The guardian of order and style

Touring a collection at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

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Klaus Stemmler is a collection manager with a love of objects. Added to a disciplined orderliness, the qualified confectioner has a great appreciation of beautiful, old things. His favourites: furniture, fashion and the film music of the 1920s to 1940s. Our author Nicoline Haas visited him at his workplace in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.


Nicoline Haas

Nicoline Haas is a freelance journalist who loves writing about sustainable projects and fine, traditional handcrafts.

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Klaus Stemmler is fond of browsing the antique markets for shellac records in good condition, which he plays at home as they should be played, on his gramophone. His treasures include the music to films such as “The Blue Angel” and “Carneval of Love”. The 49-year-old is also an Art Deco and Bauhaus furniture enthusiast. At the arts and crafts Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) on Steintorplatz in Hamburg, just a short walk from the central station, he deals with objects of desire on a daily basis. “Working amongst all these beautiful and useful things is a temptation,” he admits, “but in most cases I'm just happy to look at them – I don't need to own them”.

“Treasure map” for the climate-controlled storage in the loft

The Hamburg native has been one of four collection managers at the MKG since 2013. He looks after all the three-dimensional design objects and art works of the Modern period, from around 1850 to the present day: more than 150,000 pieces in total. Only about five percent are on display. The rest are held in the loft in climate-controlled stores, separately by material: metal, wood, glass, ceramic and electrical. “To conserve wood it has to be kept a little humid, for example, while metal has to be very dry,” explains Klaus Stemmler. His challenge is to retain the overview in this gigantic warehouse. He keeps a location directory so that he can find every piece immediately if needed; shelves and showcases are numbered and all objects labelled. Is he this tidy in his personal life? “No, only my discs are neatly arranged”.

Travel companion for fragile things

This morning, Klaus Stemmler's job is to find some design classics that are going on loan to a museum in Madrid. He opens the door to the metal store and places a ladder against a room-high shelf unit. When he reaches the top he pulls on cotton gloves and selects several pieces made of perforated plate, including a cruet stand for pepper, salt, oil and vinegar. The industrial-style tableware from the “Wiener Werkstätte”, designed by Josef Hoffmann around 1905, matches his taste. Carefully, he lays the objects on a cart. Before leaving the metal room, however, he has to stroke his favourite cow, a bronze by Ewald Mataré, “she is so smooth and elegant”.

A registrar handles the loan process, including commissioning an art transport company. She assigns an expert to accompany fragile pieces on site: most recently, Klaus Stemmler followed a Miró figure to Graz in Austria. “I was the only one allowed to unpack it at the Kunsthaus and to set it in the display case,” he says, and runs his hand coquettishly through the long top locks of his layered haircut. Fortunately, he tells us, he's never dropped anything.

New acquisitions are first approved by restorers, then photographed from every angle as if for a “wanted” poster. After that it's down to Klaus Stemmler to “inventorise” the objects. Before placing them in store, he gives them a unique inventory number and enters important information such as the style epoch, origin and material in a database. They're far from having digital records of all the museum's objects, let alone photos, the collection manager informs us. He has a lot of hard work before him in that respect.

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Hair-driers, bronze statues, masks: Klaus Stemmler guards more than 150.000 three-dimensional design objects and art works of the Modern period.

“All you basically need to know is where things are”

Klaus Stemmler previously used his aesthetic flair in a totally different environment: he trained as a confectioner and for years constructed gateaux and modelled marzipan. When he got fed up of that sweet, but exhausting craft, he happened upon an advertisement placed by the Museum der Arbeit (Museum of Work): Collection Manager wanted. He spent eight years in Barmbek managing the entire inventory, from steam engines to thimbles. “I got into the museum the same way as the virgin came by her baby,” Klaus Stemmler is amused. “No specialist experience required. As a Collection Manager, all you basically need to know is where things are. But of course you enjoy it more if you the objects actually mean something to you”.

The design fan blossomed at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. He read everything he could get his hands on about certain designers, such as Ettore Sottsass and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, or he asked the in-house experts. He also grew beyond his role on the creative side: architects and curators alike appreciate his knack for effective presentation. He recently went shopping with his boss, art historian Dr Claudia Banz, picking out brightly-coloured designer carpets for a silverware show.

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Before coming to MKG, Klaus Stemmler managed the collection at Museum der Arbeit in the Hamburg neighbourhood of Barmbek.

“The plastic hair-drier will soon be rare and precious – because almost everyone will have thrown such things away”

Are there pieces in his department that he doesn't like? “Of course! The flowery Jugendstil is not for me. And there are a lot of ugly things in the electric store”. When we get there, Klaus Stemmler heads for a row of hair-driers: “Look at this plastic hair-drier from 1992. It will soon be very rare and precious – because almost everyone will have thrown such things away!” Laughing, he picks up a heavy model almost 100 years old, which he considers more worthy of its place in a museum: with a round stainless steel casing, rotary switch and wooden handle.

In the Design collection on the second floor, selected objects are presented on 55 metres of archive shelving – alongside furniture, home accessories and jewellery, there's a range of technical appliances: from facial tanners to a massage set, from a record-player to an iPod. The collection manager finds it exciting that “people have an everyday connection with these things and react to them: hey, Uncle Willi has an old radio just like that one in his workshop!”

As we pass through the exhibitions he wipes away dust (not really his job), puts exhibits back into place, shaking his head (“can someone kindly tell me why this drawer is open?”) and stands in awe of his personal favourites. In the Modern collection, that means the Expressionist “dance masks” by Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, produced in 1923. Some costumes resemble robots or comic figures – they really could be contemporary. Klaus Stemmler also knows the story behind them: “In 1924 Lavinia shot her beloved Walter and then herself. Our museum was given the dance masks. Then they were thought to have been lost, and weren't rediscovered in the loft until 2006”.

“I got into the museum the same way as the virgin came by her baby".

Klaus Stemmler

A work of art to enter and touch

The highlight of the Design display is Spiegel magazine's canteen, designed by Verner Panton in 1969. The world-famous media company made a gift of the canteen to the MKG when it moved from the Brandstwiete to the Ericusspitze in 2012. The orange-red dining room and snack bar were transplanted to the museum one-to-one. Klaus Stemmler's gaze wanders over the patterned carpets and table-tops and over the wall panels with their semi-circular lamps. “I would enjoy an evening cocktail in a gaudy ambience like this,” he says, “but a beef olive with cabbage and dumplings?” The collection manager finds it bizarre that the Spiegel canteen is for hire: “We make sure visitors don't touch a thing, but when they have their parties here they eat and drink on the enamelled tops without table-cloths!” A touch of the conservationist in him comes to the surface here. Nevertheless, he's clear in his mind that a work of art in the form of a room has to be experienced as well as preserved. Because we are even more moved by things that we, like himself, are allowed to touch.