Bauhaus and the International Style

A successful marriage between utilitarian and beautiful

29 APRIL 2017,
Bauhaus School building in Dessau
Bauhaus School building in Dessau

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible

(Paul Klee)

The Wassily chair, created by Marcel Breuer, is probably the most recognisable example of Bauhaus design. It incorporates some of the key concepts of the movement, demonstrating that modern manufacturing can achieve a successful marriage between utilitarian and beautiful. The Bauhaus movement was more than an artistic trend: it influenced art education, design, graphics, architecture and it affected the way we understand the relationship between art and society. Based on equalitarian principles, it called for the abolition of barriers between fine arts and crafts, which should be brought together to create beauty in a modern industrialised society. If paintings and objets d’art are to be found in museums and displayed by the privileged classes, good design will benefit everyone in the form of everyday utilitarian objects and the houses they live in.

Art into Industry

Founded in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century. It was conceived as encompassing the totality of all artistic expressions: fine art, interior design, graphic design, typography, product design and architecture. The movement encouraged the usage of modern technologies and believed that form follows function and the focus should be on the productivity and the usefulness of design. When the school moved from Weimar to Dessau, the new studios designed by Gropius were modelled on factory buildings, with large spaces defined by glass curtain walls for maximum light. With its steel framework and reinforced concrete bricks, the complex is viewed as a landmark in modern functionalist design.

But the real revolution was the approach to teaching. “Schooling alone can never produce art!” wrote Gropius, but knowledge and technique can be taught and learned. At the core of the movement was the way art was being taught to talented and motivated students. Practical and theoretical studies were carried on simultaneously; the preliminary course was defined by “observation and representation”, study of materials, composition and colour theory. Among the tutors were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Joseph Albers. Specialised workshops included metalwork, carpentry, weaving, pottery and typography. The aim was to reunite the arts previously separated by academies; to bring back the soul into soulless mass manufactured products; and to restore art’s role and purpose in society.

After successfully completing their “apprenticeship” the most gifted students would go on to study architecture. Only by finding their own emotions and creative possibilities, would individual artists be able to contribute to the building team.

Architecture unites in a collective task all creative workers, from the simple artisan to the supreme artist.

(Walter Gropius)

A passion for building

“The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the Building. The goal of the Bauhaus is the collective work of art – the Building – in which no barriers exist between the structural and the decorative art.” Exhibitions, said Gropius, should be travelling art shows, featuring “painting and sculptures in the context of architecture, to show how they function in buildings.” If the world needed to be fundamentally re-thought, as it regularly does, then the thinking had to start with simple forms, primary colours – and progress to complex structures, buildings. The Bauhaus architecture provides an elegant and socially acceptable solution to structural and functional alignment. This architectural spirit, according to Walter Gropius “is the natural antithesis to the world of shopkeepers, to the spirit of disintegration and destruction which is the deadly enemy of all art.”(1919)

White City

Germany before the war was not the ideal place and time for a revolutionary art and social movement. When the Nazi came to power, the school was closed and the faculty dispersed: many of the school’s teachers immigrated to the United States. Most of them continued successful careers and had significant influence on art education at Yale, Chicago, Illinois, and Harvard. Many Jewish architects emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, which was experiencing a building boom.

The sand dunes to the North of Jaffa, the most populous city, became a residential suburb in the early 1920’s. Named Tel Aviv – Spring Hill - the suburb grew exponentially: the population increased from 2,000 to 35,000 in five years and so a great need for housing. With admirable foresight, the first Tel Aviv mayor, Meir Dizengoff, commissioned an urban planner to lay out the streets and plan block sizes and function. The style of architecture was not stipulated in the plans, but as many architects working at the time were of the Bauhaus school, the White City was born: there are 4,000 Bauhaus style buildings in the centre of Tel Aviv, more than in any other city in the world. In 2003 this area of the city was designated World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO.

The outstanding features of these Bauhaus buildings are the way it was adapted in consideration to the cultural and climatic aspects of the city. The apartment buildings are white – to reflect the heat – and surrounded by small gardens in which the trees have now grown tall enough to provide much needed shade. All apartments have balconies, which are open to the side to allow air movement and are shaded by the balcony above. The glass curtain walls of the original Bauhaus design have been replaced by small recessed windows, to prevent outside heat from entering. On the staircase of tall buildings, the long vertical rows of such small windows have been named “thermometer”. The influence of Art Deco architecture is also evident in the design: the curves, the asymmetry, the theatrical.

The technology is simple, plastered and stuccoed block and concrete construction was favoured in a country lacking more expensive materials. Some houses feature wooden slatted shutters on the windows – wood shipped from Germany and Austria. Post 1930’s, buildings are raised on pilotis – allowing wind and cool air to circulate and cool the apartments and providing a shaded, safe area for children to play. As well as the small parks dotted around at intersections and along the avenues, the flat roofs provided a space for the residents to socialise after sunset.

The Bauhaus Legacy

Despite being a regional movement that lasted only 14 years, the Bauhaus had a profound and long lasting influence upon the development of art education, art, design and typography. European and American architecture owes a great deal to the Bauhaus social ideas, of creating affordable and aesthetically pleasing housing neighbourhoods.

In France, Charles-Edouard Le Corbusier – a self-confessed utopian – envisaged cities dominated by great parks, in which low cost, aesthetically pleasing and comfortable mass produced houses would rise towards eternally blue skies. In reality, his projects – such as the famous Villa Savoye outside Paris – were built for an educated and well-off elite. In the UK, architects like Eric Lyons built 73 Span developments, characterised by sharp modernist design: glass and light, well planned interiors and substantial landscaped communal gardens. I have lived in one of these “successful experimental modernism” houses for over 20 years.

Some of the best examples of mid-century design have a connection with the Bauhaus; from the crisp sans serif typeface developed by Bayer, using lower case only, to Breuer’s cantiliver chair, we surround ourselves with objects that are as beautiful to look at as they are useful. Look at Marianne Brandt’s tea infuser and strainer: the usual elements of the teapot are reinvented as geometric form. The off-centre lid on top of a hemisphere has a cylindrical knop; the handle is a semi-circle of ebony, creating a vertical contrast with the horizontal silver body of the teapot. Carefully designed for maximum comfort and functionality, it makes a daring visual statement.

Like many other Bauhaus creations, designed for specific usage, beauty is achieved through the simple balance of form and colour.