Mies van der Rohe: The Architect Who Thought Less Was More

Mies van der Rohe was a pioneer of modernist architecture. Discover how his fondness of the aphorisms less is more and God is in the details reflected in his designs.

Mar 23, 2023By Isabel Droge, MSc Arts and Culture, BA Art History

mies van der rohe pioneer modernist architect


The German-American architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies. However, rather than being addressed by his full name, the architect was mainly referred to as Mies. A short name that appears to be very fitting for the architect’s visions of design. That vision being less is more. In fact, the name Mies has become inseparably linked to the style of this pioneer of modernist design. More than a name, it has become a symbol of his ideals, creations, and his legacy.


Mies van der Rohe’s Early Life and Education

Portrait photograph of Mies van der Rohe, year unknown, via Matrix International,


Before focusing on Mies van der Rohe’s designs, let’s first take a closer look at his background. Starting at the beginning, Mies was born on the 27th of March 1886, in the then-provincial German city of Aachen. His father’s name was Michael Mies and his mother’s Amalia Rohe. This explains the name Mies van der Rohe, which the architect would create for himself when he was a young adult.


For generations, his father’s family had worked passionately as stonemasons in their marble business and atelier. Even though their main products were gravestones, growing up in this environment contributed to Mies’ interest in architecture. As Mies grew up, his father maintained the business together with Mies’ older brother. They lived a fairly comfortable life as a middle-class family.


A young Mies van der Rohe, date unknown, via Miesscociety


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Fitting to the family’s business, Mies’ primary education was followed up by a two-year program at the trade school. The trade school should not be confused with a crafts school, as it did not offer a higher-level theoretical curriculum. In an interview in 1968, Mies himself said the following about his education: trade school offered the kind of two-year course that would enable a graduate to get a job in an office or a workshop. Great stress was laid on drawing, because it was something everybody had to know. What you needed on a job, that’s what they [those practically trained] learned to do, masterfully.


As Mies said, his heart belonged to the practical, and therefore he didn’t feel like he missed out on anything during his education. After his two-year training at the trade school, Mies followed his passion by working at various job sites. His first paid job was that of a draughtsman at a stucco factory.


Mies van der Rohe’s Move to Berlin

The exterior of the Alois Riehl House, 1907, which was Mies van der Rohe’s first independent commission, via Pinterest


Because of the skills Mies van der Rohe demonstrated in his work at the factory, it became unlikely for him to return to his father’s stone atelier. While continuing his career by working for two architects in Aachen, Mies showed so much talent that an architect named Dülow advised him to move to Berlin. Not knowing how to make the transition, Dülow advised Mies to apply to the advertisements in the journal Die Bauwelt. Mies took this advice, and after receiving offers from both places he wrote to, the move to Berlin became reality. From 1905 onwards, Mies lived and worked in Berlin, where he first learned how to work with wood.


At this time, Mies van der Rohe met the well-established painter, sculptor, and illustrator Bruno Paul, who had turned to applied arts and architecture. In 1907, Paul even became one of the founding members of the Deutscher Werkbund, which was among the most important forces behind the development of German arts, crafts, and architecture. It was at Paul’s schools that Mies learned about and grew a fondness for furniture design. Subsequently, Mies worked alongside Paul for a few years, where he received his first independent commission to design a house in the upper-class Potsdam and Berlin suburb Babelsberg. The building was called the Alois Riehl House, after the commissioner.


A part of the interior of the Alois Riehl House, 1907, which was Mies van der Rohe’s first independent commission, via Pinterest


The exceptional style and execution of Mies’ work were then noticed by Paul’s office manager Paul Tiersch, who had previously worked for the famous architect Peter Behrens. As promised, Tiersch informed Behrens of any talented youngsters he came across, including Mies van der Rohe. It was through his notice that Mies was invited by Behrens to join his studio. An offer he happily accepted. At this studio, Mies would work alongside other figures who would later become pioneering architects themselves. Among these were Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius.


Becoming an Avant-Garde Architect

The Turbine Factory, designed by Peter Behrens in 1907, shows the industrialization of architecture at the beginning of the 20th century, via Metacolus


While Peter Behrens had been a key figure of the flowing German Jugendstil style, his views on style changed rapidly after 1900. He became an avant-garde thinker, who believed that the spirit (Zeitgeist) of the industrial age was revealed best through strong geometrical lines. Having started at Behrens studio in 1908, Mies further developed his avant-garde ideas. More and more he aspired for simplicity in forms on both the exteriors and interiors of his buildings.


While the surface of most of his exteriors was smooth and simplified, his interiors would be clean and very minimally decorated. In addition, he started making use of industrial materials like plate glass and steel. He developed a strong liking for the aphorisms less is more and God is in the details, and his designs would answer these simple but strong phrases.


Mies van der Rohe as the director of The Bauhaus, teaching pupils, 1930, via Metacolus


It could be said that Mies van der Rohe was a man of his time. During the twentieth and early thirties his talent, portfolio and reputation soared. He truly lay the groundwork for his important legacy and became a key figure of modernist design during this phase. Something that made him the perfect candidate to take over the position of director of The Bauhaus in 1933. The last director in fact, because The Bauhaus had to close down due to rising political pressure.


Moreover, this was not only the only matter affected by Germany’s grim political climate of that period. Any avant-garde creators, among which modern architects, were increasingly pressured to abandon their art forms and ideas. For this reason, Mies moved to the American city of Chicago in 1938, where he became the head of the College of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Chicago. This institute is now called the Illinois Institute of Technology.


Certificate of Mies van der Rohe’s arrival in New York in 1938, via Jenikirbyhistory.getarchive.net,


Just like many other modern artists who fled Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, Mies flourished in America’s positive climate for avant-garde art. Especially after the end of World War II, Mies received many commissions that further shaped his brilliant legacy. Especially during the 1950s and 1960s, Mies expanded his oeuvre with multiple skyscrapers.


Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Barcelona Pavilion, 1929

A part of the exterior of the Barcelona Pavilion, 1986, via Fundació Mies van der Rohe Barcelona


One of Mies van der Rohe’s best-known designs is the Barcelona Pavilion. The building was designed in collaboration with textile, furniture, and interior designer Lilly Reich, with whom Rohe worked closely together during the 1920s and early 1930s. The Barcelona Pavilion was originally called the German Pavilion, as it was the German contribution to the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. However, later it became known as the Barcelona Pavilion.


A part of the interior and exterior of the Barcelona Pavilion, 1986, via Fundació Mies van der Rohe Barcelona


The story behind the renaming has to do with the pavilion’s reconstruction. After the exposition, the building was dismantled and the pieces were sent back to Germany to be reused. However, fifty years after the exposition, the Barcelona City Council realized that the pavilion had had a significant impact on the course of architectural development. For this reason, they gave orders to rebuild it. The reconstruction of the Pavilion happened between 1983 and 1986 and it was conducted by a group of Catalan architects.


A part of the interior and exterior of the Barcelona Pavilion, 1986, via Fundació Mies van der Rohe Barcelona


The Barcelona Pavilion is made of big pieces of colorful marble from various places in the world. Among these places are Greece, Rome, and the Northern African Atlas Mountains. For the purpose of reconstruction, the marble was once again collected from these places. Apart from the marble, Mies also made use of unique stones like red onyx and travertine. The minimal structure and decorations speak for themselves, while the luxury materials resonate with quality. Despite the heavy stone walls, the Barcelona pavilion looks light due to its open plan and the use of glass and steel.


Villa Tugendhat, 1929-1930

Exterior of the Villa Tugendhat, 1929-1930, via Villa Tugendhat


The Villa Tugendhat is located in the small Czech city of Brno. It is the only example of modern design located in the Czech Republic that is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Villa Tugendhat was part of Mies van der Rohe’s upper-class homes. It was built for Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Greta. The villa is built on sloped terrain and faces the southwest. The combination between the positioning and the glass façade on this side, makes the interior look very light.


The building consists of three stories: a basement, a second story (the ground floor), and a third story. Of these floors, the second and third were living areas, while the basement functioned as a utility space. Here, one could find the air technology room, boiler room, rooms for retractable windows, and the so-called moth room. The second story consisted of the main living rooms, the conservatory, a terrace, a kitchen, and the servant’s rooms. The third story was the level that connected to the street and housed the family’s bedrooms.


A part of the interior of the Villa Tugendhat, 1929-1930, via Villa Tugendhat


The Villa Tugendhat was another of Mies’s designs that he created in collaboration with Reich, as well as with Sergius Ruegenberg. Just as in the Barcelona pavilion, Mies also incorporated beautiful stones in the Villa Tugendhat. For example, there’s a wall made of honey and yellow colored onyx from the Atlas mountains in Morocco. Apart from stones, Mies used Macassar ebony wood from the southeast Asian island of Celebes for the kitchen’s half-cylinder wall.


A part of the interior of the Villa Tugendhat, 1929-1930, via Villa Tugendhat


Other materials that should not be left out are steel and concrete. The villa has a strong steel skeleton that supports the whole structure and reinforces the concrete ceilings. The house has a solid structure, an interior in which noble materials prevail, and which is minimally decorated with quality furniture. One of the characteristic furniture pieces was the Tugendhat armchair.


Mies van der Rohe’s 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, 1949-1951

The exterior of one of the 880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, via Architecture.org


Mies van der Rohe also designed multiple skyscrapers during the 1950s and 60s. Among these are the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, which were built between 1949 and 1951 alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago. The twin towers of the Lake Shore Apartments did not only redefine the Chicago skyline but changed the concept of high-rise living for the post-war generation too. The twin towers, with their twenty-six stories, gave residents a beautiful view over the lake. The 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments are also an important representation of Mies’ idea that architecture should be independent of its site. One of the ways in which these apartments stand out from their surroundings is through the elevation of the ground floor. Something that is obtained by the use of columns as a basis.


The rising of the ground floor of the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, via Architectuul


Just like the two buildings that were previously discussed, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments answer the famous Mies van der Rohe’s idea that less is more. To begin with, the exterior of the buildings shows its inner steel skeleton, while the rest of the walls consist of glass. The combination of these two elements created simple, but solid buildings that reflected the sunlight nicely. In addition, the combination of the two materials, glass, and steel, gave the buildings a refined appearance.


Flexible floor plans at the 860 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, via 860-880 Lake Shore Drive


The interior of the apartments, in their turn, had adjustable floor plans. This means that the apartments were constructed with elements that could be moved easily to create a different layout. In the image above, you can see some examples of adjustments to the original structure. It also shows how the interiors generally had open plans and minimal built-in furniture.


Old interior of the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, via Pinterest.com


The photo above shows the original interior of one of the 860-880 apartments. Here you can see the adjustable wooden walls, as well as the use of materials like wood and stone. Again, the principle of less is more was perfectly executed. Nothing in the 860-880 apartments was unnecessary, out of balance, or unrefined. It was Mies as we know him best.

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By Isabel DrogeMSc Arts and Culture, BA Art HistoryIsabel is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a MSc in Arts and Culture Studies and a BA in Art History, both from the University of Amsterdam. Isabel’s biggest passion lies with European art from the fin de siècle period. Within this field, her main focuses have been the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, the decorative arts, as well as the reception of marginalized artists. Currently, she finds herself very interested in art from the early and mid-twentieth century. When Isabel is not busy writing, she loves traveling, photography, web design, and being in nature.