Hilde Reiss

1930–1932 Bauhaus student

  • Born 16.9.1909 Berlin, Brandenburg Province (German Reich) | Germany
  • Died 14.9.2002 Capitola (California), USA

  • Professions Interior architect, Curator, Teacher

Hilde Reiss was born on 16 September 1909 in Berlin and raised in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Both of her parents were journalists, but she had other plans: her school leaving certificate of 1928 notes that “Fräulein Reiss wishes to study architecture”. She began with a six-month bricklayer’s apprenticeship, attended drawing and life drawing classes at the Bloch-Kerschbaumer school of painting and, in addition, enrolled as a guest student at the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg for a semester. In 1929, she attended two seminars in the building department of the Bauhochschule Weimar. When she enrolled to study at the Bauhaus Dessau in the winter semester of 1930, she was therefore permitted to proceed directly to the third semester in the building/interior design department. She studied under Ludwig Hilberseimer and later, Mies van der Rohe. Her many designs dating from this period include a “Children’s city” for an estate comprising housing and schools for Junkers factory workers. She used her semester vacations to gain experience in architecture offices in Berlin, among others that of her uncle, Fritz Ruhemann. In summer 1932, Reiss designed a large city hotel for her Bauhaus diploma project. With this, she became one of four students to gain a diploma in architecture during the school’s lifetime.
She launched her career in an architecture office in Berlin but due to her Jewish ancestry and political activities, was forced to emigrate to the USA shortly thereafter. She quickly established herself professionally in New York and was employed in the offices of designers Gilbert Rohde and Norman Bel Geddes. She also collaborated as a freelancer with Lila Ulrich, a fellow Bauhaus student and colleague from the design offices, on remodelling and refurbishing projects. These were published, but never realised. From 1936, she also taught “Interior Design” classes at the Laboratory School of Industrial Design in New York and at the New School of Social Research from 1938. At the Laboratory School she met the architect William Friedman; they married and co-founded the office Industrial Designers in 1937. Together they designed interiors as well as a house in Pleasantville for Anita and Robert Stein, which clearly shows the influence of the Bauhaus. So much so that, when this was put on the market in the 1970s, it was considered excessively radical and thus non-marketable. But the couple lacked work as freelancers; Friedman eventually found employment in Iowa, then as a technical draughtsman for the army in Denver. Reiss followed him but lacked opportunities to build on the career she had established in New York and was unemployed for several years. In 1942, both worked at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, military barracks for the internment of Japanese Americans. But fortunately, they did not have to work there for long: from 1943, Reiss was employed in San Francisco as a lecturer and architect in the framework of a social housing construction program.
A year later, Reiss’s husband was appointed associate director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Reiss subsequently founded the Everyday Art Gallery in the Walker Art Center in 1946, opening with the exhibition Ideas for Better Living. The gallery was one of the first exhibitions spaces in the USA dedicated to modern, mass-produced design, an educational and commercial space in which Reiss showcased the advantages of modern design to the public. Following the example set by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the gallery launched a series of annual gift exhibitions during the winter holidays, featuring products from local shops and department stores personally selected by Reiss. From 1946 to 1950, Reiss also published the magazine Everyday Art Quarterly: A Guide to Well Designed Products. Reiss and her husband likewise designed Idea House II, which opened to the public in the grounds of Walker Art Center in 1947. The house for a family of four was not meant to be a prototype, but a house of ideas that aimed to address the housing shortage of the postwar years. It was built using inexpensive materials such as steel and plywood and featured innovative communal areas that still provided privacy for each family member. The flexible spaces were designed to exploit the benefits of solar energy for both heat and natural light. Idea House II was equipped with modern appliances like a dishwasher and furniture by Herman Miller and Knoll and received attention nationwide. And although, sadly, it did not lead to follow-up commissions, the Walker Art Center and especially the Everyday Art Gallery with its magazine showed the way forward for American modernism in the 1940s and 1950s. Even Walter Gropius visited in 1948.
Reiss opened the successful home furnishing store House of Today, which popularised modern furniture, in Palo Alto in the early 1950s. Reiss closed the store in 1976 to open a smaller store, called Pelican, in Capitola, California, which she ran until 1985. She subsequently worked on a voluntary basis in a store in the city library of Santa Cruz. Hilde Reiss died in California in autumn 2002.

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