A brief history of Bauhaus and its lasting influence on design
“Let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers”. No words could better describe the Bauhaus style than this soaring rhetoric by its founder, Walter Gropius.
The Bauhaus School matched the lifespan of the Weimar Republic almost to the year, and its characteristic blend of idealism and practicality represents the era’s lasting contribution to skylines, living rooms and office boardrooms in cities all over the world.
What is Bauhaus?
Although often described as a movement, Bauhaus originated as a physical school for architecture, art and design, founded in Weimar in 1919. It would expand to include a campus in Dessau and one in Berlin, before all three were shut down by the Nazis in 1933.
Despite vehement Nazi opposition to modernist design, by the mid-1930s the spread of Bauhaus was already so pervasive that even some of the bridges and service stations of the Nazi-constructed autobahn, as well as the terminal building of the airport at Tempelhof, reflect the school's influence.
Bauhaus was very much in the spirit of the times in that it was as much a philosophical movement – arguably even a way of life – as it was a style. It reflected the values of other Weimar Republic thinkers and artists: for example Paul Hindemith, whose Gebrauchsmusik (“Music for Use”) was meant to be both aesthetically beautiful and socially and politically useful, and Bertolt Brecht, who criticised the abstraction and superficiality of the prevalent Expressionist movement of the preceding decades.
What does Bauhaus look like?
There is an aesthetic link between Bauhaus and other contemporary art movements such as “De Stijl”, which emerged in the Netherlands around the same time and shares certain properties of modern materials, bold shapes and colours and an absence of frills.
A typical example of Bauhaus construction is the tubular chair, perhaps most notably Mies van der Rohe’s iconic MR Side Chair (1927) or Barcelona Chair (1929). Consisting of nothing more than a few bent steel tubes bound together by leather pads and string, the tubular chair has a restrained elegance and practicality that perfectly sums up the ethos of its creators.
From entire apartment blocks to the furniture inside, Bauhaus sought to create a style that was not only easy to use and appreciate but was also easy to create. To the Bauhaus innovators, there was no fundamental contradiction between the craftsmanship of individual artistry and the fact that the creation might be mass-produced and sold in the thousands or millions. Indeed, if an item was made out of materials and in a style that was conducive to mass production, even better.
The principles of Bauhaus have woven their way into more than just furniture and architecture, as adherents of the time experimented with applying the principles to art and even typography. Bauhaus fonts, as can be seen for example above the entrance to the Bauhaus Dessau School, often seek to combine graceful curves with the straightforward functionality and legibility of block letters.
Where can I find examples of Bauhaus today?
The influence of Bauhaus has spread from its humble origins in Weimar to reach nearly every corner of the globe. Tel Aviv is notable for having over 4.000 buildings constructed in the Bauhaus style, which constitute the famous “White City”. Chicago has its own school of “New Bauhaus”, founded by Mies van der Rohe after he fled the Nazi regime and settled in the Windy City.
Of course, the vast majority of the original Bauhaus constructions are still to be found in Germany. Buildings such as the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau bei Berlin, and thousands of housing units and apartment complexes from Berlin to Frankfurt and beyond serve as monuments to the vision, creativity, and productivity of this unique school.