As popular as the Trabant – Cult Pieces Made by Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau

While not quite a household name, Hellerau is certainly on every architecture graduate’s radar. Created in 1909 in a part of Dresden where founder Karl Schmidt-Hellerau had set up his furniture workshop, Germany’s first garden city was designed by Richard Riemerschmid. As a member of the German Association of Craftsmen (Deutscher Werkbund), Schmidt-Hellerau was committed to harnessing machine technology to manufacture high-quality pieces and offering a viable alternative to the mass reproduction of unoriginal designs.

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Hellerau Furniture from the Early 20th Century to 1946

Pieces manufactured at Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the early 1900s were still clearly influenced by the German Art Nouveau or Jugendstil movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement across the English Channel. By about 1903, the workshop started creating its first pieces of “Machine Furniture” – functional designs suitable for serial manufacturing and final assembly at the buyer’s home. They were popular for combining high quality and affordability and production of various models continued until well into the 1920s.

The outbreak of World War II ushered in a dark chapter in the company’s history. Vacancies left by the war were filled with French and Soviet POWs and slave labourers, and the company shifted its focus from making furniture to mass-producing rifle shafts and parts for Heinkel He 162 S warplanes. Under Soviet occupation, Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau was placed under public administration in 1946 and fully nationalised in 1951.

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Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the GDR

Now operating as a Volkseigener Betrieb (Publicly Owned Enterprise), the company built furniture stripped to its essentials. In 1957, production of the famous “Typensatz 602” modular range was launched. These closets, sideboards and desks came in warm wooden shades and featured typical 1950s design elements such as curved drawer handles and slender, tapered legs. Well-proportioned, understated and aesthetically pleasing, they laid the foundations for the brand’s subsequent worldwide reputation and, among East Germans, were almost as sought-after as new Trabants. Their creator was the architect, designer and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich, who had been imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp for his Communist beliefs and appointed to head the Department of Post-War Restoration in Dresden.

1967 saw the launch of one of the company’s most successful ranges. Created by the design collective formed under the tutelage of Rudolf Horn, the MDW system enjoyed a production run of 24 years in spite of Walter Ulbricht’s disdain for what the East German leader considered to be “just boards” when he first laid eyes on the pieces presented at the Leipzig Trade Exhibition. In line with contemporary preferences, MDW pieces were far bulkier than Ehrlich’s flexibly combinable individual pieces, based on a grid system and rather reminiscent of the wall units popular in the west in the 1970s.

As well as offering stylish design options for home interiors, VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau created interior woodwork and furnishings on an industrial scale to meet the demand from hotels, universities and theatres, including the Semperoper in Dresden and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.

Renamed yet again to “VEB Möbelkombinat Hellerau” in 1970, the company employed 625 people at the time of reunification. Following re-privatisation in 1992 and relocation to a purpose-built facility opposite its historic headquarters, the company now operates under its original name and true to its long-established tradition of modernism, creating interiors for corporate and individual clients including ship-owners.

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Vintage Furniture from VEB Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau Today

Post-reunification, many pieces made in Hellerau were initially – quite literally – consigned to the scrapheap of history. Once considered fusty and old-fashioned, Franz Ehrlich’s designs in particular have long since made a triumphant return as highly sought-after vintage pieces and celebrated examples of 1950s design. Gallery Central Berlin at Straußberger Platz 16 is one of a few select places where they can be seen and admired.