When we think of the word ‘modern’ in terms of art, architecture and interior design, we’re probably imagining something that can trace its design DNA straight back to the Bauhaus design movement. You can’t overstate how much of a revolution it was when it came along, and how it changed people’s minds about what creativity, craft, design and even mass production should look like.
In the 1880s, the Arts and Crafts Movement tried to re-marry the artistic and the artisan, which, its founders claimed, had been separated into two disciplines since the Medieval age. You were either an artist or a craftsperson, went the narrative, but that was not the best way to be productive. The work of William Morris and his followers remains influential today, but you could never really call it “modern” – its sensibility is still highly decorative and unmistakably Victorian.
The Bauhaus design style was founded by Walter Gropius in the early 1900s. He agreed with the central philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but time and technology had moved on, and the world was a very different and more industrialized place. His original plans to open a design school were scuppered by the First World War, but soon after the guns fell silent, he opened the first school in 1919 in Weimar, Germany.
The Bauhaus Movement can broadly be defined by its central ideas:
- Artists and craftspeople should each know the other’s trade;
- Design should be minimalist and avoid waste; and
- Art and design should be geared towards accessible, easily produced and functional objects that serve the public good.
If you look at original Bauhaus furniture or anything designed in the Bauhaus style, you can see that this philosophy is obeyed to the letter. The classic tubular steel chair with leather seat and back couldn’t be any simpler in its design, and any factory with basic metalworking capability could produce the frame in large volumes. Importantly, nothing at all comes at the expense of style. That basic design that was pioneered in the Bauhaus School is still used today, more than a century later, with little modification.
Minimalism became a buzzword in the late 1980s and 1990s, with fashionable buildings and their interiors stripping away anything that could be considered superfluous or even decorative. It was never everyone’s idea of how to live, partly because it means you either need few possessions or a very large property to store things minimalistically away.
However you viewed it, there’s no denying it looked and felt modern. If a film director wanted to show a character’s affluence, they would never have them living in a home full of stuff. They would have them living in an almost empty room with nothing but the essentials: a few chairs, some tasteful art and perhaps a cat. That idea of simple, tasteful, industrial-inspired design was inspired by students in 1920s Germany, in one of those iconic Bauhaus buildings.
The thread of Bauhaus inspiration has run though all the decades since. Most of the modern architecture (especially domestic) from the 1950s onwards has focused on the low-rise, wide-windowed dwelling, with simplicity and function as standard.
Even the 1960s and 70s, often associated with garish hues and hippy low-tech materials, has a sense of minimalism in much of the design – think of the simple polypropylene or laminate wood veneer chair and you can easily imagine them coming from Weimar, Dessau or Berlin in the 1920s or 30s.
The mindset came to the fore in the late 1970s and early 1980s in various post-punk pop culture, too. Perhaps the most recognizable proponent was Manchester’s Factory Records, particularly its best known acts Joy Division and New Order, whose minimalistic sound echoed the philosophy. Working with graphic designers Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett, the label cornered the market in industrial, pared-down design, and made the Bauhaus über cool once again.
Bringing it Home
Designers are still heavily influenced by the philosophy that was sparked in the 1880s and given direction and modernity in the 1920s. Teaching design to today’s students and omitting Bauhaus would be like teaching natural history broadcasting and not mentioning David Attenborough – it’s still very much alive.
That is not to say that modern objects should look like they were designed in 1925 – the opposite is true. It’s an acknowledgment that the Bauhaus movement got something right that continues to be true, and informs design basics, if not the actual forms.
Cutipol might have named their flatware after the Bauhaus, and you might still see Bauhaus kitchens and Bauhaus tables advertised, but the beauty of the school is that it taught that the whole point isn’t what it looks like – fashions and tastes change, after all. It’s how it functions in a human world, and how the designer was influenced by all the available materials, technologies and skills, not just their own specialisms.
We could never claim that our olive desert chair, silent wall clock or Hassel side table owed nothing to the design school whose message proved stronger than all the attempts (some successful) to close it down. As lovers of all things design-related, we doff our hats to the forward-thinking geniuses who put human interaction back at the heart of design.