The architect as designer Artistic concepts beyond buildings

From furniture and lamps, to floor coverings and wall hangings, right up to tableware and cutlery: practically every architect has designed an object at some stage in order to express his or her understanding of form on a smaller scale.

“41”, Alvar Aalto, Artek “41”, Alvar Aalto, Artek | © Design can sometimes be so simple. Three elements are cut out of a plywood sheet, similar to a clothing pattern, and then joined together using the simplest connecting system to form a coffee table – this can then be disassembled again just as easily when moving house. This functional table by the Frankfurt-based architect Ferdinand Kramer (1898 – 1985) documents one of his many creative phases. Designed in 1951 during the last year of his exile in New York, it is part of the Knock Down furniture series that on the one hand reflects Kramer’s confrontation with the new world and is geared to the American way of life. On the other hand, it features distinguished values such as the intelligent use of materials and durability that are also evident in Kramer’s earlier works and his later designs in Frankfurt and have only been rediscovered in architecture and design in recent years.

Furniture by architects

“Barcelona Chair”, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Knoll International “Barcelona Chair”, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Knoll International | © Like Ferdinand Kramer, the first interior designers of the twentieth century were architects who designed their own furniture and other articles of daily use to suit their building projects, mainly due to the fact that they could not find adequate objects on the market. “Living demands different devices, different furniture, different rooms“, Kramer explained, with reference to the needs and desires of the time. This opinion was shared by many architects and led to numerous iconic design classics. The F51 chair was created in 1920, for instance, because Walter Gropius was unable to find an ideal chair item for his director’s room at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona Chair in 1929 to offer the Spanish royal couple sitting facilities at the inauguration of the German Pavilion on the occasion of the World Exposition. And in 1930 the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto created the chair 41 for his famous tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio to help patients breath more easily when sitting.

Product design

  • “Drift”, Amanda Levete, Established & Sons ©
    “Drift”, Amanda Levete, Established & Sons
  • “Rapport”, Jürgen Mayer H., Vorwerk ©
    “Rapport”, Jürgen Mayer H., Vorwerk
  • “LC3”, Le Corbusier, Cassina ©
    “LC3”, Le Corbusier, Cassina
  • “Piana”, David Chipperfield, Alessi ©
    “Piana”, David Chipperfield, Alessi
  • “Torq”, Daniel Libeskind, Sawaya & Moroni ©
    “Torq”, Daniel Libeskind, Sawaya & Moroni
It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the product design profession left the category of architecture and became a profession in its own right. However, with one exception: Italy. In this country that since the post-war period has unquestionably taken the lead in furniture and product design, there were no special courses of study for a long time. Anyone wanting an academic education in design studied architecture – quite the opposite to Germany. Here in Germany master studies have a longstanding tradition. It was particularly the Bauhaus movement that played a key role in establishing the product design profession. This famous school was the first to bring together artistic design and crafts education and also attached great importance to the task of designing furniture for industrial production.

Formal aesthetics

Today, product designers offer a wide range of well-designed furniture and articles of daily use. Nevertheless, architects are still designing their own furniture in some cases – also to enable them to express their understanding of form on a small scale.

The Drift bench by Amanda Levete, for instance, translates the London-based architect’s typical biomorphic form language; the furniture ensemble Torq by Daniel Libeskind resembles the design of one of his museum projects that depicts a flowing transition from a square ground plan to a circular roof. And the Berlin architect and designer Jürgen Mayer H. repeatedly uses coded data as a pattern in his designs – whether they are for a facade or for a carpet of the company Vorwerk.

Practical use

“Silver Chair”, Hadi Teherani, Interstuhl “Silver Chair”, Hadi Teherani, Interstuhl | © In contrast to this approach, architect designs are orientated more towards practical use than formal aesthetics. The Silver Chair by Hamburg-based Hadi Teherani clearly demonstrates his soft spot for technical details. Besides affecting the language of form this is a prime example of an ergonomic office chair designed for sitting comfortably. Also David Chipperfield’s main concern is functionality. The marble table Colonnade reminds us of his Literature Museum design in Marbach, but it is by no means an architect’s model. The tabletop appears at first to be a continuous slab, but it is actually separated at two places enabling the table to be split into three elements that can be used individually or combined into one.
“Colonnade”, David Chipperfield, Marsotto Edizioni “Colonnade”, David Chipperfield, Marsotto Edizioni | ©

Re-editions

There is no shortage of furniture by architects and many in this profession today would like to pursue their artistic concept and expand beyond buildings to interior design and perhaps create a design classic. After all, in furniture history the iconic items are first and foremost the work of architects – although this was back in a time when the product design profession was still in its infancy. They are going to find it hard, especially as many of the earlier designs are still so contemporary that they are now being launched again in the product range of international furniture manufacturers as re-editions. The best example being the designs of Ferdinand Kramer that are still capable of fascinating us today with such radical modernity and absolute simplicity, and now this furniture is on the market again this year.