Women in Architecture: Lilly Reich

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting an often overlooked contributor to the Modernist Movement, Lilly Reich. Popularly known for being a close confidant and collaborator of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Reich was a spearhead of the times in her own right, contributing many acclaimed designs that are still prominent today. Learn more about her extraordinary life and work below:

The Life of Lilly Reich

Lilly Reich was born on June 16, 1885, in Berlin, Germany. Throughout her childhood and early adult life, many of her interests belonged to the arts and crafts, specifically embroidery. At 23 years old, Reich traveled from Germany to Vienna, Italy, where she found work at Josef Hoffman’s visual arts production company. Reich continued to explore her passion for embroidery in Vienna, and thanks to the many other artists and designers who worked with her, she eventually discovered new mediums, including textile, clothing, and even designing store windows. 

In 1911, Reich returned to her home in Berlin, where she was determined to find a career. Less than a year after moving back, she became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation. After shifting her design focus from textile and clothing to other forms of design like furniture and interiors, Reich’s professional reputation quickly blew up. And, in 1920, after eight years in the Deutscher Werkbund, she became the first woman elected to its governing board. 

A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe
A tubular steel footed daybed designed by Reich and Mies for a client, 1930, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich was working at Frankfurt’s Trade Fair Office in 1924 when she first met Mies. They immediately formed a connection that sparked a decades-long period of collaboration between the two. Continuing her dominance in design at the time, Reich became the creative director for Germany’s contribution to the Barcelona World Expo in 1929. The Expo’s most notorious contribution included the Barcelona Chair, which was designed by Mies and Riech respectively. Reich and Mies continued collaborating until his emigration to the United States in 1938. 

The Work of Lilly Reich

Reich’s ambition and adaptability also carried over into her career. While working with Mies, Reich designed several furniture series of tubular steel – one of the only women doing so at the time besides Charlotte Perriand. Inspired by the modern technology and materials of the time, she contrasted the coolness of steel with warm materials such as wood and leather – a staple of her creations. The furniture designs included everything from chairs and tables to bed frames and day beds. 

A design sketch of a cooking cabinet that takes the appearance of a closet.
Designs for Apartment for a Single Person, Lilly Reich, 1931, Courtesy of MOMA

Reich’s contribution to interior design expanded beyond furniture. In 1931, for the German Building Expo in Berlin, she embraced the ideals of domestic reformers of the time and designed Apartment for a Single Person. A radical idea for the time period, the design featured a cooking cabinet that took the appearance of a closet. However when opened, it revealed a sink, shelves, drawers and plenty of counter space. 

As a woman in her field during the early 20th century, Lilly Reich found a way to break traditional barriers and establish herself as a leader of the Modernist Movement. Whether collaborating with other visionaries like Mies or contributing her own ambitious designs, Reich always found a way to leave her mark on society, securing a legacy few can achieve.

The Legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Our story is influenced and molded by those that came before us. The vision for Optima was seeded during David Hovey Sr.’s time at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where he studied under the program built by modern architectural legend, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. To understand where modern design is today, it’s insightful to look back on the legacy of Mies van der Rohe.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, designed and constructed between 1945 and 1951.

Mies van der Rohe

Mies was a German-born architect and educator, born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, with Chicago becoming his adoptive hometown later in life. One of the 20th century’s greatest architects, he designed with an emphasis on open space and revealing materials. His steel-and-glass aesthetic defined modern architecture; he himself referred to it as “skin-and-bones architecture.” Mies didn’t design with style in mind, but rather, considered the philosophy of design within the frame of functionalist and industrial concerns at the time. “Less is more,” the legendary aphorism, was first said by Mies in reference to his architectural work. 

The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe
The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich – the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain.

Early Years in Europe

Destined for greatness, Mies’ first commissioned project (Riehl House) came to him at the age of 21 while he was working for Bruno Paul. What really set his design aesthetic apart, however, was the Barcelona Pavilion. Designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, the temporary structure was the most powerfully pared-down building imaginable. Consisting of horizontal and vertical slab elements, it fulfilled the minimum requirements to define space — nothing has ever personified “less is more” in quite the same way. As Mies garnered attention, he became the director of the Bauhaus school of design in Germany in 1930. He remained there until the school closed in 1933 under the mounting pressure of the Nazi regime, and it was at this point in time that Mies took his leave from Europe.

An Educator and Architect in America

Mies arrived in the US in 1938, heralding in a new era for his life and the life of architecture in Chicago. He was head of the architecture department of IIT from 1938-1958, and when Mies’ position was announced, he was introduced by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright himself. It was virtually unheard of for Wright to admire the work of another architect — and vocalize his admiration no less — but in his introductory speech, Wright said of Mies: “I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you.” 

Wright knew what an influence Mies would have on IIT and on architecture. The period of transition allowed Mies to entirely redesign the school’s program and campus both — he “rationalized” the curriculum by returning to the basics. At IIT, students focused first on learning to envision and draw their creations, then master the features, functions and materials involved in building, in order to finally evolve as architects whose discipline was enmeshed with the fundamental principles of design and construction. 

A Lasting Legacy

Mies has left his mark in many places — along the Chicago skyline, across the IIT campus and on our work here at Optima.The fundamental principles behind Modernist design influence how we create and think here, and the innovative and groundbreaking thinking of Mies is something that we seek to embody in our everyday operations. To this legend, we say thank you for paving the way and inspiring us all. 


person name goes here

Maintenance Supervisor

Glencoe, IL

    Acceptable file types: *.pdf | *.txt | *.doc, max-size: 2Mb