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The Restoration of a Bauhaus Wardrobe Designed by Erich Dieckmann

100 Years of Bauhaus

The Erich Dieckmann wardrobe, a piece of furniture from the Bauhaus period, was thoroughly examined within the context of Juliane Wolff’s master’s thesis. The wardrobe stems from the private household of Erich Dieckmann and came into the collection of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin in 1970 (Inv. no.: W-1970,55; ill.: Condition prior to restoration).

The Structure of the Wardrobe

The polychrome two-door wardrobe was used to store clothes and household items. It rests on a lower section with three subsequently repainted drawers set on a black, recessed base. The interior is painted ivory.

The wardrobe is composed of individual geometrical elements, and illustrates just how much Erich Dieckmann was influenced by the Bauhaus. Neither sketches nor directly comparable objects have been found, so precise dating remains difficult (c. 1923–33). The main objective of the research was to situate the Berlin wardrobe more specifically within Erich Dieckmann’s oeuvre and to establish its significance as a unique piece of furniture.

  • Height: 179.8 cm
  • Width: 137.1 cm
  • Depth: 56.2 cm
  • Types of wood: spruce, Picea abies; walnut, Juglans regia (knobs)
  • Coating: oil paint, alkyd resin paint (modern application)

Dieckmann’s Standardised Furniture

Erich Dieckmann (1896–1944), whose reputation is mainly based on the range of standardised furniture he designed, worked primarily in Weimar. Entire sets of home furnishings were produced from his early designs for standardised furniture. Dieckmann completed his carpentry apprenticeship and also experimented with tubular steel furniture during the same period that Marcel Breuer was at the Bauhaus. After the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Dieckmann became head of the woodworking shop at its successor institution in Weimar, the Staatliche Bauhochschule Weimar. In his eleven-year creative period (c. 1923–33), he developed numerous designs, including pieces of luxury furniture made of rare woods. In his book on furniture making, Dieckmann dealt with theories relating to simple geometric shapes.

According to Dieckmann, objects in nature can be classified as three-dimensional forms, surface forms and projecting forms, or combinations of these. He also categorised the wood he used into these forms and then combined the elements to construct his furniture. The wardrobe is an excellent example of Dieckmann’s theories, although these forms are also found in his standardised furniture. The knobs, for example, are highlighted through the contrast of light and dark.

The standardised furniture was manufactured at the Staatliche Bauhochschule  in Weimar as well as at nearby woodworking shops. Production of the furniture was mainly carried out using machines. The Berlin wardrobe, however, involved much more handicraft (ill.: Cross-section from the drawer fronts: 200x magnification, DF and UV; cross-section from the shelf fronts: 200x magnification, DF and UV).

Examination of the Coatings on the Wardrobe

The cross-section samples from the drawers show that the original coat of paint is still present under the reddish-brown alkyd enamel paint. Only natural paints were used at the Bauhaus and probably also at the Staatliche Bauhochschule , although synthetic resins had already found their way into the furniture industry. However, neither formulas nor descriptions of the materials and techniques employed have survived. At that time the paint industry offered a wide selection of pigmented oil and oil-resin paints of various qualities.

Reference sources at that time contained detailed instructions as well as formulas for in-house production of paints. The basic structure of the coloured surface coatings on furniture consisted of a primer, top coat, and finishing coat, with these also containing resins that made them more durable. Popular at the time was the silky lustre of enamel and rubbing varnishes. This type of finish can be found on the furniture in the bedroom category, which was also examined for the sake of comparison. The Berlin wardrobe, however, shows distinct brushstrokes in the finish.

Both the standardised furniture and the Berlin wardrobe have three-layer finishes consisting of a primer, top coat and finishing coat. The primers investigated mainly contained lithophone (zinc baryta white, ZnS & BaSO4) as a white pigment and the light-coloured top and finishing coats zinc white (ZnO). The surface coatings contain drying oils, such as linseed or wood oil, and an unidentified resin component. Copals and rosin were often used. Non-oil-based primer was used on some other pieces of Dieckmann’s painted furniture.

Developing a Conservation and Restoration Concept

The discussion concentrated on removing non-original over-painting and how to deal with surface blemishes. The proposed measures ranged from a purely conservation-based approach to a complete restoration. The focus was primarily on removing the reddish-brown over-painting and recreating the historical light-dark contrast range. Repairing surface blemishes in the wood and paint to improve the furniture’s visual uniformity was also discussed.

The Restoration

All interior and exterior surfaces were initially cleaned. Soiling on the light-coloured surface coatings was most effectively removed with ethyl alcohol. The dark brown knobs were cleaned using only water because the ethyl alcohol dissolved their surface coating. Fractures in the wood were glued, surface blemishes repaired, and new dowels inserted at the joints (ill.: Repair of splintered wood joints, dowels).

The Closures

The corroded metal latch and lock were removed and sandblasted clean. The surface coating in areas subject to heavy wear was reinforced with diluted rabbit-skin glue. Removing the reddish-brown over-painting from the drawer fronts was time-consuming. As in previous solubility tests on the layers of alkyd resin paint, ethyl alcohol proved to be the most suitable solvent.

The Drawers

On the left and middle drawers there were two layers of alkyd resin paint (ill.: Removal of the alkyd resin paint with solvent swabs). The exposed original surface coating on these drawers had a reddish appearance. This is because it is a natural property of paint using linseed oil as a binder to brown in the absence of light, especially when used with zinc pigments. This occurrence could also be observed on the upper part of the wardrobe, where areas under the shelves that were not exposed to light exhibited a browning of the surface with a reddish hue similar to that of the drawers.

On the right drawer there was only a single layer of alkyd resin paint, in a translucent grey-green colour. It is impossible to say how much the grey-green colour has changed over the decades. Dieckmann likely intended a shade of green. This is verified by the yellow and blue pigments visible in the cross-sections of the paint (ill.: Full view after restoration).

Blemishes in the light-coloured surface coatings were retouched with gouache paints, while damage in the dark brown areas was made less obvious using watercolour glazing. This approach made it possible to fulfil the requirement that the retouching not hide the history of the furniture (ill.: Retouching makes the damage less obvious on a side of the wardrobe base).

Project Lead: Dipl. Rest. Christian Fischer, Kunstgewerbemuseum (Wood) 
Funding: Funding for the restoration was provided by the Julius-Lessing-Gesellschaft, Verein der Freunde des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin e.V. 
Executing Restorers: Juliane Wolff (Master student, Department of Wood); Martha Marzahn  (Student, Department of Wood); Tamino Beyer (Intern, Department of Wood); Peter Beyer (Metall)
Chemical Analysis: Sabine Schwerdtfeger, Ina Reiche (Rathgen Research Laboratory); Christine Fuchs (FH Potsdam)