100 Years of Adjustable Light
Museum of Applied Arts Cologne
14 January – 24 February 2019
Some twenty years ago, the short-term Ulm student and long-time Bauhaus researcher Eckhard Neumann is known to have claimed that, “Bauhaus has been gnawed to the bone”. We can be sure that this will not prevent the art-historical body snatchers of 2019 from dressing the skeleton in yet another new, but stinking, uniform. Explicitly, but not only in terms of the history of mentality, Bertolt Brecht’s “Legend of the Dead Soldier”, written at approximately the same time as the founding of Bauhaus, springs to mind. The doctor or in museum language – the curator – shall prove his worth on the corpse. Hurry then, because any attempt to profit from the Bauhaus inevitably entails cultural bulimia.
As it is, the real or supposed discoveries, such as those presented as recently as 2018, in Art magazine (Hin Bredendieck) or AD magazine (Lou Loeber and so on and so forth), have already given some of us a bad stomach. Not to speak of the ubiquitous nuisance that students of art history or graphic design at universities are currently tormented with in their winter and summer semesters.
With the exhibition “100 Years of Adjustable Light. The Origin and Topicality of Flexible Lighting” the Museum of Applied Arts Cologne is attempting a somewhat different approach. For some years now, on the occasion of the furniture fair, it has set aside space for smaller manufacturers such as Nils Holger Moormann or designers such as Stefan Diez. This time David Einsiedler’s Hamburg manufactory is not showcasing Bauhaus products in Cologne, but those that made them possible. This time, the spotlight is on workshop lights formerly manufactured in Thuringia with the stereotypically German name that held no promise of a new era – “Midgard” – not written in lower case, but in trademark good school handwriting that defined the brand. The Midgard lamps (the product name conjures up the Wieland saga, whose scenes were at the time located in central Germany and equated German with Germanic) are some of the first adjustable articulated lamps ever produced. Their angled reflectors skilfully ensure light control, they are easy to clean and, let me say this, functionally superior to the lamps produced by Bauhaus, such as the Kandem lamps. In Dessau, where they were used in the workshops, this was also appreciated. Architects, artists, and typographers such as Hannes Meyer, Lyonel Feininger and Jan Tschichold also benefited from their advantages.
Strangely enough, for a long time Midgard was hardly mentioned in or even absent from design stories. No doubt, the production site in the later GDR had a role to play here, but the lamps were not fully appreciated there either, even though the company founded by Curt Fischer became a successful foreign exchange earner with its later designs. The Midgard, this product of a small, medium-sized company, certainly raises questions, for example, about the relationship between machine aesthetics and modernity. The engineer and designer Fischer had an affinity with the former, while his relationship with the latter was likely more commercial.
The exhibition was organised and not curated by Thomas Edelmann, for many years editor-in-chief of the Design Report and hence a man who knows his stuff. He places Midgard in the context of contemporary lighting designs, primarily of German origin, and complements them with a comprehensive collection of single finds from other sources. George Carwardine’s Anglepoise is included of course, but some American or French designs are nonetheless missing. Putting aside this one quibble, the Cologne exhibition is definitely enlightening as far as the 1920s are concerned. And if you’ve missed something, you can catch up at home by taking a look at the free catalogue, which will no doubt be followed up by a more extensive publication on Midgard.