Behrens designed just about everything for AEG that could be designed for what was back then a global player. Photo © AEG / Electrolux
Others were more radical
by Mathias Remmele
May 31, 2013

Peter Behrens (1868 - 1940) is, and there’s no other way of putting this, a towering monument of German architecture and design history. In the first decades of the last century he was one of the most influential figures in these fields and is therefore considered, emphasizing his historical standing, one of the fathers of Modernism. This has to do firstly with his own oeuvre, in which he moved from Art Nouveau to Neo-Classicism and Expressionism to a moderate form of Modernism. On the other hand, his status is reinforced by the fact that in Behrens’ office in Neubabelsberg, nr. Potsdam, three of the later grand masters of Modernism worked at the beginning of the 20th century: Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and for a short time Le Corbusier, too.

Peter Behrens, who was, bar some training as an artist, essentially self-taught (and he often proudly referred to this fact), first came to fame at the turn of the century as a designer working in the Art Nouveau idiom. Based in Munich, where the Hamburg-born polymath started his career as a painter and graphic artist, in 1899 he was nominated for membership of Darmstadt’s Mathildenhöhe artists’ colony. There, he extended his design activities immensely, something that culminated in 1901 in the completion of his own house. The building went on display as part of the “Ein Dokument Deutscher Kunst” exhibition – Behrens had designed the entire interior – and proved that he was a leading ambassador of the new style. After a short period in Düsseldorf, where he worked from 1903 onwards for four years as director of the College of Applied Art and initiated fundamental reforms, in 1907 he moved to Berlin as Artistic Adviser to Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG). In the years that followed, Behrens designed just about everything that could be designed for what was back then a global player: the factory building and works housing, products (meaning electrical appliances), sales catalogs, trade-fair booths, stores, and the logo still used today. In other words, he shaped the company’s image and identity and created for AEG a much-noted corporate design avant la lettre. In the period following World War I, he focused mainly on architectural tasks.

For the first time in decades, Behrens’ efforts as a designer are now once again the object of an exhibition that can rightly claim to present almost the entire oeuvre of that past master in the field of the applied arts. A major private Hamburg collection forms the bedrock of the show at Kunsthalle Erfurt on “Peter Behrens – Vom Jugendstil zum Industriedesign”: the collection covers not only Behrens’ pieces but also key items by predecessors, role models and contemporaries. This ensures the works are placed in their due historical context and encourages comparisons, whereby incidentally these are not always to Behrens’ advantage.

The exhibition is being mounted on the occasion of the 2013Van-de-Velde Year. Apart from this thematic framing, there is no special reason for or connection to Erfurt. Which is possibly a problem. Without doubt, what viewers get to see is outstanding in terms of scope and quality. And it will presumably be some time before we have another opportunity to consider Behrens’ design oeuvre so extensively. Making a trip to Erfurt in Thuringia worth a visit – well, the city is in itself worth the trip. Yet this Behrens show somehow does not really kindle great enthusiasm. Perhaps because the exhibition design (Holzer Kobler Architekturen) is worthy, but not really zestful, or for a deeper reason.

At the end you will ask yourself why of all things you should concern yourself with Behrens now, today. The catalog (containing some overly academic essays) insists on several occasions that the grand master remains highly topical, but nowhere in the show is this proved. The exhibition sheds no new light on the comparatively well researched and often published oeuvre. Indeed, at times his works seem very dated, very much a product of their day. Like all major Art Nouveau designers, Behrens is impressive for the sheer range and diversity of in part highly complex ornaments and the virtuoso tough he brings to them. At the same time, above all in some of his cutlery designs, we can see the grounds for an old criticism of Art Nouveau: the ornamentation is usually applied only externally to the objects, as was the case with historicizing jewelry. Other designers of the day, such as Riemerschmid, van de Velde and Josef Hoffmann, were far more radical with their tableware and cutlery designs than was Behrens. By reinterpreting functional aspects, such as the handles and the handling, they created designs that were far more trailblazing.

Another problem of the show is that the furniture and furnishings – Behrens created them as complementary items in a design gesamtkunstwerk – are displayed in isolation. Thus, the dining room chairs from Behrens’ house on the Mathildenhöhe (there were versions for ladies with armrests and a simpler form for the gents) are almost stripped of any appeal when placed on their own on exhibition platforms.

Behrens’ historical status as a designer is beyond all doubt. The exhibition in Erfurt documents the thematic range of his works and the timeless beauty of individual pieces, such as the glass flutes with the ruby-red bases designed for the house in Darmstadt. However, the overall impression is that his work is more strongly a product of his day than has been suggested.

“Peter Behrens – Vom Jugendstil zum Industriedesign”
June 16, 2013
Kunsthalle Erfurt, through June 16

Peter Behrens, a German architect, painter, designer and typographer, is considered as a leading representative of modern industrial design. Photo © AEG / Electrolux
In 1907 Peter Behrens moved to Berlin as the artistic adviser of "Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft". Photo © AEG / Electrolux
Not only the AEG logo, Behrens designed the whole company's image and identity. Photo © AEG / Electrolux
At Darmstadt’s Mathildenhöhe he extended his design activities immensely, something that culminated in 1901 in the completion of his own house. CC flickr / dalbera
Part of a coffee set, porcelain with overglaze painting in green, 1901 © Collection Schroeder, photo © Alexander Burzik
The dining room chairs, a women's and a men's model, arise from the Behrens' house on the Darmstadt artists' colony. Photo © Mathias Remmele
His own house went on display as part of the “Ein Dokument Deutscher Kunst” exhibition – Behrens had designed the entire interior. CC flickr / dalbera
Peter Behrens designed goblets with ruby ​​red foot for the Darmstädter house in 1901. © Schröder Collection, photo © Alexander Burzik
Behrens' kettle design for AEG. Photo © AEG / Electrolux