Minimal yet far-reaching. Instantly familiar yet often unutterably alien. Peerlessly futuristic, yet tethered to a sense of place and time. The output of the Bauhaus is as riddled with contradiction as it is reliably uniform and as pervasive in modern life as it is worthy of countless museum pieces. Indeed, when it comes to movements in art, design, and architecture, which have genuinely changed the world in which we live, while seamlessly spanning multiple disciplines, few – if any – can compete with Bauhaus. One hundred and one years on from its founding in Dessau, Germany, it’s impossible not to see evidence of its impact everywhere we look.
The influence of the Bauhaus school and its alumni is present not merely in the original items of furniture, fine art pieces, interiors, fashion designs, and works of architecture that remain one century on. It exists in an entire design idiom, a singular approach to creativity, and even in language itself. Bauhaus has become a noun and adjective, a word imbued with instantly comprehensible meaning, and which conjures an astounding array of associated images. From tower blocks to typefaces, from luxury homes to reimaginings of the most basic household items, from perfume bottles to mobile phones… the sleek, stripped-back, and pioneering reach of Bauhaus’ minimalism and artistry shaped the last century, and will doubtless lay its claim on this one, too.
The Shock of the Neu
The Bauhaus found its first home in 1919, during the headiest heights of the German Weimar Republic, and within the midst of the country’s most prolific artistic and cultural period of growth. Established by architect and educational reformer Walter Gropius, the school was founded upon a specific and groundbreaking manifesto: it aimed at nothing less than to completely eradicate the millennia-old boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and to formulate a new Utopia which would benefit the common man and the cultured elites of Europe alike. At its heart was a spirit of collaboration, and Bauhaus students were actively encouraged to communicate their ideas freely while seeking out wide-ranging media with which to manifest their fervent imaginations.
Naturally, with so much cross-pollination of ideas, it wasn’t long before an identifiable house aesthetic began to form. The Bauhaus use of color quickly condensed itself into the simplest primary tones. Lines became utilitarian yet elegant, and form invariably followed function as the essence of Minimalism and Modernism permeated each and every design. It would be all too easy to assume this was the direct result of the school’s most esteemed teaching staff, which included canonical figures such as Wassily Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe, and Maholy-Nagy, among others. However, something else was at work here: a wholehearted embracing of the new, whether in new shapes, new materials, or new ideas of what art, architecture, and design might be. Rather than direct their students stylistically, the teachers would simply refer back to the manifesto, insist upon boldness and forward-thinking, and encourage the fruitful collaborations which followed.
The results, as the 20th century demonstrated, were remarkable for no shortage of reasons. Early public exhibitions, which included Gropius and his students’ concept for the Modernist German home (fully furnished and resplendent in its minimalism and design-led flourishes), were met with a mixture of derision, sly admiration, and outright horror. Here was an art school which paid no homage to Classicism, ignored the folk-inspired homegrown movements such as the Jugenstil, and preferred poured concrete over wood and stone. Both the future of design and the designs of the future were, quite rightly, at considerable odds with both the present and the past.
First Germany, Then the World
Endlessly evolving and mutating, Bauhaus held many core tenets at its heart. None were perhaps more central nor more powerful than the concept which drove so many of the school’s founding members: that artistic ability and expression in the 20th century would and could only flourish with a grounding in technical excellence and practical design. This fundamental notion proved not only to form much of the driving force behind the movement’s output but also to lay the groundwork for its lasting legacy and continued appeal beyond its environs in a rapidly changing world.
It was a notion that was cut decidedly short on the home territory by the turbulence of the age. The rise of National Socialism in Germany deliberately placed an assortment of insurmountable obstacles in Bauhaus’ path to growth. Following the compulsory relocation of the school, which moved from Dessau to Weimar and onwards to Berlin, Gropius was ultimately forced out and replaced by a successor who shut the doors for good. Despite being closed down by Nazi forces, the seeds of a new visual age had long since been sown, and the wider world was awakening to the potential of Modernist design and architecture. There’s a delicious irony in the sense that, although the Nazis succeeded in dismantling the concrete home of Bauhaus, in doing so, they freed the movement from the shackles of a country intent on cultural self-destruction.
The attempts to suppress the ideas and influence of the Bauhaus in the 1930s were precisely what led to the movement conquering the globe. The founding members fled to countries as diverse as the UK, USA, Israel, and India, where their ideas were received with curiosity and enthusiasm, and where further trails were blazed for others to follow. We can see today, for example, four thousand Bauhaus buildings in the sleek heart of Tel Aviv, Mies van de Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and the entirety of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh project in India: a gleaming, minimalist city made in the vision of a future too bold, too broad, and far too optimistic for 1930’s Germany.
New York, then just as now, was a hotbed of pioneering design and visual culture, and was exceptionally quick to embrace Bauhaus as the unstoppable force it was quickly becoming. In 1930, the MoMA held a full Bauhaus exhibition, heralding a new age underway, and providing the ultimate seal of New World approval for a truly international phenomenon. It was only a matter of time before that phenomenon birthed the trends which would spread further than ever before, with design houses, galleries, city planners, and factories alike citing Bauhaus as inspiration.
A Second Century of Enduring Impact
One hundred and one years on, the view of Bauhaus and its aesthetic remains remarkably positive, with designers – consciously or otherwise – continuing to imbue creative projects with the stark lines, blank spaces, and primary colors that Bauhaus identified as central to its idiom. Despite being marred by controversy during its seminal years, hindsight allows us to see that Bauhaus was far from guilty of the crimes often leveled at its key players: that it insulted traditional craftsmanship, threatened bourgeois sensibilities, or offered little more than a mechanistic and pessimistic view of the future. Nor was it a flash in the pan, a fad, or an experiment driven by an elitist group of dictatorial architects and designers.
Bauhaus, today, is many things. At its essence, however, the school and the movement that followed was a hotbed of creative energy, and a focal point of artistic freedom, beneficial collaboration, and optimism regarding a new age of possibility. By breaking down the established barriers of craft and art, industry, and creativity, and the practical and the beautiful, Bauhaus was both ahead of its time and a catalyst for enduring change.
It is a testament to its influence that the true impact of Bauhaus has become so ubiquitous as to be almost imperceptible. The streets down which we walk. The homes in which we live. Our coffee cups, tables, chairs, and clothes. Cars, smartphones, typefaces. The breadth of abstract art. Bauhaus played a hand in each, providing a blank canvas on which the world we inhabit might be shaped and constructed anew.