A Minor Master of Modernism
von Mathias Remmele | Jun 8, 2010

The heyday of Herbert Hirche (1910-2002) was between the 1950s and 1970s. At that time, the Bauhaus student worked as a furniture designer, interior designer, architect, exhibition designer, lecturer and as an association official, and was one of the key figures in the West German design scene. He designed furniture for companies such as Wilkhahn, Wilde+Spieth, Walter Knoll and Christian Holzäpfel. He was a pioneer of Braun design, which is now becoming so popular again, creating the designs of the HM 5-7 music cabinet (1957) and the HF1 TV (1958) for the company. He was the mastermind behind key design exhibitions such as "Gute Industrieform" (Good Industrial Form) in Mannheim (1952) or "Schönheit der Technik" (The Beauty of Technology) at the Landesgewerbeamt Stuttgart (1953). In 1957, he took part in the Interbau in Berlin, and in 1958 in the Brussels World Expo, and he also participated in various editions of the Milan Triennial. As Professor for Interior Design and Furniture Making at Stuttgart's State Academy of the Arts he trained entire generations of designers. And through his membership of the German Design Council he had a considerable influence on the path the design world took.

Herbert Hirche initially trained as a carpenter before going on to study under Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich at the Bauhaus, then worked in their office, and during World War II worked first for Egon Eiermann and then for Hans Scharoun. This explains why he was so strongly influenced by classical Modernism, the ideals of which he championed all his life, continuing its politically untainted tradition in post-war Germany. This explains his importance but also the limits of his influence for the development of design in West Germany in the early years. For Hirche never, be it consciously or unconsciously, grew out of the design creed promulgated by his masters. His purist design philosophy, expressed in a simple formal idiom and a clear emphasis on function, was a perfect fit in the age of post-war reconstruction. However, by the end of the 1960s it sat uncertainly with the changing zeitgeist. One symptom of this is perhaps the decision by Hamburg-based news magazine "Der Spiegel" to commission Verner Panton rather than Hirche to design the interior of its new office building. Panton's unconventional, colorful and playful design can be interpreted as the antithesis, as it were, of the sober functionalism on which Hirche insisted.

Even if today many a museum collection boasts Hirche designs (above all those for Braun, the bar trolley with its steel angled profiles and ribbed glass, and the upholstered armchair with the tubular steel base made originally for Interbau, the Berlin construction trade fair) and although they are to be found in almost all discussions of post-war German design, his name is only know to a comparatively small circle of people interested in design history. It is therefore especially gratifying that Berlin's Werkbundarchiv/Museum der Dinge has taken the 100th anniversary of his birth as a due occasion to prepare a small exhibition entitled "Strahlend Grau" (Gleaming Gray) to commemorate the oeuvre of a designer whose artistic legacy has since 2004 been entrusted to the care of the archive in Berlin.

However commendable the exhibition may be for highlighting Hirche's oeuvre, it does not convince in terms of either the information provided or its own design. Precisely because Hirche is no longer remembered as a big hitter and his oeuvre awaits rediscovery, precisely because his designs tend to be dry and unobtrusive, it simply is not enough to place his furniture designs and appliances for Braun on a metal shelf that angles across the room and to paper a wall with any number of documents, such as pieces done as a student, drawings, plans, photos, and posters attesting to the master's life and work. Hirche's designs need to be placed in context and explained, as otherwise they often seem barren and clumsy, even derivative and provincial, compared to far better-known designs by his contemporaries - one need think only of Eames, Saarinnen or Jakobsen. That could have been managed even with a modest exhibition budget. In the exhibition, the "archive room" at least intimates the range and quality of what Hirche achieved, with a filing cabinet full of documents. And it also shows that he certainly deserves a more comprehensive and more carefully prepared retrospective.

„strahlend grau - herbert hirche zum 100. geburtstag"
Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge, Berlin
May 21 - Sept. 13 2010

Interbau Berlin, 1957, Appartement Herbert Hirche in the house of Pierre Vago Photo: Foto Kessler, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Apartement Christian Holzäpfel Ebhausen,1956, Furnishing Herbert Hirche, photo: Friedrich Zieker Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
House Foerstner by Herbert Hirche in Mannheim, 1962-1963, Photo: Robert Häusser Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Student project at Bauhaus, 1930, Foto: Armin Herrmann, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Concept for a Televisor HF 1 by Herbert Hirche for Company Braun, 1957/58 Photo: Armin Herrmann, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Concept for a steel tube chair, 1950, Photo: Armin Herrmann, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Herbert Hirche on the roof of the Bauhaus in Dessau, 1932; Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Different chairs between 1953 and 1962, Foto: Armin Herrmann, Werkstätten der Stuttgarter Akademie der Bildenden Künste
Exhibition „Schönheit der Technik“ Stuttgart 1953, Design by Herbert Hirche, © Landesgewerbeamt Baden-Württemberg
Interbau Berlin, 1957, Apartement Herbert Hirche in the house of Pierre Vago Photo: Ewald Gnilka Universität der Künste, Berlin
Interbau Berlin, 1957, Apartement Herbert Hirche in the house of Günther Gottwald, Photo: Ewald Gnilka Universität der Künste, Berlin
Ferienhaus Hatje von Herbert Hirche in Acciaroli, 1966-1967, © Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Exhibition „Wie wohnen?“, Stuttgart 1949, Design by Herbert Hirche, Poster: Helmuth Lohrer Landesgewerbeamt Baden-Württemberg
Concept for a school table, about 1950, Photo: Armin Herrmann Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Concept for Sessel Nr. 1, 1934, Photo: Armin Herrmann, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin
Herbert Hirche, about 1980, Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge, Berlin