I finally visited Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshop for Modernity at the Museum of Modern Art. This comprehensive exhibit of the school’s different eras provided me with a basis for understanding how the their curriculum encouraged explorations in art, craft, design, and architecture. While I was aware that the school is credited for creating the spare, abstract, geometric and functional style that epitomized the twentieth century, I was fascinated to learn that the Bauhaus is also considered the era’s most important art school and that after it closed, its educational ideas were adopted by many art schools around the world. As a result, this exhibit has inspired me to learn how the Bauhaus’s educational philosophy resulted in the production of innovative work that changed the way we think about and the role of art, craft, and design in society.
Bauhaus Educational Philosophy
Walter Gropius founded this avant-garde school in 1919 by combining the Weimar Academy of Arts and the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts. He named it the Bauhaus, which means “house of building.” Gropius developed several key ideas that distinguished the school, which resulted in its success: the primacy of architecture, the importance of uniting art and craft, the use of craftsmen’s guilds as the inspiration for building thriving artist communities, and the belief that artists have a social responsibility to design a better world.
He was an architect and educator that considered architecture as the matrix of all of the arts. Gropius claimed in his manifesto for the school that “the ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building” because it combined art with craft (Gropius). To him, the most noble and inspiring of buildings was the medieval cathedral because it represented his dual ambitions for the school to be a source of artistic innovation and a catalyst for social responsibility. Cathedrals symbolized to Gropius a perfect marriage of art, craft and social responsibility because they are monumental artistic achievements that served people’s highest spiritual aspirations.
Several versions of Lyonel Feininger’s illustration for The Bauhaus Manifesto were exhibited. He started out with bold representations of a Gothic cathedral that became more intricate in detail until the final illustration merged the cathedral with lights glinting off stars in the sky. Its image of a joyful and celestial celebration was surprising because it represents the opposite of what I usually associated with Bauhaus design: streamlined abstract and geometric designs that appear cold and industrial.
Gropius also drew inspiration from another medieval achievement: craftsmen’s guilds. They served as his model of a flourishing community of artists, craftspeople, and architects that used good design to create a brighter future. He believed that art students, who were well-trained in crafts, would not just produce useful things—they would actually be prepared to “achieve great things” that would benefit society (Gropius). Since artists had a social responsibility to use their creative skills to help design a better world, students were encouraged to create in their workshops everyday objects that would promote progressive values and be affordable for the public.
The Chess set (model 1) designed by Josef Hartwig in 1922 embodies this concept. While a re-designed chess set may not initially seem like a “great achievement,” closer examination reveals that it was created out of a desire to achieve the grandest of humanitarian ambitions: global peace. He used geometric chess pieces in his set to replace the game’s militaristic imagery and history with shapes that symbolized “faith in the potential of pure logic.” Hartwig hoped that using geometric shapes would “provide a visual language appropriate for a new, more rational world in the wake of World War I” (Museum of Modern Art). Subsequently, Chess set (model 1) went on to became one of the earliest and most popular items the Bauhaus sold since so many people were looking for solace and meaning after the war.
A Bauhaus Education: Curriculum
Gropius promoted the idea that truly creative people can and ultimately must be both artists and craftsmen in order to achieve his vision of artistic innovation. He believed that art could only be produced from rigorous training in craft traditions. In The Bauhaus Manifesto Gropius asserts that "the original source of [one’s] creativity" is located in one’s knowledge of craft (Gropius). He reasoned that students needed to acquire a basic level of understanding before any innovations in art or design could occur. Bauhaus students need to understand basic design principles, be familiar with the properties of different materials, and have knowledge of the previous achievements in art, design and craft.
Gropius designed a curriculum that included studies in art, design, craft, technology and architecture. Combining these different visual disciplines revolutionized art education. It expanded upon the previous practices that separated the study of arts and crafts or just taught individual students to imitate drawings, paintings, and sculptures from earlier eras (Britannica Online Encyclopedia).
It was a rigorous curriculum organized into a three and a half year program that resulted in a journeyman's diploma. Each student began with a six month foundational course that allowed them to explore the fundamental properties of different materials (like wood or metal) and the basic principles of form and color. This encouraged students to rely on their direct experiences to solve creative problems instead of copying other people art. Examples of student work from these courses were displayed throughout the exhibit. After receiving a journeyman's diploma, students took three years worth of workshops that taught the theory, techniques and technical processes of different crafts: carpentry, metal, ceramics, stained glass, wall painting, weaving, graphics, typography, and stagecraft (Lacay). It's model of art education that continues to be followed by many art schools today.
A Bauhaus Education: Solving Design Problems for the Industrial Age
Erich Consemüller, Lis Beyer or Ise Gropius sitting on the B3 club chair by Marcel Breuer and wearing a mask by Oskar Schlemmer and dress fabric by Beyer, 1927
Even though the preliminary course’s goal was to promote innovative thinking in students, the exhibit demonstrates that students’ assignments often closely resembled the work of their instructors. Fortunately, the school employed avant-garde artists to ensure exposure to cutting edge ideas that could be further developed by students. For example, one can see the influence of Johannes Itten’s color theory class in Josef Albers’s well-known student work from 1921 of a multicolored abstract glass mosaic, Gitterbild (Lattis Picture).
By leveraging this exposure to avant-garde ideas, the Bauhaus was able to enhance their students’ training in how to solve the design problems that arise during the industrial production process. For example, one of the most successful designs to arise from the Bauhaus was Marcel Breuer’s Club Chair (B3) from 1925, which continues to be manufactured as the The Wassily Chair by Knoll, an American design firm.
Breuer designed several chairs as a student before creating the sleekly modern tubular, steel, and leather Club Chair (B3). There was the fantastically ritualistic African or “Romantic” Chair (1921) that resembles more of a throne because of its stately design, burnished wood and iridescent fabric. Next came the unadorned lacquered wooden Chair from 1921 with woven fabric seats. Then Armchair from 1922 displays the economical frame design and the use of uncut bands of fabric for support that will appear in Breuer's masterpiece of design. Furthermore, Armchair from 1922's “emphasis on transparency and open construction [significantly] shaped Breuer’s thinking about tubular furniture in the following years” (The Museum of Modern Art).
While all of these handcrafted chairs are beautiful, the Club Chair (B3) is easiest to mass produce because of its economic design and sturdy materials. It is composed of L-tubes that can be screwed together instead of welded. (The Museum of Modern Art). Its design also enables it to be shipped easily in flat boxes, which cuts its overall costs down further for the manufacturer and consumer.
Seeing the evolution of Breuer’s chairs is one of the most compelling parts of the exhibit because they clearly represent the development of the Bauhaus aesthetic into a definitive style.
The End of the Bauhaus
Despite its success, tensions in and around the school challenged its stability. During the fourteen years of its existence between World War I and World War II, the Bauhaus had three directors and three locations in Germany: Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. Also, the school’s leaders hoped to achieve political autonomy and financial independence by “selling [its] designs directly to [manufacturers]” (Hutchinson Encyclopedia). But the internal and external political and economic instabilities experienced by the school limited its capacity to carry out its vision (Minahan).
After spending years trying to achieve strong craftsmanship while using mass production techniques (Lacay) and run a school that promoted socially revolutionary ideas during a repressive time, the Nazi regime ordered the closing of the school in 1933. Afterwards, the school’s leaders dispersed to Europe, Israel, and the United States to spread the Bauhaus’s message that good design must serve the modern era’s needs. They went on to teach at schools like Black Mountain College, Harvard, Yale, and the Cooper Union School of Art (Tate Modern).
The risks the Bauhaus took in the last century to realize their ideas about creativity and education yielded major contributions in art, design, and education that continue to impact us today. Art schools still follow the Bauhaus’s curriculum, several of their items are still produced for sale, and their ideal of making good design available at affordable prices for the masses is carried out today by Ikea. Learning about the Bauhaus’s efforts to realize their ideals deepens my appreciation of their accomplishments and I plan on visiting again soon. I also look forward to continuing to study the Bauhaus’s educational philosophy.
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Minahan, Stella "The Organizational Legitimacy of the Bauhaus."
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