Design and reform: the making of the Bauhaus

Christopher Long

Christopher Long Art

October 2009 | In our time  the name Bauhaus has become a synonym for high modernism, a stand-in for the purist design language of the years between the two world wars and beyond. For many it is now a stylistic descriptor, a sort of shorthand for a specific look, often understood without any temporal attachment or historical meaning. But the Bauhaus was not only an aesthetic or a movement, it was also a school-the most illustrious and influential experiment in art education of the modern period. Founded in 1919, it lasted only as long as the Weimar Republic; it was extinguished when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s.

The Bauhaus and what it has come to represent did not spring up suddenly without precedents: it had intellectual and artistic moorings in the prewar period. Many of its guiding principles had been conceived and tried out well before its establishment. And it was a product of the special historical forces and ferment of the early postwar era. Together, the artistic reform ideals of the decade and a half before the war and the profound emotional and ideological upheaval of the period after the conflict shaped the school and all that issued from it.

In the spring of 1915 the Belgian artist and designer Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) was forced to resign his position as director of the School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in the German city of Weimar. Van de Velde’s nationality-Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium at the outset of World War I had set off a wave of anti-Belgian sentiment in the country-was only part of the reason for his dismissal. Conservative forces in the court of the grand duke of Saxe-Weimar had for some time opposed his efforts to introduce modern reforms in the school. The authorities first ordered him to depart by April 1, but when they could find no immediate successor, they asked him to re­main in his post until October.1 Van de Velde put forward suggestions for several possible successors, among them the young architect Walter Gropius (see Fig. 1).

Thirty-two at the time, Gropius came from an illustrious Berlin family of artists, architects, and academicians. His grandfather was a noted painter and theater designer, his great-uncle, Martin Gropius, was an architect, as was his father, also Martin.

Van de Velde wrote to Gropius, then serving as a reserve officer on the Western front, inquiring whether he might be interested in the position. Gropius at first wanted to decline the offer. But after “long reflection” he decided “not to pass up such an opportunity”: a “post of this sort,” he wrote to his mother, “presents the possibility of important commissions.”2

Gropius was an unlikely candidate for the job. He was a modernist-he had already earned a reputation as a leading progressive architect with his designs for the Fagus shoe-last factory in Alfeld an der Leine (1910-1911) and his model office building at the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne-and he possessed neither teaching nor administrative experience. Yet, almost immediately the authorities invited him to put forward a proposal outlining his vision of the school’s future. The school by this time had virtually ceased to operate: most of its students and teachers were already serving in the German forces; only two classes of students remained, and there was no consensus on the part of the remaining officials at the school or those in the government ministry of education about how to proceed.

By January 1916, when Gropius was granted a short leave from the front to discuss his proposal with the Weimar authorities, the school had been closed and its buildings hastily converted into a military hospital. Gropius’s talk, delivered before the grand duke and many of the leading government officials, stressed the need to forge a “partnership between the artist, industrialist, and technician” in order to spur the province’s underdeveloped economy. The school would train students in the crafts; they in turn would work with the factories and workshops to raise the standards of design and production.3

The idea of building an alliance between the crafts, designers, and industry was hardly a novel one. The possibilities of new “Applied-arts” schools, which merged education in the arts and handicrafts, had been widely discussed in Germany in the decade before the war, and several leading reformers, including Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929), the director of Berlin’s museums at the Prussian Ministry of Culture, had promoted such “unified arts schools” as the foundation for a reformed artistic education.4

Gropius’s call for a close partnership between craft, design, and production-what we now call industrial design-had its anchorage even earlier. The first efforts to reform education in the crafts had been inaugurated in the late 1850s with the founding of the Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London. Similar schools were soon established on the Continent. The Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule opened in 1867 (now University of Applied Arts Vienna), and over the course of the next several decades, more than fifty such institutions were set up in Germany. At first these schools were directed solely at training students in the traditional crafts-furniture making, glass-blowing, textile production, and the like. The idea of transferring design to factory production again occurred in Britain, encouraged by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) and others. The ability to produce high-quality and well-designed industrial goods gave the British a decided lead over other European nations. Germany, just emerging as an industrialized country in the 1860s and 1870s, found itself at a disadvantage; and, though it had become a manufacturing colossus by the turn of the century, its export articles had a reputation for inferior design and shoddiness.5

The effort to bring German production up to a higher standard led to the formation, in 1907, of the German Werkbund, an alliance of prominent artists, designers, and manufacturers. From the start, though, there were tensions within the organization about its proper role. Was its aim, as some advocated, to explore new design principles and produce handcrafted art objects that might influence industrial manufacturers? Or should the artists and designers make precise prototypes that could then be adapted to mass production? The debate came to a head at the 1914 Werkbund conference. The “artists,” led by Van de Velde, held out for “aesthetic independence”; those who urged closer collaboration with industry, headed by Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), an official adviser to the Prussian government and a fervent admirer of English arts and crafts, urged the idea of Typisierung, the making of “types” or models that could aid industrial producers in rethinking product design.6

Gropius sided with Van de Velde and his followers; “the artist,” he agreed, should remain  “free” and “spontaneous,” not “forced to conform to any canon.”7 Gropius’s proposal of 1916 followed this logic: it put forward a mostly conventional plan for reviving the local craft industries.

But during the last years of the war, he began to rethink his positions. The specter of mass killing and mechanized death affected him deeply. From 1914 until the armistice, he served almost continuously on the front in France; he was seriously wounded in one encounter, and barely survived when an observation plane he was riding in was shot down. By 1918 he had won the Iron Cross twice and a handful of other decorations, but the experience left him mentally and physically scarred. His stormy marriage during the war to Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav, officially ended in divorce in 1920; in 1917, while he was at the front, she had fallen in love with the writer Franz Werfel and become pregnant. Gropius believed initially the child was his, but her affair with Werfel soon came out in the open. Gropius was devastated, and the gloomy situation of postwar Germany only added to his anger and disillusionment.

Like many others who had confronted the realities of the slaughter and suffering the conflict had wrought, Gropius was radicalized by his experiences. With his return to Berlin in late 1919, he underwent a transformation. Years afterward, in an interview with one of his former students, he said that at that moment of his life, “with unexpected suddenness, the vision of future goals flashed through my imagination, and in an instant, an era had swept by.”8 His close contacts with the newly formed Worker’s Council for Art in Berlin, modeled after the revolutionary workers’ councils-or soviets-in Russia, convinced him of the need to rethink the nature of arts education, eventually persuading him to offer students a unified curiculum.9

Gropius’s new program for the school in Weimar, which he unveiled in 1919, called for the establishment of the “State Bauhaus.” The new institution would unite the former Grand Ducal Academy of Art and the School of Applied Arts. The name Bauhaus derived from the medieval builders’ lodges, or Bauhütten; it would be a union or community of masters and apprentices modeled after the old guild system.

The driving concept behind the school, indeed, relied-as had the English arts and crafts movement-on nostalgia for the premodern world of the Middle Ages. Instruction would be based on a series of workshops for teaching various crafts (such as stone carving, cabinetry, bookbinding, weaving, metalworking, glassmaking, and painting). Students would choose among the different specializations, but the aim was to bring them together to collaborate on common projects, a notion expressed by the artist Lyonel Feininger’s cover for the Bauhaus program of 1919, which depicted a cathedral surmounted by three stars, symbolizing, it seems, the unification of the fine arts, architecture, and the applied arts (Fig. 4). But Feininger’s expressionist cover image and the manifesto within also expressed a keen yearning to leave the recent past behind, to reinvigorate the arts and invest them with new purpose. Gropius’s dream of a new aesthetic order sought to overturn Wilhelmine philistinism and the fracturing of the artistic world in modern times.10

The new Bauhaus was not the only example of unified arts education in postwar Germany. In Berlin the architect and designer Bruno Paul (1874-1968) combined the former Prussian Academy of Arts (Preussische Kunst­akademie) and the School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts (Unterrichtsanstalt des Kunstgewerbemuseums) into the United State Schools for Free and Applied Art (Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst), and related schools were established in Frankfurt, Breslau, and other cities.11 And many of the ideological and practical seeds it grew from had been planted well before 1919. “The Bauhaus…popularized and recast,” the historian John Maciuika observed, “what numerous Wilhelmine schools, absorbing the lessons of the British Arts and Crafts movement, had pioneered on German soil: the introduction of hands-on instructional workshops; the orientation of all branches of the fine and applied arts toward the design of architectonically integrated harmonious interiors; the embrace of a spirit of individual experimentation selectively informed by tradition; and the belief that applied-arts education needed to evolve in order to address changing socio-economic conditions.”12

The distinctive identity of the Bauhaus derived instead from two other elements of its program: a commitment to a radical rethinking of artistic form and the quest to establish a “new unity” between design and technology. Neither idea was fully developed in the school’s curriculum at the outset. Two of Gropius’s first appointments in 1919 were artists: Feininger and the sculptor Gerhard Marcks (1889-1981). Both were progressives, but neither had extensive backgrounds in the crafts or in design. It was Gropius’s selection of the Swiss-born art educator and painter Johannes Itten (Fig. 7) that would set the school on its new course. Trained as an elementary school teacher, Itten went on to study art and pedagogy in Geneva and Bern. By early 1919 he was in Vienna, where he operated his own private art school. He was strongly influenced by the painter Adolf Hölzel (1853-1934), one of the early pioneers of abstract painting, and Franz Čížek (or Cizek; 1865-1946), among the first to develop special methods for teaching art to young children.13 Čížek believed that all children had an innate capacity for making art, and his methods encouraged his pupils’ spontaneous artistic activity, an idea that became one of the main tenets of Itten’s teaching.

At Weimar Itten first taught in the workshops. Gropius, however, observing the confusion of forms in the school’s first exhibition, found that the system of independent studios had resulted in “the most dreadful fragmentation.”14 In late 1920 he announced the introduction of mandatory theory classes. The centerpiece of the new system was a preliminary course, or Vorkurs, to be taught by Itten.

At the core of Itten’s teaching was an effort to awaken the dormant creative potential within each student. Various exercises required the students to experiment with different forms, textures, and colors; some of these projects were two-dimensional, some forced the students to think in three-dimensional terms. Students were also made to analyze works of art based on color-fields or rhythmic lines-all in an effort to aid them to see the essential expressive content in the originals (see Fig. 8). To enhance concentration and dexterity, the lessons included relaxation and breathing exercises and the rapid drawing of simple forms-repeated strokes, circles, and spirals.15

Itten later published a primer on his course and method; translated into English and other languages, it widely influenced education in design and architectural schools around the world.16 Before Itten most of these methods had been applied only to children, not people receiving professional art training.17 At the Bauhaus the Vorkurs, which lasted six months, evolved into a means to force students to rethink the most basic formal relationships in art. The result was perhaps predictable: the work of the Bauhaus students began to evince not only greater unity-exactly as Gropius had hoped-but also an increasing reliance on basic forms-squares, circles, triangles, cylinders-and on simple, often primary, colors (see Fig. 9).

The concept of an aesthetic stripped to bare essentials was not without precedent. The Viennese modernists, led by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser (1868-1918), had investigated the possibilities of an elemental design program in their early works for the Wiener Werkstätte (see Fig. 5). And some German designers, including the graphic artist Lucian Bernhard, had probed related ideas: his 1914 poster for spark plugs made by the Bosch Company, for example, captured a novel vision of reducing objects to basic forms and relying on simple, continuous fields of color (Fig. 10).

The masters, as the teachers at the Bauhaus were known, and their students soon began to elaborate and perfect these ideas of radical simplification. An armchair designed in 1922 by the young Hungarian student Marcel Breuer-later to become one of the Bauhaus masters himself-articulated this commitment to reduction and clarification (Fig. 11).

But the second essential leavening ingredient of Bauhaus form emerged only later. In the early 1920s Gropius continued to augment his staff: by 1922 Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, George Muche, and Oskar Schlemmer (see Fig. 3)-all members of the international avant-garde-had joined the faculty. The following year, he dismissed Itten, whose growing eccentricities (he was a mystic follower of a religion called Mazdaznan, which, among other things, requires a program of ritual purification by means of fasting and enemas) were becoming a distraction and threatening the school’s reputation in conservative Weimar.18 Gropius also began to build stronger ties to Germany’s industries. He revised the curriculum to emphasize the making of prototypes and announced a renewed quest to strengthen the connections between art and technology.19 

The centerpiece of his new program was a challenge to invent a new unified language of form that drew on DutchDe Stijl, Russian constructivism, and allied movements. The Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, who replaced Itten, and Josef Albers, who assumed Itten’s role in teaching the preliminary course, brought new rigor to the study of materials and methods. Moholy-Nagy’s ardor for machine-made forms in particular supported Gropius’s new ideals. Over the next several years, until the late 1920s, the Bauhaus focused on the use of new materials and mass production, relying on collaborative rather than individual efforts.20

The works of these years, such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl J. Jucker’s table lamp (often known as the “Bauhaus lamp”), based on simple geometric forms-spherical shade, cylindrical shaft, and circular base-became emblematic of this new aesthetic (Fig. 12). The works of the masters and students alike expressed a pronounced clarity and directness; their deliberate austerity proclaimed a desire to inquire into the most basic relationships in art. Albers’s design for a tea glass with saucer and stirrer (Fig. 13) and Moholy-Nagy’s design for a Bauhaus billhead (Fig. 17) were the outcome of this striving for a unified and forthright style.

Inherent within this aesthetic, too, was an accent on functionality. Breuer’s nesting tables, the result of his use of new materials such as tubular steel and plywood, were intended to demonstrate a belief in the importance of making designs that could be readily manufactured and reach a broad population (Fig. 15).

In truth, almost all of the Bauhaus prototypes were the result of painstaking handcraftsmanship, and many were never successfully mass-produced (see Figs. 14, 16). Of the designs that reached industry, most proved to be relatively expensive, and in the period before World War II, the majority of them were made only in small numbers. The promise of a new modern industrial design did not find full realization until after the war, long after the Bauhaus had passed from the scene. But they became enduring images of its ambitions and its triumphs.

 As a school, the Bauhaus’s success was mixed. Of the famous names associated with the institution, most were its masters. Only a small number of students would achieve later renown and contribute to the subsequent unfolding of modernism. The Bauhaus left an indelible mark on art and design education, but in the end, its most important product was the fashioning of a new vision in design and art.  

Several of the objects illustrated here are on view in the exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity at the Museum of Modern Art from November 8 to January 25, 2010.

  1 Reginald R. Isaacs, Walter Gropius: Der Mensch und sein Werk (Gebruder Mann Verlag, Berlin, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 147-148.  2 Walter Gropius to his mother, April 19, 1915, quoted ibid., p. 148.  3 Karl-Heinz Hüter, Das Bauhaus in Weimar: Studie zur gesellschaftspolitischen Geschichte einer deutschen Kunstschule (Akademie-Verlag, Berlin, 1976), p. 202.  4 See John V. Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics, and the German State, 1890-1920 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005).  5 See Gillian Naylor, The Bauhaus Reassessed: Sources and Design Theory (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1985), pp. 14-46. 
6 On the Werkbund debate, see Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus, pp. 300-307.  7 Quoted in Isaacs, Walter Gropius, p. 124. See also Marcel Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar: The Ideals and Artistic Theories of Its Founding Years (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1971), pp. 71-87.  8 Chester Nagel, Gropius: Man of Vision (Media and Communications Division of Auraria Library, Denver, 1987), p. 5. 
9 Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus, pp. 288-292; Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar, pp. 88-152.  10 Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus, pp. 288-289.  11 Ibid., pp. 285-287. See also W. Owen Harrod, Bruno Paul: The Life and Work of a Pragmatic Modernist (Axel Menges Verlag, Stuttgart, 2006).  12 Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus, pp. 293-294.  13 On Čížek and his methods, see Hans Bisanz and Wanda A. Bubriski, Franz Cizek: Pionier der Kunsterziehung (1865-1946) (Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna, 1985).  14 Quoted in Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar, p. 175.  15 Naylor, The Bauhaus Reassessed, pp. 75-82.  16 Johannes Itten, Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later (rev. ed., Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1975).  17 Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar, pp. 180-191.  18 Frank Whitford, Bauhaus (Thames and Hudson, London, 1985), pp. 52-55.  19 Maciuika, Before the Bauhaus, p. 296.  20 Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar, pp. 238-247.

CHRISTOPHER LONG is professor for architectural history and theory in the School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin.