Inventory Number: ITH001
Size: 49h x 30w x 40d in
Year Made: c. 930
Hand-carved, this sculptural stand made by artist Hans Itel puzzles even the most expert eyes as it looks overbuilt for its intended purpose. The curves are organic yet assertive, with angular facets and unexpected returns that make it appear simultaneously primordial and avant-garde.
Hand-carved from a considerable volume of laminated wood, this sculptural stand made by Hans Itel puzzles even the most expert eyes as it looks overbuilt for its intended purpose. The curves are organic yet assertive, with angular facets and unexpected returns that make it appear simultaneously primordial and avant-garde. Itel’s stand exemplifies the Dornach tradition, an extraordinary, overlooked aesthetic that originated in Dornach, Switzerland in the early twentieth century.[i] Rejecting the formalist, functional approach of the Bauhaus and much of modernist design in favor of the Romantic mysticism of Goethe, Itel--along with Siegfried Pütz, Felix Kayser, and others--created an alternative modernism that embraced humanity, affection, and the spiritual condition. At the center of this movement was Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher, architect, and critic who sought to synthesize science and spirituality.
Beginning in 1914, artists were drawn to the Goetheanum, a cultural and artistic center in Dornach designed by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).[ii] Steiner was a leader of the Anthroposophical Society, and the Goetheanum served as the international headquarters for its members. Anthroposophy (from anthropo-, human, and sophia, wisdom) was part philosophy, part mysticism, and focused on an intellectual and creative pursuit of the spiritual world. In Steiner’s words, it was “something born from man to serve his whole being.”[iii] Steiner’s most well-known legacy is the Waldorf method of education, but his influence on the arts was vast. Anthroposophers believed in a broad synthesis of the arts, and the Goetheanum housed performance spaces, a library, educational facilities, and artists’ studios. After the original building burned in 1922 Steiner designed a second structure, which survives to the present day. Both buildings were significant visual expressions of his philosophies.
Steiner was a prolific writer and speaker who authored twenty-eight books and delivered more than 6000 lectures.[iv] From these texts and Steiner’s artistic output, it is possible to identify tenets of anthroposophy related to furniture design. Like William Morris before him, Steiner reacted to industrialization and materialism by idealizing the craftsmen of the middle ages and sought spiritual renewal for the creators and inhabitants of the built environment. He also believed in the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art–in which there is no separation between art and design. Anthroposophical art presupposed an unconscious interaction between mind and matter and believed that furnishings affected the body, mind, and spirit. Steiner also maintained that the arts were most “socially effective” when in use by the people. Far from being a luxury, art was a spiritual necessity.
For furniture design, an anthroposophical approach meant equally considering functional utility, spiritual function, and individual artistic expression. As designers absorbed Steiner’s teachings, they developed individual approaches to forms that were born of these shared values. A few of most recognizable stylistic traits of Dornach furniture designs include:
Evidence of the creator’s soul in the work.
Design components express “gestures of affection” for one another. They lean in with rounded and beveled edges.
No element exists in isolation. Lively, organic relationships are favored over stark modularity or repetition of identical forms.
Materials from the earth (wood) are handled with care
Double curves, which transition from convex to concave, give surfaces an organic, living plasticity.
The uppermost portion of a piece of furniture corresponds to the human head and mind. As such it often plays a spiritually uplifting role and is shaped accordingly.
Designers are subject to unconscious arithmetic operations. The geometries of art are happenstance, like those found in nature: the Golden Ratio in a nautilus or a pentagon in a five-pointed leaf
Visual expressions of movement akin to musical rhythm.
Architectural and spiritual equilibrium.[v]
Hans Itel (1898–1988) was born in Schlieren, near Zurich and first encountered Steiner through his writings. In 1922, with Ernst Aisenpreis, Itel designed and built a home in Dornach, called Villa Dornröschen, complete with built-in furnishings in the Dornach style. Although the villa was tragically demolished in 1999, some of Itel’s creations survived. Among these was the powerfully expressive table, which Itel carved from stack-laminated wood. Others employed this technique as well, including Steiner, to create large sculptural objects. Itel’s table exemplifies the concepts of visual music and a living surface of convex and concave curves.
Siegfried Pütz (1907–1979) was raised in Berlin and primed to find his way to Dornach. His mother was a member of the Anthroposophical Society, and she sent her son to a Waldorf School in Stuttgart, where he met Steiner. Pütz studied sculpture at the Kunsthochscule Karlsruhe and in the Dornach workshop of Oswald Dubach (1884–1950). Multitalented, Pütz embodied the anthroposophical approach to art as social practice. From the late 1920s through the 1960s he not only made furnishings but also taught at the Ottersberger Rudolf-Steiner-Schule and became an early practitioner of art therapy. In 1967 he founded the College of Social Work in Art in Ottersberg. Pütz created furniture from several workshops across at least three decades. The grand bookcase is stamped “Gechínger Werkstätte” for the town of Gechíngen, in Calw. The raised crest spanning three sets of shelves exemplifies the uplifting impulse of many Dornach Designs. Together with the beveled bosses at the base, the crest unifies the tripartite bookcase. Pütz also worked under the studio names Raumkunst, in Karlsruhe, and Kunstättenstätten, in Ulm and Stockach.
Felix Kayser (1892–1980) approached anthroposophical design from a different perspective than the artist/sculptors Itel and Pütz. Kayser trained and practiced as an architect prior to joining the Anthroposophical Society in 1920. He founded an architectural office in Stuttgart in 1927 through which he designed buildings, interiors, and furnishings in the Dornach style. Perhaps due to his orientation as architect, who routinely designs things for others to build, Kayser succeeded in commercializing his furniture. Between 1928 and 1933, he created more than 200 designs for production by the Stuttgart company, Schiller-Möbel. Kayser believed that his customers were primarily German members of the Anthroposophical Society (of which there were thousands) but also “outsiders” who simply appreciated lively organic design as a counterpoint to the sobriety of then popular Bauhaus style. A suite of faceted dining furniture, made in Stuttgart in the late 1920s and attributed to Kayser, remained in the family of its original owners, Elisabeth and Carl Brestowski, through 2016. Carl Brestowski was active in the anthroposophical movement; their purchase of the dining suite is a perfect example of the faithful patronage Kayser anticipated.
Rudolf Steiner died in 1925, but his disciples carried on their teacher’s artistic work, ensuring that his philosophy of design persisted. Some became teachers at Waldorf schools and imparted anthroposophical ideas to young pupils. Many of the Dornach designers were negatively affected by the rise of the National Socialist Party, which banned the Anthroposophical Society in Germany on November 1, 1935. Nevertheless, the international movement survived the war and continued to inspire designers. The American studio furniture luminary, Wharton Esherick, is just one of many examples of Dornach’s far-reaching influence.[vi]
[i] Reinhold J. Fäth, Dornach Design: Möbelkunst 1911 bis 2011 (Dornach: Futurum Verlag, 2011). This remains the principal study of this movement and unless otherwise noted, basic information is culled from this text.
[ii] Fäth, Dornach Design, 26. The artists' studios in Dornach were inaugurated June 17, 1914.
[iii] Rudolf Steiner, “Anthroposophy and the Visual Arts,” Lecture, The Hague, April 9, 1922, translated and published in The Golden Blade (1962) accessed via Rudolf Steiner Archive, GA 82.
[iv] Rudolf Steiner, Architecture: as a Synthesis of the Arts, trans. Johanna Collis trans. (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999); English translation edited with an introduction by Christian Thal-Jantzen, (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999), vii.
[v] Fäth, Dornach Design, 27–36.
[vi] Fäth, Dornach Design, 141-57, devotes an entire chapter to Esherick.