The Wall-Unit A German Phenomenon?

Jay Gard, My Grandparents’ Wall-Unit Moving as a Pendulum
Jay Gard, My Grandparents’ Wall-Unit Moving as a Pendulum | © Jay Gard

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, 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 © Jay Gard
    Jay Gard, Die Schrankwand der Großeltern als pendelnde Installation
  • Schrankwand, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau, um 1964 Foto: Heinz Koch, Wolfgang Kluge, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-C0908-0010-046 / CC-BY-SA
    Schrankwand, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau, um 1964
  • Axel Müller-Schöll, Neuinterpretation eines Schrankelementes Foto: arge lola Stuttgart © Axel Müller-Schöll
    Axel Müller-Schöll, Neuinterpretation eines Schrankelementes
  • Axel Müller-Schöll, Anverwandelte Schrankwand Foto: arge lola Stuttgart © Axel Müller-Schöll
    Axel Müller-Schöll, Anverwandelte Schrankwand
  • Das Plattenbauwohnzimmer im DDR-Museum in Berlin © DDR Museum, Berlin 2015
    Das Plattenbauwohnzimmer im DDR-Museum in Berlin
  • Jay Gard, Schrankwand meiner Großeltern am angestammten Ort © Jay Gard
    Jay Gard, Schrankwand meiner Großeltern am angestammten Ort
However, the socialist reality of the GDR economy gutted Horn’s idea. Furniture retailers displayed and sold the system as an integral wall-unit. Then, in the 1970’s, the Werkstätten Hellerau were instructed by the state to manufacture only pre-assembled furniture from then on. And in the BRD, manufacturers followed suit with serial production of standardised, pre-fabricated formats, so that here, too, completely integrated cabinet systems established themselves. A piece of furniture unexpectedly morphed into a full-surface built-in system. In the USA, explains Axel Müller-Schöll, the wall unit is a fixed part of a flat that remains even though tenants come and go. In Germany, by contrast, one cannot leave one’s wall-unit behind when one moves – “and for the most part you don’t want to take it along with you either! Assembling the IKEA PAX for my daughter cost me two days” Although the wall-filling PAX cabinet system is very successful at present, the syllables of the word “wall-unit” (German: “Schrankwand”) still resonate with associations of standardisation, Babbittry and sedentariness.

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.”

Ordering our consumption

Rudolf Horn, Eberhard Wüstner, pieces of a wall-unit, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau about 1970, Grassimuseum, Leipzig Rudolf Horn, Eberhard Wüstner, pieces of a wall-unit, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau about 1970, Grassimuseum, Leipzig | © Before it swung from a gallery ceiling in Leipzig, the wall-unit of Jay Gard’s grandparents had stood unmoved in the same place for 45 years. “It was surely the most fixed thing I knew.” By contrast, the young artist estimates that he has moved 30 times in his life. In summer 2014 he built Berlin’s highest bed on the Teufelsberg: a two-storey tree-house of two-by-two square metres with a view of Berlin’s version of the Unité D´Habitation. Cabinets were completely absent in this place of concentration – Gard spent most of his time there reading. A utopia such as this, which seeks to rid itself of all ballast and exist beyond the domination of consumer culture, is nevertheless confronted with the necessity of framing consumption in more meaningful ways and extending the life-cycle of things. The question of how we want to live thus also includes how things can be stored in the future. It presents itself not only at the thresholds of people’s homes, but just as much at the doors of the cabinets inside them.