The New Neue Sammlung
If you never realized that Munich held the world's largest design collection, you're not alone
Cecilia Fabiani -- Interior Design, 12/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
At 60,000 pieces, the Neue Sammlung is the largest design collection in the world. Size is hardly the Munich museum's only strength, however. Because the Neue Sammlung dates from the early 1900s, it possesses the distinction of a genesis coinciding with the birth of modern design. Its story begins with a few 19th-century forerunners, such as Thonet chairs, and encompasses the industrial design, graphic design, and crafts that followed. Specimens of fine workmanship—an 1880 silver tureen by Christopher Dresser—exist alongside everyday objects in ceramic, metal, and glass. Items range from Edward William Godwin furniture to Ingo Maurer light fixtures, fabrics to photographs, books to jewelry, posters to packaging. Recently, other categories have been added: cars, sports equipment, street furniture, and Japanese design, particularly for technology.
The German design community has known about these riches, of course, but they lacked a suitable showcase. Before the September opening of a mega-museum by Munich architect Stephan Braunfels, the Neue Sammlung was homeless. This unusual situation is traceable to 1907, when forward-thinking artists and designers founded the Deutscher Werkbund to improve the quality of mass-produced merchandise. Five years later, the organization began collecting objects and furniture exemplifying quality design—and storing them in Nymphenburg Castle on Munich's outskirts. In 1926, the collection won state-museum designation but still no permanent display facility; after World War I, there simply was no money.
Holdings continued to grow irrespective. The Neue Sammlung managed to overcome a limited budget by establishing extensive contacts with manufacturers and designers. For cutting-edge objects and furniture currently in production, curators have sought donations directly from the source. The acquisition budget buys noteworthy items no longer on the market. As of 2000, the collection was scattered in four warehouses throughout Bavaria when not on loan.
Around that time, the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, mounted the most comprehensive Neue Sammlung exhibition to date. A thousand pieces went on display, giving the public a teaser for what lay ahead—Braunfels, having beat out Herzog & De Meuron and Arata Isozaki in a 1992 competition, was already putting the finishing touches on the exterior of his building.
Now virtually complete, Braunfels's Pinakothek der Moderne is the biggest museum to open in Germany since World War II: a 172,500-square-foot structure that brings the Neue Sammlung together with three other significant collections under one roof, at a single ticket price. The Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst features paintings, sculpture, and installations by Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Pipilotti Rist, and Bill Viola. The Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, one of Germany's most important graphic collections, includes 400,000 drawings, prints, and engravings from the Renaissance to the present. The Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität München owns more than 350,000 drawings, 100,000 photographs, and 500 models, making it the country's preeminent collection of architectural designs.
The architecture of the Pinakothek der Moderne itself is characterized both by a central rotunda and by a diagonal axis that forms a symbolic connection to the pedestrianized center of Munich. Within that structure, gallery space for the Neue Sammlung occupies 32,000 square feet (with additional square footage for circulation). What exactly is on display? Design's evolution, from the industrial revolution to today. Themed areas are dedicated to automobile production, computer culture, the '60s and '70s, jewelry, and the use of bentwood and plywood. One of chief curator Corinna Rösner's favorite illustrations of mass production is a display of electric kettles that Peter Behrens designed for AEG in 1909. "The kettle was designed and produced in innumerable variations, with three different sizes, three materials, three finishes, and three types of handles that could be put together. It was mass production individualized, a very modern concept," she explains.
All of this sets the Neue Sammlung in a class apart. (New York's excellent Museum of Modern Art owns only 3,000 pieces. The highly intelligent Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is nevertheless a marketing operation restricted mainly to chairs.) But still the Neue Sammlung can display only a relatively limited 2,000 to 3,000 of the collection's 60,000 objects. To help alleviate this problem, interior architects Albrecht Bangert and Dieter Thiel are transforming two underground levels of the Pinakothek der Moderne into 6,500 square feet of storage-display space, the kind of hybrid facility that the Henry Luce Foundation funds at U.S. museums. More than 20,000 objects will be placed on industrial-style shelving according to type—chairs beside chairs, radios beside radios—allowing viewers to examine and compare. Called the Schaudepot, or "view depot," the facility is slated to open in a year.