Robin Schuldenfrei's Luxury and Modernism is its own modernist luxury object. The silver block capitals of the book's title, embossed into the surface of its defiantly jacketless, off-white woven cloth cover, suggest the glint of a sleek chromed column against a textured travertine wall, or a tubular steel chair resting on a plush—and impractical—natural wool carpet. Inside, the book's endpapers, mimicking slabs of richly veined marble, perpetuate the paradox of sumptuous austerity. So does the flyleaf of dark, bottomless teal, as well as a lavish two-page photograph showing the interior of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, with its expanses of transparent glass, its opulent white leather-and-chrome Barcelona chairs, and its dividing wall of solid, book-matched red-gold onyx.
Schuldenfrei proposes luxury—visual and material, but also social, cultural, and economic—as a new, yet historically embedded framework for reinterpreting the formative period of German modernism from 1900 to 1933, the creators and creations of which have been equally deified and demonized in the scholarship of architecture and design ever since. Her contention for modernism as luxury prompts her to interrogate the underlying conditions that produced this relationship and to propose a new historical reading of modernism inseparable from luxurious materials, things, and practices. This original approach to well-trodden territory poses complex questions about the definition(s) of “luxury,” the nature of modernism, and what these intersections might ultimately reveal about lived experience in the modern period, not simply for the elite with their fluffy white rugs but also, at least to some extent, for the servants who kept them that way.
Considering modernism as luxury enables Schuldenfrei to investigate German modernism's material manifestations, but also its broader social, cultural, and economic implications on fresh terms. The book's introduction, presenting key issues in original yet accessible ways, and confronting modernism's compelling rhetoric with its less-known, more-conflicted lived realities, should be a required text for graduate courses on modern design, architecture, and related topics.
Between its creamy cotton covers, Luxury and Modernism gathers, synthesizes, and further problematizes many critical reassessments of modernism in thematic chapters organized by six concepts pivotal to period discourses on architecture and design: consumption, objectivity, capital, production, subjectivity, and interiority. By examining the activities and products of four primary players—the architects Peter Behrens and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German Werkbund (the organization of artists, architects, designers, industrialists, retailers, educators, and many other professionals with a stake in the modernization of Germany's material culture and built environment), and the Bauhaus—each chapter agglomerates luxury's modernist definition through its particular network of socioeconomic and cultural-aesthetic concerns.
“Consumption” opens the book by focusing on Peter Behrens's canonical designs for the corporate identity of the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft's (AEG, the German equivalent of General Electric). Schuldenfrei presents electricity—and the technology that housed and delivered it—as luxury. She proposes Behrens's primary achievements with AEG as forging new connections between modernist aesthetics and consumer desire, as well as between industrial products and the notion of luxury. The question of what these modernist aesthetics actually were (in theory and/or in practice) is introduced here in relationship to the German term Sachlichkeit—straightforwardness, matter-of-factness, or “objectivity.” Throughout the book, Schuldenfrei offers various English approximations for Sachlichkeit, but more frequently she defines it (or declines to) by example, describing an object or space simply as sachlich. A more nuanced and historically informed definition of this key term (employed as early as the 1890s) would have enriched this chapter while setting the stage for discussions of Sachlichkeit in subsequent chapters.1 A strength of this chapter (and the book overall) is its insightful and sensitive analysis of the liminal architecture of the showroom and shopwindow in conjunction with the new industrial products inhabiting these shallow, hybrid spaces. Schuldenfrei thus demonstrates that the scholarship of architecture and that of design are inextricable during this period.
“Objectivity: The Werkbund Display Window and Architecture's Object” proposes the shopwindow, with its sachlich objects, as a new space of exclusive luxury. Schuldenfrei here defines luxury as “elegant attrition”—a provocative counter to typical associations of luxury with excess. However, this productive new definition has the unfortunate side effect of reifying Sachlichkeit as “spare” and “stripped down.” The possibilities of Sachlichkeit as simultaneously “honest,” “authentic,” or actualizing correspondences between the product's purpose, its form, and its presentation for consumption are not sufficiently investigated, and so the puzzle of how Kauflust (desire to buy) was sparked in the modern consumer through a sachlich or “honest” display of industrial goods remains largely unexplored. Drawing on critiques from a multitude of Werkbund affiliates, this chapter conveys the organization's presence and influence not just within debates on design and cultural aesthetics, but in its power to shape German consumer capitalism at street level—a welcome addition to existing scholarship.2 Schuldenfrei's brief introduction of distinctive cultural players as simply “Werkbund leaders” or “Werkbund members,” however, homogenizes the reader's perception of the Werkbund, making the organization appear more monolithic and culturally unilateral than prior works have shown.3
“Capital” and “Production,” the book's Bauhaus chapters, offer valuable correctives to the school's sticky mythology (initiated by its founder, Walter Gropius). These chapters take up and embellish the book's leitmotif: the discrepancies and tensions between modernism's progressive, egalitarian rhetoric and its frequently luxurious, exclusive, and bourgeois manifestations. Particularly useful is Schuldenfrei's revelation that the modest-looking, flat-roofed 1923 model Haus am Horn, with its cutting-edge technologies and materials, was perceived at the time of its construction as utterly luxurious—its amenities and the lifestyle they implied out of reach for all but affluent Germans. “Production” weaves Walter Benjamin's landmark essay of 1935–36 “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” into an account of the Bauhaus's attempts to reproduce its houseware designs through collaborations with industry during the 1920s. This integration of Benjamin's pivotal text—typically discussed in relation to fine art and its attendant “kitsch” rather than in relation to design—with the aims and failures of the Bauhaus is revelatory for both. The problem of the gap between the Bauhaus's utopian dreams of egalitarianism and its design of expensive products unfit for mass manufacture, available to and desired by the cultured few, is not new; however, Schuldenfrei effectively rewrites Bauhaus history by asserting that these products were neither innovative nor progressive in themselves, but rather enduring staples of the bourgeois lifestyle.
The final chapters, “Subjectivity” and “Interiority,” explore the materiality and exclusivity of Mies's interiors, examining them as sites of seclusion from modern urban life and of intimate contact with rarefied, luxury materials that served as a means of transformation for inhabitants. With effective recourse to biographical material as well as little-known anecdotes about well-known commissions, the book's culminating section warms up modernism's stereotypically cold functionalism, like sunlight setting the monolithic yet translucent onyx wall at Mies's Tugendhat House aglow. Schuldenfrei portrays Mies's domestic spaces as oases of individual autonomy placed at a safe remove from the masses. Enticing descriptions of natural and industrial materials and the interior spaces they construct make a seemingly effortless case for this “other” Mies—and other modernism. Although Schuldenfrei distinguishes Mies from his architectural predecessors and contemporaries in principle, some more direct visual comparisons (perhaps with the domestic architecture of Adolf Loos, who also privileged sumptuous materials, privacy, and the autonomy of the dwelling subject) might have further strengthened her case. In these “Mies” chapters, technology and consumer products cede their constructive, architectural power to materials. Completing the book with definitions of luxury (and modernism) as both rare material and coveted retreat from mass culture, Schuldenfrei amplifies the book's steady drumbeat of “economy,” quoting Mies in 1926: “Now there is only economy. It dominates everything, politics and life” (250, n. 102).4
Luxury and Modernism could be criticized for its near avoidance of politics in the treatment of a nation that underwent almost continual upheavals between 1900 and 1933. Some discussion of what became of the Tugendhats' exclusive, expensive retreat during the Third Reich, for instance, or the fact that the promotion and proliferation of modernist-styled consumer goods did not wait for World War II to end, but began under the Nazis as an insidious form of propaganda, could have enriched the author's socioeconomic arguments.5 But despite these reservations, there is an appeal—and a logic—to following the money. What is luxury today, after all, if not the power to avail ourselves of the finest and the best, to surround ourselves and seclude ourselves with it?
For a foundational discussion of Sachlichkeit, see Harry Francis Mallgrave, “From Realism to Sachlichkeit: The Polemics of Architectural Modernity in the 1890s,” in Otto Wagner: Reflections on the Raiment of Modernity, ed. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Santa Monica, Calif.: Getty Center for the History of Arts and the Humanities, 1993), 281–321. For an overview, see Freyja Hartzell, “Delight in Sachlichkeit: Object as Subject in German Design, Architecture, and Art,” German Quarterly 92, no. 2 (Spring 2019), 256–59.
On cultural aesthetics, see Mark Jarzombek, “The ‘Kunstgewerbe,’ the ‘Werkbund,’ and the Aesthetics of Culture in the Wilhelmine Period,” JSAH 53, no. 1 (Mar. 1994), 7–19; John Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics, and the German State, 1890–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
See Joan Campbell, The German Werkbund: The Politics of Reform in the Applied Arts (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978); Frederic J. Schwartz, The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).
Schuldenfrei cites Mies's manuscript for an illustrated lecture dated 17 March 1926.
For a discussion of the Nazi regime's promotion of modern design and its aesthetics, see Paul Betts, The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).