The ultimate in restrained luxury from a self-taught master architect & designer, Mies van der Rohe

Posted by A de Graaf on

This is a small tribute to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 – 1969), self-taught master architect and product designer.

Born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, he soon renamed himself as part of his rapid transformation from a tradesman’s son to an architect working with Germany's cultural elite — adding “van der” and his mother’s surname “Rohe” (using the Dutch “van der”, because the German form “von” was legally reserved for those with real aristocratic lineage). Yet, he soon became known simply by his surname, Mies.

Mies was the last director of the Bauhaus, a ground-breaking German school of modern art, design and architecture. The rise of Nazism led, however,  to the closure of the school in 1933, and soon thereafter to his immigration to the US, where he later accepted the position as Head of the school of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.

Notably, Mies was one of the founding fathers of Modernism, with a special focus on clarity and simplicity in his architecture. His oeuvre includes such masterpieces as the Barcelona Pavilion (constructed in 1928), Villa Tugendhat (completed in 1930), the Farnsworth House (completed in 1951), several buildings on the IIT campus (1940s and 50s) and the Seagram Building (completed in 1958).

1950s view of the Seagram Building (source: US Library of Congress, public domain)


In his mature works, Mies used industrial materials — steel and glass — for their function and construction benefits, but arguably more so as an expression of his philosophical ideas about architecture.

One example is the Farnsworth House. Here, the perfectly-finished white steel-columns make use of invisible welds, thereby holding the horizontal elements as if by magic. Functionally, these columns serve as stilts to elevate the building above floodwater from the nearby river, when needed. (Climate change now necessitates more drastic measures, but that is a story for another day.)

Examine the columns more closely, however, and one can find a deeper philosophy, even Classical resonances. One can see a thoroughly modern tribute to the ancient Greeks — the care whereby they designed their temples and carved their columns, often from a solid block of white marble, but stripped from its adornment and forged in the ovens of the modern industrial age.

Farnsworth House, steel column (unknown photographer, used for illustrative purposes only)


The Farnsworth House (courtesy Victor Grigas, who also provided the cover image [CC-licensed])


The Farnsworth House when the nearby river floods its banks (courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation, used for illustrative purposes only)


Mies was also a talented product designer, having created furniture as a spiritual match to his architecture, with pieces such as the Barcelona chair, Barcelona coach, Brno chair and MR chair — today widely regarded as timeless classics.

A 2011-article in the Architectural Review rightly asked: “Was there any other modern architect with such a sense of restrained luxury as Mies?”. Click here to read the AR article in full.


Room, showing the MR Chair™ designed by Mies van der Rohe, with the Sound-Aesthetics WiFi-speaker in the background


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