'Werk'ing women

Women designers in Wilhemine Germany struggled to establish themselves as modern professionals, while maintaining feminine ideals in their work.

So said Despina Stratigakos, PhD '99, a Postdoctoral Whiting Fellow in the Humanities at Bryn Mawr during the fall '02 semester. Stratigakos' October 9 Visual Culture Colloquium lecture identified gender as a key issue within turn-of-the-century debates about modernity, identity, and aesthetic reforms.

The Werkbund, the largest and most influential design reform organization in Europe, was founded in 1907 by about 100 artists, architects, critics, and business owners. Their common goal was to save German culture from bric-a-brac, such as that displayed at a Berlin arts fair in 1907. Hosted by the Women's Employment Association, an organization that promoted economic opportunities for women, the fair displayed, among other things, handicrafts, antiques, natural wonders (such as mammoth bones and giant gems), china plates, embroidered work, and old tapestries. To some critics, this hodgepodge of styles and tastes indicated that Germany had lost a national spiritual unity.

"The chaotic pleasures of the Berliners were perceived as symptomatic of a profound cultural malaise," Stratigakos said. "The confusion of styles, the popularity of kitsch, and the allure of the fantastic were seen as signs of the decay of the German Geist in the face of modern economic and social pressures. Members of the Werkbund mourned the loss of a national spirit they believed had integrated cultural forms in the precapitalist era."

The Werkbund stressed intervention in the domestic environment. They rejected an elitist approach to cultural reform and instead "directed their aesthetic discipline to everyday spaces and habits," Stratigakos said, "focusing on the home and the consumer commodities that filled it." In this down-to-earth environment, they hoped to unite deeply rooted German spiritual values with the forces of industrialization.

The Werkbund insisted on quality-solid, honest materials and workmanship-and on Sachlichkeit, a scientific or functional approach to design that rejects nostalgic sentimentality and excessive ornament. Sachlichkeit was the yardstick by which the Werkbund measured professionalism.

Historians have analyzed the classist nature of the Werkbund and its attempt to impose middle-class tastes across German society, Stratigakos said. But gender has been overlooked in these historical discussions. "Quality and Sachlichkeit were constructed against the perceived weaknesses of women both as producers and consumers. Women were thought to be prone to kitsch, which the Werkbund considered an ethical and aesthetic inadequacy or lack. The Werkbund's insistence on eradicating this lack cannot be fully understood without attending to the role of gender in the Werkbund's program," she said.

Ironically, women in the prestigious Werkbund were sometimes the harshest critics of their own sex. "By vocally criticizing the aesthetic lack of other women," Stratigakos said, "I believe that women in the Werkbund staked a claim for themselves in the avant-garde design movement by foregrounding the importance of women in cultural and economic production. They promoted women both as the problem and as the solution to the decline of German aesthetic culture."

Women in the Werkbund played prominent roles in the educational campaign, toting themselves as the "natural" teachers of other women and insisting that they would bring the message of reform to German housewives, shop girls, and other women artists. Their message was about the need to modernize female taste in the machine age. "What had once been authentic was now revealed as sentimental or kitsch, and true craft had degenerated into dilettantism," Stratigakos said.

In contrast to the "kitschy" arts fair hosted by the Women's Employment Association, the Haus der Frau, the women's pavilion at the Werkbund's major design exhibition in Cologne in 1914, was unornamented, uncluttered, modernist and functional. The Haus der Frau has been ignored in subsequent histories, even though it boldly asserted women's roles in the design reform movement.

The pavilion, designed entirely by women, featured women's work: photography, clothing designs, textiles, painting, applied and fine arts, architecture, and interior decoration. "For the organizers, what made the Haus der Frau a woman's exhibition space was a feminine practice that transformed it from pure exhibit to living space. In its internal decoration, comfort and hospitality, the women's pavilion was a kind of home, but it was also a place of work created by professionals ... The conception of the pavilion can thus be seen as involving a dual self-representation of women as domestic and feminine on the one hand, and as professional (or sachlich) artists on the other."

Not all visitors agreed that these qualities were complementary. Critics said the women's Sachlichkeit was immoderate, bare and austere, that the Haus der Frau had no feminine grace, and that it flaunted a false (i.e. masculine) manner. Sachlichkeit was said to be contrary to the spirit of women. Critics warned of the building's dangerous blurring of the natural boundaries of sexes.

"A building hailed by some as an exemplar of Werkbund design principles was simultaneously attacked as an utter failure in femininity," Stratigakos said. "The perceived incompatibility of the feminine and the modern at the Haus der Frau strongly suggests the need to unpack the gendered meaning of the design values driving the Werkbund's reform mission." She concluded by noting that this building "disappeared from subsequent design histories," and suggested that architectural historians ask themselves whether tensions between conceptions of the modern and the feminine continue to inform the ways they write history.

Stratigakos received her bachelor of arts in her native Canada at the University of Toronto, where she studied cultural anthropology and the history of art and architecture. She received her master's from the University of California, Berkeley. Her BMC dissertation, "Skirts and Scaffolding: Women Architects, Gender, and Design in Wihlelmine Germany," examined women architects in turn-of-the-century Germany. Stratigakos is an assistant professor in the School of Art at Illinois State University.

For reports on selected other Visual Culture colloquia, see the College News section of this issue.

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