New York

Lilly Reich

Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe were collaborators, friends, and lovers from the mid ’20s to the advent of war in 1938, until Mies fled to the United States, eventually taking his place in the pantheon of Modernist heroes. Yet at the beginning, Reich was as much Mies’ leader as his follower. She had a roaring practice when they met: she was a member of the Werkbund board, an established clothing and textile designer who preached a reduced, Modernist esthetic, and an exhibition designer whose work was known abroad: her Werkbund show “The Applied Arts” was held at the Newark Museum in 1922. During her years of collaboration with Mies, she never closed her own office.

The MoMA show begins with two of the projects Reich worked on with Mies: the installation for the “Velvet and Silk Cafe” in the 1927 “Women’s Fashion” exhibition in Berlin, and the Plate-Glass Hall for a Werkbund exhibition on the dwelling, held in Stuttgart that same year. Both are depicted in oversized, grainy, black and white photos. In the former, a glowing wall of rich, flowing fabric curls around a clutter of tubular chrome chairs, while in the latter, the glass partitions are more rigid, the edges harder, the lighting more diluted, The furniture is arranged with a care that today seems almost sadistic in its severity. The two scenes might seem at first to reveal opposing personalities—masculine versus feminine—a facile cliché. But it is instead the nature of the materials themselves that is the point of departure. Fabric is explored for its suppleness, glass for its clean, hard abstraction. What we see here is the properties the materials share. In the corner of one of the images of the installation for the “Velvet and Silk Cafe,” a horizontal band of windows in the background dramatizes this bind: a dim street scene with cafe chairs and arched windows outside the exhibition walls. It is the Modernist duo’s common enemy: the petit-bourgeois Germany of the ’20s.

The main gallery room is dominated by a model of two houses (joined by one long, white wall), designed by Mies and Reich for another show on housing at the German Building Exposition in Berlin in 1931, “The Dwelling in Our Time.” (The exhibit—visited by Philip Johnson—was itself an influence on MoMA’s landmark “International Style” show in 1934.) The model was the heart of the retrospective—and a ready-made metaphor for Reich’s fragile independence. Her design is noticeably more introverted than Mies’ and has a tougher look: the shell is tauter and more regular, the windows are as much screens as openings. Only inside are the rooms more subtly defined by the positioning of furniture and partition walls. Mies’ design—twice as large as Reich’s—is undeniably more sophisticated. His spaces flow more elegantly: the barriers between inside and out are subtle; horizontal planes reach out into the landscape; bedrooms open onto partially enclosed gardens; and the views are crafted.

Though Reich’s own esthetic asserts itself in the following rooms, she never completely frees herself from Mies’ shadow. Her voice is strongest in her remarkable use of glass. In her design of the 1934 “German People—German Work” exhibit held in Berlin, rows of freestanding, glass half-cylinders have a supple, sensuous quality. The glass functions as something slipped through and around, not as a reflective barrier. In an axonometric drawing from a 1937 exhibit, the design of a boxlike exhibition space breaks open, and inside a thin glass wall curves like a snake. We now associate the delicacy of the metal detailing with Mies, but the same delicacy of the wall suggests unexplored possibilities.

In the end, the exhibit is about loss, Reich remained in Germany through the war, gamely tending to the self-centered Mies’ defunct office, but died in 1947. The drawings that survive, many of them saved by a loyal office worker from the bombing of Berlin, were preserved for the sake of Mies’ legacy, not Reich’s. If the MoMA show rescues her from the ranks of obscurity, it can’t erase the fact that Reich sacrificed her own ambitions to multiple demands, including tending to the master.

Nicolai Ouroussoff