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Mies Van Der Rohe

Mies Van Der Rohe Biography

born Aachen, Germany 1886 died Chicago, IL (USA) 1969

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany in 1886. He worked in the family stone-carving business before he joined the office of Bruno Paul in Berlin. He entered the studio of Peter Behrens in 1908 and remained until 1912. Under Behrens' influence, Mies developed a design approach based on advanced structural techniques and Prussian Classicism. He also developed a sympathy for the aesthetic credos of both Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl group. He borrowed from the post and lintel construction of Karl Friedrich Schinkel for his designs in steel and glass. Mies worked with the magazine G which started in July 1923.

He made major contributions to the architectural philosophies of the late 1920s and 1930s as artistic director of the Werkbund-sponsored Weissenhof project and as Director of the Bauhaus. Famous for his dictum 'Less is More', Mies attempted to create contemplative, neutral spaces through an architecture based on material honesty and structural integrity. Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies achieved his vision of a monumental 'skin and bone' architecture. His later works provide a fitting denouement to a life dedicated to the idea of a universal, simplified architecture Mies died in Chicago, Illinois in 1969.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture. Mies, like many of his post WW I contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. He created an influential Twentieth-Century architectural style, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity. His mature buildings made use of modern materials such as industrial steel and plate glass to define austere but elegant spaces. He developed the use of exposed steel structure and glass to enclose and define space, striving for an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of open space. He called his buildings "skin and bones" architecture. He sought a rational approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design, and is known for his use of the aphorisms "Less is more" and "God is in the details".

Mies worked in his father's stone-carving shop and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin joining the office of interior designer Bruno Paul. He began his architectural career as an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive German culture. His talent was quickly recognized and he soon began independent commissions, despite his lack of a formal college-level education. A physically imposing, deliberative, and reticent man, Ludwig Mies renamed himself as part of his rapid transformation from a tradesman's son to an architect working with Berlin's cultural elite, adding the more aristocratic surname "van der Rohe". He began his independent professional career designing upper class homes in traditional Germanic domestic styles. He admired the broad proportions, regularity of rhythmic elements, attention to the relationship of the manmade to nature, and compositions using simple cubic volumes of the early nineteenth century Prussian Neo-Classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, while dismissing the eclectic and cluttered classical so common at the turn of the century.

But after World War I, Mies began, while still designing traditional custom homes, a parallel experimental effort in modernist design, joining his avant-garde peers in the long-running search for a new style for a new industrial democracy. The traditional styles were under attack by progressive theorists since the mid-nineteenth century, primarily for attaching ornament unrelated to a modern structure's underlying construction. Their criticism gained substantial cultural credibility after the disaster of WW I, widely seen as a failure of the imperial leadership of Europe. The classical revival styles were particularly reviled by many as the architectural symbol of a now-discredited aristocratic system. Boldly abandoning ornament altogether, Mies made a dramatic debut with his stunning competition proposal for the faceted all-glass Friedrichstrasse skyscraper in 1921, followed by a curved version in 1922. He continued with a series of brilliant pioneering projects, culminating in his two European masterworks: the temporary German Pavilion for the Barcelona exposition in 1929 (a reproduction is now built on the original site) and the elegant Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, completed in 1930.

While continuing his traditional design practice Mies began to work with the progressive design magazine G which started in July 1923. He developed prominence as architectural director of the Werkbund, organizing the influential Weissenhof prototype modernist housing exhibition. He was also one of the founders of the architectural association Der Ring.

His modernist thinking was influenced by the aesthetic credos of Russian Constructivism with their ideology of "efficient" sculptural constructions using modern industrial materials. Mies found appeal in the use of simple rectilinear and planar forms, clean lines, pure use of color, and the extension of space around and beyond interiors expounded by the Dutch De Stijl group. In particular, the layering of functions in space and the clear articulation of parts as expressed by Gerrit Rietveld appealed to Mies. Like other architects in Europe, Mies was enthralled by the free-flowing spaces which encompass their outdoor surroundings and the open floor plans of the American Prairie Style work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The theories of Adolf Loos found resonance with Mies, particularly the ideas of eradication of ornament and the casting off of the superficial, the use of unadorned but rich materials, the nobility of anonymity, and an admiration for the unfettered pragmatism of America. He joined the avant-garde Bauhaus design school as their director of architecture, adopting and developing their application of simple geometric forms in the design of useful objects.

Mies designed modern furniture pieces using new industrial technologies that have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, and the Brno chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames. During this period, he collaborated closely with interior designer and companion Lilly Reich.

Opportunities for commissions dwindled with the worldwide depression after 1929. In the early 1930s, Mies served briefly as the last Director of the faltering Bauhaus, at the request of his friend and competitor Walter Gropius. After 1933, Nazi political pressure soon forced Mies to close the government-financed school, a victim of its previous association with socialism, communism, and other progressive ideologies. He built very little in these years (one built commission was Philip Johnson's New York apartment); his style was rejected by the Nazis as not "German" in character. Frustrated and unhappy, he left his homeland reluctantly in 1937 as he saw his opportunity for any future building commissions vanish, accepting a residential commission in Wyoming and then an offer to head an architectural school in Chicago. When the refugee from the heavy-handed and constricting order of the Nazi government arrived in the United States after 30 years of practice in Germany, his reputation as a pioneer of modern architecture was already established by American promoters of the international style. His architecture struck a harmonious note with a progressive American sub-culture, and Frank Lloyd Wright now had a serious competitor to his position as America's greatest living architect.

Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois where he was appointed as head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology - IIT). One of his conditions for taking this position was that he would be commissioned to design the new buildings of the campus. Some of his most famous buildings still stand there, including Alumni Hall and S.R. Crown Hall, the home of IIT's School of Architecture. In 1944, he became an American citizen, completing his severance from his native Germany. His 30 years as an American architect reflect a more consistent and mature approach towards achieving his goal of a new architecture for the 20th Century. He focused his efforts on the idea of enclosing large open "universal" spaces with clearly ordered structural frameworks, featuring manufactured steel shapes infilled with glass. His early projects at the IIT campus and for developer Herb Greenwald opened the eyes of Americans to a style that culturally resonated as a natural progression of the almost forgotten 19th century Chicago School style. His architecture, with origins in the socialist International style became an accepted mode of building for large American corporations.

His most significant projects in the US include the residential towers of 860-880 Lake Shore Dr, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and other structures at IIT, all in and around Chicago, and the Seagram Building in New York. These iconic works became the prototypes for his other projects.

Between 1946 and 1951 Mies van der Rohe designed and built the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat for an independent professional woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth outside of Chicago. Here, Mies explored the relationship between the individual, his shelter, and nature. This masterpiece showed the world that exposed industrial structural steel and glass were materials capable of great architecture. The glass pavilion is raised five feet above a floodplain next to the Fox River, surrounded by forest and rural prairies. The highly crafted pristine white structural frame and all-glass walls define a simple rectangular interior space, letting nature and light envelop the interior space. A wood paneled core (housing mechanical equipment, kitchen, fireplace, and toilets) is positioned within the open space to define the living, dining and sleeping spaces without using actual walls or rooms. No partitions touch the surrounding glass enclosure. Full height draperies on a perimeter track provide shading and privacy when and where desired. The house has been described as sublime, a temple hovering between heaven and earth, a poem, a work of art. The Farnsworth House and its 60 acre wooded site was purchased at auction for US$7.5 million by preservation groups in 2004 and is now operated by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois as a public museum. The influential building spawned hundreds of modernist glass houses, most notably the Glass House by Philip Johnson, located near New York City and now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The iconic Farnsworth House is considered among Mies's greatest works. The house is an embodiment of Mies' mature vision of modern architecture: a minimal "skin and bones" framework provides an enclosure with a clearly understandable order, counter-balanced by free-flowing open space to suggest freedom of use, elegantly stated with clarity and simplicity, and using materials that represent our times.

In 1958 Mies van der Rohe designed what has been regarded as the pinnacle of the modern high-rise architecture, the Seagram Building in New York. Mies was chosen by the daughter of the client, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, who has become a noted architectural figure and patron in her own right. The Seagram Building has become an icon of the growing power of that defining institution of the 20th Century, the corporation. In a bold and innovative move, the architect chose to set the tower back from the property line to create a forecourt plaza and fountain on Park Avenue. Although now acclaimed and widely influential as an urban design feature, Mies had to convince Bronfman's bankers that a taller tower with significant "wasted" open space was a viable idea. Mies design included a bronze curtain wall with external H-shaped mullions that were exaggerated in depth beyond what is structurally necessary, touching off a conversation among some of his more zealous followers about whether Mies had or had not committed Adolf Loos' "crime of ornamentation". Philip Johnson had a role in interior materials selections and the plaza, and he designed the sumptuous Four Seasons restaurant. The Seagram Building is said to be an early example of the innovative "fast-track" construction process, where design and construction are done concurrently. Using the Seagram as a prototype, Mies' office designed a number of modern high-rise office towers, notably the Chicago Federal Center, which includes the Dirksen and Klusinski Federal Buildings and Post Office (1959) and the IBM Plaza in Chicago, the Toronto-Dominion Centre in 1967 in Toronto, Ontario, and Westmount Square in Montreal.

Mies also designed a series of four middle-income high-rise apartment buildings for developer Herb Greenwald (and his successor firms after his untimely death in a plane crash), the 860/880 and 900/910 Lake Shore Drive towers on Chicago's Lakefront. These towers, with facades of steel and glass, were radical departures from the typical residential brick apartment buildings of the time (interestingly, Mies found their unit sizes too small for himself, choosing instead to continue living in a spacious traditional luxury apartment a few blocks away). Again, these towers became the prototype for many more apartment tower blocks across the country designed by Mies' office.

During 1951-1952, Mies' designed the steel, glass and brick McCormick House, located in Elmhurst, Illinois (15 miles west of the Chicago Loop), for real-estate developer Robert Hall McCormick Jr. A one story adaptation of the exterior curtain wall of his famous 860-880 Lake Shore Drive towers, it served as a prototype for an unbuilt series of speculative houses to be constructed in Melrose Park, Illinois. The house exists today as a part of the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Mies last work was the Neue Nationalgalerie art museum in Berlin. Considered one of the most perfect statements of his architectural approach, the upper pavilion is a precise steel framework with a glass enclosure, a simple pavilion that is a powerful expression of his ideas about flexible interior space, open and unencumbered by the external structural order.

Select Timeline

Select Exhibitions

Select Works

  • Toronto-Dominion Centre - Office Tower, Toronto
  • Westmount Square - Office Tower, Montreal
  • Tugendhat House - Residential Home, Brno
  • Riehl House - Residential Home, Potsdam (1907)
  • Peris House - Residential Home, Zehlendorf (1911)
  • Werner House - Residential Home, Zehlendorf (1913)
  • Urbig House - Residential Home, Potsdam (1917)
  • Kempner House - Residential Home, Charlottenburg (1922)
  • Eichstaedt House - Residential Home, Wannsee (1922)
  • Feldmann House - Residential Home, Wilmersdorf (1922)
  • Mosler House - Residential Home, Babelsberg (1926)
  • Weissenhof Apartments - Residential Apartments, Stuttgart
  • H. Lange House - Residential Home, Krefeld
  • New National Gallery - Modern Art Museum, Berlin
  • Auf dem Hugel - Essen
  • Bacardi Office Building - Office Building, Mexico City
  • Barcelona Pavilion - World's Fair Pavilion, Barcelona
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library - District of Columbia Public Library, Washington, DC
  • IBM Plaza - Office Tower, Chicago
  • Lake Shore Drive Apartments - Residential Apartment Towers, Chicago
  • Seagram Building - Office Tower, New York City
  • Crown Hall - College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology
  • I.I.T. Gas Station - Service Station at Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Farnsworth House - Residential Home, Plano, Illinois
  • Lake Point Tower - Residential Apartment Tower, Chicago
  • Chicago Federal Center
  • Dirksen Federal Building - Office Tower, Chicago
  • Kluczynski Federal Building - Office Tower, Chicago
  • United States Post Office Loop Station - General Post Office, Chicago
  • One Illinois Center - Office Tower, Chicago
  • One Charles Center - Office Tower, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Highfield House Condominium | 4000 North Charles - Condominium Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Colonnade and Pavilion Apartments - Residential Apartment Complex, Newark, New Jersey
  • Lafayette Park - Residential Apartment Complex, Detroit, Michigan (1963)
  • Commonwealth Promenade Apartments - Residential Apartment Complex, Chicago (1956)

Quotes

  • "A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous."
  • "Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space."
  • "Simply by not owning three medium-sized castles in Tuscany I have saved enough money in the last forty years on insurance premiums alone to buy a medium-sized castle in Tuscany."
  • "Means must be subsidiary to ends and to our desire for dignity and value."

Publications

  • Mies Van Der Rohe At Work - by Peter Carter, Phaidon Press; New Ed edition (September 16, 1999)
  • Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe: Farnsworth House (Architecture in Detail) - by Maritz Vandenberg, Phaidon Press (September 1, 2005)
  • Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography - by Franz Schulze, University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (October 15, 1995)
  • Presence of Mies - by D. ed. Mertins, Detlef Mertins, Princeton Architectural Press; 1 edition (January 1, 1996)

Quick Facts

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies) was a German- American architect.
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture.
  • Mies worked in his father's stone-carving shop and at several local design firms before he moved to Berlin joining the office of interior designer Bruno Paul.
  • He began his architectural career as an apprentice at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912, where he was exposed to the current design theories and to progressive German culture.
  • His modernist thinking was influenced by the aesthetic credos of Russian Constructivism with their ideology of "efficient" sculptural constructions using modern industrial materials.
  • Mies designed modern furniture pieces using new industrial technologies that have become popular classics, such as the Barcelona chair and table, and the Brno chair. His furniture is known for fine craftsmanship, a mix of traditional luxurious fabrics like leather combined with modern chrome frames, and a distinct separation of the supporting structure and the supported surfaces, often employing cantilevers to enhance the feeling of lightness created by delicate structural frames.
  • Mies settled in Chicago, Illinois where he was appointed as head of the architecture school at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology (later renamed Illinois Institute of Technology - IIT).
  • His most significant projects in the US include the residential towers of 860-880 Lake Shore Dr, the Farnsworth House, Crown Hall and other structures at IIT, all in and around Chicago, and the Seagram Building in New York. These iconic works became the prototypes for his other projects.
  • In 1958 Mies van der Rohe designed what has been regarded as the pinnacle of the modern high-rise architecture, the Seagram Building in New York.
  • Mies played a significant role as an educator, believing his architectural language could be learned, then applied to design any type of modern building.

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