Behind common household objects like the steel-frame chair and the perforated metal tea-strainer lies a provocative story: a story of revolutionary artistic ideals, political intrigue and visionary genius. Today the ubiquity of such mass-produced, well-designed objects belies their eventful beginnings. This is the story of the Bauhaus Movement, initiated by the Bauhaus school that arose out of the ashes of post-war Germany in 1919 with the conviction that a beautifully-designed world is the prerogative of everybody.
The Origins Of The Bauhaus Movement
The boom of engineering and technology in Europe in the 19th century had brought a sense of doom and gloom to the status of the arts. Artists and intellectuals shared a growing concern that the rapid advances in technology and engineering were leading to the erosion of crafts as diverse as weaving, pottery, sculpture and architecture. These crafts would soon be mechanized, the resultant costs of production far cheaper and more efficient. Concerns such as these contributed to the Arts and Crafts movement.
John Ruskin and William Morris were prominent among the Englishmen who warned about the consequences of this historic transformation for art. Both men sought a human-centered revival of craftsmanship in reaction to the degrading effects of mechanization and proposed a general return to the crafts by underlining the great cultural value of traditional craftsmanship.
The artistic ‘challenge of the machine’ spread throughout Europe and was taken up enthusiastically in Germany. In this spirit, a group of leading artists, craftsmen, and architects alongside educators, industrialists, and politicians joined forces in the forming of an organization called the Deutscher Werkbund in 1907. The Werkbund identified issues about the future of art in an industrialized world and sought solutions with pressing urgency. But the organization’s goal was somewhat different from that of the early British reactionaries: they believed not in a naïve return to traditional craftsmanship. Instead, they embraced the machine.
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The Werkbund called for unity between the arts, crafts, and modern technology, with an uncompromising emphasis on the quality of design of industrially-produced objects. They held meetings and conferences around Germany, discussing their aims with the public. The organization remained active until the First World War, which put a significant halt to their program. Their ideas, however, took firm root thanks to one member’s vision.
The Weimar Bauhaus
In 1919, after serving in the War, Werkbund member and architect Walter Gropius was appointed director of the Weimar Grand-Ducal Saxon School for Fine Arts. Gropius was a public figure and a well-respected intellectual among a number of German cultural and artistic groups of the time. The city then and now is quiet and conservative, and has a strong cultural heritage. Weimar is home to Goethe and Schiller, and eponymous with the de facto Republic established there in the wake of the November Revolution in 1918.
Gropius introduced a ground-breaking curriculum into the school: the teaching of painting, crafts, and modern production technologies would all coalesce, molding the student into a radically new type of artist-craftsperson equipped with the skills to create in modern industrial society. Towards this end he amalgamated the fine arts school and the local crafts school, calling the new institution the Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar, or simply, the Bauhaus.
In the Bauhaus manifesto, Gropius wrote that his aim was to ‘create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists!’ The name ‘Bauhaus’ evoked the term Bauhütten — medieval guilds in Germany that protected and transmitted traditional know-how of quarrymen, masons, wrights, stained-glass artists and other artisans. In this spirit, Lyonel Feininger’s black-and-white woodcut, the “Cathedral of Socialism,” was used as the cover image for the Bauhaus manifesto. Architecture, and especially European cathedral architecture, was history’s prime example of a truly composite art form, where many artisans collaborated for decades, where flamboyant altarpieces merged painting, sculpture and carpentry, and where rose windows crowned fine tracery, all in the service of a single building.
Romanticizing the image of a collaborative and classless union of artisans all building a common future was intentional. Gropius’s revelation was that taking art out of the hands of a wealthy minority and bequeathing it to the common man had become necessary; it was the divine duty of the modern artist, and with a priest-like influence he led others toward his utopian vision. Gropius’s vision reflects a common and widespread rethinking of cultural values after the disaster of World War I.
Gropius had Left-leaning political views after his experience in World War I. However, soon after, he became disillusioned by organized politics, writing in 1920: ‘We must destroy parties. I want to found an unpolitical community here [at the Bauhaus].’ He is remembered as being a charismatic and shrewd negotiator, continuously engaged in protecting the school’s public image, and as an expert administrator, encouraging political and social diversity within the school. Notwithstanding Gropius’s pleas for political neutrality in his effort to establish a harmonious student community, politics was inevitable, and would eventually bring an end to the Bauhaus school itself.
The Bauhaus Masters
Gropius expressed that having a star-studded team of well-respected artists and craftspeople as its teachers was essential to the success of the Bauhaus school. The artists were ‘Masters of Form’ and the craftspeople ‘Workshop Masters’, an attempt to abolish the title of professorship and to return to the medieval notion of masters and apprentices.
One of the earliest Masters of Form was the Swiss expressionist artist and educator Johannes Itten, a quasi-religious mystic of magnetic personality. Itten conceived of the Vorkurs or preparatory course at the Bauhaus, revolutionary for its time and obligatory for all students. Instead of starting out in the traditional way—studying the great painters of the past—students undertaking his course would ‘limber-up’, perform meditative breathing exercises before experimenting with forms, textures, colors and tones. A common exercise was to ‘experience’ various shapes by contorting the body into the shape itself, feeling the ‘essence’ of the square, circle, or triangle.
Students were encouraged to express their inner artist through channeling their childhood genius, the aspect of their artistic selves most worth preserving. This essential and highly experimental artistic grounding resembles what has come to characterize foundational courses in art schools today, a testament to Itten’s impact on art education. Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky would soon arrive at the Bauhaus to teach their own foundational courses alongside him.
Johannes Itten was a man who ‘knew with certainty that his insight was an event of global significance in the teaching of art.’ He developed his own theory of color, following in the tradition of Goethe; he followed an esoteric Persian religion known as Mazdaznan, and he naturally tended to make acolytes of his students. With his head shaved bare as a solemn mark of devotion, his religious fasting, monk’s robe and his contagious calm, Itten appended the unlikely words ‘master of the art of color’ after his signature. The Bauhaus Movement began to blossom under his influence as it embraced his unique brand of expressionism.
Another influential member of the Bauhaus Movement contingent was Oskar Schlemmer, the German painter best remembered for his work in theatre. His diverse skill set granted him teaching positions in figure drawing, stone sculpting, woodcarving, metal, stained glass painting, mural painting and theatre workshops. The human figure was his chief subject, which he conceived of as composed of basic geometrical forms. Designed for his widely acclaimed Triadic Ballet (1922), his costumes are a truly unique contribution to the Bauhaus oeuvre, while the ballet itself is just as experimental. The Bauhaus theatre under the direction of Schlemmer was perhaps the school’s most public aspect, especially since the Triadic Ballet was performed around the country.
Perhaps the most famous recruit to the Bauhaus school staff was Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian lawyer-turned-artist already well-known when recruited in June 1922. As a master of form, he taught an obligatory theory course on form and color, headed the mural painting workshop for a time, as well as free painting later on.
Kandinsky had made waves throughout the European art world prior to the War with his involvement in the expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, being a founding member and editor of the group’s journal. In his 1912 essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, Kandinsky had established a theoretical basis for totally abstract art. In it, he had developed the idea of “inner necessity”—the metaphysical starting point of all artistic endeavor— and argued for a shift in the conception of art from merely an ‘impression’ of the world to the more musical notions of ‘improvisation’ and ‘composition’. Through securing respect with his humble, attentive and highly considerate nature, Kandinsky was revered by those he taught and worked with.
Klee had been received with mixed feelings when he came to the Bauhaus in 1920, as many (apart from Gropius) had thought of his works as devoid of practical significance to the school: merely l’art pour l’art. This quickly proved not to be true. Klee had scintillating originality and technical skill as a painter, and along with his meticulous pedagogy, much of which he distilled into a collection of writings entitled ‘Pedagogical Sketchbook,’ he became one of the most successful teachers at the Bauhaus school. He taught a highly popular theoretical course on Form—obligatory for students taking the foundation course—as well as being master of the book-binding, metal and glass-painting workshops at one time or another.
Klee urged his students not to blindly follow his theoretical path, but to invent their own, inspiring an ethos of pure artistic autonomy. His painting style declares his uncompromising individualism with symbolic and whimsical dreamscapes; they evoke works from contemporaneous art movements such as Expressionism, Abstract art, Cubism and Futurism, although his work is too idiosyncratic to belong to any one single movement. His later work became increasingly political in part as a reaction to Nazi anti-modernism and anti-individualism, which chased him out of Germany in 1933.
Gradually, the early expressionism of the Bauhaus was replaced by functionalism, though many of its early members still maintained their belief in art’s transcendental nature. Klee’s ‘Creative Form Theory ‘ and Kandinsky’s ‘Form and Colour Theory’ courses at the Bauhaus studied elementary forms and colors with scientific precision in order to formulate fundamental laws for art. Through their experiments, they introduced a generation of students to what they regarded as art’s most universal principles: objective visual laws for a truly subjective artistic expression. The primary colors, the circle, square, triangle, and the point, line, and plane became the most basic starting points: individual elements functioning to create a unified whole.
A truly fundamental vocabulary of art would, the Bauhaus hoped, communicate emotions and ideas just like verbal language could. Furthermore, it would be accessible to all and sundry, rescuing art from stuffy Academicism and the barrage of expressionist saturnalia, and giving it to the common man.
The Bauhaus And The Constructivist Turn
The expressionist flame that characterized the early Bauhaus Movement flickered under the great gust of Russian Constructivism which swept through the European avant-garde scene in the 1920s. Constructivism aimed to replace what was traditionally called ‘composition’ in visual art with the idea of ‘construction,’ emphasizing the idea of function and suitability for mass-production rather than the inherent beauty of art-objects.
Itten’s expressionism and enthusiasm for Mazdaznan had transformed many of his students into veritable hippies, a phenomenon that caused some concern among the staff. Various imbroglios ensued between Itten, Gropius, and the other masters; clandestine plots to have Itten fired developed. Itten’s expressionism hadn’t yielded the results Gropius expected, and the expressionist movement, in general, had lost its luster. In light of constructivism infiltrating the Bauhaus, and under increasing pressure to keep his religiosity low-key, Itten resigned. The school’s early craft-romanticism was effectively replaced by a rational, sober, practically-minded approach to achieving its goal of unity between artist and industry. The utopian dream shifted gears, becoming a practical objective.
This shift is reflected in Kandinsky’s paintings in the period between 1922 and 1928, but perhaps most clearly in the appointment of Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, a constructivist himself, who took over the preparatory course from Itten.
Moholy-Nagy was a highly versatile artist who eschewed expressionism in lieu of a constructivist approach to art. He also was influenced by both the De Stijl and the Dada movements, attending conferences held by both camps before coming to the Bauhaus school as a Master of the Metal Workshop, in addition to replacing Itten’s role in conducting the Vorkurs. So dedicated was he to the merge of industry and art that he once telephoned an enamel sign factory and ordered a painting to be made by giving them precise instructions for its creation over the phone. His paintings are carefully assembled constructions of a few geometric forms which balance delicately, giving a sense of gravity and material force. In addition to painting, he also did pioneering work in sculpture, typography, photography, film, and theatre, and collaborated with many of the masters at the Bauhaus.
Moholy-Nagy’s arrival at the Bauhaus in 1923 raised the hackles of Klee, Kandinsky and those generally committed to transcendentalism, although Moholy-Nagy was a strong individualist and proponent of artistic autonomy. He remodeled the Vorkurs, throwing out the spiritual exercises introduced by Itten and replacing them with practical, intensive and detailed studies of materials and wide-ranging scientific experimentation in various media. For the first time, the school designed functional, mass-producible objects instead of luxurious, quirky pieces that only the wealthy could afford.
In 1923, Gropius fell in love with Ide Frank, a woman of many talents who came to be known as “Mrs. Bauhaus.” Apart from assisting Gropius with the administration of the school and with the editing of his lectures, Ide was a talented designer, photographer and writer, and was tirelessly dedicated to the realization of the Bauhaus Movement’s dream.
Noteworthy Students And Rising Success
Students at the Bauhaus school ranged in age from 16 – 40 and came from far and wide. Anyone, irrespective of race, religion or nationality was guaranteed initial entry and thereafter full entry if successful in passing the Vorkurs or preparatory course. The diversity and dynamism of the student body contributed to the institution’s artistic fertility, producing some of the 20th century’s most memorable designs. Festive parties, frequented by both masters and students, promoted a free-spirited artistic community that gradually stirred sleepy Weimar, isolating itself from the local townsfolk.
One of Bauhaus’ most successful students was Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian-born designer who arrived at the school at the tender age of 18. As a student he produced numerous excellent furniture designs, winning the school substantial commission. After graduating, Gropius offered him the position of master of the carpentry workshop, which he accepted. It was here that Breuer designed his Wassily Chair and Cesca Chair, now classics of modern design. These were the very first chairs to be constructed with a tubular steel frame, an inspiration that came from his bicycle’s handlebars, and ironically became the carpentry workshop’s most influential design, completely revolutionizing the modern interior.
Arguably even more important was Gunta Stölzl who became a Junior Master at the Bauhaus after graduating as one of the school’s finest students. With her characteristic determination, she did much to develop the Bauhaus’s weaving workshop—a feat since its activities were cordoned off by the male masters as ‘women’s work’ and not given the same status as other workshops—and ultimately turned it into the lynchpin of the school’s financial success. She established important links with industry and won her department numerous commissions. Stölzl encouraged improvisation and experimentation in her workshop while cultivating both practical and artistic interest in the material properties of fabrics, as well as carrying out pioneering work with synthetic fibers.
In 1923, after the local government insisted on clear evidence that its funding of the school was not all in vain, the Weimar Bauhaus was forced to hold its first exhibition. Gropius worked tirelessly at organizing the event, believing it to be a key stratagem: if successful, the exhibition could elevate the name of the school and attract international attention with its innovative ideas. In achieving this end, he was successful.
For the exhibition, a simple, steel-framed house called ‘Haus am Horn’ was designed by Georg Muche, master of the weaving workshop prior to Stölzl. Like a spaceship, completely alien to the surrounding Germanic architecture, this sleek, modern box-for-living touched down. The building was designed as a prototype of mass-produced housing, constructed using cheap prefabricated materials and showcasing the Bauhaus architectural style, as well as the school’s vision of modern urban communal living. It was simple to construct, functional and replicable. It had no ornament, no traditional façade, and all but function guided its form.
The interior was conceived entirely in the various Bauhaus workshops, all working toward a “unified whole”: carpets, radiators, tiles, lights, cabinets and furniture were all made for the exhibition, showcasing the designs of the school to which thousands of people who came to the event bore witness, most of whom had never yet seen modern architecture or design. In the second half of the 20th century, Haus am Horn’s design principles would guide architecture around the world.
Marcel Breuer designed a large amount of the furniture for the house, and with it virtually invented the modern kitchen interior. Instead of the traditional layout of a large, central table for working on, he separated lower and upper cupboards, placing them against the wall with a continuous worktop between them and a window to look out of while cooking. Almost every kitchen now resembles this design: another testament to the influence of the Bauhaus Movement on contemporary living.
Less than a year after the exhibition, the local nationalist party won majority seats in the Thuringian government. The Weimar Bauhaus faced increasing public criticism as well as a substantial decrease in funding; local residents saw the school as an un-German, unethical laboratory—its noxious internationalism polluting its traditional surroundings, its alchemists turning pitched-roofs into flat-roofs, and reducing regional, classical ornament to modern universality. The residents of Weimar were so reactive to the Bauhaus’s experiments, not to mention the students’ festivities, that despite the success of its 1923 exhibition the school was forced to vacate the premises.
The Dessau Bauhaus And The New Director
Gropius received an attractive offer from the city of Dessau in 1926 for the establishment of a new premises for the Bauhaus. The city of Dessau was strategically surrounded by modern industry, and unlike Weimar, it was under the jurisdiction of the Social Democrats, all of which amounted to highly favorable conditions for the new school. Gropius seized the opportunity to design his greatest work; he concretized the ideas of the Bauhaus Movement, designing a starkly functional building, utilizing many of the principles of the Haus am Horn along with numerous innovations of his own. The Dessau Bauhaus is a classic of modern architecture and is venerated by architects to this day.
The Bauhaus manifesto opened with the exaltation, ‘the ultimate goal of all art is the building,’ and yet the school hadn’t had an architecture department for the majority of its existence. Gropius had felt that being skilled in multiple craft techniques was a necessary prerequisite for maturing as an architect. Finally, after the move to Dessau, he had the impetus to found a dedicated architecture department in 1927.
However, soon after this, Gropius gave a sudden resignation which came as a shock to everyone at the school. He had devoted his life to a dream and had remained steadfast, facing the Bauhaus’s internal disputes with finesse and the public hostility to it with diplomacy. Nevertheless, despite the school’s growing success, Gropius left for Berlin with his wife, Ide, and retreated into the work of his private practice. He appointed the Swiss Hannes Meyer as the new Dessau Bauhaus director. To many, Gropius seemed to be throwing caution to the wind by electing a man of outspoken political belief as his replacement.
While Gropius’s views on art had been part utopian, part transcendentalist, Meyer’s derived from his card-carrying Marxism. He declared the ‘art is merely order’, and believed that ‘building is nothing but organization: social, technical, economical, psychological organization.’
Meyer restructured the Bauhaus curriculum. Anything too ‘artistic’ became immoral and superfluous. He imposed a clear shift from the qualitative to the quantitative: the design of cheap, functional and easily-manufacturable products, and in architecture a focus on the organizational problems of mass housing became imperative. He amalgamated the wood, metal and mural-painting workshops, and expanded the architecture department to include a dedicated interior design section. All departments apart from the theatre, advertising, and the fine arts were made subordinate to the architecture department. Meyer also introduced classes in political science, physics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, biology, city planning and economics.
The Marxism of Meyer and his encouragement of Marxist politics within the school created a climate that Gropius had sought to avoid. Political issues had always been a hot topic among staff and students, but Gropius had openly discouraged them from dominating discussion at the school. With Meyer, communist and nationalist student circles emerged, and fervent support for and opposition to Meyer’s direction of the school materialized. In the canteen, the left-wingers sat on one side, and the right-wingers on another. This was surely inevitable, though, given the country-wide polarisation of Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s.
In spite of Meyer’s Marxism, the school started to generate its greatest profits during his directorship. Germany’s economy and industry blossomed in the late twenties, producing fertile ground for the forging of new connections with factories and industrialists. A series of modest wallpapers were developed by the mural-painting workshop’s students and ended up becoming the school’s number one best-seller, selling millions of copies—the only original industrial product of the Bauhaus still in production today. The furniture and weaving workshops, too, won consistent funding for the school as commissions began rolling in.
From Bauhaus School To Bauhaus Movement
In light of growing public controversy, rowdy students and the school’s rising infamy, the Dessau mayor forced Hannes Meyer to resign in 1930, with a number of communist students also being forced out of the school. Some of them joined Meyer in immigrating to Soviet Russia, taking their ideas with them in the attempt to ‘work where a truly proletarian culture is being forged.’
Mies van der Rohe, one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, accepted the role of the new director and with it the difficult task of running the Bauhaus in increasingly precarious political conditions. Mies imposed what he saw as a corrective ban on all political activity within the school in an attempt to increase the longevity of the institution, to limited success. Architecture continued to dominate the curriculum under Mies, becoming even more central, while the emphasis on artistic creativity and autonomy made a brief comeback.
Mies’ architectural style is known as ‘international style’, for which he was both a proponent and a founding father. His Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, reconstructed in 1983, showcases his vision of architectural modernism and indeed many of the principles espoused in Bauhaus architecture, although its design is not directly linked with the school. A ‘floating’ ceiling plane, instead of a traditional pitched roof, encloses a space that doesn’t have ‘rooms’ but instead subspaces delimited by vertical planes, the placement of which are organized according to a grid. Each ‘plane’ is neither wall nor floor nor roof in the traditional architectural sense but rather functions as a ‘space divider,’ dividing up the overall space into subspaces according to their function in relation to the whole. The starkness and pureness of the material that constitutes each plane is a defining feature.
In 1931, amid increasing country-wide nationalist fervor and shortly after Mies’ appointment, the Nazi’s won significant control in the Dessau parliament, denouncing the Bauhaus Movement as Bolshevik and Jewish because of its preference for modern art and the flat-roof, respectively. Following these developments, Mies was forced to close the school in Dessau. As a last resort, he moved the institution’s premises to a dilapidated telephone factory in Berlin, privatizing it in the hopes of securing its financial livelihood via private donations and student tuition fees.
In 1933, soon after Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, state police arrived at the Berlin Bauhaus and closed its doors indefinitely—another manifestation of the Nazi tirade against artistic modernism. Most of the staff immigrated following the Nazi suppression; Gropius and Mies moved to the US, where they became teachers at Harvard and the Illinois Institute of Technology respectively; there, Ide Gropius played a key role in the administration of Walter’s correspondence, articles and lectures. After working as an urban planner for the city of Moscow under Stalin, Meyer briefly went back to Switzerland in 1936 before relocating to Mexico. Moholy-Nagy relocated to Chicago in 1937 where he founded and directed the New Bauhaus School, the German school’s American equivalent.
Crushed like a flower under the marching boot of the Nazis, the Bauhaus Movement shed its florets into the wind, disseminating its aesthetic across the globe and shaping everyday modern life. The artists, students and teachers who lived the Bauhaus dream took its ideas with them to the US, Russia and Mexico; and also to Israel, India and Japan. In 2017, Sotheby’s held an auction entitled ‘Bauhaus: Defining a Century’, auctioning a kettle designed by student Marianne Brandt for £75,000. Today, as the Dandelions of Design burgeon abundantly in the bright summer field, the Bauhaus Rose blossoms in the shade.