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Christiane Lange was born, as it were, with the inside track on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The art historian and author of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Lilly Reich: Furniture and Interiors (Hatje Cantz) is the great-granddaughter of Hermann Lange, the German textile magnate and art collector who commissioned multiple Mies van der Rohe projects for his family and business. “To speak of Mies’ achievement without the Langes would be like speaking of Michelangelo without the Medicis,” wrote Elaine S. Hochmann in Architects of Fortune in 1989.
“Historically, that’s a bit over the top,” says the fourth-generation Lange, who lives in Krefeld, Germany. “The social structure was different. Mies and Lange were on the same level as powerful people.”
Nevertheless, the Medici comparison points to the critical role Lange played in Mies van der Rohe’s output. Between 1927 and 1949, there were a total of eight projects (not all realized) in the works between the duo and, after Lange’s death in 1942, the Lange family. Many of the projects involved the designer Lilly Reich—who had both a personal and professional relationship with Mies van der Rohe—and there were also five Lange commissions with Reich alone.
Thanks to the Lange family, Krefeld deserves a stop on any Mies van der Rohe pilgrimage. The Lange House is there, along with the neighboring Esters House, built for Lange’s friend and business partner, Joseph Esters. And there is the dye works for Verein Deutscher Seidenwebereien AG, also known as Verseidag, or United Silk-Weaving Mills Corp., the textile conglomerate where Lange was chairman.
Lange House itself has long been inhabited by art rather than the author’s forbearers. In 1955, the family made it available as an exhibition space for contemporary art and, in 1968, Lange’s son and Christiane Lange’s grandfather, Ulrich, gave the house to Krefeld under the condition that contemporary art be presented there for 99 years. But it was never Lange’s collection on display in his former domicile-turned-museum. His was a collection rich with modernist masterpieces of his day, such as Potsdamer Platz by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 21—which Lange loaned to Mies van der Rohe to hang in the house the architect designed for the 1931 Berlin Building Exhibition.
Mies van der Rohe and Reich began working with Lange in 1927, when they created the Café Samt und Seide (Velvet and Silk Café) for the Association of German silk weavers. “I think it’s possibly the best thing I saw during the entire research,” Christiane Lange says of this trade fair booth extraordinaire for a women’s 1927 fashion fair in Berlin. “It’s almost a room installation.”
About 9,000 square feet in size, the space was hung with sheets of velvet and silk hanging down like wall segments from tubular steel rods suspended at different heights. There was a raised gallery and, depending on the perspective, the cafe presented a variety of textile surfaces and colors. It was further furnished with the MR 10 and MR 20 tubular steel cantilever chairs Mies van der Rohe had just designed along with his tubular steel tables.
While the residential Lange and Esters structures were being built (from 1927 to 1930), Mies van der Rohe and Reich designed a second presentation for the silk association at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, where the architect also designed the German pavilion. They were also at work on the interiors for the apartment of Lange’s daughter and her husband in Berlin, and it is this furniture, along with the pieces designed for Lange House, that form the core of Christiane Lange’s furniture catalogue raisonné, which covers the years from 1928 to 1938.
As important as Mies van der Rohe’s furniture design was—the Barcelona chair alone is enough to ensure he maintains a kingly status in interior design circles—his repertoire is surprisingly small. While he did design furniture in his earlier, more classic phase, the pieces we tend to identify as signature Mies van der Rohe fall within the short period between 1926 and 1931. “After that, he just varied his own designs. It’s a small repertoire and much, like the wood pieces, never went into serial production,” notes the 46-year-old Lange.
As for Reich, it’s never been exactly clear what role the designer played during her close years with Mies van der Rohe from 1926 to 1939. Her influence has generally been relegated to matters of fabrics and colors, but Reich was an independent designer in her own right and the only female creator of a series of tubular steel furniture, not to mention a teacher at the Bauhaus. Moreover, her time with Mies van der Rohe coincides almost exactly with the period of his most important furniture designs.
Lange says that, in conversations with her family, the names Mies van der Rohe and Reich were always mentioned in the same breath. “I didn’t have the impression that she just helped out, and that was why I was interested to research it more.” Lange submitted drawings and plans for the interiors of a variety of key Mies van der Rohe projects to forensic handwriting analysts.
The results? Lange writes, “It follows that through to the end of 1930, Lilly Reich participated in most of Mies’ projects that involved requests for interior designs or trade fair and exhibition structures. Her activity was not limited to consultation.” The analysis proved Reich made interior design contributions to the planning of both Lange House and Esters House. She had a much greater role than previously assumed in the planning of Tugendhat House in Brno in the Czech Republic (she was involved in the design of 12 pieces of furniture) and participated in designs for the Crous apartment in Berlin and Philip Johnson’s New York apartment.
More significant still is Lange’s argument that Reich is the author of the iconic daybed manufactured today by Knoll under the name of Mies van der Rohe. This is not on the basis of handwriting analysis, but rather “what we call a perfect record. It’s published. It’s shown,” Lange declares. “In 1933, Werner Gräff published a collection of “good design. There were six or seven pieces by Mies, seven or so by Reich, pieces from Breuer, all those guys. And in there, under Number 8, you have this daybed and it says designed by Lilly Reich. Now Gräff was a good friend of Mies and Reich, so we don’t have to discuss if Gräff might have been wrong. It’s not likely.”
Lange herself, who still lives in Krefeld with her family, does not live with any Mies van der Rohe or Reich furniture. “I would if I had it. I think it’s perfect. But I wouldn’t spend the money on it,” she says. “Actually, I have very little furniture. I need space for us to live and I like good furniture. But not a lot. Not more than I need.”