Born in Bremen, Germany in 1900, Wilhelm Wagenfeld was an important pioneer of modernist design. At age 16, he began an apprenticeship in industrial drafting at the Koch & Bergfeld silverware workshop in Bremen. After the end of the First World War, he received a scholarship to study at the Fachschule für Edelmetalle / Hanau Drawing Academy.
In 1923, Wagenfeld enrolled in the legendary Bauhaus school in Weimar, where he studied metalworking under László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Dell. Wagenfeld’s most iconic design came out of his first year at the Bauhaus: A glass and chrome table lamp, a.k.a. the MT8 or the Bauhaus Lamp, co-designed by Wagenfeld and Carl Jacob Jucker circa 1923 for production in the Bauhaus Metal Workshop. According to the V&A, the first of these lamps were produced in the spring of 1924 and, by the autumn of that year, at least 80 had been produced with a metal base and 45 with a glass base. Production of the lamp continued at the Dessau Bauhaus and, from 1928, both versions were produced under license by Schwintzer & Graff in Berlin. In 1930, Bunter & Remmeler in Frankfurt began producing a variant model, and in 1931 Wagenfeld reworked the design and a further version was produced by Architekturbedarf in Dresden. Today, the lamp is produced by German manufacturer Technolumen.
When the Bauhaus relocated to Dessau in 1925, Wagenfeld took a position in the metal workshops of the Staatliche Bauhochschule Weimar, where he eventually became the director—between 1928 until it was closed by the Nazis in 1930. Wagenfeld then began working for Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Gen in Mainz, where he produced an enduring tableware collection in heat-resistant glass (ca. 1932). Later in the 1930s, Wagenfeld designed his famous, stackable Kubis Storage Containers (1938) for Vereinigte Lausitzer Glaswerke.
During the Second World War, Wagenfeld was deemed hostile to the Nazi Party and sent to the Eastern front to fight. Captured by the Russians, he finished the war in a Russian camp.
Following the war, Wagenfeld returned to a prominent position within the German design community, receiving numerous teaching appointments alongside commissions from design brands like Braun, Hutschenreuther, Fürstenberg, and Rosenthal.
Wagenfeld’s timelessly simple designs have received several awards, including the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Fair in Paris and at 1940 Milan Triennale. For more insight into to his unique design approach, check out his 1948 book of essays, Wesen und Gestalt.
Today you can find a museum dedicated to Wagenfeld’s work, along with a design school named in Wagenfeld’s honor, in his hometown of Bremen.
* Images courtesy of the Wilhelm Wagenfeld Foundation