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DESIGN

The haus that Gropius built

Nine decades after Walter Gropius founded his revolutionary Bauhaus academy, dozens of exhibitions across Germany are celebrating a movement that embodied much more than simply aesthetics. Celeste Sunderland investigates.

The haus that Gropius built
Photo: DPA

Seven letters stream down the side of a building. No fussy serifs adorn this stunning, simple font. With clean lines and smooth curves they proclaim the existence of a building made of steel and glass, constructed to house a legendary school where creativity flourished, and art and technology became one.

The Bauhaus Building rises above the terra-cotta rooftops of Dessau where it was constructed in 1926. A symbol of a revitalised nation, the geometric building of interlocking blocks became a UNESCO World Heritage site seventy years later, but it was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the fabled city of Weimar, where the Bauhaus movement began.

In 1919, just a year after the end of World War I, a young generation of Germans was eager to rebuild their creatively and economically bankrupt nation. Inspired by the words of the then 36-year-old architect Walter Gropius, they signed up for an altogether new kind of academy dedicated to the merits of skilled craftsmanship without the academic hindrances of the “old arts” schools.

With a manifesto that linked art with craft, Gropius set out to form “the new building of the future” – a place where disciplines like architecture, sculpture, and painting merged seamlessly. He enlisted leading artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, visionaries who developed their own concepts, independent of tradition.

They taught courses on colour theory, analytical drawing, and three-dimensional studies while leading workshops on painting, printmaking, pottery, industrial and interior design, weaving, and typography. According to Dessau Bauhaus Foundation Director Phillip Oswalt, this trans-disciplinary approach set the Bauhaus apart from any other movement.

He recently explained that “bringing people from different design professions together” was one of its core ideas.

These highly specialised workshops developed products such as the table lamp by Karl Jacob Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Marianne Brandt’s silver teapot, and Marcel Breuer’s nesting tables and tubular steel chairs. Easily reproduced, they became icons of twentieth century craftsmanship and influenced myriad designers in the decades that followed.

“You have continuities,” Oswalt told The Local. “Some of the products are still produced. Designers made updates or developments of [Bauhaus] design ideas. You have things that have a strong relationship to Bauhaus ideas, even something like IKEA furniture, just to give an example of one brand.”

The convertible tables and stainless steel coffee pots that fill contemporary design stores today do reveal a marked influence, and would fit right in at one of the four Masters’ Houses Gropius built adjacent to the main Bauhaus building.

But looks can deceive, and Oswalt warns against labelling anything that embodies a modernist aesthetic with the term Bauhaus.

“There are quite a few people who relate to the ideas of Bauhaus in an articulated, explicit way, but there are things you can see in relationship to the Bauhaus ideas which are not necessarily derived from studying the Bauhaus program,” he said.

That’s because the the Bauhaus movement went beyond simple aesthetics. It incorporated societal issues and reacted to a population’s basic needs. During the Bauhaus’ fourteen years of existence, relationships between topics like art and science, style and form, functionalism and necessity were constantly debated.

After Gropius’ departure in 1927, the directorial reins passed to Hannes Meyer and then Mies van der Rohe, who both presented new ideals, and shifted the school in ways that often conflicted with one another. These continual changes in perspectives, Oswalt explained, were a key factor in the Bauhaus’ development.

“It was dynamic and controversial and many-fold,” he explained.

In 1925, a far-right government came to power in Weimar, which compelled the school to relocate to Dessau. But the Bauhaus experienced further hardships and moved to Berlin in 1932, where it remained for just one year before it closed as the Nazis took power. Many of the masters emigrated to the United States. There, Mies van der Rohe became a superstar architect, Moholy-Nagy established the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Gropius took a position at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

In Germany, three important sites offer insights into the movement’s impressive legacy.

At the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, hundreds of objects created by teachers and students fill the original, historic building where the school was founded. The Dessau Bauhaus Foundation offers guided tours of the workshops and rooms where the masters lived and worked. And at Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive, revolving exhibitions delve into topics complimenting the museum’s vast permanent collection.

But this is a momentous year in the world of Bauhaus, and in addition to these three celebrated sites, dozens of exhibitions and events are taking place throughout Germany, offering plenty of ways to encounter its unmistakable style.

For a comprehensive listing see the Bauhaus 2009 website.

Apolda

Exhibition: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – On the Way to Weimar 1917-1923

Kunsthaus Apolda Avantgarde, Bahnhofstrasse, 42

April 05 – June 21, 2009

Early paintings, drawings, and prints by the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus master trace his development from expressionism to constructivism.

Berlin

Exhibition: Modell Bauhaus

The Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstrasse 7

July 22 – October 4, 2009

Iconic pieces from Germany’s three Bauhaus institutions, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau, the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin and the Bauhaus Museum Weimar provide a comprehensive overview of the Bauhaus’ contributions to 20th century design and examine the movement’s influence on the present day.

Erfurt

Exhibition: Margaretha Reichardt

Kulturhof Krönbacken, Galerie Waidspeicher, Michaelisstrasse 10

September 12 – October 11

The life and work of Erfurt-born, Bauhaus-trained weaver Margaretha Reichardt is celebrated with this colourful exhibition of carpets, tapestries, photographs, and personal documents.

Gera

Exhibition: Encountering Bauhaus – Kurt Schmidt and Avant-Garde Artists Kunstsammlung Gera, Küchengartenallee March 25 – June 14

For the Bauhaus’ first exhibition in 1923, Kurt Schmidt developed a performance called the “Mechanical Ballet,” which joined dance and technology. A series of works from the artist’s varied periods hang alongside pieces by Bauhaus masters and students like Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and Lothar Schreyer.

Exhibition: Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain and the Bauhaus Museum of Applied Arts, Greizer Strasse 37 June 23 – September 20, 2009

Classic pieces of pottery and porcelain, like smooth white vases and elegant teapots created by Bauhaus ceramicist Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain sit within Gera’s Museum of Applied Arts display cases all summer.

Gotha

Exhibition: Modern but not Fashionable – Bauhaus Artists in Gotha

Schlossmuseum, Schloss Friedenstein October 10, 2009 – January 3, 2010

The desk lamps, coffee pots, and tea strainers of Wolfgang Tümpel and Marianne Brandt are displayed along with original sketches in this exhibition of two Bauhaus metalwork students who worked in Gotha during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Jena

Exhibition: Kandinsky – Paintings, Drawings and Graphic Prints

Stadtmuseum Jena, Markt 7 September 06 – November 22, 2009

Devoted teacher and visionary abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky was one of the Bauhaus’ most revered masters. This exhibition presents examples from the artist’s entire oeuvre, and examines his connections with the city of Jena.

Seminar – The Bauhaus in Jena 1919 – 1933 Volkshochschule Jena, Grietgasse 17a April 30, May 7, May 14, May 28, 6-7:30pm

Over the course of four Thursdays, this seminar traverses the history of the Bauhaus, through discussions and evening walks through Jena.

Weimar

Film: New Building I – Efficiency Fever and Urbanism Kommunales Kino, Goetheplatz 11 April 23, 2009, 7:30pm

Kommunales Kino screens a series of historic films including one from 1926 where Ilsa Gropius demonstrates the time-saving advantages of a modern kitchen. A full program of Bauhaus related films runs through December.

For members

WORKING IN GERMANY

‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change. 

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