Last week we did an article on Sir Robin Day, OBE.
German designer and architect Peter Behrens was an influence to many in the modernist movement, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and a large group of the school’s most notable alumni.
He was born in 1868 in Hamburg, North German Confederation. Like Gropius, he was born a wealthy man, and he attended prestigious European schools. Nonetheless, he would start his design career with an interest in painting, which made him influential in other artistic pursuits like graphic design.
Illustrating the illustrator
Unlike his pupil Gropius, Behrens could draw and paint with great talent, so he became a paid artist, illustrator, and book binder. He began his professional career with a commission by the German General Electric Company, for which he provided a logotype, product packaging art, and marketing material, many decades before the word “marketing” was even coined.
His design pursuits were not limited to colorful images; he also began to draw building plans. A bohemian by nature, he was invited to join the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in 1899, where he built his own house. Everything on the interior was designed by him, including the furniture.
The Colony was a sort of precursor to the Bauhaus, or at least it followed roughly the same ideals. All of the residing artists were financed by patrons, and Behrens himself was invited by the Grand Duke of Hesse.
He probably didn’t need a mecenas, as he was already wealthy, but the artistic freedom he gained from working at the Colony would prove to be essential in his development as a designer.
Notable furniture works and legacy
Behrens interior design included everything from the shelves on the walls to the towels in the bathroom, so he began designing furniture in 1901. His Bench, from that period, is easily recognizable and a precursor of his particular style.
It was followed by a set of wooden dining chairs and a dining room set that included a large sideboard, almost resembling a tall piano or an organ. The bulk of his work, including furniture made for an interior furniture exhibition in 1902, can be appreciated today at the Artists’ Colony Museum in Darmstadt and his own house, which still stands.
Behrens should be remembered as well for helping create the German Workers Federation which, much like the Bauhaus, had a hand in shaping the coming modernist movement, which would inspire other artists to keep pushing boundaries in every industry.
He also taught at the Viennese Academy of Fine Art and the Prussian Academy of Art. Like Walter Gropius, many have pointed out that his real legacy lied in all of the lessons he gave, and the students he managed to inspire. A great deal of those students have already been featured in this series, but there are still a lot that have not even been mentioned. That is how great Behrens’ legacy is.