"The Werkbund" by Frederic Schwartz

The Werkbund Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War Frederic Schwartz

Publication date:
25 Dec 1996
Yale University Press
272 pages: 254 x 190mm
80 b/w illus.


During the period before World War I, the German Werkbund was at the center of attempts to forge new theories of architecture and design in light of the momentous technological and economic developments of modernity. In this fascinating book, Frederic J. Schwartz explores the ideological and aesthetic positions at the core of debates that embroiled the prominent architects, critics, sociologists, economists, and politicians who had united in the Werkbund during this pivotal era.

Taking the Werkbund out of the shadow of 1920s developments in architecture and design that have received more attention, Schwartz casts new light on this earlier historical movement. He shows that the concerns of the group went far beyond aesthetics, as design became a major testing ground for a new self-consciousness about the effects of consumerism and commodification in modern culture. Schwartz explores how a theoretical dialogue developed between the Werkbund and sociologists such as Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart, how economists' ideas about the cultural nature of the consumer market led to an ill-fated call for the development of "types," and how a group of "individualists" within the organization developed an opposing position by taking into account changes in copyright and trademark laws that had begun to govern the economic use of visual form in quite concrete ways. It is to the debates in and around the Werkbund, Schwartz asserts, that we must look to find important roots of the mass culture theory associated with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and other thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Frederic J. Schwartz is lecturer in art history at University College, London.

"The 'culture industry' began life as one of man's terms. With masterful clarity and new insight, Frederic Schwartz writes its genealogy, showing how the industrial and intellectual energies of the Werkbund contributed to the formulation of a critique and a culture for industry. Its magical, magnetic fascination was far-reaching. Many, including Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, would have to feel its effects. Outside Germany it would have a long run. We are still living with all of it."?Molly Nesbit, Associate Professor, Vassar College

"In this rich study, the impact of the Werkbund reverberates well beyond the confines of design and architectural history. Frederic Schwartz convincingly maps out the crucial historical relationship between the practical and ideological project of the Werkbund and subsequent critical culture. The book significantly revises our understanding of the origins of the most influential theories of consumer society."?Jonathan Crary, Columbia University

"The Werkbund . . . does reward any reader who takes the time and is immensely important in the continuing debate on mass culture today."?Communication Arts

"Of interest to historians of social, cultural, and economic theory as well as to those of architecture and art."?Choice

"A densely argued but accessible text, highly theorized but accountable to intelligibility, a text which invites us to reconsider the respective roles and status of production and consumption, of Style and Fashion, during the period. . . . For this reader the work is a model of how design history can be written, responsible, as it is, to the historically specific and admirably theoretically informed. It is also an important contribution to German studies in English, adding to our awareness of the extraordinary quality of the cultural debate not only in this area but in related areas as well, from the pre-Werkbund era through to the Frankfurt School."?Martin Gaughan, Journal of Design History

"This is an extremely interesting book. . . . Schwartz skillfully unfolds the first 'discussion of mass culture' and shows that cultural despair is not new."?Charlotte Skene-Catling, Burlington Magazine

"Beyond simply mastering a reading list, the author has composed a book that I consider easily the most thought-provoking book I have read in a year."?Duncan Berry, New Criterion

"Schwartz's book is a model monograph, presenting exceptionally complex material without ever being reduced to one attitude or another. Which is why his exposition has not merely historical significance but is highly topical to boot."?Geert Bekaert, archis

"[This is a] work that is erudite in its scholarship and adventurous in its argumentation. It is a decisive contribution not only to the literature on the Werkbund but to the history and theory of design as well."?Barry M. Katz, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

"Recent years have witnessed a dramatic shift in attitude and approach . . . as the polemic tone of early postmodernism has given way to more historically sensitive re-readings of modernist futures past. Frederic Schwartz's remarkable book . . . is an excellent example of this cultural sea change."?Paul Betts, Historian

"This book is the most comprehensive analysis of the Werkbund yet to have been published in English."?Louise Campbell, AA Files

"One of the most penetrating and far-reaching investigations of the Werkbund yet written."?John A. Stuart, Design Book Review