For most of us, the word ‘Bauhaus’ makes us think of a certain type of modern architecture. But the Bauhaus was much more than an architectural style – it was a new way of thinking. The school helped transform advertising, typography and even people’s living spaces in an affordable, artistic and utilitarian way.
This year the school turns 100, and to mark its centenary we’re taking a look back at some of the fundamental values of the Bauhaus and its impact on design.
Breaking the barrier between fine art and applied arts
Architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 in the German city of Weimar from a merger of the Grand Ducal Saxonian School of Arts and Crafts and the Grand Ducal Saxonian School of Arts. As Director he wrote a detailed teaching program for the new school as well as a four-page document, the Manifesto of the Staatliches Bauhaus.
The cover of the manifesto featured a woodcut by Lyonel Feininger. According to the Bauhaus-Archiv, the Gothic cathedral tower symbolises a communal spiritual vision as well as the joint effort of artists and artisans who were involved in its creation. Surrounding the tower are three interlacing stars, standing for the three core arts of painting, sculpture and architecture.
The image embodies the ambitious program of the Bauhaus, which aimed to bring together arts and crafts (literally) under one roof – to create a “total” work of art. Even the school’s name was a combination of the German words for building (bau) and house (haus).
Walter Gropius, Manifesto of the Staatliches Bauhaus, 1919
Let us conceive, consider and create together the new building of the future that will bring all into one simple integrated creation: architecture, painting and sculpture rising to heaven out of the hand of a million craftsmen, the crystal symbol of the new faith of the future.
Now that Gropius had a mission for the school, the challenge was how to turn these great ideas into a real educational course.
Creating a community
Gropius recognised that creative education was about more than just passing on and refining technical knowledge or skills. The Bauhaus teaching method replaced the traditional pupil-teacher relationship with the idea of a community of artists working together.
At the start of their studies, students received six months of basic training in the preliminary course: a program led by instructors who taught design, material use and methods, and theory. This was followed by a three-year program where they entered workshops as ‘apprentices’, which concluded with a Journeyman’s certificate. At the time, an educational course with this type of practical training structure was unprecedented.
Walter Gropius, Manifesto of the Staatliches Bauhaus, 1919
The art schools of old were incapable of producing this unity – and how could they, for art may not be taught. They must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence.
Gropuis’ teaching model gained the support of renowned avant-garde artists, some of whom joined the school’s faculty. They were masters of their craft who each brought their own unique interpretations of the school’s underlining values.
Just some of the famous faces who taught at Bauhaus:
- Johannes Itten : Swiss designer and expressionist painter
- Lyonel Feininger : German-American painter and Expressionism advocate
- Gerhard Marcks: German sculptor and artist
- Oskar Schlemmer: German designer, painter, sculptor and choreographer
- Paul Klee Swiss: painter and artist known for Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism
- Wassily Kandinsky : Russian art theorist and painter
An object is defined by its nature
‘Form follows function’ is a firmly held principle for designers today. It was first coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in his 1896 article ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’.
Louis Sullivan, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, 1896
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
At the time, buildings were still being designed and built based on innovation going all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Sullivan argued that a new form for buildings was needed, and that form should come from the function of the building and not a historical precedent.
This became one of the fundamental ideas adopted by Bauhaus. Moving away from the ornamental design defined by the early 1900s, they aimed for rational solutions to design problems.
Everything made at Bauhaus embodied the key principle that form should always reflect and enhance function without adding decorative elements for their own sake: its utility should always come first.
Simplicity and effectiveness
The form follows function design philosophy gave birth to the iconic Bauhaus style. The materials they used reflected the true nature of objects and buildings – they weren’t modified or hidden for the sake of aesthetics. They chose not to hide the construction of an object or building, such as steel frames or beams, because they were an integral part of the design. Pure forms, clean design and functionality were celebrated.
You can fully immerse yourself in Bauhaus and stay overnight in the studio building. Some rooms have been designed to evoke their former design inhabitants, like Alfred and Gertrud Arndt, Josef and Anni Albers and Franz Ehrlich. Find out more about the rooms.
Remember to have fun
Bauhaus wasn’t just a place of work; it also encouraged play. The school famously threw parties where teachers and students gave free rein to their creativity. They would spend weeks organising and designing costumes in the school’s workshops. It was an opportunity for team building and socialising – helping to facilitate conversation, which could lead to creative breakthroughs.
According to architect Farkas Molnár, who was a student at Bauhaus, the school’s renowned typography studios and cabinet-making workshops were taken very seriously, but “the greatest expenditures of energy, however, go into the costume parties.”
The theatre workshop, responsible for many of the events, was led by Oskar Schlemmer, a painter and choreographer best known for his Triadic Ballet. The avant-garde ballet was widely performed throughout the 1920s and became something of a poster child for the Bauhaus movement.
The legacy of Bauhaus
Not everybody shared Gropius’ vision. In the 1924 local elections, the liberal government, who had supported the Bauhaus, was replaced with a new conservative government. The new government cut the school’s funding by 50% and Bauhaus was forced to close its doors on 1 April 1925, only six years after it had opened.
By now the word about Bauhaus had spread beyond Weimar and the school was given a new home in the city of Dessau. At this location, Gropius founded its new architecture program and resigned as director to make way for Swiss architect, Hannes Mayer.
Unfortunately, by 1931, the Nazis gained control of the Dessau city council, which forced the school to move to yet another location. Under the direction of German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the third iteration of Bauhaus opened in Berlin.
The Berlin school lasted for only ten months before it was closed, once again under pressure from the Nazi regime. To the Nazis, Bauhaus was “un-German” due to its modernist style and “degenerate art” because of its perceived Jewish and Communist associations.
Despite the school’s end, Bauhaus survived adversity and thrived. It was kept alive by the staff and students who emigrated to countries like Switzerland, the United States and the UK, where their teaching and work inspired new generations of creatives and designers.
This year Germany will be celebrating 100 years of Bauhaus by hosting a big opening festival, new museums and a modernist trail across Germany. Click here to find out more about the events being held.