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A Designer You Should Know: Peter Behrens

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 10:49 AM | Anonymous

Written by Rolf Achilles, an art and architecture historian with a special interest in Chicago and its community of artists/craftsmen. Rolf was the founding curator of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier and the curator of the current installation of windows in the Macy’s Pedway.

Peter Behrens should be better known. He was arguably the most influential architect and industrial designer in pre-World War II Germany. 

First, some biographical facts: Behrens (1868–1940) attended Gymnasium (middle/high school) at Christianeum Hamburg from 1877 until Easter 1882. He then studied painting in his native Hamburg and Düsseldorf and Karlsruhe, from 1886 to 1889. He is best known for his woodcut, Der Kuss (The Kiss), published in the periodical PAN in 1898. This woodcut is currently on display in the exhibition PAN: Prints of Avant-Garde Europe, 1895-1900 at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Chicago.

Der Kuss breaks with traditional imagery and is one of the best known German prints of this era. It is a colored woodcut and Behrens's only Jugenstil print. It was published in PAN, IV, vol.2, 1898.

In 1899, Peter Behrens was invited to Darmstadt by Ernst Ludwig II, reigning Grand Duke of Hesse, where he became the second member of the new Darmstadt Artists' Colony. In the colony, Behrens turned to architecture and built his first house. He designed all the interiors, including furniture, towels, paintings, pottery, etc. The house received widespread critical attention. In 1903, Behrens was named director of the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of applied arts) in Düsseldorf, where he implemented successful reforms, developing new ways of teaching design. 

In 1907, he and Hermann Muthesius, Theodor Fischer, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Bruno Paul, Richard Riemerschmid, Fritz Schumacher, and others, plus twelve companies, were founding members of the Deutscher Werkbund (German artists organization). With its focus on better design, the Deutsche Werkbund continues to be active. 

At much the same time, he was designing the Turbine Hall of the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG; general electric company) in Berlin. The turbine hall is now considered an iconic building of the 20th century. 

AEG factory, Berlin, 1907-09. Photo by the author, Rolf Achilles.

Like his house in Darmstadt, his work for AEG was a Gesamtkunstwerk––a "whole artwork." Here he included all aspects of corporate design, including the hall itself, the typefaces for the stationary, and the clocks and electric tea kettles that AEG manufactured.

AEG Advertisement for Wasserkessel, 1909. Wikipedia image.


Demitasse and Saucer, 1900-1902, on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Rolf Achilles.

Pitcher, c. 1904, on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Rolf Achilles.

As a successful architect, he had apprentices. In 1910, when the first copy of the Wasmuth Edition of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture was published, Behrens and three of his apprentices studied it together. The senior apprentice was Walter Gropius (he went on to found the Bauhaus in 1919); the middle apprentice was Le Corbusier, who went on to change French architecture; and the junior apprentice was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had become the most influential architect in the world by the time he died in 1969. 

Meanwhile, Behrens became a leader of the rationalist/German Reform Movement in architecture. Between 1920 and 1924, Behrens turned to Brick Expressionism when he was responsible for designing and constructing the Technical Administration Building of Hoechst AG in Hoechst, outside of Frankfurt am Main. Its soaring atrium clad in colored bricks representing the factory's dye products and exterior in dark clinker bricks with a clocktower and dramatic arch is one of the most remarkable representatives of Europe's style. 


Hoechst lobby, 1924. Wikipedia image.

From 1922-1936 Behrens headed the architecture school at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria, while designing buildings across Germany, Russia, and England. In 1928 Behrens won an international competition to construct the New Synagogue in Zilina, Czech Republic, which was restored in 2012-17 as a cultural center. 

In 1936 Behrens left Vienna to teach architecture at the Prussian Academy of Arts (now the Akademie der Künste) in Berlin, reportedly with Hitler's specific approval. Behrens also worked briefly with Albert Speer but was rejected by Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.

Behrens died in the Hotel Bristol in Berlin on 27 February 1940. 


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