Design and reform: the making of the Bauhaus

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

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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