The Bauhaus School: Design that Defined a Century

Pretty much every major trend in interior design, furniture, and architecture we know and love today comes from the Bauhaus, in one way or another. But, what is it? Is it a concept, a trend, or a movement? Read this comprehensive history of the Bauhaus school to learn about its directors, and influential artists, designers, and architects!

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Snapshot: What is the Bauhaus School?

The Bauhaus was a legendary school of design, first opened in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. Most of modern architecture and design movements can find their roots in the ideas and teaching of the Bauhaus. Famous artists, architects and designers associated with the Bauhaus school are Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee.

The original logo for the German Bauhaus school
The Bauhaus logo, designed by Oskar Schlemmer. Photo from 99designs.com.

History of The Bauhaus: 1919-1933

In early 20th century Germany, architect Walter Gropius founded a school for artists, designers, and architects to study and work together. It was called the Bauhaus, which means “the building house”.

Beginnings: Weimar, Germany (1919-1925)

Walter Gropius opened the school in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. The school was designed to be a combined school of architecture, applied art (such as furniture design) and fine arts. The school built an international reputation with its exhibitions, like one held in Weimar in 1923. During this time period, many of the school’s most famous instructors, like László Moholy-Nagy and Paul Klee, were hired.

Today, the posters made to market the exhibitions are among the most popular and recognizable images from the era. The Bauhaus remained in Weimar until 1925 when political tensions forced the school of design to relocate to Dessau.

Poster for the Bauhaus Exhibition in 1923 created by artist Wassily Kandinski.
A poster for a 1923 exhibition in Weimar. From the British Library.

Prominence and Controversy: Bauhaus Dessau (1925-1931)

In Dessau, along with the opening of the iconic Bauhaus building (below), the school flourished. The Bauhaus building was where Marcel Breuer designed some of the world’s most recognizable furniture. Walter Gropius resigned as the director of the school in 1928, handing the reins to Hannes Meyer. Meyer was an architect, and brought the school acclaim for its work and innovation.

The Bauhaus campus in Dessau, Germany.
The Bauhuas building in Dessau, Germany. From ArchDaily.

Meyer’s influence on the school was especially political. He took things in a decidedly leftward direction, causing much controversy with the German government. Meyer focused on the purpose the school had in society: to serve the needs of all people, not just the elite. Viewing the school as a breeding ground for communist and anti-nationalist thought, the Bauhaus Dessau soured in the minds of those in power. The Nazi movement called the school’s output “degenerate art”.

Meyer was forced out of the Bauhaus Dessau in 1930. Although he had tried to prevent the school from being seen as a dangerous intellectual place by the government, he was unsuccessful. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him, and the school moved to Berlin after the local government closed Bauhaus Dessau in 1931.

Artist, architect, and teacher Hannes Meyer, as a young man.
Hannes Meyer, second director of the Bauhaus. From Metalocus.

Waning Years, Berlin (1931-1933)

In Berlin, Mies attempted to bring the school back to life. Pressure from the Nazi party, however, forced the permanent closure of the school after about a year. The Nazis considered the school’s work to be un-German and its intellectual leanings to be dangerous to its own fascist rhetoric.

In spite of the depressing conditions under which the Bauhaus’ time ended, however, its influence remained. Architects, designers, and fine artists continued to learn from the Bauhaus’ great teachers, and took inspiration from its most famous works. In fact, the modernist innovations of the school even found their way into Nazi architecture and construction.

The Philosophy of the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus is known for being a hotbed of creative and progressive thinking. Walter Gropius said this at the beginning of the school’s history:

“Let us conceive, consider and create together the new building of the future that will bring all into one simple integrated creation: architecture, painting and sculpture rising to heaven out of the hand of a million craftsmen, the crystal symbol of the new faith of the future.”

Walter Gropius (quote via Dezeen)

Here are a few of the ideas and concepts that came from the Bauhaus movement:

Unity of the Arts

Bauhaus Sletch
The Bauhaus, sketch by Mary Wilder.

Traditionally, the schools of architecture, fine art, and applied arts had been more or less separate. In the turn of the 20th century, however, people began to seek unity in the arts. The Bauhaus was founded upon this concept. It was to be the coming together of all the arts, a place where creativity wasn’t stifled by profession.

Learning and creating at the Bauhaus was supposed to work towards establishing a “comprehensive artwork”. All the different forms would work together as one, and benefit the world. As you can tell, the Bauhaus was a pretty idealistic place; the students and faculty had grand visions for the future. They were hopeful and passionate that the future would become a place of art, joy, and life. The arts, working in unison, would be part of that vision.

Art Serves All People

“…everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent…”

William Morris (quote via GoodReads)

The arts were being brought together at the Bauhaus, but not simply by being in the same building. The arts were united under the idea that they should serve all people. This was perhaps the most radical idea embraced by the school.

William Morris, a British artist, poet, and social thinker who was one of the leading figures of the Arts and Crafts movement. The quote above sums up his thinking- if art isn’t useful, it cannot be art. That’s not to say that a painting can’t be art unless it can also be used as a salad fork. (tbh though, I would be down) Rather, he meant that anything beautiful should serve a purpose in the world, especially art.

Students sit on a ledge at the Bauhaus in Dessau, 1931
Students at the Bauhaus Dessau, 1931 (photo from bauhaus-dessau.de)

That sentiment was valued in the Bauhaus school. It rejected the overdone excess of the Victorian and Art Nouveau styles. The designs that came from the school were simple, elegant, and functional. Marcel Bruer’s work is a phenomenal example of this.

Redemption of Mass Production

Mass production of furniture and other household items weren’t popular with the elite. They saw mass produced items as common and tasteless- anything but artful. This led wealthy people to head further into gilded excess. Art Nouveau, a trend which immediately preceded modernism and the Bauhaus, is a great example of this. It was complex, ornate, and gaudy.

Art Nouveau style building face with ornate carved statues and intricate detail work
The Art Nouveau style. Photo from nomadepicureans.com

The Bauhaus, believing that art and fine design shouldn’t just be for the wealthy, sought to rectify this issue. They realized that mass production didn’t have to be linked with bland, cheap design. As such, they created thoughtful, elegant works using common materials. They looked great, and they could be mass produced at affordable rates. This meant that anyone could own furniture born in the world of high art, a sort of democratization of culture.

Front view of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, Germany
For comparison: another angle of the Bauhaus Dessau (photo from bauhaus-dessau.de)

The Wassily chair, named after Wassily Kandinksy, is a great example of how the Bauhaus produced fine, elegant work that could still be made in a factory. It has a sleek frame and leather seat that is both efficient and sophisticated. The shape of the chair could fit the décor of an airport, a spaceship, or an office building- and add to the atmosphere of all three.

A modern-styled room with two Wassily Chairs and german nesting tables.
The Wassily Chair, yellow leather, on Knoll.

Notable People

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

As the final director of the Bauhaus, Mies was a true visionary. He was one of the most influential architects in history. Mies worked in interior design before learning architecture as an apprentice, and achieved fame with this skyscraper proposal:

Glass Skyscraper model, a proposal from Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe
Glass Skyscraper- photo from mutualart.com

Mies’ design could have been made in 1980 and still would have been futuristic- it was that far ahead of its time. It was envisioned to be made mostly of glass, and one can only imagine how it would shine at night!

Mies was interested in progressive architecture; he wanted to design buildings and homes that were ready for the modern world. Mies is recognized as one of the fathers of the international style of architecture, characterized by geometric shapes, natural light, and functional design.

Marcel Breuer

When’s the last time you sat in a chair? Recently? Well, you may just have Marcel Breuer to thank for that. While that may be an overstatement, it is true that Marcel Breuer might be in the top five all-time in terms of contribution to sitting technology. As a student at the Bauhaus, Breuer took his fascination with the tubed metal in bicycles and used the same metal to make a chair or two. It was he who designed the chair named after Wassily Kandinsky!

Modern style chair, designed by Marcel Breuer.
Breuer Chair, photo by Holger Elgaard.

Elegant, futuristic, and comfortable, Breuer’s chairs were also perfect for mass production. He took the values of his school seriously, used only materials that could be made at scale, and created something gorgeous that changed the furniture world forever. Charles and Ray Eames’ famous DCM chair continued in that tradition, and I’d guess that at least half the chairs you’ve sat upon in your life have some kind of Breuer influence in them.

He didn’t make just the one chair, though. Marcel Breuer was also a student of architecture, designing mainly in what is now known as the brutalist style. One of his buildings, the IBM headquarters, was the roof under which the first computer was invented. It all kind of fits together- the device that changed everything being created in a progressive building, designed by a future-minded idealist named Marcel Breuer.

The former IMB Research Center, a modern architecture work in France
IBM Research Center, La Gaude, France. Photo from weburbanist.com

Walter Gropius

Walter Gropius isn’t just famous for founding the school; one could argue that his work would be legendary even if he hadn’t started the Bauhaus. Gropius started as an architect in Germany with other legends such as Le Corbusier and Mies. His first large project was pretty iconic: the Fagus Factory, pictured below. It was one of the first structures in the world to incorporate modernist ideas.

After his tenure at the Bauhaus, Gropius ended up in the United States with so many others. There, he was a teacher as well as an architect, instructing students at Harvard and designing his family home, the Gropius House.

A mid-century modern house designed and lived in by Walter Gropius
Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts. From massmoments.org

Gropius’ ideas were what made the Bauhaus, and they still hold weight today. His ideas about the role of the artist in society was very influential. He was a champion of the concept that artists should seek to better the world and bring about progressive, positive change. He may or may not have also worn a beret and spent time at coffee shops. If so, then we also have him to thank for hipsters such as myself.

Paul Klee

Red Balloon, a modern abstract art piece by Paul Klee
Red Balloon, Paul Klee, 1922. Photo from artstory.org.

This Swiss-German painter was an instructor at the Bauhaus, teaching color theory and other subjects as part of the school’s comprehensive education. He is widely known as an absolute master of color theory, and his writings are considered among history’s most important on the subject.

At the Bauhaus, Klee taught color theory, as well as bookbinding, stained glass, and mural painting. He created many of the Bauhaus’ advertisements for exhibitions and shows, and enjoyed the competing ideas that students and faculty debated on. Klee’s impact on the Bauhaus, and the greater art world, continues to be studied and appreciated today.

Bauhaus’ Influence on Architecture

The Bauhaus is pretty much directly responsible for the “international style” of architecture. It was also the breeding ground for some of the very first works of modern architecture. Being that the school was very much focused on the future, it makes sense that the Bauhaus’ influence on architecture was revolutionary and progressive.

Architecture from the school was intended to reflect an industrialized world, and incorporated many stark, geometric shapes and designs. Boxy buildings may not seem like anything special, but they weren’t common in the early 20th century- at least, not in expensive, world-class architecture.

Famous house, the Farnsworth House, in Chicago, was designed by Mies van der Rohe.
Farnsworth House, 1951. Photo from Dezeen.

Before the Bauhaus ushered in the age of modernist architecture, neoclassical and Victorian styles were the dominant forms. They were large, ornate, and often poorly lit- styled after the great castles and mansions of old. At the Bauhaus, however, students and faculty rejected that in favor of something new. The best way to explore this is by looking at the Bauhaus building itself.

Modern building with glass exterior, example of Bauhaus architecture.
The Bauhaus’ striking glass features, copyright Nate Roberts via Flickr. Photo found on archdaily.

The campus, designed by Walter Gropius and built in Dessau in 1925, is a physical representation of the Bauhaus’ values. Gropius created almost a modular building, seeming like great building blocks of glass and steel rather than a collection of rooms and hallways.

Natural light is ever-present, thanks to the large, rectangular windows that are literally everywhere. It may seem hard to imagine, but floor-to-ceiling windows weren’t exactly common in 1925, so the Bauhaus was pretty striking for that alone.

The lecture halls and studios were all designed to fill their specific purpose, be it pottery, printmaking, or just plain old lunch. Gropius avoided any sense of excess or ornament, preferring to keep things simple. The result was a purely functional campus, one that transformed the way the world looked- and the way we look at the world.

Had it not been for the Bauhaus, we may have never known the work of Albert Frey, Frank Gehry, or even Frank Lloyd-Wright. All of the things they are famous for can be traced back to this quirky German school of design!

The Bauhaus and Visual Art

Paul Klee, the most influential painter to teach at the Bauhaus, wrote what is probably the most important work on color theory in centuries. That, in itself, is enough to cement the Bauhaus’ influence on visual art. Klee was near obsessed with the relationship that colors have to one another, and he made it his life’s work to explore it.

Red, Yellow, Blue, abstract painting by Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky
Yellow-Red-Blue, Wassily Kandinsky (1925). From artstory.org

The Bauhaus is also the birthplace of some instantly recognizable art styles. The promotional material for exhibitions, and the work of many students, have familiar styles, even if we can’t name them.

Looking at these works now, they feel like relics of the roaring twenties- but when they were designed, they were pretty radical. Sure, cubism and other forms of abstract art existed before the Bauhaus did, but at the school, these art forms were studied, celebrated, and tinkered with.

The Bauhaus, in the visual art world, did many things and influenced many others. But, the simplest way to state its impact is this: it gave us a depth of knowledge in color theory, as well as created one of the signature looks of pre-World War II Europe.

Famous modern abstract painting by Josef Albers, Homage to the Square
Homage to the Square: Dissolving/Disappearing, Josef Albers (1951). Albers was another influential figure at the Bauhaus. Photo from lacma.org

The Bauhaus and Furniture

Magazine ad for Bauhaus Baby Cradle, designed by Peter Keler
Baby Cradle, Peter Keler. This cradle was made for an exhibition and is an attempt to radically reimagine simple household furniture. Photo from bauhaus2yourhouse.com

When people speak of the Bauhaus, furniture is often one of the first things they talk about. Marcel Breuer’s work, as previously mentioned, simply cannot be overstated. The values of the school- bringing design and art to all people, using simple materials, and thinking of the future of mankind- are incredibly easy to see in the furniture it produced.

The Long Chair designed by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus
Breuer Long Chair, photo from V&A

Furniture was stripped to the bare minimum or completely reworked more simply and efficiently. In the art-nouveau, neoclassic, and Victorian styles, things as simple as table legs were intricate and often overdone. The students and faculty of the Bauhaus did their thing and reduced them to simple geometric shapes.

Barcelona Chair, a piece of modern furniture by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reiche
Barcelona Chair by Mies and Lilly Reich. Photo from Dezeen
Nesting Tables, modern furniture designed by Josef Albers at the Bauhaus
Nesting tables by Josef Albers. From daimler.

Conclusion

The Bauhaus was the school and movement that has defined the world of art and design for a full century. While it is not the only cultural force at play, it is certainly one of the most influential and long lasting. Architects, designers, and artists such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Paul Klee may not be household names, but they have touched pretty much every household in the Western world.

Want to learn more about the Bauhaus School of Art and Design? Check out this wonderful BBC documentary commemorating the 100th anniversary of the school’s opening:

BBC Documentary - Bauhaus 100 - 100 Years of Bauhaus \ Walter Gropius
Watch this video on YouTube.

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