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Loved & Lost: The Life of Jan Ruhtenberg

The design pioneer died in Indianapolis a forgotten man. Can his grandson restore him to his proper place?

Editor's Note, October 19, 2013: Jan Ruhtenberg's grandson, Vess, launched an exhibit of works by the modernist designer on Oct. 4. See our Q&A with Vess here, and then read up on his grandfather's intriguing history below.

Vess Ruhtenberg made the drive up to El Pomar Foundation Carriage Museum on a typically sunny Colorado Springs day in 2004. His car window framed a panoramic view of Cheyenne Mountain set against a big, blue sky—the landscape his late grandfather, architect Jan Ruhtenberg, had fallen in love with a half-century earlier. An old suitcase full of cameras and video equipment lay in the backseat of Vess’s rental, and his thoughts sped ahead to what he would find when he reached El Pomar. He could already picture it: a drum of steel, concrete, and glass that, despite its weight, still looked delicate. The roof was so broad and thin, you could imagine it cracking like the crust of a creme brulee, and it was supported only by gracefully curved rows of shiny cruciform columns. Constructed in 1940, it was one of his grandfather’s best buildings. A gem of modern architecture.

Vess had spent most of his life in Indianapolis, but he visited El Pomar many times as a boy. His family always said it was his grandfather’s most beloved design. Vess had fallen in love with it, too. So when he decided to make a documentary about his grandfather, to prove that the unknown Jan Ruhtenberg was, in fact, an important—and unfairly forgotten—architect, there was no better place to begin. This trip was to be the start of Jan Ruhtenberg’s redemption.

But when Vess pulled up to the site and stepped out of the car, he was disoriented, as if he were in the wrong place.

The museum was gone.

Vess walked across a vacant construction site. “I wanted someone to arrest me,” he says. “I thought this would be a great thing to have on my record: ‘Grandson of famous architect goes ape-shit because they tore down his building.’” He searched for a remnant of one of the building’s signature columns. Finding nothing, he returned to his car, grabbed some expensive film, and hurled it into the rubble.

El Pomar had been freshly and unceremoniously demolished to make room for condos. But Vess couldn’t have been completely surprised to find it missing. After years of researching his grandfather’s career, he had learned to expect such disregard.

Ruhtenberg’s work was routinely mistaken for that of other architects or forgotten altogether. Vess knew better than anyone that even before his grandfather died in Indianapolis, in 1975, he had already begun to fade into obscurity.

The Barcelona chair is one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world. Low-slung and boxy, with a relaxed recline created by an X-shaped, flat-steel frame, it made its first public appearance in 1929, at the International Exposition in Barcelona. Wide leather straps supported square, tufted leather cushions.

According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Barcelona chair “became so popular that, with the exception of one 16-year period, it has been manufactured since 1929.” With its elegant simplicity, fluid lines, and use of new materials, it became one of the earliest symbols of a radically new style taking hold in Europe, and its designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, emerged as one of the movement’s most influential figures. An instructor and, later, the director of Germany’s iconic Bauhaus school, Mies espoused an austere approach to design and architecture that broke from the ornate styles of the past. The school emphasized the innovative use of technology and materials, commonly glass, concrete, and steel, and it became the cradle of what would be known as the International Style—the foundation of architectural modernism.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen a Barcelona chair, even if you didn’t know precisely what you were looking at. But you’ve surely never seen the type of Barcelona chairs that Vess Ruhtenberg sits in every day in his home on the west side of Indianapolis. The welds are crude, the straps supporting the cushions are old, worn equestrian belts, and the cushions are untufted. The chairs look more like experimental versions than finished production models.

The antiques have been in the family for as long as Vess can remember. The earliest proof of their existence dates to 1936, when they appeared in a published photo of Ruhtenberg’s New York townhouse. But Vess thinks they are even older than that. In 1929, the year the Barcelona chair debuted, his grandfather, an experienced furniture-maker, was working in Mies van der Rohe’s Berlin design firm. Vess thinks the chairs in his living room could be prototypes made in the studio during the Barcelona chair’s inception. And the fact that his grandfather owned such unusual versions of it might mean that he had a role in designing Mies’s famous chair, something he never got credit for.

At the very least, Vess argues, the chairs place his grandfather at the center of a pivotal moment in 20th-century architecture and design. And they bolster his case that Jan Ruhtenberg deserves wider recognition. A 1940 book, The Modern House in America, listed him among the most influential European architects who emigrated to the States in the 1930s, in the company of such now-famous names as Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. Today, Ruh-tenberg is lucky to appear in a footnote or a photo caption, and a lot of architectural scholars and curators don’t even know who he is. David Hanks, a curator at the Stewart Program for Modern Design in New York, knew almost nothing about Ruhtenberg until recently—when Vess contacted him. Then he checked out Ruhtenberg for himself. “I can’t believe how involved he was,” says Hanks. “Every single step of the way, he is there.”

So how come no one has heard of him?

Jan Ruhtenberg was born Alexander Gustaf Rutencrantz von Ruhtenberg on February 28, 1896, in Riga, Latvia. His parents were of Swedish descent, and he was later educated in St. Petersburg, Russia. He spent his 20s traveling and studying art history, eventually moving to Germany, where he attended the University of Leipzig and worked for a furniture manufacturer. At age 32, he received a full scholarship to study design at the Berliner Technische Hochschule in Berlin and moved there with his wife, Hannah; two sons, Jan Thiel and Vessel; and daughter, Cornelis.

The Ruhtenbergs arrived in Berlin during the golden era of the Weimar Republic, as Germany was known after World War I. Weimar Berlin’s debaucherous, anything-goes nightlife is now legendary, but the liberated cultural scene also produced a wave of intellectualism and avant-garde ideas. The Bauhaus school represented a new way of thinking about art and design, championed by founder Walter Gropius and instructor Mies van der Rohe.

By Ruhtenberg’s own account, a lengthy biography he produced in the late 1960s, he met Mies after attending one term at Berliner Technische Hochschule. Mies must have recognized a great talent in Ruhtenberg, because he offered the young design student an apprenticeship in his practice in Berlin. (Ruhtenberg would later claim to have been Mies’s only private student.) Ruhtenberg brought a strength in furniture design to the collaborative environment at Mies’s studio. Not only had he already worked in the field, but, according to family lore, a relative had designed furniture for French royalty in the early 1800s. In 1929, the year Ruhtenberg joined Mies’s studio, Mies was in charge of designing the German Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona. In their debut, the so-called “Barcelona” chairs were reserved for the King and Queen of Spain; appropriately, the proportions of the chair were generous, like a throne. And like much Swedish furniture.

In the same year, famous American architect Philip Johnson, then just a student at Harvard, visited Berlin. He met Ruhtenberg—perhaps, as some now speculate, in the city’s well-known gay scene—and the two became close. Ruhtenberg introduced Johnson to the new design aesthetic emerging in Berlin and took him to the Bauhaus school. Johnson returned in 1930 for further study, with Ruhtenberg as his guide.

As Ruhtenberg continued to learn Mies’s philosophy, his work started to gain public recognition. In 1930, a German magazine, Moderne Bauformen, published a rendering of an interior he helped design. The following year, a space Ruhtenberg created for the Berlin Building Exposition appeared on the cover of the magazine. The room included chairs designed by Mies, pieces that had recently debuted in the architect’s celebrated Tugendhat House in what is now the Czech Republic. In production, the Tugendhat chair would only come in flat steel, but the chairs pictured in Ruhtenberg’s space on the Moderne Bauformen cover are tubular, suggesting that they, like the Barcelona chairs in Vess’s home, might also have come out of Mies’s studio before the design was finalized. Mies and designer Lilly Reich—Mies’s right hand in his atelier—also designed rooms for the exposition. Ruhtenberg’s space won the gold medal.

The victory might have brought about the end of Ruhtenberg’s relationship with Mies. The only known mention of the split (and a cryptic one at that) comes from Ruhtenberg’s personal papers: “My association with him terminated when Mies, who was the head of the building exhibition in Berlin in 1931 for contemporary building, invited me to design the 13th project, and my work received the gold medal from the City of Berlin.”

Jan Ruhtenberg's last years are documented by a stack of canceled checks to liquor stores that his grandson found among his belongings.

Whatever the case, the days of Weimar Berlin were numbered, and the rise of Nazi influence set off an exodus of artists and intellectuals. Ruhtenberg decided to join them, and in 1931 he made a dramatic after-dinner announcement to his children: He and Hannah were getting a divorce, he was leaving Berlin, and they could either go with him or stay with their mother. Ruh-tenberg’s daughter, Cornelis, chose to stay with Hannah, while Ruhtenberg and his two sons moved to Sweden, where he worked in Stockholm with the help of Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto, two Scandinavian architects (who would fare much better in the history books than Ruhtenberg). The Swedish royal family commissioned him to do several projects, including rebuilding part of the castle in Stockholm and designing private residences and furniture for several crown princes. (It was a lifelong source of pride for Ruhtenberg that Greta Garbo later purchased one of his Swedish houses from this period.)

Ruhtenberg was also spending a lot of time in New York, where he met frequently with Johnson, who had started working at the just-formed Museum of Modern Art and was assembling his seminal 1932 show, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which would introduce Americans to European design. Ruhtenberg also signed on to help Johnson assemble another groundbreaking MoMA exhibit, the Machine Art show of 1934; he lived above the museum and designed the space for the exhibition.

In 1934, Ruhtenberg took a position at Columbia University—making him perhaps the first European modernist with a professorship in the United States—and moved to New York with his two sons. Soon after settling in the city, he married Polly King, a divorcee from a prominent family. Ruhtenberg benefited from King’s and Johnson’s well-to-do connections, landing high-profile commissions such as a remodel in Nelson A. Rockefeller’s penthouse and the design of a meeting room in Rockefeller Center. His work was starting to win acclaim in the United States and was covered in Town and Country, House Beautiful, and Arts and Decoration magazines. (Legend has it that Ruhtenberg also became a drinking buddy to Ayn Rand while she was working on her 1943 book, The Fountainhead.)

Ruhtenberg and Johnson went their separate ways around 1934, for reasons now unknown. Johnson abruptly quit the MoMA but soon rededicated himself to promoting European modernism in the United States. By the end of the decade, as Bauhaus architects exited Germany, Johnson’s efforts had begun to bear fruit. In 1938, Mies was named director of the architecture department at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), which led to his landmark glass-and-steel skyscrapers in Chicago; Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius took over the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the same year.

Ruhtenberg left Columbia in 1936 but continued to flourish. In 1938 and ’39, he released furniture lines for two major American companies, Wanamaker and Herman Miller (and would later claim to have been the first European designer to produce modern furniture in the United States). Life magazine published some of the work he did for Wanamaker in 1938, and a 1939 Herman Miller catalog featured Ruhtenberg alongside Gilbert Rohde, a name that any design curator would recognize today as Herman Miller’s first modernist furniture designer. “Foremost in this present day school of modern design,” the catalog reads, “are the names of Gilbert Rohde and Jan Ruhtenberg, whose contributions to modern living have been accorded world wide recognition.”

Ruhtenberg’s in-laws owned land in Colorado Springs, and in the late 1930s Ruhtenberg was commissioned by the area’s most influential family, the Penroses, to design El Pomar Foundation Carriage Museum—his curvilinear master-piece—next to their historic Broadmoor Hotel. As more commissions rolled in from the Kings’s connections, the Ruhtenbergs moved to Colorado Springs, and the architect filled the neighborhood around the Broadmoor with steel-and-glass houses—including one for himself and his family—that looked very Miesian, with open floorplans, thin slab roofs, chrome cruciform columns, and lots of glass.

Ruhtenberg opened a practice in Colorado Springs, where he employed his son, Vessel, who also worked in the field. They designed schools, offices, and dozens of houses in Colorado, Minnesota, and Chicago. “He was an outstanding architect, very innovative,” says Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, an architect and contemporary from Colorado Springs (and the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright). “El Pomar was a stunning design.

Ruhtenberg may have stepped out of the New York spotlight by moving to Colorado, but the national press continued to laud his work. House Beautiful featured a photo of his home with a piano of his own design in a 1953 issue. Time covered his design of Colorado Springs’s Central City Opera House in 1957, noting its “sculptural shell concrete forms with adjustable walls that can be thrown wide open to empty a full house in 1½ minutes.” The building he designed for his own firm, a pillar-supported cube with glass on one side and two boldly designed external staircases, made the cover of Progressive Architecture, a top industry publication, in 1960.

Ruhtenberg was living the good life in Colorado, attending the opera and hobnobbing at dinner parties with the Kings’s wealthy and cultured friends. They all seemed to want a modern Ruhtenberg home near the Broadmoor. In 1945, 22-year-old Cornelis Ruhtenberg, the daughter he had left behind in Germany, found him—supposedly through the article that Life had published seven years earlier. As the story goes, an immigration officer working at Ellis Island when Cornelis arrived remembered the article and called the magazine’s office to track him down. “Because of his stardom, she was reunited with her family,” Vess says. “Jan Ruhtenberg was that famous for a second.”

Vess Ruhtenberg’s father always threatened to break his son’s arms if he became an architect. The threat seems to have worked: Vess became a rock musician, starting out with the Indianapolis punk band The Zero Boys at 18 and eventually touring overseas with indie-rock phenoms The Lemonheads. In 1996, he played Late Night with Conan O’Brien with the Bloomington-based band Mysteries of Life.

But despite his success with music (and his father’s stern warning), Vess couldn’t entirely escape the field to which his father and grandfather had devoted their careers. “Architecture just sort of melted into my life,” he says. “Dad was coming home with plans underneath his arm. Mies and Le Corbusier were getting discussed at the dinner table.” As a boy, Vess spent a few years living in the Colorado Springs home his grandfather had designed. “I’d wake up in the morning, and before I went into the kitchen or turned on a TV, I would open the door, and there was a mountain,” he says. “The architecture gave me the mountain first.”

Vess’s family moved to Indianapolis in 1968, just months after he was born. His father and grandfather had decided to join Vess’s uncle, Jan Thiel, who worked in the city and told them about the progressive architecture going up there, particularly the Indiana National Bank Tower (now the Regions Bank building). “My father and grandfather both agreed it was very good,” says Vess, “and they wanted to be in a town that was brave enough to put up such a beautiful building.”

Vess learned later that the circumstances leading to the family’s move to Indianapolis were not so straightforward. Although Vessel never explained his motivation, he told Vess that around 1959, he had asked his stepmother, Polly King, to accompany him to Ruhtenberg’s offices, where she discovered him with other men. She had learned his lifelong secret.

“It was a scandal,” says Elaine Freed, a historic preservationist in Colorado Springs who has done extensive research on Ruhtenberg. The couple divorced, and Ruhtenberg quickly lost access to his ex-wife’s money and connections. He designed only a few more homes in Colorado Springs and eventually had to return to teaching. In 1968, while Ruhtenberg was between jobs, he received a letter from the office of president-elect Richard Nixon that asked him to recommend candidates for posts in the incoming administration. “I seek the best minds in America to meet the challenges of this rapidly changing world,” it read. “You, as a leader, are in a position to know and recommend exceptional individuals.” Ruhtenberg, then 72, nominated himself as an assistant in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He did not get the appointment.

In Indianapolis, the Ruhtenberg architects worked for the Multi-Planners Justus Company, a commercial development firm. Vessel and his family lived on the east side, and Ruhtenberg lived alone in an apartment downtown, near the corner of Michigan and Delaware streets.

As Vess remembers it, the names of famous architects came up frequently over Sunday dinners with his grandfather. He soaked up the stories, in awe of his grandfather’s presence. “Even if he was falling asleep in his chair, he was the magnetism in the room,” Vess says. “He would sit and point at his watch. ‘I designed this watch,’ he’d say. Or, ‘I designed this chair.’” But Ruhtenberg never designed another great building, and on his birthday in 1972, both he and Vessel were fired from Multi-Planners. Vessel went to work for James Associates Architects and Engineers, a locally prominent firm. But Jan Ruhtenberg was effectively retired. His last years are documented by a stack of canceled checks to liquor stores that Vess found among his belongings. “He was just riding the bus to the end of the line and back,” Vess says, “because he had nothing to do.”

From the windows of his downtown apartment, Ruhtenberg could clearly see the new Federal Office Building designed by Evans Woollen—a protege of Philip Johnson. And it was in that apartment that Ruhtenberg died, alone, in 1975, literally overshadowed by the far-reaching influence of his former friend.

Not long after Vess Ruhtenberg’s father died, in 1996, he found some of his grandfather’s furniture—including worn versions of Mies’s MR Chair, still in production today, and a version of a desk designed for the Tugendhat house that had been photographed but never went into production—stacked in his father’s garage. “I started realizing this stuff was, like, prototypes,” he says. “I thought, ‘We were eating cereal on that?’ The moment my dad died, I realized I had to inherit the wind. The world had left my grandfather’s movement behind.” He stumbled across a box of photos and papers that revealed his grandfather’s remarkable body of work and its links to the genesis of modern design.

Hoping to put together a documentary or book, Vess hit the Jan Ruhtenberg trail. His rock gigs doubled as research trips. Before playing in New York, he visited the MoMA archives. On tour with The Lemonheads in Europe, he dragged the band along on a search for a Ruhtenberg house in Sweden. In Minnesota, he knocked on the door of a home his grandfather had designed.

And strangely—despite all the evidence Vess was finding in support of his grandfather’s importance—almost no one else had heard of Jan Ruhtenberg.

“I called Herman Miller,” says Vess. “They didn’t know anything about him. They called me back a couple of days later and said, ‘Oh, my God. We’re sending you a big packet of stuff.’ I called MoMA. ‘Never heard of him,’ they said. Then they called me back—‘Yeah, come on in, there’s a bunch of letters here.’”

Furniture by Gilbert Rohde, Ruhtenberg’s contemporary at Herman Miller, is now collectible. But Vess couldn’t find a stick of Ruhtenberg’s. (Richard Wright of Chicago’s Wright Auction, one of the country’s leading auctioneers of modern furniture, says he has never heard of Ruh-tenberg.) Vess scoured books on modernism and biographies of its pioneers for mentions of his grandfather, and the few he found were cursory.

Other sources that mentioned Ruhtenberg offered misleading, and sometimes incorrect, information, such as Phillip Johnson’s 1994 biography, Philip Johnson: Life and Work, which noted (probably incorrectly) that Ruhtenberg had worked for interior designer Bruno Paul and failed to make any mention of his association with Mies. (Vess did find confirmation of his grandfather’s study with Mies, in the form of an austere recommendation letter signed by the famous architect and included among Ruhtenberg’s papers.) Vess found photos of his grandfather’s Berlin apartment—published in 1932 as his own work—credited decades later to Mies and Lilly Reich.

Most of the omissions and inconsistencies that Vess found seemed innocuous. But Vess also started to notice that they appeared to be more blatant whenever Phillip Johnson was involved. A highly influential figure in modern American architecture, Johnson was responsible for importing the movement from Europe to the United States—not the best designer of the period, but kingmaker to those who were. Most of the architects and designers who were in his orbit now enjoy some degree of name recognition.

Johnson's excursions in Berlin have been cited many times, but rarely with mention of his "best friend" Ruhtenberg.

Ruhtenberg is a glaring exception. Johnson’s biography mentions that he and Ruh-tenberg became “fast friends” when they met in 1929, and that Ruhtenberg was his entree into the Bauhaus scene. It also cites a 1930 letter to the famous Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud, in which Johnson calls Ruh-tenberg “my best friend” and notes that Ruhtenberg had introduced him to Mies van der Rohe. Historical evidence suggests that when Johnson commissioned Mies to design his New York apartment in 1930, Ruhtenberg traveled across the Atlantic to deliver furniture. In a 1931 article printed in The New York Times, Johnson called Ruh-tenberg a gifted young designer.

The friendship continued for the next two years. But after Ruhtenberg moved to New York and remarried, Johnson left the city, and his association with Ruhtenberg seems to have ended completely. Over the years, Ruhtenberg even disappeared from many accounts of his past. Johnson’s architectural excursions in and around Berlin in 1929 and 1930 have been cited many times, for instance, but rarely with mention of his “best friend” Ruhtenberg.

Many of the omissions that Vess found seem to have come directly from Johnson himself. In 1947, Johnson wrote a biography about Mies, in which he claimed that a man named J.B. Neuman had introduced them. In The Philip Johnson Tapes, a transcript of conversations between Johnson and architect Robert A.M. Stern, a discussion of those influential months in Berlin spans 13 pages and includes direct questions about the Barcelona chair and who was working with Mies at the time:

P.J.: "[Mies] just drew the outline of the chairs. Lilly Reich took care of all the art part."
R.S.: "And he had young men in the office who were very gifted, I assume, at carrying out his designs."
P.J.: "He had one or two, but the one great gifted person was Lilly Reich. … Let’s keep to the subject."

“Philip Johnson just ends up having the last word,” says Vess. “It wears me out.” With no ready explanation for Johnson’s apparent snub of his grandfather, Vess is left with frustration. And an entire wall of books about modernism that barely mention his grandfather.

But he’s determined to change that. Recently, Vess has managed to pique the interest of biographers, curators, and archivists who thought they already knew everything there was to know about early modernism. (Saying that your grandfather worked for Mies van der Rohe is a good way to get a phone call returned.) When the Whitney Museum of American Art put together its Mies in America exhibit in 2001, Vess provided the organizers with some of his documents, and the exhibition book stated that Ruhtenberg was “significant in the diffusion of European modern architecture in New York during the early 1930s” and had a “significant role in the widening of knowledge about Mies’s work.” R. Craig Miller, design curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently put Vess in touch with Hanks, from the Stewart Program. Hanks is organizing an exhibit on Philip Johnson’s 1930 New York apartment, and he recently showed Vess a letter from Lilly Reich to Philip Johnson that mentions Ruhtenberg, and there are more to come.

Eventually, Vess may find a letter that sheds light on the mystery he sees every time he walks through his house: those rugged, worn, and rare Barcelona chairs. He has studied every inch of them, and he can describe, in professorial detail, how they differ from the production models. (The welds and the corners don’t match; the frames are more upright, and springier.)

He wonders if his grandfather played an active role in producing the final, iconic design, just as Mies’s studio manager, Lilly Reich, is now known to have suggested that the cushions be tufted. But he doesn’t know whom to take the chairs to in order to have them authenticated. And it doesn’t really matter what they’re worth, because he doesn’t plan to part with them, anyway. Enough of his grandfather’s legacy has disappeared already.

Photo by Tony Valainis

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.