In 1919, during the troubled time of post-WWI, German architect and designer Walter Gropius took over the direction of the Grand-Ducal Saxon Academy of Fine Art and School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, Germany. He replaced the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Henry Van de Velde. Gropius wanted to revolutionize the way arts and crafts were taught. The Bauhaus school was created.
Upon the opening of the Bauhaus, Gropius established a manifesto. Along with the fine arts and crafts unification, Gropius wished to educate a new generation of people to rebuild the country after Germany’s defeat in WWI. Under Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic, women received the right to vote. Gropius stated in his manifesto: “we will have no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex,” meaning men and women were to be treated as equals. What progressive ideals for that time!
The Bauhaus Welcoming Women
The Bauhaus school openly welcomed women among its students; flagship learning institutions, such as Cambridge or Oxford universities, allowed female students only several decades later. Upon opening, more than half of the student population were women. Far from his ideals, this reality soon became a problem in Gropius’ eyes. Indeed, Walter feared that the high number of female students would depreciate the school’s prestige and funding. He so carefully built the Bauhaus’ reputation, inviting renowned artists to teach; he was not ready to not be taken seriously by the public. Gropius discreetly changed the admission standards and set them higher for women. Female students had to be better than their male counterparts to be admitted to the Bauhaus.
Gropius’ Bauhaus school, which soon became the Bauhaus movement, established the foundation of modern architecture and design and durably influenced contemporary artists. By studying the role the women played in the Bauhaus, we can understand this artistic movement’s real nature.
1. Gunta Stölzl, First Leading Woman Of The Bauhaus Movement
Adelgunde, also known as Gunta Stölzl, was an art student in Munich before WWI, during which she served as a nurse for the Red Cross behind the front line. After the end of the war, Gunta discovered the Bauhaus program on a leaflet. It instantly appealed to her as she was no longer satisfied with the traditional art course she followed in Munich. She decided to join the school in 1919.
Stölzl embraced Gropius’ ideas to build a new world, more human, after the war’s atrocities. After following the preparatory class, she joined the weaving workshop, led by Georg Muche and Paul Klee. Although Bauhaus’ manifesto stated that women were equal to men, the reality was different. Strong ideas were still deeply rooted in the male and female minds. For example, people presumed that, unlike male’s brains, females’ could not perceive three dimensions, only two. They also believed that women had not the physical force necessary to do certain jobs like metalwork. Men supposedly excelled in construction work, while women’s creativity shone in decorative things. Following these assumptions, female students were invited to join workshops believed to be better suited for them; the weaving workshop, for example.
Gunta graduated from the Bauhaus and came back to the school as the weaving workshop’s technical director. Despite being headed by Georg Muche, who had no expertise in weaving and did not pay real attention to it, Stölzl became the weaving studio’s de facto head. Gunta did all the work, teaming up the weaving workshop with industries and manufacturers, making it the school’s primary source of income. However, Muche received all the praises for her efforts. This had to stop. Gunta’s and her students’ protest succeeded in changing her position to Jungmeister (young master), running the entire workshop. It made her the first and only woman in a leading place at the Bauhaus. Yet, her contract still had different conditions than her male counterparts, and she had a lower salary. After writing letters to the town’s council, threatening to quit her job, she finally got what she wanted.
Under Stölzl’s guidance, the weaving workshop went from a simple craft studio to a place of textile innovations, applying modern techniques and designs, and working hand in hand with industries making it a great success of the Bauhaus movement.
2. Anni Albers
Anni was born Annelise Fleischmann and later took her husband’s name, Albers. Anni started her artistic education following the lessons of German impressionist painter Martin Brandenburg. When she integrated the Bauhaus in 1922, Anni wished to join the glass workshop. Yet, after the preparatory class, Anni was encouraged to join the weavers, and she grudgingly changed her plans.
She gradually learned to appreciate textile crafting and made the most of it. Even if Gropius integrated textiles into his concept of working and living spaces, weaving was still considered a lower-level craft. The Bauhaus weaving workshop, fueled by its students’ talent, transformed this lower art form into an essential modern design element. The textiles they designed, using new materials such as cellophane or artificial silk and other synthetic fibers, were meant to decorate and improve the architecture. The wall hangings or rugs created in the weaving workshop not only looked good in modern interiors but also improved the soundproofing of rooms.
Anni met her future husband, Josef Albers, at the school. While she created modern hangings with geometrical forms, Josef did the same in the glass workshop. In 1933, upon the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, the couple relocated to the United States. American architect Philip Johnson invited them to teach in the newly opened Black Mountain College in North Carolina. At the end of the 1940s, they moved to Connecticut, as Anni’s husband, Josef, was appointed the new head of the design department at Yale University. In 1949, The MoMA in New York organized the first solo exhibition dedicated to a textile designer. Anni Albers received recognition for her work.
The Albers were part of the group of students and teachers who left the Bauhaus before WWII. They contributed to the spread of Bauhaus movement’s influence worldwide. Walter Gropius, the Albers, and many others taught generations of students using the Bauhaus methods.
3. Marianne Brandt
In 1923, Marianne Brandt (born Liebe) visited the Haus am Horn, the house designed by Georg Muche in Weimar and part of the Werkschau Bauhaus exhibit. The flat-roofed, white, cubic house was the Bauhaus movement’s first architectural emblem; the perfect example of functional aesthetic. The Haus am Horn deeply inspired Marianne, who set on joining the school.
At the time, Marianne was already a trained sculptor and painter, and she had no interest in weaving. She became the first woman to join the metal workshop. Hungarian-born modernist theorist and designer László Moholy-Nagy, director of the metal workshop, considered Brandt one of the best among his students, and he backed her admission.
Still, Marianne had a difficult time adapting to the workshop, essentially because the other students, all males, rejected her. When they became friends, her fellow students told her that she was given the most tedious and repetitive work to force her to quit. Despite this negative experience, Marianne persevered and stayed in the metal workshop.
Marianne Brandt first became assistant to Moholy-Nagy and then replaced him as interim head of the metal workshop. When the Bauhaus school moved from Weimar to Dessau, Gropius designed a brand new building, an opportunity to stamp the Bauhaus’ identity. Marianne Brandt created most of the light fittings for the new school. The large orbs of glass with chrome fittings were strikingly modern for the time.
Brandt became one of the leading figures of the metal workshop. During her time as head of the metal department, she negotiated lucrative contracts with local manufacturers to produce a series of lamps and other objects for both industry and home furnishing. Marianne Brandt designed several of the Bauhaus movement’s hallmarks, including the silver and ebony tea set and the famous Kandem lamp, which inspired thousands of copies still being massive selling hits today.
4. Lucia Moholy
Lucia Moholy (born Schulz) was not, per se, a Bauhaus teacher. Initially, she was a language teacher and photographer who married László Moholy-Nagy in 1921. Lucia followed her husband when he joined the Bauhaus movement.
Lucia set up a photo studio and darkroom in the basement of the house where they lived, near the school. She also used to teach photography to Bauhaus students, including her husband. It was all unofficially done, and she was never paid for the job. Lucia Moholy took many pictures of Bauhaus architecture and daily student life on campus. Thanks to her and her students’ work, there still exist many testimonies of this highly creative period, which greatly suffered under Nazi Germany.
Regrettably, the biggest part of Lucia’s work has been wrongly attributed to either her husband or Walter Gropius. When Lucia had to leave Germany because she was Jewish, she could not take her photographic negatives. This collection of more than 500 glass plates represented the only record of the Dessau period. Gropius looked after the photographic negatives and eventually considered them his property. He abundantly used the pictures to advertise for the school, even during the 1938 Bauhaus retrospective at the MoMA. Gropius never credited Moholy for her work as the photographer of the Bauhaus. With the help of a lawyer, Lucia managed to retrieve some of the originals in the 1960s.
5. Lilly Reich, Among The Last Teachers Of The Bauhaus
Today, she is best known for the professional relationship she had with famous architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Bauhaus’ third director. Active in interior design and textile, Lilly Reich met Mies Van der Rohe in 1926. She was working under his supervision for Die Wohnung (the lodge) exhibition, held by the Deutscher Werkbund, an association of German artists, designers, architects, and industrialists.
Lilly Reich had many successes while working as an interior designer along with Mies Van der Rohe. She supervised several important interior design projects such as private villas and international exhibitions all over Europe.
When Mies Van der Rohe joined the Bauhaus as its new director in 1930, he invited Lilly to join him. Reich took over the head of the weaving department after Gunta Stölzl’s departure. In 1933, the school had to close because of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany. Reich and the rest of the staff proclaimed the Bauhaus’ dissolution.
For many years, her creative role in modern interior design was shadowed by Mies Van der Rohe. It has been the same for many other women of the Bauhaus movement. Over 400 women studied at the school, or about a third of all its students. Even if they were strongly advised to join the weaving workshop, women eventually entered all the school’s departments. They not only worked as weavers but also as designers, photographers, architects, and teachers.
Despite Gropius and the Bauhaus movement’s failure to establish perfect equality between men and women, they significantly contributed to gender politics. At the time, women were still considered only to be mothers or housewives. During the period leading to the Nazis’ rise to power, German society became increasingly conservative. Still, the Bauhaus made it possible for women and men to be the pioneers of the functional aesthetic. They could learn, experiment, and create in so many different fields. This young generation remarkably influenced modern arts and design worldwide.