explains what Bauhaus is, and why it matters today.
Bauhaus is one of those words writers, designers and interiors magazines throw around to impress (look, I’m doing it now!). As the movement is 100 years old this year, we thought a primer on the essentials of Bauhaus would be useful to impress your more pompous friends when they start waffling on the “B” word.
How can the work of a relatively small clutch of German art schools (the Staatliches Bauhaus), mean so much in the world of art, architecture and design today?
As an institution, Bauhaus had a relatively short lifespan from 1919 to 1933 when the last school closed and the public liberties of the Weimer Republic gave way to the crueller intentions of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
In the late 19th century, a number of important and restless artistic movements came together. Artisan crafting was struggling against the impact of industrial manufacture — but in some respects, the factory cogs provided the traditional craft sector with a renaissance.
With the rise of consumerism, the public recognised that there was a break taking place between the talent and skill of the individual and the objects actually being made.
Influencers across the design world, including William Morris (1834-1896) and his peer Philip Webb (1831-1915) of the Arts & Crafts movement, were speaking up in defence of the handmade, bespoke thing.
Along with an appreciation of craft and fine art, there was the increasing belief among leading commentators that art and design should be democratised and enjoyed by all, rather than being compartmentalised for the rich, entitled, and educated.
By the outbreak of WWI in 1914, together with societal and political revolution, the jaded Edwardian look in the home was being picked apart by new trends in modernism.
In Germany, Jugendstil, or the “young style” was proving itself dynamic and thrilling with the public, pushing aside large lumpy furniture and classicism.
Prompted by the work of visionary artists, writers, designers, and architects, The abstract, avant garde, truly modern thing — be it a textile, or a ceramic or an odd piece of furniture — was moved out of the gallery to centre stage in the market.
It’s hard to explain just how revolutionary Art Deco was to an ordinary householder in Cork in, say, 1920. We do know that there was clearly a hunger for the new, clean, radical look. Contemporary, functional and beautiful — this was a brave new world.
It’s true that some members of the public found the vanguards of modernism ugly, too plain or just too confronting.
Everyday buyers who might never have visited an art exhibition (where these ideas were often first seen), were startled by new builds, furniture, and styles of decorating shown in magazine illustrations and on the big screen.
They soon voted with their wallets, and the house of the mid-century would be radically changed as a result, inside and out.
Industrialist soon realised that without the individuality of commissioned or in-house designers tailoring new, worthy, enticing pieces, their products would be derided or cloned. Mass manufacture needed art and design to survive.
The Bauhaus, or ‘Building House’, was a natural extension of all these fertile shifts. It was multi-disciplinary, rolling up art, architecture, craft, design and even theatre as one matter.
There were three schools in all: one in Weimar (1919-1925), one in Dessau (1925-1932), and a brief fling in Berlin (1932-1933). By the mid-1930s the schools were snuffed out as hotbeds of dangerous, communist intellectualism by the Nazi party.
The educational principles at Bauhaus were high-brow stuff. Cutting through the worthy theories around the school and its influence, it demonstrates a point where architecture and industrial design jumps up and joins fine art in terms of respect and public notice.
Despite their being no architectural school in its first years, Neues Bauen, the new, startling German-led modern architecture, was championed and given exhibition room at the Bauhaus schools.
The ideas of “total design” — where an architect actually designated most of the fixtures, fittings, and even the furniture — was fascinating.
I can hear some of you groaning at all this history. Look up the German concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” if you really want to know more. Let’s leap straight to the signature and surviving Bauhaus “look” in design and decorating today. Think of cubism, geometry and a spare confident sophistication.
Let’s focus on a single piece of furniture — the Wassily Chair (Model B3 c.1925) by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). In terms of Bauhaus, it says it all. Closely associated today with the older Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Breuer was a tender 22 years old when he mocked up this icon. Walter Gropius (1883-1969), who founded the Bauhaus, recognised Breuer’s talent and put him straight into the school as head of cabinetmaking in Dessau.
With its chrome-plated angularity, sling eisengram (cotton) seat and (most importantly) being factory-made, Wassily is the perfect synergy of art and industry. Just put this gripping dandy against even a cloud-backed Art Deco club chair, nevermind a polite, leather chesterfield.
You imagine just what a little raver it must have been in some bright young thing’s London studio flat.
The pipe-like sections, the architectural quality, its airy line and flair — Breuer was walking the progressive galleries, and riding his light tubular steel bicycle when he came up with the design, not reaching back in history for a something plump and stuffed with horse hair. Bauhaus embraced modern materials and design but demanded a high-quality finish, even when it came to this mass-produced chair.
Bauhaus is trending on the high street right now, with gentled industrial pieces from round mirrors with attached metal rail shelving to prints of primary blocks of colour hung on black scaffold-like supporting lines based on the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).
For all its Nordic origins, IKEA has a hefty Bauhaus flavour, and the less-is-more principle is not universal to Scandi-chic.
To be honest, it’s hard to avoid buying in Bauhaus traces in modern, mid-century led furnishings, and the return of lean, brutalist architecture is bristling with it.
If you want to try the look out at home, rather than buying a Cubist rug or a Paul Klee print, why not go DIY (how Bauhaus!)?
In celebration of the centenary of the movement, in the ‘How To Bauhaus’ series on YouTube, Berlin architect Van Bo Le-Menztel, shows you step-by-step how to build a wooden Bauhaus block, a stool and a table lamp.
That will shut up those pompous friends up for good!