A man rarely thought of nowadays, except perhaps by design students in thesis research, Herman Muthesius, a German architect, author and diplomat, is best known outside Germany for three volumes published in 1904 and 1905 as Das englische Haus (The English House) and for promoting the tenets of the English Arts and Crafts movement in Germany after his return home after a sojourn in England – a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism such as the Bauhaus.*
That's a pretty strong statement to make about a man – "a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism" – even when one has known about him for years, but especially if all one has "known" is that he was German, that he wrote a book titled The English House that allegedly influenced the beginnings of Modernism, and that one has never read it. Such a statement could be considered the essence of foolishness, academically speaking.
I had set off looking for inglenooks, still finding the photograph (above) from the modern house in Germany intriguing and, in my professorish way, thinking about tropes for shelter and retreat (yawn) when, in one of my books, I found a late nineteenth-century English house Muthesius had actually known and written about. Something new and much more fun than tropes, I thought.
"Built in 1898-1900 as a holiday home for the Manchester brewer Sir Edward Holt, Blackwell is a masterpiece of great subtlety and artistic imagination by the Arts and Crafts architect H. M. Baillie Scott. Herman Muthesius described it in Das englische Haus (1905) as 'one of the most attractive creations that the new movement in house-building has produced,' and it is regarded as a pivotal work in the architect's career. There are references to C. F. A. Voysey in some of the vernacular detail; much of the internal decoration belongs to a late flowering of the Art Nouveau style, while the clean, unadorned lines of the exterior and the play with abstract space look forward to modernism."
"Blackwell signifies an important moment in European domestic building, when architects began to reconsider the way houses were used. The flowing open plan revolves around a large, double-height hall, a place where the family could congregate at the heart of the house, with an inglenook hearth and adjoining window seat representing warmth, solidity, and comfort. This emphasis on the hearth, with the inglenook fireplace as a theme running through the house, reflects the influence of Norman Shaw, as does the 'Old English'-style half-timbering on the wall of a small room above the inglenook. There is a certain complexity about the way the hall is compartmentalised, with areas of lower ceiling representing different functions within a single space. The billiard room occupies one end, doing away with the Victorian tradition of segregating the male domain. The dining room is a separate room beyond. Everywhere light, space, colour, and texture are carefully orchestrated to create a sense of drama. The climax comes in moving from the warm, oak-wainscoted hall into the brilliantly lit White Drawing Room, one of Baillie Scott's finest interiors and an intensely feminine room. Here, capitals, frieze, ceiling, and stained glass flow with naturalistic decoration in a delicate Art Nouveau style. The room has a great feeling of modernity and exemplifies Muthesius's claim that Baillie Scott was 'the first to have realised as an autonomous work of art.' "
Odd to think, at first glance, a house such as this, even remotely, having an influence on those who founded modernism, but some, reading the quotation, will recognize similarities with Lloyd Wright's work and would also certainly know that during those years, there was for the first time a two-way exchange of ideas about architecture, art and society, across the Atlantic, as America took its place in the world.
Muthesius's books (plural) are, in fact, a survey of British nineteenth-century domestic architecture, predominantly by Arts and Crafts architects; H M Baillie Scott, C R Mackintosh, William Morris, Norman Shaw, C A Voysey, William Lethaby, and Philip Webb.**
When he left England in 1903, Herman Muthesius continued to write about architecture and design and returned to his architectural career, concentrating on houses. For many, if not all, in the English Arts and Crafts movement, industry was rejected in favor of handcraft; in America, in the Craftsman movement, not so; and in Germany there was debate about the old way and the new (I am of necessity simplifying here, hard as it is to reduce a movement to a few words) – a debate of which Muthesius was part. During a lecture in Berlin in 1907 he extolled new construction methods and materials, things so commonplace to us nowadays – steel and reinforced concrete, the very the innards of modernism – that he was vilified by the Association for the Economic Interests of the Arts and Crafts for being perfidious about German products. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose you may well be thinking at this point – if you're still with me, that is. The fuss, also known as the "Muthesius Affair," led to Muthesius's supporters leaving the Association and founding the Deutscher Werkbund which led eventually to the creation of the Bauhaus and thence… but that's for another day.
Most of us work in, and many of us live in (like it or not) a Modernist world. And yet, madmen that we are, many of us prefer to romanticize it, quietly ignoring the fact that mid-century "modern" is now, at 60 years and counting, as historicist as is decorating with Art Nouveau or Craftsman.
*Based on Wikipedia's entry on Herman Muthesius.
** Wikipedia's entry on The English House is more extensive than I could ever cover but explains the content of Muthesius's work very well.
Quotation from text of Chapter Blackwell of The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life, by Mary Miers, Rizzoli, 2009.
Photographs are from the book and are by Country Life photographers.