Dr Robin Schuldenfrei

Tangen Reader in 20th-century Modernism (on research leave, Henkel Stiftung)

Robin Schuldenfrei’s research and teaching focuses on the history and theory of modern architecture. She is interested in broad questions—theoretical and practical—of how discourses and practices of design are shaped by a given period’s own cultural and theoretical critique of its media and objects. Her work interrogates the ways in which architecture and its objects relate to other products of society’s design: to works of art, to the production of images, to media, and to technology. She focuses on objects’ subjectivity, materiality, political agency, and social impact and meaning, seeing them as deeply embedded in their period, culture, and intellectual/theoretical climate. To that end, she utilizes both objects and architecture as cultural indices of society at large in order to illustrate the conscious and unconscious perspectives and values of the society that generated them.

Schuldenfrei is committed to advancing broad, interdisciplinary conversations that are crucial for the liberal arts’ grappling with the protracted problems of our time. She is an active member in the UK-based collective Unsettled Subjects which seeks to impact architectural history and architecture as a practice in actively decolonizing teaching, research, and the built environment around us, through the investigation of a broad set of issues and questions concerning identity, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and power.

Dr Schuldenfrei received her doctorate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and previously held positions at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Schuldenfrei has lectured widely, including: Columbia University, ETH Zürich, Harvard University, MIT, Royal College of Art, Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien, University of Edinburgh, University of Hong Kong, and Yale.

Her on-going speaker series, run through The Courtauld’s Research Forum, is: Modernities: Architecture, Design, Theory. She is also a founding member of the ‘Architecture Cultures’ Research Cluster at The Courtauld.

Teaching

  • MA History of Art (year-long MA program): Experiencing Modernism: Utopia, Politics, and Times of Turmoil
  • BA3 Lessons in Critical Interpretation
  • BA2 Frameworks for Interpretation: Space, Power, and Experience; Objects and Things: A Material Turn
  • BA2 Constellations: The Modern Interior
  • BA1 Topic Course: The Global Political City: Urban Issues in Contemporary Art
  • BA1 Foundations: 19th- & 20th-Century Architecture & Design

Research interests

  • European & American Modernism:  architecture, design, art, media, and the history of technology
  • 19th & 20th c. Architectural History
  • History and Theory of the Object
  • Interior Architecture and Design
  • German Modernism
  • Architectural Theory

Publications

Books

Book cover

Luxury and Modernism: Architecture and the Object in Germany 1900-1933 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). Read the introduction.

In a period of social unrest and extreme wealth disparity between the average worker and those at the helm of capitalist enterprises generating immense profits, architects envisioned modern designs providing solutions for a more equitable future. Luxury and Modernism exposes the disconnect between modernism’s utopian discourse and its luxury objects and elite architectural commissions. While modernism was publicized as a fusion of technology, new materials, and rational aesthetics to improve the lives of ordinary people, it was often out of reach to the very masses it purportedly served. Luxury and Modernism shows how luxury was present in bold, literal forms in modern designs — from rarified materials and costly technologies to lavish buildings and household objects—and in subtler ways as well, such as social milieus and modes of living. Despite the movement’s egalitarian rhetoric, many modern designs addressed the desires of the privileged individual. Yet as the book demonstrates, luxury was integral not only to how modern buildings and objects were designed, manufactured, and sold, but has contributed to modernism’s allure to this day. Luxury and Modernism provides a new interpretation of modern architecture and design in Germany, tracing modernism’s many manifestations of luxury and revealing the complexities and contradictions inherent to modernism’s promotion and consumption.

objects in exile book cover
L: Gropius, Chicago Tribune project, 1922 R: Albers, sandblasted glass (work lost)

Objects in Exile: Materiality between Europe and America, 1930-1960 (work in progress)
This book examines various modalities by which the 20th-century phenomenon of exile impacted the design world. Topics include the formulation and codification of modern architecture’s exilic image via photography, new forms of seeing, the instrumentalization of graphic design for the war effort, ‘total design’ put into praxis in exile, and the exigencies of designing for a society and future beyond war. Overall, it looks at the ways in which designers, and their objects, forced into exile by circumstances beyond their control, necessarily changed unexpectedly to meet the new needs and contexts of a rapidly changing world.

Book cover

Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture. Edited by Robin Schuldenfrei (London: Routledge / Taylor and Francis, 2020). ‘Introduction’ and essay ‘Iteration of the Non-iterative: Revaluation and the Case of László Moholy-Nagy’s Photograms’ therein.

This edited volume considers the ways in which multiple stages, phases, or periods in an artistic or design process have served to arrive at the final artifact, with a focus on the meaning and use of the iteration. To contextualize iteration within artistic and architectural production, this collection of essays presents a range of close studies in art, architectural and design history, using archival and historiographical research, media theory, photography, material studies, and critical theory. It examines objects as unique yet mutable works by examining their antecedents, successive exemplars, and their afterlives—and thus their role as organizers or repositories of meaning. Key are the roles of writing, the use of media, and relationships between object, image, and reproduction. This volume asks how a closer look at iteration reveals new perspectives into the production of objects and the production of thought alike.

black pattern book cover

Ascendants: Bauhaus Handprints Collected by László Moholy-Nagy. Edited by Jan Tichy and Robin Schuldenfrei (Chicago: IIT Institute of Design, 2019), 118 pages. ‘The Tangible and the Abstract: A Conversation on Ascendants,’ Robin Schuldenfrei with Jan Tichy, therein.

Ascendants: Bauhaus Handprints Collected by László Moholy-Nagy offers a unique insight into one of the less familiar sides of the Bauhaus at large and Moholy-Nagy in particular. In May 1926, thirteen Bauhaus professors and students created handprints that were preserved by László Moholy-Nagy. This publication brings together for the first time all of the so-called Bauhaus handprints in their historical and contemporary contexts with scholars and artists touching upon and responding to the Bauhaus legacy.

The front cover of 'Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, domesticity, and postwar architecture', edited by Robin Schuldenfrei. The cover has a white background and minimal grey text, with a concrete armchair in a square, post-war design in the middle of the page.

Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar ArchitectureEdited by Robin Schuldenfrei (London: Routledge / Taylor and Francis, 2012). ‘Introduction’ and essay ‘Assimilating Unease: Moholy-Nagy and the Wartime/Postwar Bauhaus in Chicago’ therein.

In the years of reconstruction and economic boom that followed the Second World War, the domestic sphere encountered new expectations regarding social behaviour, modes of living, and forms of dwelling. This book brings together an international group of scholars from architecture, design, urban planning, and interior design to reappraise mid-twentieth century modern life, offering a timely reassessment of culture and the economic and political effects on civilian life.

 

This collection includes essays that examine art, objects, and spaces in the context of practices of dwelling over the long span of the postwar period. The authors consider various postwar spaces and the ways in which the anxiety of the cold war era infiltrated the domestic sphere or, the ways in which various versions of “home” were conjured to ease broader outside political or cultural tensions. Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar Architecture asks what role material objects, interior spaces, and architecture played in quelling or fanning the anxieties of modernism’s ordinary denizens, and how this role informs their legacy today.

The front cover of 'Bauhaus Construct: Fashioning Identity, Discourse and Modernism'. The title and authors are in a light blue, sans serif font. The background is a black and white image of an antique typewriter on a wooden desk.

Bauhaus Construct: Fashioning Identity, Discourse, and Modernism. Edited by Jeffrey Saletnik and Robin Schuldenfrei (London: Routledge / Taylor & Francis, 2009). ‘Introduction’ and essay ‘The Irreproducibility of the Bauhaus Object’ therein.

In the years of reconstruction and economic boom that followed the Second World War, the domestic sphere encountered new expectations regarding social behaviour, modes of living, and forms of dwelling. This book brings together an international group of scholars from architecture, design, urban planning, and interior design to reappraise mid-twentieth century modern life, offering a timely reassessment of culture and the economic and political effects on civilian life.

This collection includes essays that examine art, objects, and spaces in the context of practices of dwelling over the long span of the postwar period. The authors consider various postwar spaces and the ways in which the anxiety of the cold war era infiltrated the domestic sphere or, the ways in which various versions of “home” were conjured to ease broader outside political or cultural tensions. Atomic Dwelling: Anxiety, Domesticity, and Postwar Architecture asks what role material objects, interior spaces, and architecture played in quelling or fanning the anxieties of modernism’s ordinary denizens, and how this role informs their legacy today.

Essays and articles

‘Preliminary Objects for Modern Subjects: László Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus Theory and Lucia Moholy’s Photographic Representation’ in Object Lessons: The Bauhaus and Harvard, edited by Laura Muir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

The Resonant Object, special issue in tribute to Charles W. Haxthausen, Journal of Art Historiography, edited by Amy Hamlin and Robin Schuldenfrei, no. 21 (December 2019). “Introduction” therein.

‘Re-inscribing Mies’s Materiality’ in Dust & Data: Traces of the Bauhaus across 100 Years, edited by Ines Weizman (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2019), pp. 142-166.

Sober Ornament: Materiality and Luxury in German Modern Architecture and Design’ in Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local, edited by Alina Payne and Gülru Necipoğlu (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), pp. 334-347.

‘Subjective Objects: Historicity and the Design of Konstantin Grcic / Subjektive Objekte: Geschichtlichkeit und das Design von Konstantin Grcic’ in Konstantin Grcic: Abbildungen / Figures, ed. Friedrich Meschede (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2016), pp. 294-344, in English and German.

Der Luxus der Objektivität: Schaufenster um 1914’ (The Luxury of Objectivity: Display Windows around 1914) in Kunst und Architektur an der Epochenschwelle: Das Hauptgebäude der Universität Zürich von 1914, edited by Martino Stierli (Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2016), pp. 153-96, in German.

Republished in: Made in Germany: Politik mit Dingen Der Deutsche Werkbund um 1914, edited by Renate Flagmeier (Berlin: Brandenburgische Universitätsdruckerei und Verlagsgesellschaft, 2017), pp. 70-107.

‘Existenzminimum as Gesamtkunstwerk’ in The death and life of the total work of art: Henry Van De Velde and the legacy of a modern concept, edited by Carsten Ruhl, Rixt Hoekstra and Chris Dähne (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2014), pp. 63-78

‘Contra the Großstadt: Mies van der Rohe’s Autonomy and Interiority’ in Interiors and Interiority, edited by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Beate Soentgen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), pp. 279-94.

Introduction’ to Lilly Reich, ‘Questions of Fashion’ (1922) in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture, volume 21, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2014): 102-120.

‘The Auratic Productive Object’, in Alicja Kwade: Grad der Gewissheit (Degree of Certainty), edited by Sylvia Martin (Berlin: Distanz, 2014), pp. 138-147; German: “Das Auratische Produktive Objekt,” pp. 126-137.

Capital Dwelling: Industrial Capitalism, Financial Crisis and the Bauhaus’s Haus am Horn’ in Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present, edited by Peggy Deamer (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 71-95.

Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy’ in History of Photography, Volume 37, No. 2 (May 2013), pp. 182-203.

Bilder im Exil: Lucia Moholys Bauhausfotografien und die Konstruktion des Bauhaus-Erbes’ (Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Photographs and the Making of the Bauhaus Legacy) in Entfernt: Frauen des Bauhauses während der NS-Zeit – Verfolgung und Exil, edited by Inge Hansen-Schaberg, Wolfgang Thöner, and Adriane Feustel (München: Richard Boorberg Verlag, Edition Text + Kritik, 2012), pp. 251-273.

Luxus, Produktion, Reproduktion’
(Luxury, Production, Reproduction) in Mythos Bauhaus: Zwischen Selbsterfindung und Enthistorisierung. Edited by Anja Baumhoff and Magdalena Droste (Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 2009), pp. 70-89.

Review of Jill Pearlman, American Modernism: Joseph Hudnut, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus Legacy at Harvard (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007) for Design & Culture, Volume 1, Issue 3 (November 2009), pp. 387-389.

Design~Recline: Modern Architecture and the Mid-Century Chaise Longue. Exhibition Catalogue, Harvard University Art Museums Gallery Series, Number 40, 2004.


PhD supervision

Phoebe Day, ‘”A Vast Library Hall”: Paris Through the Lens of Walter Benjamin, Germaine Krull and Gisèle Freund’. Supervisor (The Courtauld)

Bethany Claus Widick, ‘Rooms of her Own: a Gendered Spatial Analysis of Women’s Professional and Social Clubs in Victorian and Edwardian London’. Supervisor (The Courtauld)

Laura C. Jenkins, ‘Civilising Decoration: French Interiors in the American Gilded Age, 1882-1914’. Advisor, Supervisor: Prof. Katie Scott (The Courtauld)

Elina Axioti, ‘Hotel Rooms: Politics of Isolation – Rules of Hospitality’. Supervisor (Humboldt University Berlin)

Kathrin Engler, ‘Patterns of Life – Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Enterprise’. Supervisor, with Prof. Gregor Stemmrich (Free University of Berlin)

Recently completed

Friederike Schäfer, ‘Claiming Space(s): Locating Suzanne Harris’ Dance Practice and Ephemeral Installations within New York City in the 1970s’ (Humboldt University Berlin, 2020)

Lena Hennewig, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, ‘“Uralt, ewig neu” Oskar Schlemmers Bild von Mensch, Raum und Kunstfigur während seiner Tätigkeit am Bauhaus’ (Humboldt University Berlin, 2020)

Nico Janke, ‘Die Möbelkunst an der sudlichen Ostseekuste Deutschlands ca. 1780-1850’ (Humboldt University Berlin, 2016)

Sandra König, ‘Albinmüller (1871-1941) – Kunstgewerbe zwischen Jugendstil und Werkbund’, supervised with Dr Annette Dorgerloh (Humboldt University Berlin, 2015)

Monica Obniski, ‘Accumulating Things: Folk Art and Modern Design in the Postwar American Projects of Alexander H. Girard’, supervised with Prof. Robert Bruegmann, Prof. Pat Kirkham, Prof. Jonathan Mekinda (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2015)

Sarah M. Dreller, ‘The Time, Life, and Fortune of Time Inc.’s Architectural Forum magazine, 1932-64’, supervised with Prof. Robert Bruegmann, Prof. Esra Akcan (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2015)

Erica Morawski, ‘Designing Destinations: Architecture, Urbanism, and American Tourism in Puerto Rico and Cuba’, supervised with Prof. Robert Bruegmann, Prof. Esra Akcan, Prof. Kathryn O’Rourke (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2014)

Citations