Bauhaus then and now: designers draw inspiration from rich legacy of creativity

Why We Wrote This

To understand modern design, you need to start with the Bauhaus. The German design school, founded 100 years ago, lasted only 14 years, but its influence – and ethos – inspires designers and architects today.

Frank Rumpenhorst/Picture-Alliance/DPAL/AP
One of four masters’ houses for faculty, designed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, in Dessau, Germany.

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As a revolutionary design school started in the German town of Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus incited a movement that now lives on in the imaginations of artists and designers all over the world. Today’s designers work in “brainswarming” labs and create hands-on prototypes, fulfilling Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s call for a “new type of worker for craft and industry, who has an equal command of both technology and form.”

Gropius and the other teachers at the Bauhaus, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Marcel Breuer, anticipated the design studios of the future with their emphasis on collaboration, flexibility, and cooperation with industry. Laura Muir, curator of the exhibition “The Bauhaus and Harvard” at Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass., describes their viewpoint as “starting from zero and not looking back at the past.”

“We should credit the Bauhaus with the awareness that simplicity and honesty of form are values that survive as design principles,” says Steven Eppinger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of product development and innovation. “If we didn’t start with the Bauhaus, we would never have gotten where we are today.”

It’s no exaggeration to say the Bauhaus movement profoundly shaped our built environment and the products we use every day. From the midcentury modern chair you sit on, to the gooseneck lamp on your desk, to the graphic font used in the magazine you read, the Bauhaus is in your house. In fact, the name comes from the German words bauen (to build) and haus (house). 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, which was first a revolutionary design school and today lives on in the imaginations of artists and designers all over the world. Today’s designers work in “brainswarming” labs and create hands-on prototypes, fulfilling Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s call for a “new type of worker for craft and industry, who has an equal command of both technology and form.” 

Linking craft and artful design to industrial production was a Bauhaus innovation with an egalitarian purpose. High-quality furnishings like Marcel Breuer’s tubular-steel chair – inspired by his bicycle’s handlebars – were, and still are, produced in large numbers. Mass production extended the benefits of good design not just to the elite but to the public in general.

To mark the centenary of this radical school of art, architecture, and design, exhibitions are happening not only across Germany where the Bauhaus was born but in Japan, China, Israel, Brazil, Russia, the Netherlands, and the United States. Inaugurated in the city of Weimar in 1919, the school lasted just 14 years – until the Nazis shut it down in 1933. But what the Bauhaus lacked in duration, it made up for in the durability of its ideas.

Since the Bauhaus school evolved in three locations (Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin) under three directors (Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), defining its essence is difficult. Laura Muir, curator of the exhibition “The Bauhaus and Harvard” (on display through July 28 at Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass.), describes the key viewpoint as “starting from zero and not looking back at the past.” 

Jeffery Mau, adjunct faculty member at Chicago’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, adds: “The idea was to bring together people from all backgrounds professionally and culturally to build the future.”

No distinction between art and craft

One revolutionary concept that still permeates art schools and design firms today is a multidisciplinary workshop approach. In devising the Bauhaus curriculum, Gropius erased the hierarchical distinction between fine and applied art so that even a student who wanted to study painting or sculpture first had to learn technical skills like carpentry and pottery. Before specializing, every student learned crafts like metalworking, theater design, and weaving. 

Team teaching was another innovation, with both a master artisan and a master artist participating in each workshop. Talk about star power: The dream faculty included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, and Breuer, all avant-garde artists whose work became synonymous with modernism. These Bauhaus teachers threw out traditional methods of art instruction like so many empty tubes of paint. No longer were aspiring artists forced to imitate Old Masters and historical models. 

Bauhaus students and masters worked side by side. To discover properties and possibilities of materials like wood or metal, they assembled and transformed bits and pieces into original forms. As New York’s Museum of Modern Art curator of design Juliet Kinchin says, “They had a passionate and positive engagement with design in the workshops, which encouraged experimentation and open-ended thinking.” 

This learning through hands-on experience “is still the foundation of how a studio is taught,” said Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

The stress on versatility anticipated a necessity of design today: flexibility. In a digital world of rapidly mutating technology, learning basic principles and then applying them in new contexts is mandatory. “There’s no manual,” says Michael Hendrix, partner in the global design firm Ideo. “You learn as you go.”

The focus on playing with materials is a crucial component, according to Mr. Hendrix. 

“To be creative, you have to be happy,” he says. “Play is how we discover new things, and the Bauhaus actually adopted that.” The Bauhaus hosted rowdy parties, zany dances, and a house band. Today, table tennis and hoverboards abound on the campuses of high-tech companies.

Another Bauhaus contribution that remains relevant is the insistence that basic, functional form matters. “We should credit the Bauhaus with the awareness that simplicity and honesty of form are values that survive as design principles,” says Steven Eppinger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of product development and innovation. “If we didn’t start with the Bauhaus, we would never have gotten where we are today.”

Another way Bauhaus ideals survive is the emphasis on cooperation with diverse partners. “Design is an intrinsically collaborative process,” Ms. Kinchin explains. “Designers work with imaginative manufacturers, retailers, and advertisers who all contribute to the final product.” Mr. Mau agrees: “The idea of a lone genius inventing something is fine, but it doesn’t scale.” 

Better design = better world 

Many designers and architects today echo the quasi-utopian ambitions of Hannes Meyer, the second director who took over in Dessau when Gropius stepped down in 1928. The left-leaning Meyer believed design could create a more equitable society, or, as Ms. Andraos says, “There was a sense that art could change people’s lives.” She adds, “That level of engagement and ambition is still inspiring. In architecture and design schools today, a new generation is trying to bring together aesthetic and social aspirations.” Today’s designers face both the opportunities and challenges of a world threatened by climate change, a complex problem that enlists their ability to visualize possibilities and imagine solutions.

Socially engaged design goes by various names: responsible design, design for social innovation, human-centered and even post-human design (referring to people’s needs conjoined to the plant and animal world). Many designers base their solutions on a moral imperative, advocated by Ulm Institute of Design, founded in West Germany in 1953 as the New Bauhaus. As Hendrix says, “Design is most powerful when it’s not fabricating desires but doing good, contributing to the lives of people and filling real needs.”

Courtesy of Tecta
Peter Keler, who created this design in 1922, was one of Wassily Kandinsky’s earliest students and later served as his assistant. Keler applied his teacher’s principles to this 3-D object, which is made of wood, wicker, and steel pipe. The cradle is sold today by Tecta.

From Victorian frill to modern chill

In many ways, the Bauhaus was an incubator for progressive ideas, but its insistence on clean, functional form (so different from elaborate Victorian ornamentation and historical references) also drew criticism. Tom Wolfe, in his 1981 book, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” disparaged the unadorned lines as overly stark and sterile. “With distance,” Andraos says, “we can see both Bauhaus successes and failures.” Specifically, she cites, “The negation of history is not something we endorse today.” 

The Bauhaus infatuation with basic geometric forms and primary colors was another shortcoming, according to Hendrix. “Where any movement goes wrong,” he says, “is if it becomes dogmatic in reacting against what they were fighting.” While the Bauhaus emphasis on purity of form led to the International Style invented by Bauhaus architects like Gropius and Mies, its proliferation spawned a monotonous cityscape. Adopted by copycat developers, the “less is more” mantra became a cliché, producing knockoffs like glass-and-steel towers with flat roofs from Detroit to Dubai.

Laura Forlano, associate professor at the Institute of Design in Chicago, notes another flaw of the early Bauhaus: sequestering female students in the weaving workshop. Even a brilliant artist like Anni Albers, who entered the school to study painting, was shunted off to textile design, where she transformed the medium. Gunta Stölzl, who taught weaving, was the only woman on the Bauhaus faculty. Other gifted female artists were treated as marginal players in the mythology that sprouted around the Bauhaus. Marianne Brandt designed elegant metal objects like light fixtures and tableware, and Lucia Moholy documented Bauhaus life in striking photographs. One goal of “The Bauhaus and Harvard” exhibition is “to underscore the role of women at the Bauhaus,” according to Ms. Muir, the curator.

The demise of the Bauhaus actually spread its influence. After Hitler slammed its doors shut – denouncing it as un-German,
degenerate, Bolshevik, too international, and too Jewish – teachers and students spread Bauhaus ideas everywhere. In the US, émigrés like Gropius and Breuer taught architecture at Harvard, Josef and Anni Albers taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and later at Yale, and Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where Mies ended up leading the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The Bauhaus, which began as a tangible entity – a school – became an intangible but mighty movement. Bauhaus ideals took root wherever designers envisioned a better world. As Mies, its final director, said, “Only an idea has the power to spread so widely.”

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