Design Deconstructed: Bauhaus
by Taylor Slattery | May 6, 2021
Bauhaus, Dessau. Photo by Gaku via Flickr
The Bauhaus, German for “building house”, was a 20th-century German art school that was founded by the architect, Walter Gropius, and located in Weimar, Germany. Like the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements that had come before it, the Bauhaus shared a similar ideal in its aim to merge fine arts and manufacturing.
As stated in the Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius saw art as something that couldn’t be taught, and therefore a career dedicated to its practice as an imperfect pursuit. However, he also saw no inherent difference between the artist and the artisan and sought to connect would-be artists with practical trades through which their creativity could be truly realized and appreciated.
Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer. Photo by Rocor via Flickr
In a rejection of the conventions of the salon, along with its ornamental approaches and hierarchical view of fine and applied arts, Gropius’s vision for the future was one in which every discipline was united in theory. There would be no artists and artisans, only craftsmen.
This line of thinking, rooted in modernism, had been gaining momentum throughout Europe since the tail end of the previous century and served as the basis for a number of loosely connected movements such as De Stijl in the Netherlands and Russian Constructivism.
MR Lounge by Mies van der Rohe. Photo by Jared Eberhardt – via Flickr
The school sought to elevate applied arts—the creation of functional objects— which were considered at the time to be lesser pursuits, by combining their creation with the principles of fine art, resulting in a new unified approach to both design and art. This approach would later expand its focus to include design for the public good through the use of technology and mass production to create more public-oriented designs in both objects and architecture.
Teapot by Marianne Brandt. Photo by Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Because the school sought to create craftsmen, it was of paramount importance that its students learned trades. Students would begin their studies through introductory courses to the principles fundamental to all fields of design and upon which the Bauhaus approach was built. These more theoretical courses explored things like materials and color theory, priming the students for the more specialized trade-based courses that would follow.
Design for a Jacquard Weaving by Anni Albers. Photo by Art is a word – Public Domain via Flickr
Throughout its 14 year run, and under the direction of several different directors, the Bauhaus offered specialized courses in textiles, interior design, metalworking, cabinetmaking, pottery, typography, wall painting, advertising, architecture, and photography. The focus of the school as a whole was largely dependent on the director at any given time and courses were added or dropped according to their vision.
Gropius House by Walter Gropius. Photo by Ken Schwarz via Flickr
The Bauhaus relocated several times throughout its short life. The first move came in 1925 when political tensions led to a sharp decrease in the funding the school received from the state. After relocating to a new Gropius-designed facility in Dessau, the school would begin to undergo changes in management that would lead to a radical departure in the school’s philosophy and irreparable fissures amongst its staff.
Despite the role of politics in the closure of its Weimar campus, the Bauhaus was an apolitical institution in nature. The relocation to Dessau had happened against the wishes of local right-wing parties, establishing what was to be a tense relationship between the school and local government. These tensions were elevated when Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as director in 1928.
Farnsworth house by Mies van der Rohe. Photo by Victor Grigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Though Meyer only managed to hold the position of director for 2 years before his firing, his business acumen landed the school 2 large architectural commissions. Although the Bauhaus had been manufacturing goods for years, it was through these commissions that the school saw its first actual profit. It was also under Meyer’s direction that the school shifted its focus toward the social function of design and adopted a more left-leaning atmosphere.
Next at the helm was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who would head the Dessau campus for the remainder of its short life until its closure by the Nazi party in 1931. Under the direction of Mies, the school would relocate one final time to Berlin, though this time as more of a passion project than a proper school. This school too would be closed by the Nazi Party within less than a year of its opening.
Sunset by Paul Klee. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Despite only being open for a brief period of time, the Bauhaus saw a number of influential creatives walk through its doors as both students and faculty. In the 14 years it was open, artisans like Marcel Breuer, Marianne Brandt, Paul Klee, and Vasily Kandinsky all graced its halls.
Karmstol by Mies van der Rohe. Photo by Holger.Ellgaard – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Upon its closure, prominent Bauhaus adherents like Gropius, Breuer, the Albers, Maholy-Nagy, and Mies all relocated to escape the Nazis. Many went on to teach in the United States where they continued the legacy of the Bauhaus in institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Black Mountain College.
The school and those who share its artistic lineage have left their marks in every field of design, though perhaps the greatest impacts are observable in architecture and industrial design. The Bauhaus’s approach toward design with an emphasis on function had a profound impact on the creative process and its effects are still felt in design school curriculums to this day. Few names are as synonymous with modernity as Bauhaus and their work is sure to continue to inspire generations of creatives to come.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.