Egon Eiermann – Designer and Architect

01.03.2019

The Architect

When the German architect and designer Egon Eiermann (1904-1970) first made his name internationally at the Brussels World Exhibition with eight glass and steel pavilions created in collaboration with the Bauhaus architect Sep Ruf, large parts of Europe were still in ruins after the horrors of World War II. At the time, he was already one of the most trend-setting German architects; before and during as well as after the war, he contributed to the construction of buildings of great importance for his country and his age. Eiermann graduated from the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1927, and from an early stage, he was fascinated by the ideas of the modern masters and their dogmatic attitudes to architecture – including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. But he differed with them on several issues, including the use of concrete. Thus, he came to represent the second generation of modern German architecture with its own style, based on a non-dogmatic, humanist view of architecture and its purpose.

Eiermann was unsentimental, a rationalist and a functionalist at the same time, and unlike many architects of the day, he did not intend his buildings to remain standing forever Above all, they should give way to others. Moreover, he did not want his buildings to remain as eternal monuments to a certain era of architecture. According to him, one should be able to tear them down and reuse the materials. He saw architecture as an expression of the time in which we live. Something that should be exploited fully, as long as it’s there. But also something that, like all life, will perish sooner or later.

The German pavilion at the World Exhibition, Brussels, Belgium, 1958

Even so, his pure modernist architecture had an enormous impact on post-war German architecture. He became especially wellknown for the building of the new Gedächtnis- Kirche in Berlin, which became a symbol of West Berlin in the post-war years. The original church had been bombed so that only a shell of the building remained (and was thus nicknamed The Hollow Tooth), and during the years 1957-1963, Eiermann erected a tight octagonal tower, a hexagonal church interior, and adjacent square buildings, later nicknamed The Lipstick Box and The Powder Box by Berliners – a popular destination for Western tourists. Eiermann’s other important buildings include the Ciba AG factory in Wehr/Baden (1958), the Bonn parliament building (constructed 1965-1969), and the German embassy in Washington DC (constructed 1962-1964, and the only Eiermann building outside Germany). Some buildings were even erected after his death, including the IBM headquarters in Stuttgart, and the Olivetti administration building in Frankfurt am Main (constructed in 1972).

A common feature of his rich architectural work was a striking lightness, and open, inviting constructions. All of his buildings were constructed with an approach and a sensitivity to materials; he stretched them to their limits, while keeping a balance between a tight exterior and a beautiful, harmonic interior where colours and materials such as steel, glass and wood were all equally important. Elements that recur in his furniture design.

Brochure from Wilde + Spieth, 1954

The Designer

Egon Eiermann was a perfectionist to the smallest detail, and like several of his contemporary designers, not least the Dane Arne Jacobsen and the American married couple Charles and Ray Eames, he also created the interior for several of the buildings he constructed. The difference was that unlike the others, he did not become internationally recognised for his furniture until many years after his death. But then, he was known for being a work-horse without comparison, and a perfectionist to the degree that some of his projects were started all over again if they weren’t good enough. Maybe this contributed to his death in 1970 in Baden Baden, where he died from heart failure at the age of 65 – and was buried in a coffin in pure style, designed by himself.

Fortunately, he also managed to design a large range of furniture. Some of the early examples include the three-legged chair SE 42 from 1949, and the swivel chairs SGB 197 and 197 R – the latter as part of the project for the West-German pavilion at the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958. Other works included the E10 Basket Chair (1954), designed for the exhibition Wie Wohnen in Karlsruhe, and not least the SE 18 Folding Chair, probably Eiermann’s most well-known chair ever, designed for the German producer Wilde + Spieth. The chair won The Good Design Award at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1953, and the silver medal at the Triennale in Milan in 1954.

Egon Eiermann, Baden-Baden, Germany, in front of his house, 1968

In the following years, Egon Eiermann designed more iconic chairs and tables in close collaboration with Wilde + Spieth, using plywood and steel as materials. Posterity has embraced these as modern classics, cherished by all kinds of architects, designers, stylists, and design lovers all over the world for the unique meeting between stringent and organic forms, high quality and beautiful colours. An obvious element of Eiermann’s view on design was the emphasis on both function and ergonomics, and he was uncompromising, when it came to finding the perfect form. Another excellent example of this is the working table Eiermann 1, consisting of a graphic, light but robust steel frame, and a tabletop that can be changed as required. This table, he drew for his architecture students at the Technische Hochschule. In 1965, they drew the table Eiermann 2 for him; with its more symmetrical frame, it was better used as a dining or meeting table.

Festival hall in Bern, Switzerland, with 4000 folding chairs SE 18, 1954

Eiermann’s legacy

In 1947, Egon Eiermann became a Professor of Architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, and with his charismatic personality he managed to inspire thousands of students who flocked to his renowned lectures from near and far to learn more about his at the same time warm and rational view of architecture and design. Today, there is no doubt that Egon Eiermann’s posthumous reputation as an architect as well as designer is the story of a man who uncompromisingly strived for the best, every time he started on a new project, be it design or architecture. And even if some of his buildings have perished, his iconic furniture has been produced in such a good quality that they will be passed on through generations. 

Southern German broadcast with orchestra chairs from Wilde + Spieth