Light to catch the eye

An exhibition at MAKK presents the history of mobile lighting to mark the beginning of imm cologne.
by Thomas Edelmann | 1/12/2019

When, back in 2003, the late designer, design theorist and painter Tomás Maldonado was invited to hold the keynote to mark the 50thanniversary of the foundation of the Ulm School of Design, he sought to avoid any ceremonial, dignified tone and forgo wallowing in memories of the good old days. Moreover, or so he said, the fact that he had been a protagonist of the college in Ulm prevented him from taking stock in some way. Instead, he turned his attention to the current and future themes of design. In the process, Maldonado rejected the idea of “designing without things.” In this context, he quoted the maxim of US philosopher Willard V.O. Quine: “Material everyday objects may not be everything that constitutes reality, but they are admirable examples.” Since 2003, the world has not rotated faster on its axis than before, but the trend toward digitization creates the fatal impression that in design the focus is either on the accelerated dissolution of materiality or on designing variants of what remains eternally the same. Given the productive superiority of Asian countries, above all China, years ago Bazon Brock advised us Europeans to “musealize yourselves!”

Were Maldonado, Quine and Brock the godfathers of the exhibition “100 Years of Adjustable Light” at Cologne’s MAKK, Museum of Applied Arts? Definitely not. And yet the young Hamburg company Midgard Licht, founded by David Einsiedler and Joke Rasch, who initiated the show and from whose collection the exhibits in Cologne largely stem, continues the multiply disrupted history of the former Industrie-Werk Auma in Thuringia. The very name Midgard and a considerable part of the luminaires that the company to this day realizes using the original tools and mainly relying on the former suppliers, too, date back to engineer Curt Fischer (1890–1956). Or to be precise, to his years of systematic inquiry into a particular form of everyday life and reality, namely factory illuminants after World War I. In March 1919, one month before the Bauhaus was established in Weimar, Fischer took over the factory of a friend who had been killed in the War and which constructed tools and machines for the porcelain industry. The inadequate lighting available at the time relied directly or indirectly on luminaires attached to the ceiling. As a result, workers always ran the risk of themselves casting a shadow over the objects they were working on. Curt Fischer initially developed components and later entire luminaires and modular systems to get the light where it was needed. He obtained patents on the most important of his inventions. He called them adjustable lamps owing to their joints and the light-directing effect. He ensured his luminaires had a level of movement and constancy that many rival products never achieved. Although many of his inventions were all-round products in the best sense of the term, he supplemented them with special solutions (e.g. for dentists or precision mechanics) to produce especially high-standard lighting.

According to contemporaries, Fischer was very rational, down to earth, “strict, but just,” yet his choice of the name “Midgard” seems completely enigmatic today. It is reminiscent of Norse sagas and myths; Tolkien readers may even think of “Middle Earth.” The exhibition does not set out to shed light on the history of the mentality back then – that remains the task of a later publication. It presents the luminaires as “admirable examples,” albeit not with some naïve faith in technology, but as practical materials for studies, comparisons, and debate. Here, different constructions and underlying concepts and not just formal variants can be observed.

About 40 luminaires from different epochs and contexts are on display, divided into seven groups. On show are not those luminaires that can regularly be seen and have been “re-created,” their original paint sanded off in order to relacquer them and ensure they look almost as if they were new from the factory. On show are rather objects that have done their work, and in part bear clear marks of intense use.

From the initial situation in the factory and workshop that not only Fischer encountered in 1919, a line is drawn to Christian Dell, who was appointed master craftsman at the Bauhaus in 1922 and was at first hardly enthusiastic about the facilities there. He trained key designers and as part of “New Frankfurt” continued, even after 1934, to design luminaires that bore his name: “Rondella” in the 1920s and “Kaiser idell” from the 1930s onwards. Moreover, he was an influential teacher, who, for example, was mentor to Marianne Brandt in Weimar. Later Brandt was one of the foremost women designers at Bauhaus Dessau and also worked in the metalworking shop there, additionally forging and strengthening links to industry in the form of luminaire makers Kandem (Körting & Mathiesen) in Leipzig. At the Bauhaus itself the students and teachers were constantly aware of Midgard luminaires. These were acquired to fit out the college from about 1926 onwards. Bauhaus founding director Walter Gropius corresponded with Curt Fischer for several years, helped him obtain photos that showed the Midgard in use (e.g., in 1927 in an apartment Marcel Breuer designed for the Weissenhof Estate) or was the intermediary when erroneous picture captions in Werkbund publications needed to be corrected. A film (on view in the exhibition) presents the innovative interior design of the Gropius Master House in Dessau. Pride of place in the film goes to the Midgard luminaires, with their precise adjustability shown. At times, the most famous of architects and designers, such as Egon Eiermann, Hannes Meyer not to mention Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Sep Ruf, Hans Scharoun, and Lázló Moholy-Nagy, used Midgard adjustable lamps not only for their own offices and studios, but also, and first and foremost among them Marcel Breuer, gave them a key role in the interior design of apartments.

Many people even took their Midgard abroad with them. For example, Hannes Meyer took his to Russia, Lyonel Feininger, Moholoy-Nagy and Gropius took theirs to the USA. The image research conducted for the exhibition will also be presented in the context of later publications. Other product groups in the show concentrate on the development of the adjustable lamps from Auma, the topic of spring-balance lamps (which had a history of their very own successes, in which Midgard again played a role as the supplier of a version that became an East-German export bestseller). When the company was nationalized in 1972 and Curt Fischer’s son Wolfgang remained operations manager, he set out to secure the brand and patent rights for himself, which in 1990 made it easier for him to get the company returned to him.

One section of the exhibition is devoted to especially pragmatic designs that were sparked either by a lack of materials or in contrast by a certain need for ostentation.

The final chapter is called Technology and Design and outlines which products and ideas Nimbus or Erco have developed in the age of the LED in order to direct light onto desktops. Roxxane Office miniaturizes known shapes. Erco by Lucy uses a rod-like structure and precise lenses to distribute light optimally. Ply Atelier Hamburg planned and realized the exhibition architecture; it is based on an expansive shelving system made of Thonet tubular-steel elements.

Models such as “Tizio” by Richard Sapper, which marked the beginning of the halogen epoch, are on display. In the parallel MAKK exhibition “34 x Design” the evolution of Tizio is outlined specially for children. One might also be reminded of Andy Warhol (to be seen with “Pop goes Art” in MAKK). Does Midgard already have its “15 minutes of fame” behind it? Surprisingly enough, Midgard adjustable lamps have to date hardly been mentioned in the key reviews of design history. All that looks set to change.

Hundert Jahre lenkbares Licht - 100 Years of Adjustable Light
MAKK - Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln
An der Rechtschule
50667 Cologne

Until February 24, 2019