A 21st Century

The Bauhaus Function

Re – Quote #1 — A NEW UNITY
Until the mid-18th century design and execution had, for the most part, been unified in one person or role, commonly known as the craftsperson. Only changes to the methods of production brought about by the Industrial Revolution made it necessary to divide labour duties and create the roles of specialists. Until the Bauhaus, these specialists came from disparate schools which gave the world architects, engineers and artists. Design schools, which of course we nowadays take completely for granted, didn’t even exist.1 The creation of such an institution on its own is a remarkable achievement, which demonstrates the incredible foresight of the Bauhaus founders’ vision.

But the Bauhaus was much more than just a famous design school. It brought just the right people together in such a way that in their bumping of heads, they provided an incubation platform to foster many of the main players of the Modern Movement. It was the nursery slopes on which these personalities first began to play with new theories and principles of design, and from which the forces of Modernism and the development of Modern culture in the 20th century emerged. (A second significant school on this path was to rise from the peace treaties of WWII in the small German town of Ulm.)

So why is the Bauhaus still so relevant to what comes next? Kate Bush, former curator of exhibitions at London’s Barbican Centre, thinks the Bauhaus ‘was inspiring not just because of the extraordinary group of brilliant, visionary people who worked and made art there, but because it was fuelled by an idealism and a commitment to creativity and experiment that remains, in our market-driven times, ever more relevant.’2

‘The Bauhaus was to be a school of invention rather than imitation.’

Barbican Art Gallery
From Expressionist influenced roots, its founding tenets owed much to the 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement started by the Englishman William Morris. In central Germany avant-garde artists and designers gathered to form an art school intended to meet the needs of society. The belief was that art could change and improve the quality of people’s lives everywhere, and was not just for the privileged few.3

The signing of an armistice in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on the 11th November, 1918, marked the beginning of a time in Germany when the creative community was turning its back on fanciful experimentation and moving instead towards rational, functional building. A new Weimar Republic was to replace the old imperial government. And the new school, founded by Walter Gropius in the same city where the Republic’s first constitutional assembly took place, was to start afresh, working with the values of idealism, internationalism, creativity and collaboration.

The Bauhaus’ central message was to return to craft and learn a trade. The school believed that it was detrimental to the needs of society for art to exist in isolation, and that the best art was in fact the accidental by-product of exceptional craft – a nice bonus, if you will. The teachers wanted to bring art back to craft so that it could work to less indulgent ends. Instead, thinking and designing was to be for the collective good of all humankind.

Gropius wrote in his 1919 manifesto: ‘Art rises above all methods; in itself it cannot be taught, but the crafts certainly can be.’ In essence the Bauhaus believed that all quality art was underpinned by quality craft, and that the best art only surfaced as a direct result of exceptional craft. If this was to be the case, then only by focusing on truly great craft could art in turn be elevated even higher.

The school was a reaction to intensely decorative Victorian times whose artistic produce was homogeneously gaudy and overdone. But also to the loss of quality in the making of everyday utilitarian products, which were literally flying off production lines, manned largely by unskilled workers.

All the indulgences of the era known as the European Belle Epoque (1871-1914) were giving way to a new ‘International Style’ which put utility first. The now widely repeated Bauhaus maxim of ‘Form follows function’ was one of the mottos upon which a new generation of designers and architects would be trained. They rejected ornament in favour of the principle that the design of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose – an overriding ethos which still supports much of our design thinking today.

Play was considered an important underlying principle as a means of reconnecting the artist with their inner child. Spiritual thinking, meditation and deep thinking practices were also part of life at the Bauhaus school. Four times a year, the Bauhauslers celebrated the seasons, and every day Johannes Itten, a Swiss Expressionist painter and teacher of the innovative ‘preliminary course’, began each of his classes with breathing and concentration exercises. These lessons in meditation served to focus one’s inner self and make it easier to concentrate on new tasks, like learning the basics of materials, composition and colour.4 Meanwhile a recurring emphasis placed on making simple but meaningful connections lay at the heart of all theories taught, and worked their way through to even the simplest of tasks. As Itten would sometimes playfully encourage his students: ‘Before you draw a tiger, you first have to roar like a tiger.’

Gropius made it central to the overall objective of the school to promote the talents of everyone who studied there. Collective work was to be celebrated over individual personalities, and the desire to share extended outwards to an embrace of the wider community. This was reflected by the school’s first exhibition in Weimar in 1923, which the school’s founders declared ‘must, first of all, demonstrate the work and goals of the Bauhaus for the broader public, and appeal to these circles to demonstrate that we are intent not to withdraw in a resigned or arbitrary manner but to participate creatively and helpfully in the life of the community.’6

The exhibition was a huge success, with sound professional reviews and hundreds of daily visitors. Yet the work on show was very brave for a time when the local conservative-nationalist press remained openly hostile. Some derided the exhibition as anti-German, or even the work of outsiders. Anyone working today within the sustainable or renewable energy sectors, might be able to swap similar accounts of unhelpful feedback from their own experiences more recently. Perhaps reassuringly, whenever regressive forces attack progressive work like this, the phenomenon serves as useful confirmation that you might well be doing something good for the world, or the benefit of others.

The author Michael Siebenbrodt reveals the soul of the Bauhaus was seeded as ‘a concept of lifelong learning based in the practice of pride in one’s craft embracing a high degree of teamwork and a view to social responsibility.’ They aimed ‘to develop architecture and products that ensure, with a minimum of material, energy and work hours, a maximum of beauty and purpose and which are to be affordable by the broad masses.’7 Most of these values, with some modification, can be wholeheartedly appropriated by the Sustainable Movement today.

From the very beginning it was an institution that encouraged designers to ‘Think Different.’8 Long before Albert Einstein’s face made an appearance in a 1990s Apple campaign, he was a member of the school’s circle of friends soon after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. Relationships like this help to demonstrate that the Bauhaus was much more than just a school. It was part of an intellectual movement that sought to reach much further than traditional institutional boundaries. To quote Siebenbrodt again, it ‘stood for a new type of modern university in a democratically organised industrial society and globalised world.’9

All this bright new thinking came out of the school’s workshops in many guises. From experimental and playful theatre to a highly structured and standardised system for paper sizes, which became the basis of our commonly embraced ‘A’ series of paper sizes. Redesigns for a modern kitchen featured innovations such as a stacking modular tea set, which wouldn’t look out of place today on a Muji shop floor’s shelves. The functional new school building and teacher’s homes were designed by Gropius himself when the school moved site to Dessau. Taking principles back full circle, the rooms of a new glass-fronted workshop wing were flooded with natural light, framed by simple geometric shapes, and topped with flat roofs, bringing to life all the core Bauhaus beliefs established less than a decade earlier.

The school has been criticised for an inflexibility of approach which saw it struggle to fully harmonise with the efficiency offered by the modern production line. Yet conversely in just 15 years, the school and its teachers were flexible enough to move between three different locations. Not only reacting to where they could find sufficient funding, but also in the latter years to the political climate. In the short-term, the funding problem could be solved. But the hostile attitudes were to consistently resurface until during the 1930s, fuelled by extra grievances following the 1929 Wall St Crash and Hitler’s subsequent rise to power, these unfortunate events all combined to force the school’s permanent closure.

After the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany in 1933, a number of important Bauhauslers departed to take refuge in the UK, including Gropius himself. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the school, moved to Chicago. The married couple Josef and Anni Albers, two of its first students, moved to new roles at an art school in North Carolina. Over the following decades, the Bauhaus’ former students were set free to have a major impact on art and architecture trends throughout Western Europe, North America and Israel.

And so the Bauhaus school’s role in the 20th century was fulfilled. If art was the elevated by-product of exceptional craft, then Modernism was the elevated by-product of a school with exceptional vision and timing. Many seeds successfully germinated were inadvertently redistributed across the globe so that the school’s message and ideas could continue to work as catalysts for further change. One small German school had become a global movement.

The motto for the Bauhaus’ first exhibition in Weimar had been worded by Gropius himself: ‘Art and Technology: A New Unity.’ A slogan offering a harmony still to this day yet to be fully realised. Back in 1923, Gropius successfully tricked the two yet-to-be-reconciled factions into the illusion of working together. Meanwhile today, the challenge of uniting these two forces in a way that consistently yields more fruitful results for everyone is still very much omnipresent. Poignantly, anyone writing a motto for this present century would be wise to include the needs of nature as well.

In history, there is perhaps no better validation of an idea or design than the demonstration of its ability to withstand the test of time. The writer Jonathan Morrison spotlights the significant value the Bauhaus school added to the world when he says it turned ‘the accepted concepts of what constituted good design upside down and instigated trends which remain with us today.’10

The ‘form follows function’ motif will then continue as a guiding principle for how we design and build this century, but only if we first follow a thorough evaluation of the full ecological footprint. Not just of any singular 'thing', but of everything it connects with too. How this additional requirement in turn affects both the form and function of the objects we make is guaranteed to take us in exciting and uncharted directions.

The autumn of 2019 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Bauhaus school, with admirers flocking from all over the globe to visit a new Museum building in Dessau. To this day the Bauhaus legacy lives on and is set to begin an entirely new era of revival – for humanity’s most urgent challenges today are equally born entirely from functional requirements. This century, designing ways of living that can fully stand the test of time becomes the test itself. So let’s continue in the next chapter, with some more useful concepts connected to the passage of time.

Next ︎
Chapter 4 —
De Stijl meets Time

Credits & Notes

Hatje Cantz
Ulmer Modelle / Modelle nach Ulm,
Ulmer Museum | HfG-Archiv (2003)

2 – 3
Kate Bush
Bauhaus: Art as Life
Barbican Art Gallery
Koenig Books (2012)

4 – 5 / 7 / 9
Michael Siebenbrodt
Bauhaus: Art as Life
Barbican Art Gallery
Koenig Books (2012)

Signed by Muche, Breuer, Scherdtfeger, Schlemmer, Hartwig, Gropius (Oct 1922)

‘Think Different’
Apple Inc. TBWA Chiat Day (1997)

10 – 11
Jonathan Morrison
‘How the Bauhaus found its way into your house’
The Times (06 Apr 2019)


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