A survey at the Vitra Design Museum rethinks the iconic Bauhaus School, examining the influence of the past on contemporary design practice.
The year 2019 will mark the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar under Walter Gropius. The impact and legacy of this cross-disciplinary movement and school is perhaps one of the most signi cant of the 20th century. The slogan, “art and technology – a new unity (Kunst und Technik – eine Einheit)” gave words to what had yet to be named, a new way of looking at and conceiving of design. Design, art, craft, industry: all were brought under the umbrella of the Bauhaus school. A major exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, Bauhaus #itsalldesign, takes this legendary cultural and education institution and gives it a contemporary reappraisal through the juxtaposition of new, contemporary design against significant historical works, some never seen before.
Curated by Jolanthe Kugler, the exhibition is divided into four thematic areas which explore the dynamism of the movement: there is no uniform concept of “Bauhaus design.” Kugler describes the Bauhaus as “a process of thinking that started 100 years ago, it is still an ongoing process today… Bauhaus is not about the objects, but a way to convey what the designers wanted for the new world. To express this new way of thinking, they needed new forms.” The creative and intellectual rigour of this concept is emphasised through with works by artists Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee, Max Bill and Josef Albers along with contemporary works by Adrian Sauer, Olaf Nicolai, Joseph Grima and Philipp Oswalt. The Bauhaus was more than the minimal, geometric and functional concepts it has typically been associated with, and this exhibition proposes a new way of viewing the school against a backdrop of contemporary designers, artists and architects.
Today’s designers face the same issues as the Bauhaus, of redefining their role in society through the concept that “everything is design.” Software proto-typing, computer-assisted technology, 3D printing have all revolutionised the capabilities of what designers and artists can produce.
Founded in 1919, the Bauhaus was, like its Russian equivalent the VKhUTEMAS, an amalgamation of other existing schools: in this instance, the combining of the Weimer Saxon-Grand Ducal Art School and the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts into the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. It is easy to equate the school with the modular construction of Walter Gropius and Fred Forbát or the commercialism of its mass-produced wallpaper under Hannes Meyer, but the school was a breeding ground for creativity beyond this.
The first thematic area, #createcontext, portrays the environment, the context of making, as the focus. It is tting that the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto and programme features a woodcut by Lyonel Feininger. A towering Gothic cathedral stretches upwards towards the sky, referencing the Medieval “Bauhütte” (lodge) where craftsmen from different guilds would come together to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. Unlike the workers of the cathedral, who built for God, the workers of the future were driven by the pure joy of construction and function. Gropius’s call to arms was, “[to] strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future, that will unite every discipline, architecture, sculpture and painting…”. The new factories and buildings were aptly referred to as the new “cathedrals of work.”
The budding design students of the Bauhaus were encouraged to look to the past as well as to their current social, economic and political environment to produce innovative objects. They were pushed to move away from reflecting the preferred aesthetics of their time and to aim to improve everyday life. In the exhibition, Kugler demonstrates this by showing Marcel Breuer’s armchair TI1a (1924), set against a contemporary buffet, Lego Buffet (2010), designed by Studio Minale-Maeda. The influence of Breuer is undeniable, but more importantly the overriding message of both designs is their innate functionality. Studio Minale-Maeda is known for the use of 3D printing, specifically of plastic connectors that combine with standard wooden parts to create simple, functional pieces of furniture – the Keystones collection.
Within #createcontext Kugler has included historical works by Feininger, Otto Dix and Herbert Bayer, establishing a historical overview. The Weimar Republic was in dire straits, with inflation hitting a crisis point in 1923. Albert Hennig’s portraits of everyday life are a tragic snapshot of the time. Children looking for something to eat at the Market Hall. Leipzig (1928), shows three young children sifting through garbage. That the Bauhaus would survive this period and go on to create such innovation is a phenomenon in itself.
The second thematic area of the exhibition, #learnbydoing, focuses on the basic act of making, using examples from the various disciplines of the Bauhaus: pottery, metal-working, carpentry, and various other test laboratories and workshops. The three workshops of the Bauhaus included; teaching, experimentation and production, which ensured that all of the students could not just conceive of an idea and design, but ultimately make it to completion. Kugler juxtaposes the chair designs of Marcel Breuer and Erik Dieckmann and exhibits them against contemporary work by Jerszy Seymour, Front Design and Studio Minale-Maeda.
Kugler has assembled a selection of pieces that illustrate the sleek lines of kitchen utensils, tea sets, and crockery of Bauhaus; they are by Marianne Brandt, Christian Dell, and Josef Albers. It is interesting to note that the ceramic workshop was the only workshop that was commercially successful from its inception. Brandt, the only woman in the school’s metal workshop, is known for geometric teapots and tea infusers, one of which (Model No. MT 49) broke the sale record for Bauhaus design at Sotheby’s in 2007.
#thinkaboutspace examines spatial concepts and visions: architecture, modular construction, and colour. Wilfried Kuehn and Andreas Sauer’s Lady’s Chamber (2015) and Gropius Director’s House (2015) illustrates the integration of Bauhaus design into everyday architectural spaces. Rendered in colour, these digital prints revive the design, historically depicted in black and white. The stereotype of modernity as “white” is one of its greatest misconceptions. In fact, the use of colour was emphasised for aesthetic and decorative reasons as well as spatial, to accentuate and expand the architectural space. The Bauhaus did not conceive its own colour theories but instead relied on the mathematical colour system of Johannes Itten, Wilhelm Ostwald and Goethe’s Theory of Colours. Significantly, Itten did teach at the Bauhaus from 1919 until 1922 but ultimately his mysticism and following of an obscure fire cult (Mazdaznan) clashed with Gropius’s own beliefs and desires for the school.
Incorporated into textile and interior designs and taught in the free painting classes, colour became a significant discipline within the school and was an fundamental part of the preliminary course under Kandinsky. The direct influence of these colour theories is evident in Hella Jongerius’s Coloured Vases (series 3) (2010), a series of 300 unique coloured porcelain vases. The objects tangibly articulate a colour chart similar to Johannes Itten’s colour sphere illustrating the seven light stages and 12 tones. Jongerius’s accompanying sketch, dated 2012, exhibits the chromatic progression on each vase. Presented alongside the wall-painting schemes of Heinrich Koch, Wassily Kandinsky and Werner Jackson, the vases showcase the fascination with applied colour. The connection between colour and shape was carried through into all of the workshops. The contemporary relevance of this is seen in the kitchen towel design Bauhaus (2008) by Mike Meiré, in direct homage to colour theories propagated by Klee, Kandinsky and Albers.
One of the particular reasons that the VKhUTEMAS did not have such a profound impact or legacy as the Bauhaus was its inadequate communication system. The School presented its ideas and products through the publication of leaflets, brochures, journals, press releases, limited editions, manifestos and brochures, and finally its own series of publications. The final theme of the exhibition, #communicate, takes this as its focus. The very use of the hashtag, both in the title as well as the theme headings, shows the present-day focus of this exhibition. Entering the hashtag #itsalldesign on Instagram instantly pulls up images from the exhibition. Kugler recognises this shifting plane of communication, and that, like the Bauhaus itself, she needs to keep abreast of it.
Kugler has placed photography and film under the loose title of #communicate. Under the “New Vision,” a 1920s concept that revolutionised visual habits and emphasised new media, photography was becoming a key medium. Walter Peterhans and Lucia Moholy are perhaps the most well known, their images of the Bauhaus and its products functioning as the visual brand recognition of what Bauhaus design was. This is brought to relevance by Kugler’s inclusion of architects Philipp Oswalt and Joseph Grima, who have submitted a digital “docudrama” that follows the ghost of Gropius through the universe of video game Minecraft; an independent video game made by Markus Persson which enables players to create constructions using 3D textured cubes. The game integrates additional characters, quests, resource gathering and crafting – the ultimate Bauhaus experience. The arts and design are constantly changing with the incorporation of new media and software development and, as the Bauhaus students and professors kept abreast, so must contemporary artists and designers. The idea of working as a collective group, the co-op, is integral to this.
Everything is design, and therefore everything has functionality, a concept best embodied on a commercial level by Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s table lamp design of the 1920s. The enduring commercial success of the Bauhaus Lamp is its marriage of industrial design with an appearance of hand-craftsmanship and innovative engineering. Kugler has ambitiously and successfully represented this marriage, which is the legacy of the Bauhaus. The shift away from presenting a purely historical overview is refreshing, for however much the Bauhaus was an important school of modernism, it is important to remember its contemporary as well as historical impact. By juxtaposing current design, architecture, art, and manifestos from leading gures in the field, Kugler shows how the Bauhaus is #alldesign.
Words Niamh Coghlan
The Bauhaus #itsalldesign. Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein. Until 28 February.