A German Phenomenon?
At the start of the 20th century, the wall-unit was considered the epitome of modern furniture series manufacturing. But now it is above all associated with a standardised private sphere and the dreariness of aging modern residential blocks.
Today, speaking about residing always involves speaking about moving as well. Artist Jay Gard titled a 2014 solo exhibition in Leipzig Everybody´s Moving. But of all things, from the ceiling of the b2_ Gallery, he hung the antithesis of contemporary mobility embodied in a piece of furniture: his grandparents’ wall-unit. It swung in space, like the question of what place it may yet have in our times now - as a pendulum affixed with steel cables, literally suspended of its function.
Jay Gard, The Wall-Unit of my Grandparents in its original location | © Jay Gard A system by the German firm Erwin Behr, manufactured in 1921 following a design by Franz Schuster of Vienna, is considered the first wall-unit. An early form of the wall-unit is also found four years later in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. The merely hip-high cabinets in the interior of the modern “Wohnmaschine” (i.e. machine for living) picked up on the formal language of the facade – that of the strictly modulated block. According to Axel Müller-Schöll, professor of interior architecture and furniture design at the University of Art and Design Burg Giebichenstein in Halle, “A universal principle of architecture becomes visible: Cabinets are basically micro-architectures. They break down an urban image and bring the replica indoors.” Thus the wall-unit is perennially linked with block and concrete-slab architecture, which above all in the former GDR carries a whiff of backward-looking social policy about it as well. But it was precisely here that Le Corbusier’s modernistic impulse for interior space was further developed.
It was in Halle once again that Rudolf Horn taught furniture and expansion design from 1966 until 1996. He was the creator of one of the best-known wall-unit systems: the Möbelprogramm Deutsche Werkstätten, in brief MDW. Starting in 1967, manufactured in the former VEB Möbelkombinat Hellerau, it consisted of variable individual parts and was a far cry from the monolithic piece of furniture that one associates the wall-unit with today. The MDW promised mobility, even individuality: according to the concept, users were not to consume a pre-established product, but instead through assembling and installing it themselves give it its final form in accordance with their needs and wishes.
Petrification sets in
Jay Gard, Die Schrankwand der Großeltern als pendelnde Installation
Schrankwand, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau, um 1964
Axel Müller-Schöll, Neuinterpretation eines Schrankelementes
Axel Müller-Schöll, Anverwandelte Schrankwand
Das Plattenbauwohnzimmer im DDR-Museum in Berlin
Jay Gard, Schrankwand meiner Großeltern am angestammten Ort
Axel Müller-Schöll made a practical suggestion for rehabilitating the wall-unit when he remodelled his mother’s former house into a compound of lofts for guests. He freed a few old wall-units from their bases, gave them a new covering of MDF and then set them on rollers. They were to enable both individualised division of the rooms, but also arrival at a place of transition. Müller-Schöll designed them as inventory of a living space “where one does not want to strike roots; that is not a home but where one can feel at home in a certain sense nonetheless.”