Talent – Fate – A life’s work

One name is inextricably linked with Wendt & Kühn: Olly Wendt (née Sommer). On February 15, 1920 she began work at the manufactory as a craftswoman and for more than 60 years her work as a designer left its creative imprint on the story of Wendt & Kühn. Countless figurines in our collection such as the Marguerite Angels, the animals and the Moon Family bear her unmistakable hallmark. To mark the 100th anniversary of her joining Wendt & Kühn, we will be showing the path taken by this extraordinary woman and talented designer.

Childhood, teenage years and education

Olga Sophie Emilia Sommer, known simply as Olly, was born in Riga on May 27, 1896, the youngest of five children. She lived with her family in a large, comfortable apartment on the Nikolai and Basteiboulevard, on the City Canal.

She was particularly close to her bother Herbert, two years her senior. “We were inseparable and known for it. We did everything together,” Olly once wrote, describing her close relationship with her sibling. When she wasn’t having fun with Herbert playing their own made up game “Little Devils”, Olly devoted herself to the fine arts even as a little girl – she drew, played the piano and later on wrote her own poetry.

At the end of June 1913, the Sommers relocated to Germany and moved into an apartment in Dresden. Why the family decided to leave Riga is not entirely clear – perhaps her father, who was born in Saxony, was drawn back to his old home when he retired, or they simply followed Olly’s older brother Herbert who was by then studying in Dresden. Maybe it was a combination of circumstances that led to their decision, including those of a socio-political nature. One thing, however, is clear: it was not an easy step for their daughter who felt a close affiliation with the city of her birth.

In September 1915 Olly enrolled in a course at the Dresden branch of the Berlin Tailoring Academy. At the time she would probably have seen a future for herself in textile design, particularly as she appeared to show real talent in this field. Her final college report from January 1916 shows she received excellent grades: “Pattern cutting, German, English and French style: excellent; Measuring, calculating fabric, color coordination: very good.”

While she was studying at the State Academy of Applied Arts (formerly the Royal Saxon Academy of Applied Arts) she also took a hand-sewing course. At this point there was no question of her designing wooden figurines, at the time her interest lay in fashion design. So in September 1917, she enrolled on a vocational fashion course at the State Academy of Applied Arts in Dresden, under the direction of Professor Margarete Junge, under whom company founder Grete Wendt had also studied ten years earlier.

Creativity, love and loss

On February 15, 1920 Olly followed the advice of her professor and arrived in Grünhainichen to take up a work placement at Wendt & Kühn. Grete Wendt had previously turned to her former teacher for help in finding creative recruits after Grete Kühn, the second founder of the company, had resigned following her marriage leaving a vacancy for a talented painter and designer.

One week before Olly started work, Grete Wendt sent her a letter containing the final important pieces of information she needed: “Dear Miss Sommer, I think that Miss Junge told you I was going to write. I have now secured a room for you with a landlady, Mrs Krehan, the wife of the shoemaker. (...) The apartment is available immediately so that you can start here on 15.2.” She finishes with the words: “I shall be happy to see you settle in well here and enjoy your work.” And how much she enjoyed her work! Although she originally planned to spend just a year gaining work experience, she stayed for the rest of her life. “This young enterprise captivated me completely - it became my fate,” Olly wrote to a friend many years later.

The first figurines that the newly qualified graduate worked on were the “Lippersdorf Angels”, for whom she created a new color scheme. This was followed by the artistic decoration of figurines designed by Grete Wendt. Olly’s use of rich ornamentation gave them their particular character. Over the years that followed she designed a wide range of her own figurines: Marguerite Angels, animal figurines, the Moon Family...

In Grünhainichen Olly discovered not only a love of designing figurines, she also found in this small village in the Erzgebirge her man for life. She fell in love with Grete Wendt’s brother Johannes, the commercial manager of Wendt & Kühn. In today’s terms, the pictures of Olly and Johannes from a 1925 photo album would probably be described as a modern “love story in photos”, as the pictures give a hint of the chemistry in the air in the mid-1920s, as the couple strolled through the garden of the manufactory whispering sweet nothings to one another. Their wedding on February 19, 1930 cemented the relationship of the happy couple. That same year their twins Hans and Sigrid were born.

In September 1945 the family’s life took a dramatic turn. Their happiness was overshadowed by the loss of their husband and father. Johannes was taken prisoner by the Russians and never returned home. Olly had just one more opportunity to see Johannes after he was taken away. He was being held in a satellite camp of Buchenwald and Olly sought to deliver some winter clothes to him at the camp. Where he was taken next and how his life came to its tragic end remained unclear for many years, an almost unbearable situation for the family. Afraid of losing her children too, Olly sent her son Hans to the Allgäu, to the master woodturner Gebhardt Heinz in Waal, where he was taken in as a refugee and completed his training to become a wood turner. Sigrid followed her brother a few months later.

Three brocade angels that Olly designed for Johannes in 1945/46 as a homecoming gift bear witness to her unending sorrow and the hope she clung to of seeing her beloved husband again one day. Even the letter she wrote to Hans on his 22nd birthday - seven long years after Johannes’ disappearance - attests to Olly’s unwavering optimism: “Even though a dark shadow has lain over the Angel House since ‘45, we must remain constant in our hope and belief that we will very soon be reunited with daddy. Today I place this wish ahead of all the others I send you, my dear grown-up boy.” It was not until October 1962 that Olly received official notification that Johannes had died on December 7, 1945 in the Russian internment camp Tscherepowez.

“Work is a blessing”

During these fateful years, Olly found distraction, if not consolation, in her work. She dedicated her entire working life to the service of the manufactory. Even when Wendt & Kühn was nationalized in 1972 she stayed on as an employee, at what was now known as “VEB Werk-Kunst”. She expressed her sorrow at the expropriation of the company in a poem: “It is the same, and yet it is not” that ends with the lines “This alone is what makes me sad, and takes away much of the joy”. Fortunately the state-run management was not able to stifle her creativity, and her artistic achievements were even recognized by the Cultural Association of the GDR. In 1988 she received a special appreciation of her work when Expertic (the Trademark Association for Arts and Crafts) awarded her a badge of honor for her work.

In addition to her designs for the manufactory’s collection, Olly also continued to create very personal figurines for friends and family. She also loved to paint everyday items such as coffee jars and cosmetics boxes to give as gifts to friends and guests. In 1980, now 84-years-old, she wrote in a letter how much she still enjoyed her work, even in her old age: “I am grateful and happy that I can still do it. After all, work is a blessing.” On the morning of April 28, 1983 she entered the painting department for the last time, the place where she had left her creative imprint on the story of Wendt & Kühn for more than 60 years. On June 13, 1991 Olly closed her eyes forever. But not without being remembered for all time as a profound, sensitive and warm-hearted person, a loving wife, mother and “grandma”, and as a great designer.