The Bauhaus, a century-old modern school!
The Bauhaus celebrates its 100th anniversary! It is often mistakenly thought to be only an artistic movement: the irruption of modernity in architecture, design, textiles and graphics just after the First World War. Armchairs and design objects, which are collected.
Who has never heard of the Bauhaus, the German art school that in one decade (1919-1933) brought together the European artistic avant-garde? Think about it: architects/designers Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Theo Van Doesburg; artists Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky or Josef Albers all taught at this school. A creative hive of activity in perpetual motion. But what made this art school so revolutionary for its time?
We often forget that it was above all a school that brought together the entire German artistic avant-garde and beyond, with the desire to unite art and technology and to invent a different way of living. A school that revolutionised our relationship with objects, their beauty, their cost and their utility.
Walter Gropius, German architect, designer and town planner (1883-1969) founded the Bauhaus in Weimar on1 April 1919. The school was born from the merger of the Grand Ducal School of Fine Arts in Weimar and the School of Applied Arts. Literally, Bauhaus means house of construction (from the German Bau, ‘building, construction’, and Haus, ‘house’). Walter Gropius’ ambition was to bring artists out of their isolation and back into the centre of community life as holders of craft skills. In so doing, he advocated the combination of industry, modernity and aesthetics, a concept that was directly descended from William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement. In this way, Gropius wanted to make the distinction between fine art and craft production obsolete.
Walter Gropius, portrait.
In order to set in motion a dynamic complementarity between art and craft, the Bauhaus programme envisaged, as early as 1920, the creation of workshops with, for each of them, the designation of a “master craftsman” and an artist, “master of form”. The students were apprentices, could become journeymen, and were then recognised as masters. The terminology is not neutral; Walter Gropius refers directly to the organisation of work in the Middle Ages on cathedral building sites, where all the trades were organised hierarchically in this way and, above all, where they came together to build the final work, the cathedral.
In 1923, the Bauhaus School organised an important exhibition that served as a test for Gropius. A prototype house, the Am Horn House, was presented to the public. Designed by Georg Muche, painter and master of the Weimar Bauhaus, it synthesised the spirit that the Director wanted to bring to his school: architectural creation as a final work of art to which all other craftsmanship contributed. From the layout of the kitchen to the design of the furniture and objects signed by Marcel Breuer, not forgetting the wall paintings, fabrics and tapestries, each Bauhaus workshop worked on the design of the house.
The am Horn residential house, architect Georg Muche, 1923, Bauhaus School.
Interior of the am Horn house, table and chairs designed by Marcel Breuer, 1923, Bauhaus School.
Interior of the am Horn house, interior furniture designed by Marcel Breuer, 1923, Bauhaus School.
From an architectural point of view, the am Horn House reflects Gropius’ orientation towards the expression of exact forms and a certain unity in the organisation of the rooms of the house. Unity of form and colour is sought, and Gropius and his colleagues shun architectural ornament.
After this initial success, the local government decided to cut off financial support for the school, which was considered too close to Bolshevik theories. The school reopened in 1925 in Dessau, still headed by Walter Gropius. The latter developed the idea of a more pragmatic education. The Bauhaus was to train artists capable of producing certain prototypes for industry. Gone were the workshops on ceramics, stone and wood sculpture, replaced by courses on the art of wood, weaving, mural painting and above all metal. The Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was in charge of this last workshop.
The teaching in Dessau, however, retained its special features, which were revolutionary for the time: an initial training period of six months extended by three years of work in multidisciplinary workshops with a double tutorial system (teaching of form and practice).
The Bauhaus university building in Dessau designed by Walter Gropius, 1925-1926. Walter Gropius projected his vision of modern architecture here: transparent facades with the use of glass, the different wings of the building are asymmetrical.
Another view of the Bauhaus university building in Dessau.
The Bauhaus building in Dessau today.
Houses for the masters of the Bauhaus School in Dessau. Architect: Walter Gropius, 1925-1926. The interior fittings were all made in the various Bauhaus workshops.
The Bauhaus adapted its teachings to the requirements of industry, and in this sense it was a precursor of industrial design. Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), architect and furniture designer of Hungarian origin, professor at the Bauhaus (carpentry), designed in 1925 the famous Wassily chair or B3 model chair. The model is revolutionary in its manufacture and the materials used (tubular curved steel and fabric). In 1928, he did it again with an innovative seat: the Cesca chair or model B32. Breuer used chromed tubular steel for the base. The so-called “cantilever chair” has no legs at the back, so that it seems to float in space.
Wassily chair, Marcel Breuer, 1925. Since 1968, the chair has been published by Knoll.
Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer, detail.
Cesca chair without armrests, design by Marcel Breuer, 1928. Model published by Knoll
In the meantime, the architects Mart Stam, who taught at the Bauhaus, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who became its last director from 1930 to 1933, had also experimented with the cantilever chair with comfortable, elegant and functional models with simple lines (the Bauhaus signature) that have since become design classics.
S 33 chair, Mart Stam design, 1926. Published by Thonet. Chair considered to be the first cantilever chair in the history of furniture. Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer disputed the paternity of the invention.
Chair S 533 R, design Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1927. Published by Thonet
In 1928, Gropius also decided to appoint the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer as director of the school. With him went two important figures of the school: Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). In 1930, the municipality of Dessau demanded Meyer’s resignation because of his communist orientation. To save the school, Walter Gropius intervened and appointed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as its director. Mies van der Rohe reinforced the importance of theoretical teaching at the expense of certain workshops, to the benefit of architecture, which became the school’s main subject.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, was to make major advances in modern architecture. He was responsible for a project that was emblematic of the international style that would emerge after the Second World War. In 1929, he represented Germany at the Barcelona Universal Exhibition and designed the famous German pavilion. It is a building located at the foot of the National Palace that contrasts with the other buildings of the exhibition.
The structure consists of eight steel columns supporting a flat roof, with large windows and some floor-to-ceiling partitions. Mies van der Rohe experimented with two concepts. The free plan: the walls are no longer load-bearing, they delimit the space like partitions; and the fluidity of space: the glass façades make the interior and exterior intermingle and merge. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the first to impose transparency in architecture. The purity of the lines makes this building a jewel of modern architecture. The German architect designed the interior furniture for the occasion, including the famous Barcelona chair, which has become an icon of modern design.
Main view of the German pavilion at the Barcelona World Fair, 1929. Design: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Main view of the German pavilion at the Barcelona World Fair, 1929. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Interior of the German pavilion. In the foreground, the famous Barcelona chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe. The architect worked with Lilly Reich (1885-1947), a teacher at the Bauhaus and his closest collaborator, to design the interior furniture.
The end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s marked the twilight of the school. The city of Dessau decided to close the school in 1932. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe financed the reopening of the school in Berlin, but on 11 April 1933 the Gestapo closed it down for good. This event marked the end of an exceptional adventure that had a lasting impact on the history of modern architecture and design.
written by François Boutard