Rolf Hoffmann

Wednesday 12 December 2001 01:00

Rolf Hoffmann, businessman, property developer and art collector: born Naumberg, Germany 12 July 1934; married 1963 Erika Koenige (one son, two daughters); died Berlin 17 October 2001.

Rolf Hoffmann was the creator, with his wife Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, of one of the world's important collections of modern and contemporary art, the Sammlung Hoffmann, in Berlin, but he was equally renowned in the fashion trade for transforming his family firm Van Laack into a major enterprise. Fluent in a wide variety of languages and social milieux, Hoffmann seemed the archetypal citizen of the world but his position in German business and cultural politics, his patrimony and philanthropy, was local in the best sense.

Hoffmann was born in 1934 in Naumburg, in Sachsen-Anhalt, one of the Lander which would be occupied by the Russians after the Second World War. The family fled to Mönchengladbach, near Düsseldorf, and while he was still a schoolboy Rolf began work at the family clothing business, Heinrich Hoffmann. When many were going in the opposite direction, under Rolf's direction the business moved upmarket into the luxury trade under the new name of Van Laack. The high-end luxury niche has proved one of the most profitable in fashion retail, and the small, regional family firm was turned into a highly remunerative international concern.

In 1963 he married Erika Koenige, a student in art history who later was to found the successful Lady van Laack line, and the two encouraged each other's rapacious cultural interests. They began collecting works from the Italian Arte Povera movement and the Zero group – their first purchase, in 1968, was a sculpture by the Greek artist Takis.

The Hoffmanns' collection of Soviet Constructivism influenced Van Laack's graphics, packaging and design and led to limited-edition clothes based on original Constructivist designs from the 1917 Revolution. Van Laack ran advertising featuring the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers and included a "Shirt Art Gallery" for emerging artists within their offices, which also had a mural by Blinky Palermo. Andy Warhol painted a diamond dust portrait of the Hoffmanns in 1980 and modelled their shirts for a fashion show in their Manhattan loft.

At the age of 50 Rolf Hoffmann sold the business, switching his energies to the creation of a property portfolio and to strengthening the art collection. In 1988 he relocated to Cologne and by then had also begun to invest in New York. He became a pioneering investor in Tribeca, where he created the area's first luxury building with 24-hour lobby reception and a ground-breaking high-rent-only loft building. He understood the dynamics of that top-level niche market.

One of Hoffmann's boldest plans, and his only unrealised project, was a proposal in 1990 to build a Kunsthalle in Dresden. For this the Hoffmans commissioned the artist Frank Stella to create a maquette, his first architectural creation, which would have stolen a dramatic march on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Those who have seen Stella's plan consider it one of the most extraordinary museum buildings ever proposed – Philip Johnson even erected a version of it in his own sculpture garden. The scheme fizzled out in 1993 due to governmental sloth but the Hoffmanns' commitment to their reunified country did not.

They became early supporters of the Berlin scene, moving residence and collection to the city. The Sammlung Hoffmann, a "private lived-in collection" open to the public every Saturday, was set up in 1997 in Berlin, and gives Berlin a rare chance to see new international art, whether Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ron Mueck, Rineke Dijkstra or Pipilotti Rist. The collection is equally strong in established figures such as Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter or John Coplans.

Last year Hoffmann set up the Preis der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, Berlin's equivalent to the Turner Prize, and he was active in the International Councils of the Tate Gallery and of MoMA.

Adrian Dannatt

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