We think of white walls, clean lines and the use of glass and concrete as modern and contemporary ideas. And they are, except that those same ideas have been around for nearly a century now thanks to the unique influence of the Bauhaus school of design, art and architecture...
The Bauhaus was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919 by architect, Walter Gropius with the aim of bridging the gap between art, design and industry and unifying all three. It was a school where students received theoretical and practical training in all of the fine arts -ceramics, murals, stained glass, typography, metalwork, book binding, stone sculpture and furniture-making – and learned to combine these fine art skills with new technologies to design and manufacture products that were both beautiful and practical.
Gropius was influenced by the old Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th which had emerged as a response to the intense industrialization of Victorian England. Its aim had been to bring artists and craftspeople together to ensure the survival of beautiful craftsmanship in the face of mechanized labour.
Gropius’ aim was to unite artists and craftspeople in order to embrace technological developments. It was clear that technology was the future and machines now provided opportunities to mass-produce products for everyday use. With this vision of unity, the Bauhaus aimed to create an environment in which artists could work alongside architects and designers to contribute to the ‘building of the future’ using this new machine technology.
As an architect, Gropius believed that a building should be at the centre of the teaching of all the arts, hence the name Bauhaus (House of Building) and in 1925 the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau and into a new purpose-built home which reflected the core Bauhaus values.
Designed by Gropius, workshops, studios, classrooms, offices and living space were all housed within an asymmetrical structure featuring walls of glass, enclosed between strips of concrete rendered in white. The building had a feeling of openness, clean lines and simplicity and this Bauhaus style of architecture set a standard that became known as the ‘international style’ and one which has influenced generations of architects since and which still retains its appeal today.
Courses at the Bauhaus school were structured so that all students received a sound basic education in the theory of the arts, followed by practical training in all of the disciplines. The Bauhaus attracted teachers of the highest calibre including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten and Lyonel Feininger. Josef Albers and his wife Anni were pupils and Albers was subsequently invited to teach there.
The period between 1924 and 1928 was the most significant in the development of the Bauhaus. The Dutch De Stijl movement founded by artist and architect, Theo van Doesburg was particularly influential during this time. De Stijl advocated the use of flat primary colours, rectangular forms and straight, horizontal and vertical (never diagonal) lines. In 1922, Van Doesburg taught a course at the Bauhaus and these De Stijl principles are clearly reflected in the stark simplicity and functionalism of much of the Bauhaus output after that. It is interesting to note that a Bauhaus building in the ‘international style’ can be seen as a three dimensional version of a painting by Dutch artist and De Stijl member, Piet Mondrian.
Gropius also began to recognise the ability of machines to make works of beauty and the Bauhaus embraced the ‘machine aesthetic’, creating designs for household items that could be mass produced using modern technology.
This worked particularly well for furniture. Marcel Breuer’s ‘Wassily’ chair from 1925 is one of the most iconic pieces to emerge from the Bauhaus and illustrates beautifully the strength of this marriage between art, design and machine production.
Political pressure and constant scrutiny by the Nazi movement continued to cast a shadow over the school and in 1928 Gropius resigned and was succeeded by Hannes Meyer. The structure of the school became less rigid and Meyer encouraged the design of wallpapers and textiles as well as lamps and furniture. A socialist, he was dismissed in 1930 for bringing politics into the Bauhaus and creating a haven for communism.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) took his place at the helm and attempted to eliminate the politics and get back to the basic principles of the movement but by 1932 the Dessau parliament had decided to dissolve the Bauhaus and although it found a temporary home in Berlin for a period, it was effectively at an end.
Despite the fact that it lasted for only fourteen years, the legacy of the Bauhaus endures and its principles can be seen in much of what we think of today as contemporary or modern design, whether it’s in the homes we live in or the typography we use. Our streamlined kitchen products, cantilevered chairs, stacking tables, ‘modern’ lamps, white walls and open plan living spaces can all trace their origins back to the Bauhaus.