Freyja Hartzell is an assistant professor specializing in European and American design, architecture, and art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. MA student Mackensie Griffin sat down to talk with her about her new book Richard Riemerschmid’s Extraordinary Living Things, published by MIT Press last year.

Mackensie Griffin: Hi, Freyja. I want to begin by saying congratulations on the publication of your book! When did this project begin, and why were you drawn to Richard Riemerschmid as a subject?

Freyja Hartzell: It really began when I was doing my MA at BGC in 2002, so I’ve been working on this project for about twenty years! I was in an art nouveau course with Amy Ogata, who was an inspiring professor here for many years, and I saw this incredible silverware design by Riemerschmid, who was a German Jugendstil (“Youth Style”) designer. I’d never seen anything like it—it looked like something between plants and bones. I became fascinated, and I kept kind of going back to him. What I found was that there wasn’t very much published in English on his work, so I was forced to dust off my German and go read what I could.

MG: In your book, you describe a vibrant world of objects that seems to have engaged the human imagination and your imagination. You use the word “thingliness” to describe Riemerschid’s designs, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that and how thinking about objects as living beings figures into your research.

FH: Yeah, I think that’s really at the core of the whole project. I came to use “thingliness” because I was trying to find a translation for the German word Sachlichkeit. It’s an important word for design and architecture in that period, but people use the English word “functionalism” as a kind of shorthand for that term. It’s usually understood as something very dry and straightforward. I was trying to reconcile how the word Sachlichkeit was applied to Riemerschmid’s work because when I look at Riemerschmid’s work, I see the opposite of that. So, I looked into how that word had been used historically. What I arrived at was this idea of, not straightforwardness in the sense of sobriety or objectivity, but a kind of object that, through its form or through its materials, really tells a story about what it is. Almost like the way I’m wearing my clothes or my hair tells you something about who I am. Or even how we react to meeting particular people. We might like them right away, and we’re not even quite sure why: it’s something about the way they look and the way they talk, and the way their body moves. I came to understand the word Sachlichkeit in relation to Riemerschmid’s work much more along those lines, so I came up with the adjective “thingliness.” It’s almost a transliteration of Sachlichkeit because Sache, the root of that word, can mean “thing” or sort of “matter.” Like when you say, “Let’s get to the heart of the matter,” that’s kind of what Sache is. It’s like the essence of something.

So that’s how I arrived at “thingliness.” It also lines up in many ways with a kind of current discourse in object studies. The scholar Bill Brown is credited with coming up with this idea of a “thing theory,” which is in many ways similar to what I’m talking about with “thingliness” in the sense that it explores the thing as being different from the object. His idea of the thing is that it’s somehow beyond just a utilitarian object in that it has a kind of force or a presence. His work was useful for me because I didn’t want to impose a theory on the past, but I saw that what I was finding in my historical research had a lot in common with his work and with some current work that’s really about the nature of the object, sometimes people call it “object-oriented ontology.” But that also gives you a sense of this idea that objects have some sort of presence beyond what we usually credit them with.

A mustard pot and egg cup designed by Richard Riemerschmid in 1902.

In this book, I play around a lot with the notion of objects coming alive. I think it might be important to make the distinction that I’m not so much pretending that objects come alive, but I’m really talking about blurring the lines between the way that we typically understand relations between subjects and objects. I feel like Riemerschmid’s objects, for example, a mustard pot with feet that he designed in 1902 (pictured above), start to approach the subject and encourage the user to start to think differently about what our relationships to objects are and maybe start to unsettle that perceived stability that I exist over here and the thing exists over there. I got really interested in that because I started to realize as I was doing more research that it wasn’t just about a fantasy that Riemerschmid had, although I think he was very fanciful, imaginative, and playful. I think he was doing what I would call “serious play.” He was really invested in that kind of fantasy, but also that these objects, being kind of animated in their forms, were able to take on roles in the household.

The example that I use all the time when I talk about this is a beer mug he designed: it’s a piece of salt-glazed stoneware that has a long historical tradition in German society, and people would’ve understood it as something fundamentally German. In the early twentieth century in Germany, design was being taken really seriously. People were thinking carefully about their purchasing choices and what to have in their houses. This mug would have seemed modern but also historically rooted. The combination of modernity, historicism, and a physical, animated appeal creates an experience for the user. It becomes much more about a narrative or a tableau or a play that’s happening in the interior. And it’s influencing the people who use it just as much as the people who use it can pick the thing up and take a drink out of it. So I like using the word thingliness not only because the sound of the word mimics Sachlichkeit, but it also evokes the kind of playful animacy that I’m trying to convey in the writing. I tried to write the book in a way that invites the reader to play within that space. Even though it’s a scholarly book, I also want it to be a book that people can become absorbed in the same way that they would become absorbed in using the objects.

MG: Yes, definitely. I found your writing to be very engaging, and I loved the wide range of sources you pull from: you incorporate fairy tales, theory, art history, and natural history. I also noticed quotes from theater historians and a puppetry scholar. I personally respond to that kind of writing, and I feel like it engages a variety of interests and people. It made me wonder about your approach to researching and writing this book and if you have a process?

FH: Yeah, that’s a great question because I’m working on a new project now, and I’m trying to figure out what my process is! I try to strike a balance. I guess what I mean by that is I kind of work from a hunch. Looking at an object or reading a text, I tend to have an instinct. Usually, the research process kind of flows from that instinct. What I find in my own work is that my job is to really stay honest, and when I’m in the archive, to bring my instinct about the form or the objects that I’ve seen into contact with the archival material and really try to figure out if my hunch is correct. Sometimes that’s a daily process. When I’m doing really active research, if I’m on a fellowship or I’m traveling, and I’m looking at archives, I try to go into the archive every day with a new question. Not so much what am I looking for, but what am I asking of this material? What is it that I’m trying to figure out? That’s usually helpful, especially because anybody who does archival research knows that it’s really easy to get overwhelmed. You’ve got all kinds of stuff in front of you, and you could go down a rabbit hole. Sometimes you do, and it’s a great rabbit hole, but I think it really helps me to stay rooted in the object and then to bring that object into conversation with the more textual sources that I’m looking at. I say this in the book too, but it’s important to me that I’m not writing text and applying it to the object. I’m not theorizing and then being like, “And here’s an example of my theory;” I’m working from the object out and trying to see where it occupies historical space.

For this project, I did a lot of periodicals research, and I found these brilliant intellectuals writing in a very earnest way about design objects. There was very strong interest in the philosophical and intellectual dimensions of design. That kind of blew me away because the things that I saw in Riemerschmid’s objects they also saw. That was a wonderful confirmation to me because it was like, okay, I’m not just some goofy art historian or design historian coming in and imposing my opinions on this stuff. I’m seeing something that was seen 100 years ago.

So I guess my process is a balance between bringing in historical literature, keeping in touch with the objects, and then also thinking about what contemporary scholars are wrestling with. Some of this interest in object-oriented ontology, or neovitalism, is part of what we’ve been talking about at BGC for a while now with the concept of active matter: That objects are made up of energetic matter. They have lives, and they change and decay. In this project, it was exciting to see all those things come together and then try to figure out a way to write about it to make it so that readers would actually care. That was probably the biggest challenge.

MG: Well, I’d say that you’ve succeeded. Having taken your class “Doll Parts” in my first year at BGC, I saw a lot of connections between our class discussions and your work on Riemerschmid. I know that you’re currently working on putting together a BGC Focus Exhibition related to that class and your research on dolls. I’m just wondering if you also see intersections between these two projects?

FH: I’m glad you asked because I had to really think about that. It’s going to be a Focus show, and I’m also writing a book on this topic. I think it’ll be called “Doll Parts: Designing Likeness”. It’s funny, when I pivoted to the doll topic, I was like, “Well, now for something completely different!” But I quickly realized that the subject-object relationship that I was talking about earlier really connects the two projects. In many ways, I feel as though the doll is kind of the quintessential object for this because it’s designed to be a companion and to look like us. Of course, the big question is why do we design something that looks like us, and what does that mean? People say to me, “Dolls are so creepy. Why are you working on dolls?” I think that another word for creepiness is “uncanny,” and I think the whole point of the uncanny is that it does destabilize the relation between the subject and the object.

We have this thing that we know is not alive, but at the same time, we imagine what its life might be. If we say it’s creepy, it’s because we have this fantasy of the doll coming to life and doing something weird or being dangerous or getting up to no good. I think it’s that strange place that I’m interested in exploring. And I feel like if I pick up Riemerschmid’s mustard pot, it’s not so different from a doll, but thinking about dolls is almost like going to the source.

I’d like somebody to argue with me about this, but I don’t feel like I know another type of object that gets at this question of “Where is the boundary between the subject and the object?” in the same way that the doll does. To make a long answer short, I’m exploring the same questions, but now with the quintessential material object. I think another reason for me to work on the doll project is that I want to keep exploring these ideas that are so fascinating to me, but I don’t want to write about a single artist. I don’t want to write about a man. I want to be working at this intersection of race and ethnicity and gender and ability. Dolls are the best objects to be able to expand the scope of who this project is about and who it’s for.

MG: It is interesting to think of objects as dolls. I don’t think we think that we form the same attachment with a beer mug as a child does with a doll, but maybe we actually do. They’re like adult playthings.

FH: Right? I know we talked about this in the course, but so many things can be a doll without having to have all the attributes that we think about. One of the students in my class this semester brought in corn husks, and we made corn husk dolls. They’re made of almost nothing, and still, they can be dolls.

MG: Absolutely. My niece has a scrap of blanket that she has carried around with her since she was a toddler, and she named it Margaret like one would a doll.

FH: I love that. We’ve also got this impulse to animate things. We seem to all do it when we kick technology that isn’t working or we yell at stuff. We can’t seem to understand that only humans are human. I find that totally fascinating.

MG: True, everyone forms an attachment to their objects, and they’re our constant companions. Just a final question on that note: I was curious if you have specific objects or furniture at home that you think of as a living being or a companion or something that sort of guides you?

FH: Well, the answer to that question is a bit sentimental, but I guess that’s kind of part of it. A couple of years ago, my mom passed away. Her house was a Connecticut saltbox house built in 1707. I inherited that house and moved in with my kids. I was just saying this to somebody the other day, and I think it all the time: that house, it’s a person. It’s absolutely saturated in history. It’s mind-boggling to think about all the people who lived there and used that house. It is the materials, the design, the fireplaces, the way that I walk around it, in and out of the spaces, touching it, and bumping my head on things! It feels like a living thing that I’m collaborating with. Even when it falls apart and does bad things, it feels like somebody I’m negotiating with. I grew up all over the world, and I had homes that I loved, but I think this is the first time that I felt that way about a building. It would be very, very hard for me to leave that house. Part of it is because of my mom, but a lot of it is this feeling of having a partnership with an inanimate thing. It’s this daily give-and-take. I want to go home and tell the house that I just told you that [laughs].

MG: You should, don’t keep any secrets from the house! [laughs] But thank you for sharing, I think that’s beautiful and a perfect way to bring this conversation to a close.

Assistant professor Freyja Hartzell in her home in Connecticut. Photo by Matt Kelsey.