Bauhaus: What was it and why is it important today?

As Bauhaus celebrates its centenary, we look at how its endurance can be explained by some simple yet powerful principles.

Bauhaus was one of the single most influential cultural movements of the 20th century, and at its heart was an obsession with the “total” work of art.

This meant it reached far beyond architecture – where its impact is writ large – to affect all pillars of design including graphics, typography, product and furniture – everything, really.

2019 is the centenary of Bauhaus and marking it there will be books, exhibitions and even two new museums – New Bauhaus Museum Weimar and The Bauhaus Museum Dessau – which open in Germany this April and September respectively.

As well as being a good time to celebrate, it’s a good time to reflect on what Bauhaus is, how it started and what influence it has on design and designers today.

Craft, utility and mass production

What began as a German art school in Weimar grew to be a principle which placed design and function in equilibrium. The “form follows function” ideal, which is still popular today, was propagated by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Crucially this philosophy was encouraged by mass production and not restricted by it.

From the beginning, it was clear that Bauhaus stood for creating beauty through purposeful utilitarian design, uncompromised by mass production. It saw mass production as something that could still incorporate craft. It was about simplicity and usefulness. It avoided the trappings of decoration and it felt that any media could be an interface for the Bauhaus way of thinking.

These core values remain as relevant today as ever for anyone working in graphics and branding, product design, and even those working in digital fields designing an app or a service.

Influence

The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar in 1919, moving to Dessau in 1925 (arguably its most famous premises), and finally to Berlin where it operated between 1932-1933. Its development was stunted by the rise of the Nazi party, which pressurised the school into stopping teaching in 1933, having viewed it as a hotbed for communist intellectualism, despite the school claiming to be politically agnostic for the entirety of its existence. The old adage that you can’t kill an idea rang true though. Bauhaus would prove itself to be alive and well in decades to come when its émigrés took its teachings to the rest of the world.

We should point out that there were objectively some fairly hard left underpinnings at the school. Its broad outlook was that the working classes would channel craftsmanship, art and architecture to collectively improve their environment. Bauhaus was about design for everyone, which didn’t sit brilliantly with the Nazis who considered it to be “degenerate”.

Bauhaus founder Gropius drew on influences as disparate as Russian Constructivism and even English Arts and Crafts exponent William Morris who had already been talking about the importance of utility in the 19th century.

This figures if we think of Morris’ most quotable saying: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.

Similarly, Modernism had been exploring simplicity and functionality for more than 30 years when Bauhaus set up in 1919 and it was this which was arguably the greatest influence on Gropius and the emergent Bauhaus school.

“Total” design

Bauhaus teachings were concerned with giving practical and craft skills such as interior design, architecture, textiles and woodwork the same sort of status as fine art. It also saw technology as a great enabler.

Design and colour theory, materials and process were part of the core curriculum and a starting point for students. The Bauhaus design principles were easily applied to any type of design within the school, often in unison, in the name of “total” art or design.

The closing of the Bauhaus school served to push its founders and their ideas to new places, particularly in the US universities and in some cases they even set up new institutions such as the New Bauhaus, which opened in Chicago in 1937, later becoming the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Institute of Design.

Architecture of the Bauhaus is well documented and celebrated – perhaps less so graphics, type, products and furniture. Here are some definitive and enduring pieces, which have stood up to the test of time.

Textiles

Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College in 1937

While many of Bauhaus’ protagonists were severe looking bespectacled men, there’s an alternate, accurate and unsung history of important female figures in Bauhaus’ story. Anni Albers for one, who designed textiles for mass production, which were both radical and timeless. Recently her work was captured in a Tate retrospective which has unfortunately just finished.

Intersecting 1962; © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Furniture

Wassily Chair (Knoll)

Marcel Breuer’s Wassily (or Model B3) chair is perhaps the signature piece of Bauhaus furniture. Designed in 1925, it comprises steel tubing and leather. Inspired by bicycle construction and borrowing from techniques used by plumbers working with piping, its basis was craft and it was ripe for mass production.

German-Austrian furniture makers Thonet produced it before Italian manufacturers Gavina took it on in the 1960s. Today, it’s produced by Knoll.

Typography

From the book 100 Years of Bauhaus

In 1925 Herbert Bayer designed a universal Bauhaus typeface at the request of Gropius. What he created was functional, accessible and noted for combining upper and lowercase characters into one character set, while eschewing serifs – which were presumably thought to be superfluous and overly decorative. His universal typeface was also designed to make typesetting easier.

Immediately after graduating from the school, Bayer was given a job heading up an emergent printing and advertising workshop at Bauhaus’s Dessau premises. It was here that he would create the typeface which was used across all Bauhaus communications, including the main visual identity which is bestowed on the Dessau building.

The course which Bayer headed up Druck and Reklame, (printing and advertising) was primarily concerned with commercial graphic design. The work that came out of it was a departure from the heavy German gothic letterforms which were still commonly used. Instead value was placed on functionality, composition, colour and geometry as well as making sure it could withstand the rigours of mass production.

Graphics

Staatliches Bauhaus by Joost Schmidt
Staatliches Bauhaus, by Joost Schmidt

Joost Schmidt produced what is probably the single most recognised Bauhaus image for a Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, when still a student. It incorporated the Bauhaus logo created by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922 and displayed functional hallmarks but was also highly experimental and eye catching.

Schlemmer’s logo depicts a figure, or a face, which is deliberately ubiquitous, impassive and generic. His work was often concerned with figures displaying both a geometric and human quality.

Schlemmer also had an interest in theatre, music and ballet. This meant he worked in and taught three-dimensional (3D) design. These disciplines were famously captured in his Triadisches Ballett where every element was designed by Schlemmer including posters, costumes, music and lighting.

From the book 100 Years of Bauhaus

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