OFF-WHITE, SOFT, natural wool rugs, a sensation in the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe/Lilly Reich early modern interiors of the '20s and '80s, were first made by Alen Mueller-Hellwig, a patrician of Luebeck, Germany whose work is now on display at the Textile Museum 2320 S St. NW.
Lilo Markrich, a writer of books on the textile arts and director of the crafts gallery at the museum, mounted the show marking the 50th anniversary of Mueller-Hellwig's Werkstatt (workshop). It will remain up through June 5. Some of the wall hangings are for sale.
Among the tapestries on view is a handsome one made up of smaller squares incorporating feathers, loose threads and occasional colored circles. Another shows a town, but a town made up of geometric figures. A third hanging uses circles of varying textures and light and dark yarns to make a bull's-eye shape. Another is more abstract, soft squashy shapes like dumplings or blobs piled up on the tapestry in a vague hill shape.
Mueller-Hellwig, a master of the textile arts, was a valued source of the fabrics used by architect Mies and his collaborator, Reich. (Mies is his last name; the "van der Rohe," his mother's name was added for the aristocratic "van".)
Mies taught his design theories at the Bauhaus School. The Bauhaus Style, later called the International Style, spread from its native Gerrmany over the world.
The Bauhaus style of interior design is currently enjoying a revival at the same time that people are begining to question the glass box architecture fathered by the Bauhaus.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently mounted a major show of the furniture and interior design of Mies and Reich. And Knoll, Inc. this fall will offer four of their furniture designs never mass manufactured before.
After 50-odd years, the sleek clean lines of the furniture - the Barcelona chair, the Brno chair and the Tugendhat table with leather or highly textured upholstery and glass tops, often in reproductions - are just beginning to be widely seen in middle-American homes and apartments, though architects, designers and banks for years have used Mies designs almost to the point of cliche.
The severity of the lines of the furniture and the architecture made it necessary, in the opinion of Mies and Reich, to use warm, heavy fabrics to relieve the hardness of the structure.
Not long ago, Mueller-Helwig, in town to give master's classes at the Textile Museum (she has since gone on to visit relatives in New York), talked about those early days over lunch at the home of German Embassy Counsellor Jurgen Kalkbrenner.
"Yes, I have heard the discussion as to whether Lilly Reich was really responsible for the furniture designs credited to Mies van der Rohe," she said. "And I do know this, she was always the one I dealt with on their commissions. She first saw my work at the Leipzig fair of 1926 and asked me to teach weaving for a time for an old people's group.
"After that, I did many commissions for them. I was particularly proud when American architect and architectural historian Philip Johnson wrote and commissioned three white rugs. He said in his letter that Lilly Reich had told him of me. That was quite a project, because I had to make them in two months. I brought them over myself, and went on to see the Chicago World's Fair."
Today Mueller-Hellwig is a stout white-haired woman of 75, but still with the capable hands and strong arms of her crafts. She, like many weavers, wears only her own handmade fabrics. Her English is measured but serviceable.
"I still have my school and my workshop in the city wall of Luebeck. It is a high-ceilinged space right by the city gate. I have seen workers. Today, many of the young want to apprentice to my workshop, but I can take only a few. There are not many meisters (masters) of the textile arts in Germany. i would think only about 30 or 50."
The master weaver first works out the new patterns, weaving it herself, and the others follow.
Mueller-Hellwig first attracted attention with her rugs woven in highly textured designs using handspun wool. "They had never seen handspun wool before, only the usual machinespun. So they were not prepared for the variation in texture this makes possible."
Her work was innovative because it used texture, not color, for its interest. The rugs were woven in the handspun wool's natural off-white color. "People always worried so much about whether they would get immediately dirty. But actually, the lanolin from the sheep is a natural soil preventive.
In the catalog. Wolf Schadendorf writes: "Today, when texture is a natural concept of fiber technique, it is hard to understand the impact of these monochromatic rugs on the public. For the first time, the inherent qualities of the raw material, its texture, the structure of the weave, the resulting tone variations and the size had become the artistic theme of the object rather than the distinct formation of shapes."
Mueller-Hellwig grew up in Luebeck, where her mother's best friend Maria Brinkman, had started the century's first weaving school, in the spirit of William Morris' English arts and crafts movement. Her parents sent her to Hamburg, to the Kunstgewerbeschedule, then headed by Brinkman.
She was first considered too frail to weave, and instead studied embroidery, the fashionable lady's art. The classroom instruction, she remembers now, was rigid and dictatorial, but after class, Hamburg offered a feast of free-thinking. Mary Wigman's modern dance, the youth movements, the radical lecturers. Meanwhile, Mueller-Hellwig taught herself how to dress a loom and started to weave.
From there she went to the Munich Arts and Crafts School, but here she found she was already ahead of the faculty, who had to hire a working weaver from the tapestry mill to make the looms ready. The faculty knew only how to follow the pattern books, not how to create their own patterns.
When she set up her own workshop, in 1926, it was quite a surprise to those of her patrician class in Luebeck. It was unheard of for someone in her position to work for money; her accomplishments had been intended for her own drawing room. But economic conditions were changing fast.
In the era just before World War II, when Mies, Marcel Breuer, and other Bauhaus designers were forced by the political climate to emigrate to the United States, Mueller-Hellwig could no longer follow the Bauhaus designs - denounced as decadent by the authorities - if she expected to stay and work in Germany.
The catalog explains: "A new political philosophy ruled and with it came artistic changes. Mueller-Hellwig began to work with artist Alfred Mahlhaus. He designed the cartoons; she and her assistants did the weaving. There is no question that during this period neither the master weaver nor the workshop had any decisive voice in the interpretation and form of conventional rugs and wallhangings. Commissions had to conform to the patron's ideas."
Mueller-Hellwig's husband, who was drafted into the German army, was captured and held for years in the Soviet Union, leaving her alone to care for their two small children during World War II. But during that time, when commissions were virtually nonexistent, she had time to weave textiles to her own designs, using the flower motifs she enjoyed. Her shapes and forms were highly stylized, though flowing, and the flowers had much of the simplicity of medieval herbats and tapestries.
In the 1960s she began to use metallic threads. Her later work is of lighter, softer, transparent hangings often with open spaces. She often uses geometric shapes in rugs and wall hangings. In the last few years, she has received many honors, and her workshop still accepts commissions and trains apparentices.
Kalkbrenner, also of Luebeck, toasting Mueller-Hellwig and the luncheon with good German Rhine wine said, "She is our national treasure."
Currently in the Washington area are two other shows of textile arts, the work of Washington's artists/crafts-workers. The Potomac Craftsmen's Gallery at the Torpedo Factory (King and Union Streets, Alexandria) is showing its first annual judged and juried fiber show, through June 28. The International Monetary Fund Art Society (700 19th St. NW, for information call S. Vollerthun, 477-1875) has an exhibition of fiber hangings by B.J. Adams, Dana Romalo Andrews, Arlinka Blair, Maria da Conceicao-Sao and Rebecca A.T. Stevens, through June 7.