Villa Esche is an architectural gem of European rank. Built by a pioneering artist at the heart of Chemnitz, the “city of modernity,” it links the careers of a hosiery manufacturer and an architect, influenced textile companies and an entire industrial culture, and is the quintessential modern dwelling.
Villa Esche stands magnificently, even regally, on a hill in the residential neighbourhood of Kappel in Chemnitz. Painted a warm yellow, it is an impressive building, a landmark signifying wealth acquired in the past and still preserved today in many respects. Built on what was once an exclusive location on the outskirts of town, it now stands almost in the city centre. Originally designed by an exceptional artist as a residence for a wealthy industrialist and a work of art in its own right, it now serves as a museum and a venue for meetings and events.
Commissioned by a Visionary Industrialist
Villa Esche was built for the successful hosiery manufacturer Herbert Esche. He was one of a number of industrialists who contributed to Chemnitz’s heyday as a hub of industry and trade in the early 20th century. The textile industry in particular flourished and Esche’s hosiery dynasty made a name for itself with technical innovations and farsightedness. Shortly before Herbert Esche’s marriage to Johanna “Hanni” Luise Koerner, the future Mrs. Esche was leafing through a special edition of “Dekorative Kunst,” a fine arts journal, in 1898. It was dedicated to the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde, whose avant-garde Art Nouveau designs had little in common with the rich ornamentation and intricate details that were so popular at the time, but were resolutely modern in form.
Henry Clement van de Velde designed furnishings that were more evidently functional than decorative. Instead of flowers and tendrils, they featured lines and curves. The Belgian wanted to create complete works of art that would reform all areas of life and break down the barriers between art and craftsmanship. Van de Velde’s interior designs encompassed everything from furniture to wallpaper, fabrics and even tableware. He was guided at all times by his conviction that the form of an object should follow its function as far as possible. With his philosophy, Van de Velde represented a new form of Art Nouveau and paved the way for the Bauhaus movement.
Designed by a pioneer of modern art
Esche and his fiancée decided to entrust this modern artist with designing their first apartment in the Kassberg neighbourhood of Chemnitz. Despite the outstanding furniture crafted by van de Velde in his Brussels studio, the couple was troubled by the contradiction between the tenement building itself, designed in the Art Nouveau style, and the functional, sober forms of the furnishings in their apartment. Herbert Esche therefore acquired a parcel of land with a park in Chemnitz in 1902 and commissioned van de Velde, who was now living in Weimar, to create a “living space” for the Esche family.
It was a designer’s dream, the chance to turn a vision into reality with no intervention from the client, but with his unlimited financial support. A year later, the Belgian began on his first
commissioned work as an architect in Germany, the construction of Villa Esche.
True to the motto “form follows function,” he designed the building inside and out, planned the gardens, the room layout, the windows, furniture and lamps, created wall coverings, porcelain, cutlery, and even Hanni Esche’s clothes. Van de Velde's “design for life” in Chemnitz is a particularly impressive example of his interpretation of the Art Nouveau style. This brilliant artist, whose 150th birthday is celebrated in Saxony and Thuringia in 2013, is known as the pioneer of modernism and father of the Bauhaus era.
Frustrated by Two Dictatorships
The Esches moved into their new home in 1904. The working relationship between the two men had since evolved into friendship. Van de Velde became Esche’s creative adviser, recommending the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, among others. At the invitation of Mrs. Esche, the now world-famous artist fashioned seven portraits of the family and a landscape painting in 1905. After Johanna Esche died in 1911, the villa was extended, once again following van de Velde’s plans: The large terrace was roofed in and integrated into the building’s overall design, giving it a more symmetrical form.
After the war ended in 1945, Villa Esche was seized by Soviet occupying forces. The widowed industrialist therefore left Chemnitz and moved to live with his daughter in Switzerland. While there, he renewed his friendship with van de Velde. The villa was inhabited by his son for a short time, but its value was neither respected nor preserved by the East German communist regime. It was used first by the State Security service and later as a branch office of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce; a garage complex built nearby also had a hugely detrimental effect on the building's appearance. Things started to look up in 1998, when the Chemnitz real estate management company Grundstücks- und Gebäudewirtschafts GmbH bought the stately residence from Esche’s heirs. Over the next three years, the company restored the building to its former glory.
decorum Kommunikation/Nicole Marx
Photo: (c) Villa Esche/GGGmbH Chemnitz, David Brandt