The sheer breadth of the collections of the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) is impressive, encompassing a wide variety of materials and forms of craftwork, fashion and design from the early Middle Ages to the present day. The museum is particularly famed for its prestigious works of sacred art from the Middle Ages: world-renowned are such masterpieces of medieval goldsmithing as the bursa (purse-shaped) reliquary from the monastery of St Dionysius in Enger, Herford, the domed reliquary, and the portable altar made by the monk and goldsmith Eilbertus from the collection of the Guelph Treasure.
Works from the 16th to 18th century pay testament to the outstanding craftsmanship of the time and offer visitors the perfect opportunity to discover the art and cultural history of Europe in the early modern era. The collection ranges from precious Renaissance chests to leather wallpaper and fine examples of Italian maiolica, and glass art. Ornate cabinets and objects from private cabinets of art reflect the passion for collecting in the Baroque period. The full extent of royal splendour during this era is impressively demonstrated by the great silver buffet from the Knights’ Hall of the Berlin Palace. The Rococo period is exemplified by the wall panelling of the Chamber of Mirrors from Schloss Wiesentheid and the chinoiserie Lacquer Room from the Palazzo Granieri in Turin as well as porcelain from the table service of Schloss Breslau. David Roentgen’s writing desk from the year 1779 marks the transition to Neoclassicism.
Jugendstil and Art Deco are also well represented at the Kunstgewerbemuseum with glassware from Emile Gallé, pieces of furniture by Henry van de Velde and the glass doors of César Klein. The collection comprises famous and influential design classics such as furniture by Bruno Paul, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer as well as tableware from Wilhelm Wagenfeld.
The collection’s extensive range of costumes and accessories from the 18th to 20th centuries is presented to visitors since the reopening of the museum in 2014 in a newly conceived fashion gallery.
The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) was founded in 1867 as a private institute based on the model of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Initially called the Deutsches Gewerbe-Museum zu Berlin (German Design Museum), it sought to promote craftsmanship and support modern ideas on education as a 'collection of models and studies' for the associated artisan school.
These goals already began to change in the 1870s under the museum’s first director Julius Lessing, and it increasingly became known for its excellent art-historical collection. The museum acquired important works at this time, for example, the silver treasure from the Lüneburg city council (1874) as well as the acquisition of a large part of the holdings from the old royal cabinets of art (1876). In 1879 the museum was renamed the Kunstgewerbemuseum and two years later it moved into its own premises, specially designed to meet the needs of the collection – today’s Gropius Bau.
This situation was not to last for long, however. Following the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II, the Kunstgewerbemuseum was moved to rooms in the Berlin Palace in 1921, where it was merged with the remainder of the court’s furnishings and artworks, and presented to the public as the "Schlossmuseum" (Palace Museum).
During the Second World War the collection was put into storage and suffered considerable losses. The subsequent division of Berlin meant that the collection was separated between East and West for many years. In West Berlin, a permanent exhibition was put on display in the Knobelsdorff wing of the Charlottenburg Palace from 8 June 1963 until it moved to the new museum designed by Rolf Gutbrod at the Kulturforum in 1985. The section of the collection that remained in East Berlin was exhibited in Schloss Köpenick from 22 June 1963. The reunification of Germany made it possible to reunite and reorganise the collection once again.