Design and reform: the making of the Bauhaus

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.

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

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