Once upon a time, the house was the refuge of an exceptional writer. Now the Californian villa is a place for German intellectuals, artists and researchers to write, debate and feel at home.
“A German cultural institute, not a museum.” The brief was clear. The Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles was not to be turned into a memorial site where literary pilgrims could ceremoniously shuffle around Thomas Mann’s desk. “Just the opposite,” says Ursula Seeba-Hannan. “Fellows will be living and working here for months, inviting guests over and engaging them in debate. The fellows are meant to feel at home – that’s why everything looks so natural.”
Managing partner at LenzWerk Holding in Berlin, Ursula Seeba-Hannan redesigned Thomas Mann’s American villa as a place for experiencing German culture. The writer had built the house for himself and his family in the early 1940s as a place of refuge during the Nazi era. In 1952, the Manns returned to Europe and the house was sold, rented, renovated. When it was back on the market in 2016, the Federal Foreign Office of Germany seized the opportunity, which turned out to be a double blessing. First, because the villa, designed by architect Julius Ralph Davidson, was spared from demolition. And second, because the German government secured a new place for German-American encounters. Researchers, artists and intellectuals will now be able to fill the house with their democratic spirit.
Thomas Mann would have appreciated it. The “Buddenbrooks” author went into exile in 1933. After years of wandering from place to place, he and his family finally settled down in the house in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. While there, he wrote his “Deutsche Hörer” radio speeches in which he called for resistance against the Nazis. He also invited other exiles such as Theodor W. Adorno and Bertolt Brecht to his home.
A well-designed house is liberating. It provides shelter from the outside world and creates an indoor space for thinking and talking freely. Because everything says: “You are welcome here and may stay as long as you wish.” Because the furniture is made for people to use for decades, not for the sake of vanity. Because furniture can instill trust and provide a sense of stability.
“We picked the furniture for the Thomas Mann house as though it had always been there,” says Seeba-Hannan. The Mann family did not serve as the stylistic model for the house’s interior decoration. Back then, the family had brought their massive, ornate furniture from Germany to the villa. The current designer’s idea was to bring in furniture from German manufacturers again, but this time use furniture that better fit the style of the house and the present.
Seeba-Hannan knew immediately that she wanted Walter Knoll to be one of the project partners. “Their upholstered furniture is simply outstanding. There aren’t many manufacturers who are so deeply involved in their craft and pay so much attention to detail,” she explains. She chose companies with a long tradition and expertise; whose products would continue to be available well into the future. The models in the house range from the 1920s to the present: all of them classics that nevertheless feel contemporary today. “The Votteler Chair by Walter Knoll manages to blend in perfectly with the other elements in the room. It is my absolute favorite piece!” Originally designed in 1956 by Arno Votteler for Walter Knoll, the timeless armchair for reading and relaxing is inspired by Scandinavian functionalism, and artfully combines a delicate tubular steel frame with voluminous padding and solid wood armrests. Today, the designer is nearly ninety years old and incredibly flattered that his chair was selected for the house.
Ursula Seeba-Hannan has turned the Votteler Chairs into the protagonists of the living room of the house. The supporting actor is the light-colored Prime Time sofa by Walter Knoll, a contemporary design by the EOOS team, who made a few tweaks to give it a 1950s touch: the backrest was shortened a drop and the base of the sofa is now made of dark wood.
Vanity is the enemy of comfort. And democracies can only manage as long as nobody insists on going it alone. Guided by this belief, all participants cooperated on this project. Markus Benz, CEO of Walter Knoll, comments on the project, “For the Thomas Mann House, the companies worked together as a team, trusting one another and striving for the best result possible. These companies, which are all extremely creative and masters of their craft, are a part of the economic and cultural power of Germany.”
Along with Walter Knoll, Thonet and other companies, Seeba-Hannan was searching for the perfect fabrics and colors. There was just one problem she had not anticipated: furniture makers usually engineer their sofas and armchairs with the bigger picture in mind, producing their designs while constantly considering the proportions, materials and upholstery. Textiles from elsewhere need to be inspected first because not every thread is up to par. And so, Seeba-Hannan went with her bundle of samples from one manufacturer to the next to talk about her vision. She finally put together a selection, flew to Los Angeles, and laid out her collection in the house. But in that moment she saw, in the light and heat of the southern Californian sun, that she needed entirely different materials and colors than she did in northern Europe. She returned to Germany, and the upholsterers continued to test things out and advise her. “Their commitment and vast knowledge really moved me,” she recalls. In the end, she chose linen and cotton in shades of antique blue and bottle green. Seeba-Hannan could not have been more satisfied with how the upholstering team worked with this fabric – yet another example of the flexibility and professionalism of the people at Walter Knoll.
She still thinks fondly about the villa’s inauguration, recalling the moment when the prominent sociologist Jutta Allmendinger discovered the Votteler Chairs in the living room and said, “They look just stunning.” As one of the first fellows in the Thomas Mann House, Allmendinger was invited to the opening, as were other fellows such as the actor Burkhard Klaußner and Thomas Mann scholar Heinrich Detering. In the future, they will all go on to sit and work at the Andoo solid wood table by Walter Knoll in Thomas Mann’s study. Seeba-Hannan recalls that the fellows were a bit hesitant at first as they walked around the rooms – until she invited them to take a seat. “Wow,” Allmendinger said after she sat down in the Votteler Chair. “It doesn’t just look good, it feels good, too!”