The Bauhaus: A Revolutionary School of Art and Design
Nineteenth-century architecture had been dominated by the revival of historic styles. By the 1920s designers began to feel that a more forward-looking style was needed, a unique style of the age. The new approach was formulated by the Bauhaus, an academy of art and design that was opened in Germany in 1919. It was founded by Walter Gropius, who felt that design must be in tune with the modern age. The Bauhaus promoted Modernism and had a profound influence on 20th century design.
The Bauhaus building (1925) was designed by Gropius himself. It was a perfect statement of intent. It is an exercise in formal purity. Everything has been reduced down to its essential form. There is no colour, just a black and white grid pattern. There are no curves or complicated forms, just straight lines, flat planes and right angles. This was very striking at the time. It is an architecture of mathematical precision. The long ribbon windows were a favourite Modernist device; they give it a clean, sleek look. Above all, there’s no extraneous ornament. Modernists felt that decoration was irrational and that it obscured the underlying form. Even the lettering is executed in a simplified, functional font. The lettering is typical of Bauhaus typefaces.
The Dessau Bauhaus
A key idea of Modernism was that a building should reveal its structure. So here the structural frame is clearly legible. The building also embodies the concept of functionalism. The whole of this elevation is reduced to a glass wall, which illuminates the studios and makes the internal layout visible from the exterior. All of the windows could be opened simultaneously by turning a lever.
Bauhaus designers had a social mission. They wanted to make society more rational. For example, Herbert Bayer designed the typeface Universal (1925). It is simple and precise, and tries to reveal a basic geometry in the form of each letter. Bayer was trying to rationalise writing, so he decided that you did not need capital letters – they were an unnecessary complication. Even the basic systems we use to communicate were simplified down to their essence.
The key Modernist principle was functionalism. The phrase, ‘Form follows function’ became a mantra of the Modern Movement. The aim of Modernism was to make designs perfectly adapted to their function. Bauhaus designers tried to create what they called 'type-forms' – ideal solutions to design problems. They believed that if the form of the object was perfectly adapted to its function, the object would never go out of date, it would be universally valid. Of course, it was hugely ambitious, perhaps even misguided, to expect designs to be universally valid. But Modernists were obsessed with the idea that rational design would help create a more rational society. So there was a utopian impulse at the heart of Modernism.
The Furniture department of the Bauhaus experimented with new materials and techniques. This is perhaps where the concept of functionalism was most successful. Marcel Breuer was a Bauhaus student experimenting with tubular steel. This is a portait of Breuer sitting on one of the chairs he designed (1928). It is absolutely minimalist: just a folded loop of tubular steel that formed the legs, seat and back. The emphasis is on line and plane, rather than mass. It is almost a sculptural evocation of the function of a chair. As for the universalist ambitions, the aesthetic is so severe and so minimal that it has, in fact, dated very well.
Tubular steel chair by Marcel Breuer
Another of Breuer’s designs was the steel armchair known as the Wassily Chair (1926), after the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who taught at the Bauhaus. This was made from extruded tubular steel. Again, this is a design classic.
Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer
Bauhaus designers were captivated by the machine, but couldn’t quite adapt to the realities of mass production. Marianne Brandt produced tea service designs at the Bauhaus (1928-30). Her work shows an obsession with geometric form. It was thought that geometric forms would be easy to mass-produce, but that wasn’t true. The joins were too sharp and angular. So these had to be made by hand in order to get the machine-made look, which really defeats the purpose. Brandt’s work embodies the machine aesthetic, but her designs were unsuitable for machine production. In fact, very few products of Modernism were ever mass-produced; it remained an ideal that could not yet be achieved. One could argue that Modernist design was simply propaganda for mass production, which was the prevailing economic system of the time.
Tea service by Marianne Brandt
The Nazis came to power in 1933 and closed the Bauhaus down. The designers were forced to flee from Germany. For example, Gropius came to Britain first of all, then went to America. Consequently, the Bauhaus still had a far-reaching influence.