The Vitra Design Museum celebrates the rise of tubular steel furniture in the Bauhaus era

The new exhibition at the Schaudepot puts the forward-thinking Hungarian entrepreneur Anton Lorenz under the spotlight.

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On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, this year the design museums across the world – from Frankfurt to São Paulo – are celebrating the legacy of the renowned German school. And so is the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein (Germany) with its exhibition “Anton Lorenz: From Avant-Garde to Industry”, on show at the Schaudepot from February 21st to May 19th.

Curated by Susanne Graner (Head of Collection and Archive at the Vitra Design Museum), the exhibition explores the work of Anton Lorenz (1891-1964), a key figure – yet barely known by the general public – of the Bauhaus era. Designer and entrepreneur, Lorenz played a central role in the recognition and diffusion of the revolutionary tubular steel applied to furniture design. Born in Hungary, in 1927 he moved to Germany, where he soon after became the managing director of Standard Möbel, a company founded by his compatriots, the designers Marcel Breuer – who only two years earlier had started working on the design of his iconic B3 chair, also known as the “Wassily Chair” – and Kálmán Lengyel.

As the curatorial team emphasises, Lorenz, who would later work for other major manufacturers, such as Desta and Thonet, “proved so skilful in procuring patents and founding businesses that he soon gained a reputation as the “éminence grise” of tubular steel furniture, contributing to the success of this new genre with a global network of enterprises and contacts”.

The show is based on the Anton Lorenz archival estate, which was acquired by the Vitra Design Museum back in 1989 thanks to the efforts of Alexander von Vegesack, the founding director of the museum (from 1988 to 2011). As von Vegesack recalls, “During the research for my first publication in Europe and America – Deutsche Stahlrohr Möbel (München, 1986) – I learnt that Anton Lorenz had left Germany in the 1930s and that he had taken all his documents to America. There he worked with the architect Peter Fletcher, who later on cared for the archive of the Anton Lorenz Foundation in the USA. I found Fletcher in the early nineties and achieved to persuade him to sell the documents to the Vitra Design Museum. It took quite a while to convince him as he had been asked already several times by the MoMA, but finally, I succeeded. The archive was in bad condition and not really complete any more but contained most of the essential patents, drawings, letters and documents.”

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"The 100 000th Barcaloafer", Anton Lorenz standing, 1947 © Vitra Design Museum, Estate Anton Lorenz

Mixing these records – which have never been exhibited before – with furnishings conceived by the likes of Mart Stam, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lorenz himself, the exhibition well underlines the importance of some often overlooked aspects that enabled the rise of the German avant-garde movement: innovative manufacturing, entrepreneurship, patent registrations and legal procedures. As von Vegesack underlines, “Lorenz designed a large number of the tubular chairs from Thonet and even other companies in eastern Europe. He also improved some of the models conceived by Breuer but never reached his fascinating level or that of Mies van der Rohe, who understood immediately the basic shapes that this new technique and material enabled. Later on, everyone else had to work around the basic shapes developed by the two because of copyright issues.”

Revealing the behind-the-scenes of tubular steel furniture making, the show also proposes an alternative to the usual discourse around the Bauhaus era, which tends to focus solely on the school itself. A point of view that the Vitra Design Museum had already questioned in 2015 with “The Bauhaus #itsalldesign”, a travelling exhibition curated by Jolanthe Kugler that this year the Designmuseum Danmark (Copenhagen, Denmark) will present from March 14th until December 1st.

Exhibition title:
Anton Lorenz: From Avant-Garde to Industry
Opening dates:
February 21st - May 19th
Curated by:
Susanne Graner
Location:
Vitra Design Museum
Address:
Weil am Rhein, Germany

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