This is a guest post by the talented David Mathias (@woodandlight on twitter), who is the author and photographer of the book “Greene & Greene Furniture – Poems of Wood & Lightwith”, which is an examination of the houses and furniture of Charles and Henry Greene.
Recently, my wife, our sons and I vacationed in Luzern. Switzerland is, among other things, a land of multiple languages. In Luzern, German is spoken. In high school, I studied German for three years. I was never fluent but was able to communicate haltingly. Unfortunately, that was thirty years ago. During those years, I haven’t spoke German at all. How little I remember was illustrated during our trip. One thought was often in my head: “That word looks familar – I think I used to know what it means“. A few facts about German have remained in my brain. For example, I remember the tendency to create huge compound words. Words such as “fernsehenprogramme” and “gesamtkunstwerk“.
I would like to write about fernsehenprogramme — television shows. I’d like to but I can’t, for several reasons. Not least because this is an architecture blog. I don’t think Ana would be willing to publish a discussion of the finer points of “The Big Bang Theory” (Mondays on CBS). So that leaves us with gesamtkunstwerk as our topic. Fortunately, that’s a subject that is perfect for an architecture blog.
Gesamtkunstwerk decomposes into: “gesamt“, “kunst” and “werk”. In English, these three words translate as “total“, “art” and “work“. So gesamtkunstwerk means “total art work?” Yes, essentially. Gemsamtkunstwerk describes a philosophy of gestalt design, of creating complete, integrated environments. This idea is largely alien today. During the Arts & Crafts Movement, however, architects would often design not only the house but furniture, lighting, fixtures, fireplace tools, art glass, textiles and more. Gesamtkunstwerk.
Search the internet for “arts and crafts” and you will find many establishments willing to sell you all manner of beads and baubles for home crafts projects. This, of course, has nothing to do with the Arts & Crafts Movement. Born in Britain in response to the industrial revolution, the Arts & Crafts Movement was about reform. Through reform of labor and aesthetics, the movement promised salvation from tedium and poor taste.
Philosophers such as John Ruskin objected to the dehumanizing effects of mass production which necessitated repetitive tasks, as in an assembly line. The solution, they argued, was a return to the guild system allowing craftsmen to create objects start to finish. They also railed against poorly designed, shoddily constructed furniture that contained an ill-conceived conglomeration of appliques and ornaments. Instead, furniture should be designed simply, with clean lines and honest construction highlighted by visible joinery. The net result is an early version of “form follows function“.
The movement was not restricted to Britain. It spread to the United States and to Europe where the term “gesamtkunstwerk” was born. But the idea of creating complete environments was universal. In Britain, M.H. Baillie Scott was a practitioner. In Austria Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstatte carried the torch. American proselytizer-in-chief Gustav Stickley designed houses and furniture and in his magazine The Craftsman, he depicted wonderfully integrated interiors. Among architects, Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene are the best known adherents to the principle.
Gesamtkunstwerk entails more than simply ensuring that the curtains match the carpet. The level of unification implied cannot be achieved through decoration no matter how expertly implemented. To achieve the goal requires that completion of the design concept before the building is constructed. Ideally, house, interior appointments, furniture and lighting are designed as one, each influencing the others.
One of the ironies of the Arts & Crafts movement is that objects created by a craftsman tend to be more expensive than those that are mass produced. This expense puts many such items out of reach of the masses. For this reason, Thorstein Veblen argued that mass production was essential, that the Utopian societies envisioned by Arts & Crafts philosophers were ill-conceived. If this is true, then gesamtkunstwerk is the poster child. Certainly architect-designed complete environments were the province solely of the wealthy. Few could afford to have their andirons designed by Charles Greene or Frank Lloyd Wright. Fortunately for the rest of us, examples of gesamtkunstwerk are preserved so that we can marvel at the beauty and serenity that result when the architecture gods bring together genius, money and enlightened clients.