Otti Berger, who came from Croatia, did not join the workshop until Dessau. Although almost the same age, initially she was a pupil of Stölzl. Stölzl and Albers succeeded in leaving Germany in 1931–32. And they succeeded—albeit in the case of Gunta Stölzl, under sometimes difficult financial conditions—in continuing to work as textile designers and artists, each developing a specific working practice and establish an extensive oeuvre. Berger succeeded in doing this after she had passed her journeyman's examination in 1930 and receiving her diploma from the Bauhaus. Many of her letters testify, however, to her ongoing struggle for recognition and fair remuneration for her design work and attribution in publication and sale of her designs. After a phase of artistic collaboration with Saxon and Silesian textile companies, in the autumn of 1932 Berger opened her own “atelier für textilien / stoffe für kleidung und wohnen möbel- wandstoffe bodenbelag” (atelier for textiles / fabrics for apparel and living furniture wall coverings floor coverings) in Berlin, which she also referred to as a “Laboratorium” because she attached particular importance to experimenting with the loom: for each fabric developed she created a separate concept, meaning she always found it necessary to also create a new, specially selected warp.1 From her Berlin atelier, Berger designed collections for several textile manufacturers in Germany and abroad, including for the colorful collections of the Dutch curtain weaver De Ploeg in Bergejk and the horsehair weaver Schriever in Dresden, for whom she developed a highly durable double weave2 made of artificial horsehair as upholstery material for use in airplanes, trains and ocean-going vessels, which she also patented. In 1935 Berger was refused membership of the Reichskammer der Künste on account of her Jewish ancestry, and in 1936 she was banned from working as an artisan. Compelled to leave the country, at Walter Gropius’ suggestion, in the autumn of 1937 she moved to England, where she had sporadic contact with textile companies but was unable to gain a professional foothold save for a five-week period of employment at the Helios Ltd. textile company in Bolton near Manchester.3 The following autumn she elected to return to continental Europe in order to be close to her mother in Yugoslavia who was seriously ill—she would not escape the coming conflagration. Her partner at the time, the architect Ludwig Hilberseimer, had successfully emigrated to the United States in 1938. László Moholy-Nagy was also there, and had promised Berger a management position at the textile workshop of the New Bauhaus in Chicago. From Yugoslavia Berger applied unsuccessfully for an exit visa to travel to the US. The last she was heard from was in 1941. In April 1944 she was murdered in Auschwitz.
Bauhaus Dessau, curtain fabric made of artificial silk and cotton, designed by Otti Berger, ca. 1931–32.
Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, photo: Judith Raum.
Illustration of Otti-Berger fabrics in International Textiles, August 1934, photo: Ernst Nipkow (?).
Two-sided portiere by Otti Berger, one side glossy, the other matt, ca. 1931-33. Photo: Ernst Nipkow. Harvard Art Museums / Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge MA, photo: Lara Smirek.
These biographical details are important to me as they underline a certain urgency in turning to Berger’s work. It was not only the textile medium itself that received a delayed recognition within (Bauhaus) art historiography: attention was first paid to those designers still living in the 1980s and thus able to provide a firsthand account of their work. For example, Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers still had the opportunity to donate or sell their functional fabrics and free textile works to museums and collections in order to give them lasting significance,4 or their heirs did this for them. In addition, for a long time only those textiles that had been created during the “Bauhaus period” of the individual weavers were given attention. The works of the later years—although when viewed in detail they often represent reinterpretations or further developments of designs from the Bauhaus period—were rather neglected. Most of Berger’s preserved works fall into this category, consisting mainly of fabrics designed in the period after leaving the Dessau Bauhaus.
What I would like to do at this point is to look at two collections of curtain fabrics that Otti Berger developed: one designed for the bauhaus brand and dating from 1932, during the time she worked as a teacher at the textile workshop at Bauhaus Dessau; the other dating from between 1932 and 1933 when she was a contract employee of the Swiss interior design company Wohnbedarf AG5 in Zurich, which was founded in 1931. This comparison makes clear to what extent Berger’s functionally-oriented view of textile production developed within the textile workshop of the Bauhaus (an orientation Berger herself, as a teacher in the textile workshop in 1931–32, was significantly involved in articulating), had an influence on Berger's later work. But it also shows where she broke new aesthetic ground in her later textile designs.
Both curtain fabric collections shown here contained different types of quality fabrics, differing according to price range and function (light curtain fabrics, heavy curtain fabrics or blackout curtains). Within both collections, Berger’s interest in precisely selected weaves,6 which accentuate the qualities of the yarn used, such as shine, suppleness or irregularity of twist,7 created fabrics that manage without a “pattern” and whose surfaces became an animated effect. In her later designs this was accompanied by an artistic stubbornness that could only be echoed in the last curtain fabric collection of the Bauhaus, co-designed by Lilly Reich.
A black-and-white photo of four fabric patterns provides the introduction. (Fig. 1) This is a full-page illustration from the August 1934 issue of the magazine International Textiles, published in London. The illustration is also captioned: “Otti Berger fabrics for Wohnbedarf, Zurich.” The fact Berger was named in the caption is remarkable, as this was preceded by a lengthy dispute between herself and Rudolf Graber, owner of Wohnbedarf AG since 1933, over the use of their name in advertising and sale of Wohnbedarf fabrics, as well as outstanding royalty payments. It becomes clear from a letter Berger sent to Oskar Schlemmer8 that Wohnbedarf AG had not yet agreed to grant Berger attribution for her fabrics—at least until the end of 1933. Berger wrote Schlemmer that she will remain unyielding on this point, even at the risk of damaging her business relationship with Switzerland. For the hard trades (furniture, building), other designers had already succeeded in receiving attribution—Marcel Breuer, for example, whom Berger mentions in her letter to Schlemmer. In the commercial textile field, appreciation of authorship—as Berger’s struggle shows—seemed less than self-evident to her contemporaries. The cooperation between Wohnbedarf AG and Berger had first developed in the spring of 1933 after Walter Gropius recommended Berger’s work to Sigfried Giedion.9 This was a bitter blow for Gunta Stölzl,10 who was at the time struggling to establish herself as a textile designer in Switzerland and had initially signed a contract for textile designs with Wohnbedarf AG; the company probably dissolved its relationship with Stölzl in favor of working with Berger. And it seems that Berger's business relationship was successful initially. Fabrics by Berger for Wohnbedarf AG were shown together with furniture by Alvar Aalto in a sales exhibition at Wohnbedarf AG’s Zurich branch in May 1934. She was also involved in the interior design of the cinema “Corso” in Zurich, for which she created at least one covering fabric for the theater’s bar, and her work was featured in advertisements for Otti-Berger-Stoffe bei Wohnbedarf AG that appeared in international magazines. Her letter to Oskar Schlemmer makes it clear, however, that Berger felt badly treated. As she reports, her Wohnbedarf AG contract had already been “dissolved” by the end of 1936.
Sample for the portiere designed by Otti Berger in a sample book for Wohnbedarf AG. Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, photo: Judith Raum.
Returning to the fabric advertisement in International Textiles, for this advertising campaign it was not actual curtains that were photographed in situ but individual pieces of fabric, the edges still unhemmed in order to give an impression of thickness or fineness, shine and brittleness. The pieces of fabric were draped and lit for the photographs, creating folds and contours where the light can play across the fabric’s surface. The photographs thus reveal something about the shiny or dull, opaque or transparent quality of each individual textile.11
The selection of curtains used in the advertising includes a light, washable curtain made of bourette silk (bottom), two dense curtains made of artificial silk—of which the dark one is intended as a darkening curtain (middle)—and a two-sided portiere, i.e., a dividing curtain to hang between two rooms, whose heavy fabric is shiny on one side and matte gloss on the other (top).
There is a second photo of the portiere taken by Ernst Nipkow: only this fabric can be seen here. (Fig. 2) The relationship between matte and glossy yarns and the relief-like diagonal stripes produced by the weave running across the entire width of the fabric are particularly evident in this photograph. A small sample of the portiere (only about 10 x 10 cm in size) is part of Otti Berger’s work for Wohnbedarf AG preserved at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. (Fig. 3) The fabric is of a cream white color, made from artificial silk yarn in the warp and shiny, untwisted artificial silk filament as well as matte wool bouclé yarn in the weft.12 Otti Berger preferred to use the then popular artificial silk filaments in her textiles. She often let the barely twisted yarns float over longer distances, i.e., run unbound over several warp or weft threads, so the fine filaments would spread smoothly.13 The contrasts in the present portiere are created by the partly curly, partly smooth yarns, and by the extreme luster of some yarns and the dull effect of individual yarns. Dancing, shiny dots, which appear on one side within the deeper stripes, make the fabric appear lighthearted despite all its elegance and heaviness. The fact that some of the relatively wide diagonal stripes are raised above the surface gives the curtain fabric something of a knitted appearance—a tendency towards crossing over between different craft disciplines that is often found in Berger’s designs, and which makes this portiere an idiosyncratic interpretation of the functional fabric typically used in separation curtains.
Contemporary black-and-white photograph of Otti Berger's shiny curtain fabric, photo: Anonymous, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.
Heavy, noble fabrics for windows or for room division—which, like the portiere shown here, were supposed to provide sound and temperature insulation—were generally the most expensive products within a curtain fabric collection, while the cheapest products in terms of price were simple and thin curtain fabrics made of cotton or artificial silk. The collection of woven curtain fabrics developed in 1932 by the textile workshop of the Bauhaus, the so-called “Raschkollektion,”14 contained precisely this gradation of different fabrics according to quality and price: first, at a lower price level a series of simple and inconspicuous thin curtains made of cotton or artificial silk, valorized purely by structural effects; then a series of curtain fabrics which, while aiming for a noble effect through luster and extravagant color combinations, were still relatively light; and finally, a selection of heavy curtain fabrics with complex weave patterns woven from unusual materials (lustrous or textured yarns) that were correspondingly expensive. Lilly Reich, who succeeded Gunta Stölzl as the head of the textile workshop at the beginning of 1932, determined the aesthetic formulation of this fabric collection. In her role as head of the textile workshop, Otti Berger was responsible for the technical weaving and artistic implementation of Reich’s ideas in practical workshop operations. Reich, who lacked knowledge of weaving techniques (her expertise lay in furniture and interior design, preferably using textiles) and Berger did not work together without friction. To some extent, the standards that both applied to their joint work were clearly far apart, as a report Berger penned on the development of the curtain fabric collection in question shows. Berger was particularly irritated by Reich’s recklessness regarding the use of expensive raw materials.15 The relationship between the two was permanently disturbed in 1933 when, as Berger reports, at the instigation of Reich she was the only one not to have been invited to Mies van der Rohe’s fiftieth birthday “with all the Bauhäusler.”16
Bauhaus Dessau, curtain fabric made of artificial silk and cotton, designed by Otti Berger, ca. 1931–32, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, photo: Judith Raum.
Bauhaus curtain fabric nr 201/3, cotton, design: Anonymous, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, photo: Judith Raum.
Loose samples of some fabrics from the collection of woven Bauhaus curtain fabrics from 1932 have been preserved in the Archiv der Moderne in Weimar. One of the curtains, demonstrably designed by Berger, can be seen as a forerunner or source of ideas for the portiere’s fabric just discussed. (Fig. 4) Several color combinations of the fabric existed—the one shown here is the cream-white variant. In this fabric, too, Berger used a weave repeat17 producing diagonal stripes in the fabric which run across the entire width of the fabric, enlivening the surface with elevations and depressions; she chose yarns—among them again a variant of viscose multifilament, which she also had floated here—that contrast with one another due to their sometimes curly, sometimes smooth texture. Seen from a certain distance, the stripes, which are much narrower here, tend to merge, giving the impression of a compact yet structured surface. The exclusive use of artificial silk in the weft makes this curtain fabric shine evenly on both sides—unlike the portieres—an effect well illustrated in a contemporary photograph of the fabric. (Fig. 5)
Detail of the woven bauhaus curtain fabric nr 201/3, cotton, design: Anonymous, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, photo: Judith Raum.
In the Bauhaus collection of woven curtain fabrics, the main dictum was to create standard patterns for interior design18—i.e., fabrics of lasting elegance and maximum durability. Something of the aesthetic restraint associated with this standard radiates from the fabric of the Bauhaus era. In portiere textiles designed for Wohnbedarf AG, on the other hand, more unconventional details and a certain extravagance come to the fore. Whether this material is a testimony to Berger’s willingness to experiment in her laboratory or indicates rather that designs for Wohnbedarf AG were aimed at an affluent clientele remains an open question.
Parallels in the perception of individual curtain fabric types can also be seen in the simplest fabrics of the two collections mentioned. A sample of a thin cotton curtain fabric preserved in Weimar illustrates how the textile workshop at the Bauhaus under Lilly Reich imagined good, practicable and affordable curtains for a modern living space.19 The fabric was dyed in a light brown shade, and other colors existed as well. The special weave and an over-twisted yarn20 create a dancing effect of individual vertical threads, appearing on the surface of the fabric as possessing a uniform alternation of height and offset, reviving the surface. (Fig. 6)
Sample of a bourette fabric by Otti Berger in a sample book for Wohnbedarf AG, ca. 1933, Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, photo: Judith Raum.
House Schminke, view of the winter garden with curtain fabric by Otti Berger. Photo: Ernst Nipkow. Harvard Art Museums / Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, MA, photo: Lara Smirek.
Among the curtain fabrics developed by Berger for Wohnbedarf AG was a comparably simple type of window curtain made of bourette silk. (Fig. 7) Berger also developed several color combinations for it, some with mottled yarn, others with non-mottled yarn. When seen against the light, a fabric made of bourette silk has a slightly translucent character, making it unsuitable as a blackout curtain. In addition, when irregularly spun the structure created by the weave of bourette silk optically enlivens the fabric. A comparable curtain fabric appears in a photograph Ernst Nipkow took for Berger in the Schminke House in Löbau, designed by Hans Scharoun in 1930 and completed in 1933 (Fig. 8), for which the architect had entrusted Berger with designing the furniture and curtain fabrics. In the photo, the camera looks from the sofa corner towards an adjacent glassed-in conservatory. Berger had placed a fabric that combined both separation curtain and sun curtain made of slightly translucent quality made between the living room and the conservatory. The vivid structure of the fabric, seen against the light, shows in the photograph. When backlit the light brown cotton fabric from the Bauhaus collection of curtain fabrics from 1932 was designed to produce a similar effect. (Fig. 6)
I wanted to show with my observation that a targeted, conceptual thinking through of individual types of utility materials had continuity in the work of Bauhaus graduates like Otti Berger—whether in Bauhaus times or after their departure from the institution. From my point of view, it is therefore urgently necessary to finally turn more to the post-Bauhaus creative phases.
- 1 In the construction of a fabric, the warp or warp threads are those threads which are stretched lengthwise in the loom. The weft threads are then woven at right angles between the fixed warp threads. Since it is extremely time-consuming to wind up a new warp and thread the individual threads in the loom one strand at a time, different fabrics are often woven on the same warp (e.g. a simple cotton warp). Otti Berger, on the other hand, liked to choose specific warps for the fabrics she had in mind in order to precisely influence the properties of the fabric through the choice of material. See her notes on teaching in the textile workshop at the Bauhaus Dessau, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, Otti Berger, Folder No. 4.
- 2 A double weave is a kind of woven textile in which two or more sets of warps and one or more sets of weft or filling yarns are interconnected to form a two-layered cloth.
- 3 At Helios Ltd., Berger spent five weeks representing the Swiss textile designer Marianne Straub, who after many years of service became managing director in 1947.
- 4 Or, to put it another way, in the case of Gunta Stölzl: There was still enough opportunity for clever collectors to buy her fabric samples from the Bauhaus period (there was no interest in Stölzl’s later fabrics, the Swiss phase).
- 5 Wohnbedarf AG was founded in 1931 by the architectural theorist Sigfried Giedion together with Werner Max Moser and Rudolf Graber. The company produced tubular steel furniture, carpets and fabrics designed by both Swiss and European designers. The firm operated a showroom located on the Talstraße in Zurich. Marcel Breuer was responsible for the design of these showrooms. Later, a second branch was opened in Basel. Designers such as Alfred Roth, Marcel Breuer and Aalvar Alto supplied designs for Wohnbedarf AG. Its products were high-end and could be compared with the products of contemporary firms such as Knoll Inc.
- 6 The way in which threads cross, or how many of them come to lie at the top and bottom of a woven fabric is called the weave. The basic weave types are the plain weave, the twill weave and the atlas weave.
- 7 Twisting is a yarn finishing process in which two or more individual threads, or several strands of twisted thread, are twists are twisted together. A distinction can be made depending on the intended use: smooth twisted yarns are mainly produced to improve tensile strength and uniformity, while fancy yarns are intended to embellish a fabric or to enliven its pattern.
- 8 Cf. Otti Berger to Oskar Schlemmer, 10 December 1933, Oskar Schlemmer Archive. I wish to thank Magdalena Droste for kindly providing a copy of the letter.
- 9 Cf. Walter Gropius to Gunta Stölzl, 29 July 1933, Walter Gropius Estate, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin (accessible online).
- 10 In September 1931, Gunta Stölzl, together with Gertrud Preiswerk and Heinrich Otto Hürlimann, founded the handloom S-P-H-Stoffe in Zurich. In 1932 S-P-H-Stoffe was supplying Wohnbedarf AG with fabrics for interior furnishings, but as early as 1933, however, S-P-H-Stoffe had to be liquidated due to a losses incurred due to its contract with Wohnbedarf AG. Wohnbedarf AG had “ordered too much fabric and is now complaining about quality,” as Stölzl wrote to her brother on 22 July 1933. The contract between Otti Berger and Wohnbedarf AG was concluded at the beginning of 1933, and the company presumably terminated the connection with S-P-H fabrics in spite of its pending orders. (See Magdalena Droste/Bauhaus Archiv Berlin: Gunta Stölzl, Weberei am Bauhaus und aus eigener Werkstatt, Berlin 1987, p. 34, and Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau: Gunta Stölzl. Meisterin am Bauhaus Dessau, Hatje, Stuttgart 1997, p. 256.) Although Gunta Stölzl had always held Otti Berger in high esteem on a professional level. She had already offered Berger her representation in the textile workshop of the Bauhaus Dessau in the summer of 1930 and, after her departure from the Bauhaus, had issued her with a letter of recommendation addressed to her successor. However, the two were not close friends and from 1932 onwards, as far as is known, were not in personal contact. Stölzl expressed her displeasure with Berger’s working for Wohnbedarf AG to Gropius, but never, as far as is known, to Berger personally. With other mutual acquaintances Berger inquired about Stölzl’s career in 1936 (see letter to Oskar Schlemmer dated 21 November 1936).
- 11 Berger actively used the medium of photography to disseminate her designs—on the one hand by appearing in magazines but mostly to use photography to emphasize the special characteristics of her fabrics, in which the effect of the structure produced by the weave in combination with precisely selected yarns was the important thing. For the visual dissemination of her work she collaborated with renowned photographers such as Ernst Nipkow and Walter Süßmann, who emphasized the distinctive characteristics of Berger’s work through macro-photography and the use of light and shadow, which had initially been developed by the photography department of the Bauhaus in conjunction with products designed in its textile workshop. (On the relationship between Bauhaus weaving and photography, see also T’ai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory. From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2014).
- 12 The term “filament” refers to the fine, infinitely long hair or threads (filaments) that were shot from nozzles to produce the viscose-based artificial silk of the time. Filament yarns (yarns made from countless fine filaments) differ from staple fiber yarns consisting of shorter fibers of different lengths spun together. Bouclé yarns are fancy yarns which have irregular thickenings or loops due to a special twist along the yarn.
- 13 Cellulose-based artificial silk were produced beginning in the 1880s. Finally, individual filaments—wafer-thin threads—could be obtained from nozzles, which were then combined into so-called “multifilaments.” Often, according to fashion at the time, these were not twisted (i.e. twisted into each other) or twisted only slightly. The yarns thus look like silky strands of smooth, fine hair lying next to each other. Floating threads are threads that are not bound into the fabric for a certain distance. Fabrics with long floats are generally more supple and amenable to draping.
- 14 The fabrics for this collection were developed in coordination with the appearance of the Bauhaus wallpaper, which were produced by Rasch & Co in Bramsche, Germany, starting from 1929.
- 15 See a note by Berger entitled “What had been agreed?,” Bauhaus Archive Berlin, Folder 17, Otti Berger.
- 16 See footnote 7.
- 17 The binding repeat is the repeating system according to which a binding is designed. It leads to a certain, regular patterning in the surface of the fabric.
- 18 See the article about the collection of woven Bauhaus curtain fabrics in the magazine Koralle, No. 12, 1933, p. 544.
- 19 That Otti Berger was the creator of this fabric cannot be proven with certainty, but she was in charge of the development of the entire collection.
- 20 Over-twisting during twisting, i.e. deliberately strong twisting, gives the thread an unsteady effect.