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Bauhaus and Its Influence on Modern Design

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Marcel Breuer's revolutionary chair, which he designed while still a student.

Marcel Breuer's revolutionary chair, which he designed while still a student.

Bauhaus Backstory

The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in Weimar, Germany, began with a utopian mission; it was to be “the building of the future... combine architecture, sculpture and painting in a single form ... to one day rise toward the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”

His concept (based in part on the De Stijl movement of the Netherlands), like that of William Morris, was to teach that all arts had their roots in handicrafts, thus removing any distinction between fine arts and applied arts.

Students were taught the value of an interdisciplinary tutelage, at the time a radical idea but now the basis for any education in the Arts. In keeping with his theme, he managed to procure the talents of artists such as Paul Klee (1879–1940), Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), and Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) just to name a few and gave them important positions within the school, ensuring that all divisions of art received equal consideration and respect.

"Art and Technology"

Though the Bauhaus was initially conceived as a place where “crafts” could be learned and perfected, the fact that they lived in the midst of the Industrial Revolution could not be ignored.

In 1924, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau and, taking advantage of this change, also revised its philosophy to encompass technology with the motto, “Art and Technology - a new unity.” In this respect, both functional and aesthetic aspects were to be considered when creating a new design for production.

In Bauhaus laboratories, prototypes for all sorts of items, from lamps to chairs, were created for mass production. The aim was “the methodical removal of anything that is unnecessary.” It was this philosophy of “form following function” that defined the Bauhaus as the most influential school of avant-garde art, design, and architecture in the twentieth century with ideas that continue to resonate.

It was also at this time that Gropius made the progressive move of appointing gifted students such as Marcel Breuer (1902–1981), whose work with tubular steel revolutionized furniture forms, and Marianne Brandt (1893–1983), whose leadership in the metal department resulted in the schools most profitable division, as tutors.

Walter Gropius

Walter Gropius

After Gropius

In 1927, Gropius appointed Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) as head of the architecture department. In 1928, Gropius left the Bauhaus to pursue architectural projects, and just one year later, Mayer took over as director.

He only held on to the position for two years, but in that time, he managed to change the focus of the school from multi-disciplinary to architecture and industrial design. He also forced the resignation of Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, and others before he got in trouble with the authorities for his left leanings and was forced to leave himself.

He was succeeded by the architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), who was the school’s director for its last three years. Mies was an elegant connoisseur who didn’t believe in the sociological or political ideals on which the school was founded, nor was he a man who believed in skimping on high-end materials.

In short, though brilliant, he was not Gropius, and without Gropius, in the current political climate, the Bauhaus could not survive. It was closed by the Nazis in 1933, who objected to what they called its Bolshevik tendencies.

New York's skyline, replete with hundreds of towers made from steel and glass, direct descendants of the Bauhaus school.

New York's skyline, replete with hundreds of towers made from steel and glass, direct descendants of the Bauhaus school.

Form Follows Function

The actual phrase was never written but was suggested in a manifesto by Austrian architect Adolf Loos (1870–1933) in which he said that “architectural ornament is crime.”

These words directly inspired Modernist architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier (1887–1965), Gropius, and Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1965). They sought to let design be led by the function of a building or chair rather than let the embellishments determine the shape. In doing so, they broke design down to its purest form and relished in displaying the structure of their designs. In fact, they equated exposed structural elements with integrity and rationality and further saw the reduction of superfluous elements as a way to cut expenses and create egalitarian designs.

Though the ornamentation was left behind, style was not. Designers of this era saw no conflict in manipulating negative space or volume to effect a pleasing aesthetic outcome. Because of this, they were particularly open to using new materials in order to reinterpret historical forms and surfaces.

The Bauhaus School in Dessau

The Bauhaus School in Dessau

Bauhaus Legacy

The Bauhaus, a boiling pot producing iconic designers and ideas at a furious pace, was built as a reaction to the times. Gropius regarded the period following WWI as a “catastrophe of world history” and sought a remedy to the destruction with his utopian vision. Bauhaus masters and students were beyond prolific and experimental, clearing the path for modern expressionism.

Though it was shut down by the Nazi regime, the artists who had been a part of this unique experiment were forever changed, and they brought their new frame of reference with them to their new homes as they scattered across Europe and the United States. Indeed, most of them immigrated to the States where, through their own ideas and the ideas of those they inspired, they changed the landscape of its greatest cities both inside and out.

The impact that Bauhaus had was seismic. They affected everything from black, white, and grey color schemes with a lone red or yellow wall to fonts to the tallest buildings in America. I wonder, what would New York be without its towering steel and glass skyscrapers or, for that matter, any American city? Can you even imagine a home filled only with antiques?

While their motto may have been “form follows function,” they, with all their idealism and creativity, collectively showed us that it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style. In just 14 years of existence, Bauhaus forever changed our views on design.