During the 20th century, various styles of art helped shape what we now know as modern art. While many—including the energetic abstract expressionism and the subconscious-based surrealism—mostly favoured paintings, Bauhaus style involved a broad array of mediums and disciplines, ranging from typography, to paintings, to architecture. Bauhaus style dominated experimental European art in between the 1920s until 1930s. While it is often associated with Germany and German designers, Bauhaus has become an inspiration for artists of all backgrounds and its influences can now be found all over the world. Famous for its approach to design, Bauhaus style is considered a revolutionary breakthrough for its time.
It All Began With One Person
The term Bauhaus was derived from a German word that literally means “construction house”. Bauhaus itself was a school located in Weimar, Germany, founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. Four years prior, he took over the Art Nouveau-style Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts. Moved by the philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), he then merged it with the Weimar Academy of Fine Art to establish a new radical design school. He was inspired by the liberal spirit of Russian Constructivism, which had a significant influence on many left-wing Germans after the defeat of Germany in World War I. He also shared English designer William Morris’ view that art and the needs of society shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and that there should be no gap between form and function.
Constructivism provided an immediate precedent for the Bauhaus’ merging of artistic and technical design. Still, the most significant influence on Bauhaus itself was modernism that had partly developed in Germany prior to World War I. Hence why ornamentation is practically non-existent in Bauhaus designs.
Naturally, Walter Gropius became the first director of Staatliches Bauhaus—the school’s name in German. When it first opened its doors, it didn’t have an architecture department. The faculty comprised of European artists of various genres: Swiss designer and Expressionist painter Johannes Itten, German-American painter and Expressionism advocate Lyonel Feininger, German sculptor and artist Gerhard Marcks, German designer, painter, sculptor and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, Swiss painter and Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist artist, and Russian art theorist and painter Wassily Kandinsky. The infamous Hungarian-born modernist and furniture designer Marcel Breuer was among the school’s first and youngest student.
During the first three years, Itten taught the Vorkurs (introductory course) in the Bauhaus’ curriculum, which was shaped by his regard of Expressionism. In 1923, Hungarian designer and painter László Moholy-Nagy started teaching, replacing Itten. He shifted the school’s preliminary course to New Objectivity favoured by Gropius. This change was important for it brought Gropius’ view at Bauhaus, which was to adapt architecture to fit the technological development in the early 20th, into reality.
Moving to Dessau
Nearing 1925, Staatliches Bauhaus was being pressured by the conservative government to the point that the Ministry of Education cut the school’s funding in half. This prompted Bauhaus to move to its especially designed home in the German industrial town of Dessau. Meanwhile, the school’s building in Weimar became what was later known as Technical University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, with teachers and staff more lenient to the conservative political regime.
At Dessau, the design of the school’s building, which was created by Gropius himself, shared many resemblances to the International Style. It was focused on volume over mass, incorporated mass-produced and lightweight materials, without any colour nor ornaments, and featuring consistent modular forms with flat surfaces alternating with glass.
Here, Staatliches Bauhaus finally had its new architecture program. By 1928, Walter Gropius was extremely worn down by his work and increasing clashes with the school’s critic. He then resigned as director in February, turning over the helm to Hannes Meyer, a Swiss architect. Meyer, an active communist, incorporated his political ideas into teaching programs. Under his leadership, the school reached a few milestones, namely the commissions of five apartment buildings in the city and the Bauhaus style ADGB Trade Union School, all of which still exist.
It was also worth noting that under his direction, the school saw a profit for the first time in its history. However, criticism of Meyer’s Marxism grew, and he was forced to step down as director in 1930, replaced by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Two years after, the Nazis gained control of the city council, forcing the school to close and move yet again, this time to Berlin, where it would see the final years of its existence.
Bauhaus in Berlin
In late 1932, Mies van der Rohe rented a derelict factory in Birkbusch Street 49, Berlin, to be used as the third iteration of Bauhaus, with his own money. The faculty and students rehabilitated the building and painted the interior in white. The school operated for ten months before it was closed for good in April 1933 under the Nazis pressure. To them, Bauhaus style was “un-German” due to its modernist influence, and it was deemed “degenerate art” for its association with the Jewish and Communist.
Those ten months was short, but it paved the way for the Bauhaus style expansion beyond Germany borders. This was possible due to the emigration of Bauhaus’ prominent figures—Gropius, Meyer, and Mies.
Bauhaus style sticks to the motto “form follows function”. It can be seen in modern furniture design and architecture, where Bauhaus has had a significant impact on. Bauhaus style favours utility over show, basing on a no-frills and no-gimmicks approach. There is a stark bluntness to Bauhaus artworks, with sharp edges and strong lines. The quality of Bauhaus style features plainness, modernity, straightforward simplicity, streamlined aesthetics, honest use of materials, and conduciveness to mass production.
Although short-lived, the existence of Staatliches Bauhaus made a major impact. The Bauhaus style itself influenced many art and architecture trends in West Europe, Canada, USA, and Israel in the following decades after its demise, including the Mid Century Modern. In 2004, Tel Aviv was named by the UN as world heritage site due to its large number of Bauhaus architectures. It was reported to have some 4000 Bauhaus buildings constructed from 1933 onwards.
In the USA where the key figures of Bauhaus style fled to, numerous architecture projects were either commissioned to or planned by each of them. Mies van der Rohe designed The New Bauhaus—a design school in Chicago that later became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Walter Gropius settled in a self-designed house in Massachusetts with his wife, the Gropius House, which was seen as remarkably bizarre at the time due to its unpopular style. He was also one of the designers commissioned to the 59-storey MetLife Building (then called the PanAm Building) in NYC.
Marcel Breuer was commissioned to by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which is now called the Met Breuer, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. In 1968, he designed the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington DC.