in Germany. Van der Velde viewed himself as a radical reformer of the arts scene and strove to end the social isolation faced by artists and strove to reintegrate them into the industrialised society. While he was the head of the Weimer academy of the Arts, he made strides to establish connections between art students and manufacturers. With this reintegration of artist into the society, he hoped to improve the aesthetic of both craft and product. Van der Velde viewed himself as a spiritual father of the Werkbund. Although he caused the movement many a complications, ( stating that the other founders attribute their ideas to him and he had also causeda split between the artists that backed him and the industrialist that backed Hermann Muthesus), Van der Velde was still a key figure that affected the Werkbund’s philosophy. Van der Velde believed that only through artist who are given the freedom to explore, would the Werkbund change, grow and expand into the future.

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Through the philosophies of these three very different people and the many others of the Werkbund, the movement created designs that were at that point of time, revolutionary. According to the Werkbund Archive, Museum of things “ the movement was was aimed at promoting modern, functional design in industrial products, architecture and environments.Quality, sensitivity to materials, objectivity, functionalism and durability were the guiding principles of the movement.” The designs also seem t place an importance on the use of simple geometric shapes to create more complex designs.


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These qualities can perhaps be best seen through Peter Brehen’s revolutionary AEG turbine hall. According to the University of Chicago’s dictionary of modern architecture, the hall was designed by embracing the technologies and modernity of that time. This culminated in heavy masonry that was structurally unnecessary and massive corners and bands that had no load bearing function.

Although the Werkbund declined in the later years of its life due to many reasons, such as ; the rift between the followers of Vander Velde and the followers of Muthesius ; the movement losing sight of it’s original goals ( instead pandering to the upper eicholons) ; and the war itself, it is undeniable that the Werkbund has affected the way we think about design today. The strides made by the Werkbund arguably could be said culminated in the Bahaus movement who took home and refined to it’s peak, the philosophy of “Form follows function” and design through geometric shapes. The Werkbund was a movement formed not just by artist nor industrialist but it was a movement formed through the love that Germans had for their nation, simply by asking “How can we find balance between art and industrialisation .” Which is a question that we still ask today. During my presentation, Professor Ash asked my opinion on the matter whether 50/50 was really the best. I still stand by my answer, that is ideally, from the industry’s stand point, a 50/50 balance would be ideal, the best of both world. However as an artist and academic, I find that it is only when we play with this numbers and explore, maybe shifting it to 40/50, or 10/90 even, just to see what happens, would we learn and break new grounds in design.


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