Musings on Bauhaus

On my recent trip to Berlin I couldn’t resist visiting the Bauhaus museum. I’d recently read The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher in which the art school features heavily and I’ve always been intrigued by it.

There was also a little bit of sadistic pleasure to be had from making my wife come with me. She’s not a fan of modernism in any shape or form. Our visit to Tate Modern inspired the following statements:

When arriving - ‘It looks like it needs a clean.’
When looking at Rothko - ‘Was that done by a child with crayons?’
When looking over the large display area on the ground floor - ‘What a waste of space, you could put a carpark in there.’

So I was hoping not only for some classic designs, but some classic comments as well. I got half of what I was asking for.

For something that was so influential the Bauhaus only existed for 14 years between 1919 and 1933. Translated literally it means ‘construction house’, but a more accurate definition would be home of building. 

The Bauhaus taught a breed of architecture, design and art where function was as important as its visual appeal. Because of the status history afforded it it’s very easy to forget that the Bauhaus was actually a school, where students were taught according to a strict manifesto (see cover image below right) which promoted a change, not just in the way we designed our lives, but also through the design of our environments would create a new improved society. 

It sounds overly ambitious now, but the sheer breadth of the items that were produced by the school really demonstrates how design touches every part of our modern lives. From cupboard handles, to chairs (most notably the Barcelona chair), to teapots, to graphic design, to buildings, the Bauhaus ethos could be applied to anything that there was some sort of design or product development involved in.

Even more astonishing was the roll call of tutors who taught in the school; Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Clee, Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy are just four of them.

Such lofty ideals and high profile tutors at a turbulent time in the history of Germany were destined to bring the school to the attention of the authorities and it was forced to move three times in its short life before finally being shut by the Nazi party in 1933. What is incredible about the Bauhaus is the way in which it has infiltrated our collective cultural memory despite its suppression. The font is instantly recognisable, many of the objects have become design classics and the style of architecture has been copied so much as to be instantly recognisable even if you don’t know the source. Mies van der Rohe, one of the Directors of the Bauhaus went some way to summing it up by saying, ‘only an idea has the power to spread so widely.’

The Bauhaus-Archive is a fascinating place. It shows you the history of the school and displays some of the classic pieces, as well as original artwork by it’s famous tutors. It is as understated and well formed as the school it depicts.

The disappointment came from my wife’s reaction. She went around the museum with a big smile on her face and as we went to leave she pronounced loudly while gesticulating around at the display, ‘why doesn’t everyone do things like this? Practical and beautiful, that’s how everything should be designed.’

She’s right of course. That’s the essence of good design, it just took the Bauhaus to make it official.