100 Years of Bauhaus: What it is and How It Shaped Today’s Design Industry

14 May 2019

Bauhaus, Dessau

Bauhaus is a word you’ll hear a lot this year. One of the most influential design periods and schools of thought in history turns 100 this year and the design world is celebrating it at every opportunity. The Bauhaus design movement, whilst only actively running for just over a decade, has proved to be one of the most influential points in the industry’s history and its influences can still be seen in countless design sectors and styles to this day. We take a look at the history of Bauhaus, what it stood for and how its key teachings have shaped design as we know it today…

What is Bauhaus?

The Bauhaus was a design school in Germany which began in 1919 and closed its doors in 1933, but its reach extend much further than that brief time period would suggest. Literally translating to ‘construction house’, the Bauhaus was founded by architect Walter Gropius who sought to bring the worlds of often put-down applied arts and highly-regarded fine arts together to create a new ‘under one roof’ outlook on design. He created the school in answer to the new era that was forming after the First World War, a movement that would embrace and come to terms with the increasing industrialisation of the world around it and find new ways to design buildings, products and art.

Bauhaus museum, Dessau

The decades leading up to the Bauhaus design movement favoured the ornate. Fabulously opulent styles like Art Nouveau and Art Deco had ruled supreme and the Bauhaus was created in stark opposition to these adorned and decadent eras. Whilst fundamentally an art school, students at the Bauhaus were trained as a new breed of artist, ones who could turn their hands to anything. From pottery and printmaking to typography and advertising, they were taught to look at the world around them in different ways.

Gropius saw objects as defined by their nature. He thought for an object to serve its purpose, it must fulfil its function in the most practical way, so he urged his students to first study the nature of the pieces they were looking to create. This is one of the first instances of the mantra ‘form follows function’ that has shaped modern design over the last century.

Bauhaus inspired house design

The Three Stages of the Bauhaus

For the 14 years the school was open, the Bauhaus went through three key phases in three German cities. Starting in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus was born from the merging of the Weimar Saxon Grand Ducal Art School and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Despite Gropius’ training there was very little architecture taught at this time and students were introduced to the teachings of the movement through Johannes Itten’s preliminary course. Other key faculty members at this time were Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy.

In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to a new building designed by Gropius in the outskirts of Dessau. This building encapsulated everything the design movement stood for, bringing arts, crafts and industry together to form a single masterpiece. Radical at its time, this building was one of the first in the ‘International Style’ Bauhaus became known for and is one of the most celebrated examples of Bauhuas architecture to this day. This period was seen as the heyday of Bauhaus with more leading figures in the industry joining the movement including Marcel Breuer, Gunta Stölzl, Marianne Brandt and Paul Klee. The school also underwent directorial changes at this time, with Hannes Meyers taking over as director in 1928, followed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who all took the movement in their own unique directions.

Red Bauhaus chairs around a white table

The final location of the physical Bauhaus school was Berlin. The Bauhaus with its embracing of modern technology and emerging international style had caught the eye of another much darker movement gaining ground in Germany in the late ‘20s, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party). The Nazis saw the Bauhaus as representing ‘foreignness’ and viewed their designs as distinctly un-German and criticised their modernist style, so when the party gain control of Dessau city council in 1931, they moved to close the school.

Mies moved the school to Berlin for ten months before the Gestapo closed it down again. Though Mies fought to keep the Bauhaus open, even going so far as to speak to the head of the Gestapo, the director and the rest of the rest of the faculty voluntarily shut the school for good in 1933. Whilst the physical school was gone, this wasn’t the end of the Bauhaus design movement by any means.

Normann Copenhagen salt and pepper shakers
Normann Copenhagen

WWII & The Global Spread of the Bauhaus Principles

A troubling time for freethinkers in Germany, the closing of the Bauhaus school saw many of the students and faculty flee to more accepting countries. The movement’s links to communist ideas saw some move to the Soviet Union, whilst other notable figures moved to the US to continue teaching the Bauhaus ideas. Israel was also a refuge for Bauhaus followers and in 2004 Tel Aviv was named a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its some 4000 Bauhaus buildings. By seeking to snuff-out the Bauhaus school in Germany, the Nazis ironically facilitated the world spread of the movement’s teachings. The very designs they tried to stop became the building blocks for countless key styles of the last century which have shaped the design industry we know today.

Normann Copenhagen Line cushions
Normann Copenhagen

The Influence of the Bauhaus Today

Today Bauhaus influences can be seen everywhere from furniture to graphic design. An instigator in the minimalism trend which is still one of the most popular styles to date, Bauhaus helped the design world step away from the ornate designs of the early 20th century with its emphasis on function before form. Other leading styles, like Scandinavian, industrial and mid-century modern are unmistakable in their Bauhaus influences, showing how far the spread of the school’s teachings have reached. This influence has become so entrenched in the design world, that what were once unusual and striking designs, are now so familiar we might miss them if we don’t take a step back to really look at them.

Skagerak desk

The movement’s embracing of technology and mass production ensured good design would be available to everyone, not just the elite and has helped the industry stay forward-thinking and progressive in the face of adversity. A driving force we need just as much now as 100 years ago, as the world continues to shift and change around us.

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