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The Staatliches Bauhaus opened in 1919. It was shut under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. In the years between, its teachers synthesized a profoundly inﬂuential ethos of the well-designed, mass-produced object.
Even as Bauhaus aesthetics have receded into the past, the Bauhaus outlook has renewed and expanded itself in the near-century since its birth.
Several historical factors converged in the Bauhaus. Industrialization and the emergence of the “mass man” — huge urban working- and middle-class populations — gave rise in the 19th century to the desire for beautification. Material progress was outpacing livability. City life was often banal and ugly.
Artists and designers reckoned with the problem of adorning the homes and lives of the swelling urban masses. This problem contained both aesthetic and material challenges.
The aesthetic challenge was that of style: What kind of beauty suited modern life? Initial answers were nostalgic, yearning for idealized rustic, medieval and folk styles. These resulted in factions such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Later, Art Nouveau began to integrate backward-looking themes with the sinuous lines of the Machine Age. Art Deco followed, celebrating industrialization itself in its imagery and motifs.
The material challenge of mass beautification was equally daunting. The objects produced by the new breed of artist-designer should, ideally, be available to the common person. Yet, the skilled craftsmanship that had always defined quality goods placed their prices out of reach.
In halting steps, the processes of industrial mass production were applied to humble utilitarian purposes. Machine-shaped metal, and glass replaced hand-carved wood and stone. The beautiful object lost its handmade individual charm. But it became accessible to the general population, whose alienating urban landscape demanded it.
World War I devastated Europe. Until the war, a refined high culture still helped to define aesthetics and moderate the winds of change. After four years of brutal mechanized warfare, the delicate Old World lay in ruins.
A reeling continent was ready and eager to explore radical new design theories and products. It was against this backdrop that architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.
The Bauhaus followed a utopian concept, a mission to completely design and define modern life. Its doctrine went beyond the integration of form and function, seeking to fuse all branches of art and design into a seamless, harmonious whole.
In his founding manifesto, Gropius wrote, “Let us … create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture and painting in a single form, and will one day rise toward the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”
Yet there was no architecture class. Gropius’ gigantic ambition was ridiculously mismatched with the resources available to him. The school suffered the poverty of defeated Germany in its early years.
When it opened, the students were starving and the classrooms had no desks. They squatted on the floor in unheated studios.
Undeterred, Gropius designed a curriculum and assembled a set of teachers to execute it. In its Weimar period, the Bauhaus had between 150 and 200 students. High proportions of women and non-Germans were admitted.
There were no academic requirements to enter the basic course, an introductory study of materials, although passing that course — a requirement for progressing further — was difficult. The teachers of this curriculum over the lifespan of the Bauhaus did much to set the tone of the school during their tenures.
Playing Up Strengths
The first of the basic course instructors was Johannes Itten, a Swiss artist trained as an elementary school teacher. He was a follower of the ideas of Friedrich Fröbel, the “inventor of kindergarten,” who had proposed the then-radical idea that children learn and thrive through play.
Itten applied this concept to his course, introducing gymnastics, meditation and breathing exercises into the classroom. Actual work involved “playing” with pieces of wood and metal, glass and stone, clay and cloth. The play involved transforming and assembling the materials with the aim of discovering their properties individually and in conjunction with one another.
Itten guided the play to teach his students principles of form and color and to help them focus on the specific media to which they were best adapted. He saw his job as transmitting concepts and practices of art and design to his students while simultaneously encouraging and developing their individual creativity and expression.
Itten was deeply skeptical of modernity. In the introduction to his book, Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later, he wrote, “The terrible events and the shattering losses of the war had brought in their wake confusion and helplessness in every walk of life. … I became aware of the fact that our scientific, technological civilization had reached a critical point. I did not believe that the slogans ‘Back to the Crafts’ or ‘Unity of Art and Technology’ were capable of solving our problems.”
Itten found his answers in Eastern philosophy, Zoroastrianism and early Christian theology. His mystical leanings gradually brought him into conflict with Gropius, and Itten left the Bauhaus in 1923.
Integration of Disciplines
With Itten’s departure, the expressionist period of the Bauhaus came to an end. Henceforth, students were not to be encouraged toward the extremes of personal vision and idiosyncrasy. Rather, they were to be indoctrinated in a more universalist set of ideas and practices.
Gropius found in Hungarian photographer and painter László Moholy-Nagy a partner in this program. Moholy-Nagy was a communist and shared the technological optimism of communists of the period. He wholeheartedly believed in the marriage of art and technology, in service to the creation of a healthy human future.
In his book The New Vision, From Material to Architecture he described his approach to the Bauhaus basic course: “Their training this first year is directed toward sensory experiences, enrichment of emotional values, and the development of thought. The emphasis is laid not so much on the differences between the individuals but more on the integration of the common biological features and on the objective scientific and technical facts.”
In actual practice, Moholy-Nagy’s course was not that different from Itten’s, although it involved more collage. The difference in effect derived from Moholy-Nagy’s concept of the goals of his lessons and the way he explained to his students what they were doing in his class.
Moholy-Nagy shared direction of the preliminary course with Bauhaus graduate Josef Albers, who took it over entirely in 1928 when Moholy-Nagy departed the school. Like Moholy-Nagy, Albers subscribed to Gropius’ utopian-fusionist design doctrine, shaping his teaching around the centrality of marrying properties and uses of materials.
Other notable artists who passed through the Bauhaus during its short but intense existence included Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer. Schlemmer’s work and teaching ably demonstrate the impulse of the Bauhaus to cultivate universalism in art and design: He taught wall painting; stone, wood and metal sculpture; and life drawing.
He produced significant work as a graphic designer and adman, yet a key passion for him was the stage. Schlemmer designed and choreographed ballet, worked with Stravinsky and directed the national tour of the Bauhaus stage program in 1928 and 1929.
He exemplifies the universal Bauhaus “artist-craftsman.” But the advent of Nazism broke his spirit. His friend Max Bill wrote that in Schlemmer’s last 10 years it seemed that a “curtain of silence” had descended upon him. He died in hospital in 1943.
In this, too, he exemplifies the Bauhaus. It existed on borrowed time, weathering constant attack from proto-Nazi and Nazi factions until its premature demise.
Designs for Mass Production
Under political and financial pressure, the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925. Gropius designed the new school building, a masterpiece of Bauhaus modernism. The architect Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as director of the school in 1928.
Under his direction, the school increasingly focused on the problems of design for the age of mass production and produced work that constituted a significant income stream. He enthusiastically embraced the school’s wallpaper program, creating student competitions for inclusion in the official Bauhaus wallpaper collection.
Of all the utilitarian designs the school produced, the wallpapers were the most profitable. The school finally began to run in the black in 1929.
In 1930, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced Meyer, shutting down the school’s manufacturing activities in order to make teaching more central to its program. When the Nazis took over the Dessau city council, they moved against the school.
Two main sources of animus fueled the consistent opposition of the Nazis to the Bauhaus: On the one hand, the Bauhaus provided a friendly environment for communists, whom the Nazis detested. On the other hand, Bauhaus aesthetics reflected a cosmopolitan modernism, which the Nazis railed against as “degenerate” and “un-German.” The city council ordered the Dessau campus to shut down.
In 1931, Mies paid out of pocket to rent an abandoned telephone factory in Berlin as a new school facility. During this short final period of the Bauhaus, students and teachers worked together to redesign the interior of the building.
Little further work was done before the Gestapo shut the school. Although the decision was rescinded, the administration decided to dissolve the Bauhaus, and the experiment in art education came to its close in 1933.
During its 14 years of operation, the Bauhaus produced a small number of iconic designs, among them Marianne Brandt’s ashtray and coffee/ tea set, Marcel Breuer’s tubular-steel and fabric “Wassily chair,” Josef Albers’ stacking tables and, of course, the wallpapers.
These objects were distinguished by a reliance on basic geometric forms — the cube, the cylinder and the sphere — and a strict analysis of the minimum design requirements of the job of the object. Their very sternness reflects a nearly comical hypermodern flair.
Architecture produced by the Bauhaus has the same quality: spare, logical, rectangular structures involving a great deal of steel and glass. Given its brief life and relatively small output, the Bauhaus has had a massively disproportionate impact on all fields related to its work.
Itten’s original pedagogical template, which accessed creativity by applying the kindergarten concept of play to adult materials and considerations, defined not only the preliminary courses taught by his successors but many of the basic assumptions of art education afterward.
The clean, unadorned look developed by Bauhaus designers spread everywhere in modernist design. Cities around the world, from Chicago to Tel Aviv, began to show Bauhaus influence in their architecture as refugees from the school spread across the globe.
Today, almost a century after it was founded, the Bauhaus has sometimes been supplanted as the key influence in architecture, industrial design, typography and many other disciplines in which it once held sway. Yet post-Bauhausian work in these disciplines exists, at least in part, in response to the Bauhaus. It is such a pivotal part of the history of aesthetics that its principles must be answered even by those who disagree with them. We all live in the shadow of the Bauhaus.
Love It … Love It Not
As an art critic, I find the Bauhaus is almost tragically frustrating. I adore every single thing about the school: its fractious, brilliant faculty, its fanatical student body, its radical sense of play and experimentation. I admire the willingness to take risks, to try anything, to tackle everything, to challenge inherited assumptions about all rules of aesthetics.
Yet I can hardly stand a single Bauhaus object. I find the Bauhausians’ sense of design clunky and irritating. The colors and shapes are overstated to the point of being grating. The so-called utility of their objects involves design parameters so extreme as to render the objects unpleasant to actually look at or use.
Their buildings strike me as mechanistic and vaguely hostile to the people who actually have to occupy them. Their zeal for elimination eliminated, above all, every gentle touch that makes bare functionality endurable.
Still, they will not be denied. I wear a watch transparently ripped off from Max Bill’s designs for Junghans. I love those clocks.
Article written by Daniel Maidman and first published in Artists Magazine. Get your subscription now and never be without the art-centric stories, inspiration and instruction you love.