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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 Synthesis of Art and Architecture

Art and architecture share a rich, timeless connection rooted in their design, creators and intended meaning. Both forms of expression become envisioned and constructed through similar principles, visual elements and ambition to engage with one’s senses. Today, we’re exploring this essential relationship and what happens when the two worlds collide. 

David Hovey Sr., FAIA, Optima’s CEO and Founder, says it best when describing the linkage between art – in particular, sculptures – and architecture, saying that “architecture is about function, as well as aesthetics, while sculpture is really just about aesthetics.”

Architecture is traditionally informed by functionality first, with aesthetics coming into play as with a significant role. Art, on the other hand, is commonly guided by aesthetics, without any burdens to deliver an object or outcome that is functional. However, both forms of expression are typically influenced by similar social and political factors that affect the environment surrounding the work or structure. 

Centuries-old cultural movements, including the Renaissance, where art imitated life and vice versa, demonstrate the linkage between art and architecture. However,  it wasn’t until the Avant-Garde movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the integration of the two took a new meaning. 

This integration between the disciplines quickly became a core characteristic of modernism and modernist design, and is distinctly present in the work of some of the greatest architects and artists of the time period. Because artists use their art as a tool to shape emotions, modernism emerged as an expectation in which art and architecture would provide a new value when combined. 

Oscar Niemeyer’s Oscar Niemeyer Museum exhibits the synthesis of art and architecture, displaying bold geometric forms, sculptural curves and vivid murals in a functional structure, reminiscent of a human eye.

The Bauhaus Movement was one of the first to introduce this idea, encouraging the unification of all arts and coupling aesthetics with the technology of the time. Notably, this ideology was cultivated through Le Corbusier’s use of painting and sculpture within his established concepts of architecture. Le Corbusier also argued that it was of equal importance to architects, painters and sculpturists to contribute constructive collaborations to the world by designing and creating in harmony with one another. 

Along with Le Corbusier, various other artists throughout the past century have tried to synthesize art and architecture throughout their work, particularly Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe and Zaha Hadid. Today, architects and artists continue to collaborate and integrate their disciplines more than ever, exploring and expanding the dynamic relationship shared between the two.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and His Role in the Chicago Skyline

Mid-Century Modernism defines the Chicago skyline. Organic forms rise from Chicago’s foundation and cast shadows across the Lake while innovative use of glass reflects waves of light onto the city streets. The Willis Tower, Marina City, the Aon Center are all notable examples of the mid-century modern masterpieces towering over the city.

Chicago’s mid-century modern skyline would not be complete without the exceptional contributions of architecture titan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Born 1886 in Germany, Mies emigrated to Chicago in the 1930s due to the rise of Nazism in Europe. Already an esteemed architect, in Chicago Mies accepted the position as head of the architecture school at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). At IIT, Mies was commissioned to design buildings for the campus which still stand today. These buildings include Alumni Hall, the Carr Memorial Chapel, and S.R. Crown Hall, some of Mies’ many masterpieces. 

860-880 Lake Shore Drive
860-880 Lake Shore Drive

Mies aspired to create architecture that represented modernity with clarity and simplicity. In 1951, Mies completed the two residential buildings of 860-880 Lakeshore Drive which are considered Chicago Landmarks and are listed as National Historic Places. Initially, the towers were viewed critically. However, with time the buildings became the prototype for steel and glass skyscrapers around the world.

Mies also designed Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza which is composed of three buildings; the Everett McKinley Dirksen courthouse building, the John C. Kulczynski building, and the Post Office building. The three buildings situate themselves around a plaza with Calder’s red Flamingo sculpture at the center. The plaza serves as one of the main gathering points in the Loop, Chicago’s commercial center. 

Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza
Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza

Not too far away at 330 North Wabash sits the former IBM Plaza and Building, one of the last American projects designed by Mies. Built in 1973, the building was designed with advanced technology in mind and became well-known for the several atypical features it included as an office space at the time. Today, the Chicago Landmark is known as the AMA Plaza and includes the Langham Hotel, often regarded as one of the best hotels in the nation.

The Promontory, situated at 5530 S Shore Dr, stands 22 stories over Chicago’s Promontory Point and extensive shoreline in the Burnham neighborhood. Mies built the structure with a “Double T” design in which horizontal cross-bars join and the stems of the T’s form wings to the rear. Mies would employ this design in many of his future buildings. 

The Farnsworth House
The Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, designed as a vacation retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, is located just outside of Chicago in Plano, Illinois. Though the Farnsworth House is not a grand skyscraper, it has left a lasting impact on the Chicago architectural landscape. The house was an exploration for Mies in the convergence of humans, shelter, and nature. Consisting of a glass pavilion raised six feet above a floodplain beside the Fox River, the house has been described as “sublime” an “a poem” and is now a public museum.

Today, Chicago’s skyline has completely transformed from what it was more than 50 years ago when Mies passed. However, even as it continues to evolve with every new development, Mies iconic buildings still stand out as striking, inspiring architectural masterpieces.

A Brief History of Modernist Furniture

The modernist architecture movement gained traction in the late 19th century and was influenced by the post-war notion of practicality and eliminating excess. 

Notable modernist architects include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid. Along with designing structures, these architects also designed furniture that would harmonize with their buildings, while making their works more accessible to many.

Prior to the modernist movement, furniture was seen as ornamentation. Rather than taking comfort and practicality into consideration, the value of furniture was determined by the amount of time and level of craftsmanship that went into its production. The Industrial Revolution enabled the mechanization of furniture production, enabling furniture to become affordable and functional rather than ornaments reserved for the wealthy.

Modernist principles of furniture considered the interaction of the design and the user, creating designs that fit with the human form rather than forcing bodies to conform to the furniture.

Two Barcelona Chairs sit next to each other in front of glass windows.
Barcelona Chairs, designed by Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Chair was inspired by the simplicity of ancient folding chairs. Supported on each side by two chrome-plated flat steel bars, the Barcelona Chair is upholstered in leather and combines simple elegance with comfort. Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona chair to sit in the lobbies of his buildings, where they accent the architecture and blend in with the surrounding space. 

The Eames Lounge Chair sits in front of a marble fire place.
Eames Lounge Chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames Lounge Chair, another iconic piece of modernist furniture, was released in 1956 and designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames Lounge Chair is a rare example of modernist furniture that was not designed to be mass-produced and affordable. Yet, the chair still relied on the principles of simplicity, practicality, and comfort core to modernist furniture design. The chair, inspired by the English Club Chair, is composed of molded plywood and leather and became a cultural icon for its un-design-like appearance that invites sitters to rest for hours within the chair’s leather cushions.

The Noguchi Table
Noguchi Table, designed by Isamu Noguchi

Japanese-American artist and industrial designer, Isamu Noguchi, designed the famed Noguchi Table for the furniture company, Herman Miller. The Noguchi Table is a sleek glass-topped table supported by two curved pieces of wood at the base. The table became popular for its ability to fit both in the domestic and corporate spaces. 

The ability for modernist furniture to fit effortlessly into any space combined with its practicality made modernist designs into classic pieces recognized across generations. Modernist furniture can be found in suburban households and steel office buildings alike. Families gather around Noguchi Tables for chess games and curl up into Eames Lounge Chairs with long novels. Business moguls and architects meet in Barcelona Chairs and sign documents over Noguchi Tables. The versatility of modernist furniture and ease with which it is produced revolutionized how the general public views furniture and furniture’s place in the spaces it takes up.

The Subsects of Moderist Architecture Part III

As part of our “Subsects of Modernist Architecture” series, we’re continuing to explore the many trickle-down pockets of Modernist design throughout the years. Picking back up where we last left off in Part II, European Modernism continued to spread globally and set the precedent for the next wave of architectural movements that emerged. Here’s what followed:

International Style

The International Style (sometimes also referred to as internationalism) emerged in the 1920s and 30s. Originated in post-World War I Holland, France and Germany, the style quickly caught on worldwide, eventually becoming the dominant architectural style in the 1970s. According to the Getty Research Institute, “the style is characterized by an emphasis on volume over mass, the use of lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials, rejection of all ornament and colour, repetitive modular forms, and the use of flat surfaces, typically alternating with areas of glass.” 

Major figures in the International Style movement include Bauhaus Founder Walter Gropius, as well as Bauhaus Director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Both Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were instrumental in introducing the International Style to Chicago’s architecture — leaving a lasting impact on the city’s skyline that can still be seen and appreciated today.

Nagakin Capsule Tower (1970) in Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa in the style of Metabolism
Nagakin Capsule Tower (1970) in Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa in the style of Metabolism

Metabolism

Like many subsects of Modernist architecture, Metabolism emerged in response to the post-war period in Japan. First introduced during a Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (International Congresses of Modern Architecture, or CIAM) meeting in 1959, the movement became fully-fledged just a year later when young architects Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki released the Metabolism manifesto during the 1960 Tokyo World Design Conference.

The style was marked by its dynamic fusion of megastructures and organic biology. Metabolism was also heavily influenced by the Marxist philosophies of the time. The architects behind the movement envisioned a more flexible form of urban planning, one where modular towers could be easily installed. They even went so far as to propose vast cities that could float on the ocean, with these modular structures as their foundation. The most successful examples of Metabolism include the site of the 1970 World Exposition, designed by Kenzō Tange, and the Nagakin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa.

The Geisel Library (1968) at University of California in San Diego, designed by William Pereira in the style of Brutalism
The Geisel Library (1968) at University of California in San Diego, designed by William Pereira in the style of Brutalism

Brutalism

Brutalism, also called Brutalist architecture or New Brutalism, emerged in the 1950s in the UK during post-war construction. The word Brutalism is derived from the Swedish phrase nybrutalism, as well as being associated with the French phrases béton brut (“raw concrete”) and art brut (“raw art”). It’s easy to see the connection: the style is characterized by monolithic forms, rigid geometric styles, and unusual shape, and commonly makes use of bare or raw materials being exposed in monolithic color palettes. 

Influenced by socialism, Brutalist architecture was often employed in the UK to create utilitarian, low-cost housing solutions or government buildings. Perhaps for this reason, the style received widespread criticism and was often regarded as “cold” or “soulless.”  Nevertheless, many Brutalist structures have left a strong impression on architecture today and remain the cornerstone of universities and public institutions worldwide. 

Stay tuned for more features on the subsects of Modernist architecture.

Get to Know the Barcelona Chair

As a real estate firm centered on design, we recognize how profound impact a truly special piece of furniture can have within our spaces. On that note, perhaps no other piece of furniture is a more iconic staple of Modernist design than the Barcelona chair.

History of the Barcelona chair

The Barcelona chair is the collaborative brainchild of Modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich. Initially designed for the German Pavilion at the International Exposition of 1929 in Barcelona, the chair was intended as seating for Spanish royalty overseeing the opening exhibitions of the ceremony. In this way, the piece was contrary to many Modernist designs of the time, which were most often intended for the “common man.” This particular chair, on the other hand, came to signify a structuralist sophistication coveted by novice and seasoned architects alike for their personal homes and professional projects.

A 1947 ad announcing the Barcelona Chair's addition to the Knoll product catalog. Courtesy of Knoll Archive.
A 1947 ad announcing the Barcelona Chair’s addition to the Knoll product catalog. Courtesy of Knoll Archive.

Design of the Barcelona chair

Perhaps what makes the Barcelona chair so striking is its simple elegance, and how directly it expresses the iconic Mies van der Rohe sentiment that “less is more.” A tribute to the marriage of modern design and craftsmanship, what appears a simple fixture is quite complex to construct, with a hand-ground and hand-buffed frame, and upholstery made with 40 individual panels. The chair is now manufactured by Knoll in an almost entirely handcrafted process, with a facsimile of Mies van der Rohe’s signature stamped into the frame. Available in both chrome and stainless steel, the chair’s frame has been redesigned as a single seamless, smooth piece of metal. Upholstered in leather of various shades, the iconic design adapts beautifully to each space. 

You can find a Barcelona chair at every one of our communities.  Incorporating the iconic piece of furniture into our properties helps us to express our deep appreciation for Modernism and for craftsmanship. For us, it serves as a reminder of the great designers who have created the legacy that enables Modernist design to continue to flourish — and functions as a beautiful piece of furniture to admire and use.

The Arts Club of Chicago

An iconic creative space in Chicago, The Arts Club of Chicago has been a hub for contemporary art in the Windy City for more than 100 years. Only a five-minute walk from Optima Signature and Optima Chicago Center, The Arts Club of Chicago exhibits international works from both established and emerging artists, breaking new ground for over 100 years. Today, we explore the fascinating history and unique details that make The Arts Club of Chicago a beloved neighbor within our Streeterville community.

A Scandalous Start

Founded in 1916, The Arts Club of Chicago was founded by artists and advocates after The Armory Show garnered negative attention when it exhibited at the Art Institute. As the first major exhibition of modern art in America, Chicagoans were shocked and scandalized. The Club’s founders took note of the negative reception and aimed to normalize modern art by curating exhibits tailored to Chicago, enabling the Club to present new, cutting-edge culture for residents and visitors alike. 

Finding a Home

Over the years, the Club has moved from an office space, to Michigan Avenue, to the Wrigley Building;  in 1951, it moved to 109 East Ontario Street. The new space was created just for The Arts Club by architectural legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Sadly, in 1990, the owner sold the building, which led to The Club’s current John Vinci-designed two-story building located in Streeterville. Although much of Mies’ architectural work was lost in the move, the building remains an homage to his design and his steel staircase was restored and remains the focal point of the first-floor space, adjacent to Alexander Calder’s Red Petals

The Club Today

Today, The Arts Club offers three or four major public exhibitions a year, along with displaying work from its permanent collection. The Club also offers a broad, rich calendar of programming, bringing lectures, demonstrations, gallery talks, films, music, dance presentations and other educational programming to Chicago, and to our Optima communities. 

For hours and visitor information, visit The Arts Club of Chicago website.

Modern Design at Optima with Knoll

Design permeates every corner of our communities. Across our multi-family properties, we utilize furniture designed by globally renowned Knoll to craft spaces that are sleek, modern and comfortable. Not just purveyors of elegant and stunning design, Knoll also has a history entangled with our own, beginning back in 1938.

Modernist Roots

Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans G. Knoll, a German immigrant based in the United States. Familiar with the seminal Bahaus School of Design and Modernist masters like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he founded Knoll on the belief that modern architects would need functional, modern furnishings.

Later, Hans Knoll engaged with (and then literally got engaged to) Florence Schust, who studied with Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute in Chicago, and worked in the architectural offices from Gropius and Breuer in Boston. Her understanding of Modernist architecture, and the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius himself, transformed the Knoll approach to furniture design, placing new focus on offering objects that represented design excellence, technological innovation and mass production.

The Risom arm chair designed by Knoll at Optima Sonoran Village
The Risom arm chair designed by Knoll at Optima Sonoran Village

Their strong vision attracted high-profile collaborators, such as Isamu Noguchi, who contributed to a collection of furnishings now heralded as classics in the pantheon of modern design. With a repertoire of pieces spanning including the Wassily chair, the Barcelona chair, the Tulip chair; over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

As seminal collaborators with the Modernist architecture discipline, Knoll is a natural fit for our modern residential and commercial spaces. Their executive designs embody elegance, craftsmanship and emblematic details across seating, tables and desks. The thoughtful and artistic creations of Knoll bring expansive history, elevated design and of course, comfort, to our communities.

Modernism in Chicago

According to the Tate Modern Museum, Modernism “refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.” Within a broader cultural narrative, modernism emerged as a criticism of nineteenth-century societal order, and trickled down into everything from political activism, urban planning, psychoanalysis, art, and of course, architecture. As we’ve previously explored, Modernist architecture has an important place in America’s history. But how does it factor into Chicago’s past?

After the great Chicago fire in 1871, the city was a blank slate, re-planned over an entirely new grid. With the world’s first skyscraper completed by 1884 (at only ten stories), Chicago was positioned to be a groundbreaking city for architectural innovation. Our triumphant World’s Fair of 1893 solidified the city’s confidence and paved the way for Daniel Burnham to create his comprehensive city plan. Chicago’s architects banded together to decide how to best develop ever-evolving skyscrapers within the city. One such architect was Louis Sullivan, who helped found the Chicago School of architects around his belief that “form forever follows function.” 

If Sullivan’s creed sounds familiar, it’s because function over form is a cornerstone belief embedded in the Modernist tradition. In the mid-1900s, architects from the growing practices in Europe came to the United States to avoid World War I, and subsequently, World War II. Iconic architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago to set up shop. Striking buildings of steel and glass defined an entire generation of skyscrapers, and still add to Chicago’s diverse range of architecture. 

Chicago was a city that pioneered the world’s forte into stretching and sweeping skylines. Beginning with sleek and simple Modernist structures, Chicago’s architecture is now made all the more standout by the dynamic mix of styles it holds. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Chicago School to International Style, Modern to Postmodern, each style is made more its own when juxtaposed with its counterparts.

Through our own addition to Modernism in Chicago, we are proud to create buildings that contribute to the movement’s and the city’s larger legacy. To learn more about Chicago’s Modernist history, the Chicago Architecture Center offers tours specifically dedicated to the style and craft. 

A Tour of the Mies-designed IIT Campus

The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) is the place for Modernist architecture enthusiasts and more specifically, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe enthusiasts to be. Not to mention that the school is where Optima’s own David Hovey Sr. and David Hovey Jr. further honed their architectural education.

The campus, a place with a special place in our own heart and history, is home to the largest group of buildings designed by renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, arguably the most influential figure in American Modernism. As such, there is no better way to get an understanding of where our work began and where Modernism expanded, and to experience Mies’ philosophy than to explore the very campus that he designed and led. 

Perlstein Hall designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Perlstein Hall designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

An Overview of the Campus

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chaired the IIT School of Architecture from 1938 to 1958. During this time, he created a new master plan for the campus, the most ambitious he ever came up with, including twenty of his own works. This collection is the greatest concentration of Mies buildings in the world. Among the twenty are famous structures such as Wishnick Hall, Perlstein Hall, Carr Memorial Chapel and S.R. Crown Hall. Perhaps Mies’ most iconic piece of work, S.R. Crown Hall is the campus gem, a modern icon and National Historic Landmark, and even heralded by Time magazine as “one of the world’s most influential, inspiring and astonishing structures.” 

Overall, the campus is a bold expression of the Modernist discipline, utilizing steel, concrete and glass minimalist frames as a radical departure from traditional college quadrangles and limestone buildings. 

An Official Architectural Tour

A tour of the campus, offered by the Chicago Architecture Center, places special emphasis on Mies’ time as head of the IIT School of Architecture. The tour covers iconic Mies structures alongside newer additions such as State Street Village, designed by Helmut Jahn. 

During the warmer season, tickets for the tour are available for purchase here. Though not required, advance reservations are recommended, and private bookings are available. Truly enhancing the reach of the experience, the ticket price also gives entrance to the Chicago Architecture Center within seven days of your tour. 

As a piece of our own history at Optima, and as a grander piece of Modernist architecture’s history in America, the IIT campus is something that must be seen to be truly understood. Whether it’s on your own or with a tour, witnessing this iconic collection of designs is a necessity. 

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