How Bauhaus designed the world as we know it

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Sarah Wilson - [email protected]
How Bauhaus designed the world as we know it
The staircase to Bauhaus University in Weimar. Photo: DPA

Bauhaus celebrated 100 years this Wednesday. We explore how the school of art is just as groundbreaking as it was a century ago, with its ideas still shaping functional design today.


However much we like to think of our taste in design or fashion as unique, if there’s one thing The Devil Wears Prada taught us, it’s that we’re constantly being swayed by the figures, movements and establishments that surround us.

Some of these influences are fleeting, (here’s hoping shoulder pads never come back) while others make an impact that shapes the world for decades to come.

The Bauhaus school, which celebrated its centenary on Wednesday, falls into the latter category. An artistic movement and design academy founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Bauhaus didn’t just spawn a new architectural style or philosophy; it continues to shape our very concept of good, intuitive design.

SEE ALSO: Your guide to the events marking 100 years of Bauhaus in Germany

As Frances Ambler, author of “The Story of Bauhaus” put it to The Local, “the impulse for the Bauhaus came out of the horror of the First World War and the desire to do things a different way. They used art and design to try and respond to the needs of their time. Society always presents new needs, so in that way [the Bauhaus] is always relevant."

Bauhaus, translating literally to “building house”, was conceived partly in response to growing industrialization, which many - including Gropius - feared was taking the soul out of manufacturing and rendering art socially impotent.

The founding principle behind the school was to unite fine art - a past time usually reserved for the upper classes - with practical crafts like architecture and design. In opposition to the highly decorative style of Art Nouveau, popular during the late 19th and early 20th century, Bauhaus believed that form should follow on from function. That meant frivolous ornamentation was out, replaced by an emphasis on simplicity and usefulness in materials and design.

A long glass corridor in the building complex of the former Federal School of the General German Trade Union Confederation (ADGB) in Bernau, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

Bauhaus’s lasting impact

While many think of IKEA as quintessentially Swedish, for instance, it’s Bauhaus we have to thank (or perhaps curse) for the store’s mass-produced, functional furniture. Ambler also points out that “Terence Conran cited Bauhaus as a major influence in setting up [the furniture chain] Habitat," and that “Apple is an obvious comparison [to Bauhaus principles]. It’s technology with considered design. Jobs and Ive at Apple famously admired Braun’s product designs”.

Bauhaus also revolutionised the way many architects conceptualize their work, using function or purpose as the starting point for designing buildings. Housing like the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre in Dublin, built with shorter corridors and large windows for easier way-finding, is one example of design being led by social function.

In Vienna, housing blocks have been designed with the needs of women - who often bear the load of childcare and errand-running - in mind, placing kindergartens on-site and ensuring proximity to public transportation. This method - of designing with function first - can arguably be attributed to the revolutionary principles Bauhaus first put forward 100 years ago.

Contemporary art education, too, has been molded by the Bauhaus’s interdisciplinary approach, with today’s students often dabbling in lots of different mediums before specialising. Far from being consigned to history, the principles, values and methods that the Bauhaus put forward continue to be re-visited today, with the Bauhaus University in Weimar having hosted a “Bauhaus Semester” last October to do just that.

The Siemensstadt in Berlin, where the then-new style of building was constructed in 1930. Photo: DPA

In an age still struggling with problems of social housing and the need to build more sustainably, Ambler explains that the Bauhaus’s emphasis on collaboration could be one way to tackle these issues.

“I think their idea of people working together to find better solutions for society would be a good principle to start with when thinking about more sustainable building practices." Having steered the last 100 years of design, typography, art and architecture, then, it seems that Bauhaus may be here to stay for at least 100 more years.

The beginnings of the Bauhaus

The concept of an interdisciplinary art school might seem commonplace to us now, but at the time, the idea was revolutionary. Students at the school took classes in Bauhaus theory before entering specialised workshops in everything from textiles and pottery to typography and metalworking.

In spite of the name “Bauhaus” and the fact that Gropius himself was an architect, architecture didn’t actually feature on the curriculum until 1927 - two years after the school’s relocation to the city of Dessau in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt. In the school’s early days, Gropius also adjusted the aims of Bauhaus to include designing for the purposes of mass production; a practice desperately necessary in the wake of World War I.

The Bauhaus school designed by Walter Gropius in Dessau. Photo: DPA

The building that Gropius designed in Dessau to house the new Bauhaus school is still considered by many the epitome of Bauhaus architecture, with each wing corresponding to the function it served.

Ambler told The Local that the building is one of the best surviving examples of Bauhaus architecture. It was, she says, designed “as a statement of intent” and circulated by Gropius “to publicise his idea of the Bauhaus”.

What’s more, the building has “the straight lines and glass curtain wall that people associate with the Bauhaus”, with “its shape … determined by what’s going on inside”.

Artists of the Bauhaus

In the years that followed, well-known artists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee passed through the school as teachers, while others made names for themselves during their time at the school. Marcel Brandt, for instance, popularised the carpentry workshop by reimagining the very concept of furniture, stripping it down to its bare, functional essentials.

His iconic “Wassily Chair” was designed in such a way, using a lightweight tubular steel frame and stretched canvas supports, making it easy to mass-produce. Marianne Brandt, the first woman to attend the Bauhaus’s metalworking workshops, became famous for her furniture and utensil designs, including a teapot (which sold for $361,000 at an auction in 2007) with a non-drip spout and heat-resistant ebony handle.

The famous Wassily chair at the Bauhaus-Archiv. Photo: DPA

While practical design features like these seem, in Ambler’s words “so familiar that it no longer seems remarkable”, it’s thanks to the Bauhaus that so much design thinking continues to emulate this philosophy of usefulness before decoration.

Political trouble

In spite of its success, the Bauhaus wasn’t always popular with everyone, and as the Nazis began to rise to power, the future of the school looked uncertain. Early on, the Nazi party had dismissed Bauhaus as “degenerate art” and framed its internationalism and social progressiveness as suspicious and anti-German. After a brief relocation to Berlin in 1932, the school was forcibly closed by the Gestapo in 1933.

However, the wheels of Bauhaus were already set in motion, and once the school was disbanded, students and teachers alike spread the school’s philosophy, teachings and practices all over the world.

Gropius and Breuer went on to teach at Harvard, and ex-Bauhaus Jewish students designed the White City of Tel Aviv, now a World Heritage site. Bauhaus went beyond individual buildings and institutions, however, embedding itself permanently into the ways we think about, and do, art, architecture and design.



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