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Wood in Unexpected Places: Creative Uses Beyond Flooring and Furnishings

Wood in Unexpected Places: Creative Uses Beyond Flooring and Furnishings


Modernist Architecture and Art: Villa Tugendhat

Some months back, we took a short trip to Prague. Being in sort-of-close proximity, we could not miss a visit to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece of modernism, Villa Tugendhat. I had read about the house, as it is a very important part of Mies’ oeuvre and an outstanding example of both functionalism and International Style architecture. I have seen many photos of the villa, but even the most beautiful photos could not prepare me for this experience. I could only imagine it must have felt like living in art.

Set back from the street with a rather extensive terrace of Italian travertine tiles, the building looks long and low. There is no entry door in sight. A semi-circular wall of milky-colored glass extends down the façade to the left. From this vantage point beyond the covered area of the terrace, you can see the city of Brno. It is perfectly framed.

Villa Tugendhat was commissioned by newlyweds Grete and Fritz Tugendhat in 1928. Both came from wealthy families of Brno textile industrialists who had a significant influence on the industrialization of Czechoslovakia between the wars. Grete’s father, Alfred Löw-Beer, purchased a villa along with a large plot of land in 1913. In 1929, he gifted his daughter that exclusive plot of land. The hillside terrain with an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the historic skyline of Brno would be only part of his gift. He would also finance the construction of a house.

Architectural Vision and Modernist Clients

We arrived a bit early and were told we could have a walk around the garden while we waited. It was here that we were able to really understand how unique this house was in terms of architectural vision, wholly supported by modernist clients. This is much more than a home built into a hillside. It is perfection in terms of structure, construction, and placement into the natural landscape.

Standing here, we were able to see that the façade from the street is actually the third floor of the villa, very closed and private to outsiders. The hillside has quite a slope, and consequently, the other two floors are completely hidden from street view. As you may have imagined, the almost entirely glass floor is the main living space. From here, we took one of the garden paths for a closer look through the glass wall into the winter garden. I remember seeing photos of the conservatory from the interior, but never from the outside. Nose against glass, you still cannot see past the green leaves of the potted plants that make up this indoor garden along the living space. Wonderfully private.

In 1969, Grete Tugendhat spoke at a lecture given as part of an exhibition dedicated to the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I think her words best describe why they chose him to be their architect: “From the first moment of our discussions, it was decided that he would build the house – his personality had such a great impact on us. He had a calm, self-confident sense of certainty which was instantly persuasive. From the manner in which he spoke about his projects, we realized that we were dealing with a genuine artist.”

Interior Design and Furnishings

The Tugendhats met with Mies in his studio on New Year’s Eve 1928, where they received the completed plan for the project. Grete applied and was granted permission to build on October 26th, 1929. The couple moved in to their dream home on December 1st, 1930. This seems like an incredibly short period of time given how structurally, spatially, and technologically advanced this house would be. It is indeed an architectural wonder.

Tucked neatly behind the curve of the milk glass wall on the street level is the main entrance. The Italian travertine continues inside the entryway from the outdoor terrace, creating a feeling of a freely flowing open space. As soon as we step inside Villa Tugendhat, we have fallen for it. We have only gotten as far as the entrance hall, but our eyes are literally stuck on some warm wood goodness.

We are greeted by a gorgeous rosewood veneer wall and some iconic furniture pieces which may be familiar to you if you are a fan of Bauhaus design – a round MR 140 table with a black polished glass top and two tubular steel cantilever armchairs of the Stuttgart type, now the MR 20. Though much of the furniture was made specifically for Villa Tugendhat, Mies used his MR series of furniture throughout the villa. It represents some of his earliest steel furniture designs.

The interiors of Villa Tugendhat were trusted to Mies’ then working and personal partner, Lilly Reich. This was not her first project with Mies. Incidentally, they were working together on the Barcelona Pavilion simultaneously. Here, she focused on the interior design and was the co-creator of a range of Mies’ furniture pieces. Another extraordinary woman of the time, Lilly Reich was already a well-established modern designer, opening her own studio in 1914 and becoming the first woman member of the board of the Deutscher Werkbund by 1920.

Functionalism and Modernist Materials

For the first time in the history of architecture, a residential house was built with a steel support structure of 29 cruciform columns on a cross-shaped floor plan. Mies executed his new functionalist concept, doing away with load-bearing interior walls and allowing him the advantages he was acutely occupied with at the time – a free plan that could change from floor to floor, connection with the outside garden without obstruction, but most importantly, successful use of glass walls.

There is something both beautiful and reassuring about the repetition of the shiny chrome-clad cruciform columns in the living area. The dark organic shape of the Makassar ebony wall encircles the round dining table, creating a separate area inside the expanse. Its curve stands out in this house of taut plane surfaces and rectilinear forms.

Aside from Mies’ personality and his forward-thinking for this original construction, the Tugendhats were particularly impressed by his feeling for materials. In 1932, George Nelson wrote a series of articles with the idea of introducing the general public in America to the most modern buildings and architects in Europe. He referred without hesitation to Villa Tugendhat as a masterpiece, “perhaps the best Modern house ever built.” He mentions the onyx wall as one of the things that Mies was most proud of.

The onyx wall is the most exquisite example of that rich, rare material Mies was so enamored with. It is spectacular and, in my mind, the showstopper of the house. It is captivating and unexpected. I was immediately drawn to its shimmering surface and how it captured the light. Behind the wall are an office, library, and the adjoining winter garden, but in front of this onyx stunner, with the furniture meticulously selected and placed, any thought of work melts away.

Technological Advancements and Lighting

In Villa Tugendhat, Mies’ use of light, both natural and artificial, go far beyond lighting fixtures. He installed two enormous panels of floor-to-ceiling glass that, with a flip of a switch, could be retracted down into the floor. This literally opened up the room and connected the interior with the garden outside, one of the most impressive technological advances of this house.

Mies designed every light, all stamped with his studio mark, except for one – the PH Lamp by Poul Henningsen, which he used throughout the entirety of the living space. Mies believed this lamp to be revolutionary in design for creating pleasant, glare-free light.

The tubular-shaped wall fixture of the same milk glass and chrome could be found in all of the private areas. Mies used these to perfection in many different settings – over beds, vanities, mirrors, and in bathrooms. The hanging lamp with a more typical lamp shade in parchment seems to be a one-off, hanging in Grete’s eldest daughter’s room and having more of a craft than industrial feel to it.

A House Divided: War, Occupation, and Restoration

The Tugendhats were able to live in their Modernist dream house for a short eight years. Before the onset of WWII and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Tugendhats left Brno and their beloved home in 1938. In October 1939, the house was confiscated by the Gestapo and became property of the German Reich in 1942. The cavalry unit of the Red army took the house over in 1945, housing horses in the main living area and on the technical floor. Whatever remained of the furniture was used as firewood. You can imagine the devastation the house faced, not only being used as stables but also being confronted with war.

After the war, the structure was repaired a bit and housed a private dance school. In 1950, it came under the ownership of the Czech state and was made into a rehabilitation center for children. In 1969, an exhibition on the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was held at the Brno House of Arts, and Grete returned from Switzerland to contribute to the exhibition with her famous speech. The villa was declared a National Cultural Monument in 1995 and was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001.

There were two periods of restoration, the final taking place between 2010-2012. In this last painstaking restoration period, every single element of the house had been restored to its original design. To be able to see this house as Mies’ original vision was an incredible experience.

The Wood House: Dreaming of Villa Tugendhat

It was precisely at the moment standing in front of the onyx wall that we both realized something. And for the first time since we bought the Wood House, we allowed ourselves to dream a little dream. Oh yes, this would do nicely – walls of glass, rare materials, and technological advancements that still impress today. While we may not be able to recreate the grandeur of Villa Tugendhat, it has certainly provided the inspiration we needed to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible with wood in our own home.

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