»The Miesian city is implicit in the Mies chair.«
Peter Smithson, 1959
The Shadow Man:
Sergius Ruegenberg, the right hand of Mies
Two trailblazing chair icons – and just one creator? Most people know Mies van der Rohe, but who has heard of Sergius Ruegenberg? He is one of the lesser-known masters of the Bauhaus period. But the architect who worked for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1925 to 1934, played an important role in two of Mies’ most legendary creations: the Weissenhof chair and the Barcelona chair. Do we now have to rewrite the history of design?
The man who designed the famous Barcelona Pavilion and Villa Tugendhat in Brno, liked to take a midday nap. And Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s favourite place to kip was his bathroom. This was reported by his contemporary Sergius Ruegenberg, the right hand of Mies van der Rohe – and his shadow man.
Born in Saint Petersburg in 1903, architect Ruegenberg was one of the creative minds in Mies’ office and had a major impact on the further development of the most important pieces of modern furniture, such as the cantilever chair developed by Dutchman Mart Stam. Standing on only two instead of four legs, it was later to make design history under the name »Freischwinger«.
»Mies returned from Stuttgart in November 1926 and told us about Mart Stam and his chair concept. We had a drawing board on the wall, on which Mies sketched the Stam chair (...). Ugly, something really ugly, with couplings. If he had at least made it rounder – that would have looked better – and he drew an arc. Just an arc in his hand added to the Stam sketch – that made the chair.« Sergius Ruegenberg told us this at the age of 82 in an unpublished tape recording from Tecta’s archives. A single slip of the wrist produced the most beautiful chair. Ruegenberg himself finished the sketch of Mies’ concept. Its springy dynamic and rounded form, exhibited in the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, have made history until this very day.
But how could such a diverse creative team be successful? »Mies was the architect and head of office. Ruegenberg the charming, artistically gifted partner. He simply wanted to do what he was cut out for,« recalls Axel Bruchhäuser, engineer and managing director of Lauenförde-based Tecta. Bruchhäuser visited Ruegenberg in 1985 to find out who had really created the Mart Stam chair. This encounter gave rise to further investigations, also into the famous Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe, which became an icon due to its cross frame.
»Three days before I was due to depart for Barcelona as a construction manager, Mies requested a design for an armchair,« Ruegenberg wrote to Tecta in 1988. »The work on the steel stool was already complete. In my absence Kaiser (editor’s note: employee in Mies’ office) took one of my designs to the manufacturers.«
Ruegenberg was neither vain nor seeking his own advantage – he merely wanted to point out that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe hadn’t done everything on his own. Ruegenberg had drawn the Weissenhof chair based on one of Mies’ ideas, but he had obviously been mainly responsible for designing the famous Barcelona chair.
Ruegenberg’s sketches for the Barcelona chair
The chair was intended for the prestigious pavilion of the German Reich at the world exhibition in Barcelona, the so-called Barcelona Pavilion. On 20 April 1988 Ruegenberg wrote to Axel Bruchhäuser: »The concept of the Barcelona chair is also contained in the sketches I made based on the stool. But since I left several drawings it is true that the decision was up to Mies. From these drawings Mies made his selection, a new composition. Please do not correct this, Mr. Bruchhäuser, as it could lead to irritation among the public.«
In cooperation with Tecta, Ruegenberg sketched further designs in the late 1980s. For example, Ruegenberg’s chair, which he also referred to as the »Virtuous Chair« combining the studies of the Barcelona chair and Weissenhof chair, was launched on the market by Tecta in 2007, nine years after Ruegenberg’s death, as model D5 or the »Ruegenberg chair«. Together, they considered this design a further development of the Weissenhof chair.
»The main virtue is the secret of its suspension,« explains Axel Bruchhäuser. »Thanks to its long spring arm it is springier than the Weissenhof chair.« Did Ruegenberg suffer from being in Mies van der Rohe’s shadow all his life? »No it didn’t bother Ruegenberg at all,« says Axel Bruchhäuser. »He was confident and masterful in his artistic achievements. A talented cartoonist, too. And Mies was proud to have such an excellent collaborator.«
Axel Bruchhäuser still has countless letters and caricatures from the »shadow man«, who was to come into the spotlight for him. »Nobody can create on their own,« Bruchhäuser quotes the French »constructor« Jean Prouvé. »What counts is the product, not the creator. To me, this seems to be an organic insight based on a lifetime of creativity – and we have Ruegenberg and Prouvé to thank for this.«
Letter from Sergius Ruegenberg to Axel Bruchhäuser