Why the Bauhaus Movement Has Been So Influential in Modern Design
by Nico Haven·
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Look up from wherever you're reading this and notice the things around you. Odds are you'll see Bauhaus influence everywhere—in the buildings, the cars driving by, the objects around you, even in the design of this website and in the device you're using to read this.
In the post-WWII era, the Bauhaus became the most prominent and most important school of thought in design, and it still influences contemporary architecture, interior design, graphic design, industrial design and typography.
Even though the German school itself was short-lived—it only existed from 1919 until it closed under Nazi pressure in 1933—and did not directly produce an extensive catalog, Bauhaus' influence has still reverberated through those who have studied and embodied its principles.
What was the Bauhaus school?
The Staatliches Bauhaus (translated as "building house") set to revolutionize design right from its inception.
Walter Gropius founded the school in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. In contrast to the overly ornate and disjointed Art Nouveau movement popular through the turn of the century, Bauhaus balanced craftsmanship with rational design.
"Form Follows Function"
While it didn't invent the phrase, the Bauhaus embraced the maxim that "form follows function," where the design vision for an object or building should be rooted in the way it is intended to be used and experienced.
It prioritized economical, streamlined design, along with a balance between the component pieces of each project: light and darkness, form and space, left and right, small and large, etc.
Rather than serving merely as decoration, color was used intentionally and was rooted in each color's unique characteristics and its cultural and natural connotations.
Walter Gropius' building for the school's second site in Dassau exemplifies Bauhaus and modernist design tenets.
It was designed for maximum efficiency with a rational vision for how students would use and move through the spaces, and its steel-frame construction, glass curtain and asymmetrical pinwheel plan are all very common in examples of Bauhaus-era modern architecture, also often referred to as the International Style.
Bauhaus also changed the way design was taught.
Over a three-and-a-half-year period, students would first be exposed to a wide range of theories and materials, starting with the basics, before being encouraged to experiment across materials and disciplines. Iteration (and failure) were seen as an essential part of the design process, as it opened up new ideas that broke the rules and pushed boundaries.
Mid-century modern's incubator
From 1924 to 1928, Marcel Breuer led the cabinetmaking workshop at the school, and it became a popular and important incubator for many of the important design ideas and philosophy of the mid-century modern movement thirty years later.
Breuer believed that the next design revolution would be in everyday objects rather than in enormous objects like a skyscraper or an opera house.
In his workshop, students were challenged to strip their furniture pieces down to their barest essence, and this is where the clean lines, sleek profile and elegant simplicity of many timeless classics were first developed and refined.
Breuer's Cantilever chair and Wassily chair are both great examples of the Bauhaus philosophy as it was applied in the 1920s and 1930s to furniture design.
Which designers were influenced by the Bauhaus movement?
In the years after its short yet profound existence, the philosophy and concepts developed at the Bauhaus school permeated into the mainstream and became the dominant design mode in the decades to come—even to this day.
Since the school was closed in 1933 because of the growing Nazi Party's scrutiny and assertions that it was "one of the most prominent places of Jewish-Marxist 'art' manifestation" in Germany, many of its faculty and students fled the increasingly oppressive state and landed in other nations in Europe and North America.
The most prominent of these Bauhaus figures who brought the school's philosophy around the world was Mies van der Rohe, who was the director of the school during its final three years. His disciples in America included Florence Knoll, who was his student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Other revolutionary students of the Bauhaus include Anni Albers, Josef Albers, and Wassily Kandinsky.
Companies like Emeco still produce furniture that is in the spirit of the Bauhaus, using simple forms, manufactured in metal, and well-crafted yet still intended for the masses.
“When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavor begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence. Architects, sculptors, painters—we all must return to craftsmanship!”
Why is Bauhaus still so influential today?
Bauhaus' long-term impact can be seen through the lens of craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship means both skill—attention to detail, precision, ability to execute successfully—and artistry—passion, vision, spirit. We see both aspects of craftsmanship in Bauhaus objects and buildings.
When something is designed for functionality, it is more likely to withstand the test of time rather than fade into obscurity with changing tastes. Some could argue that there is an element of timelessness.
And when something is designed with craftsmanship, they are built with high-quality materials and with rational design to ensure they withstand the wear-and-tear of long-term use and can extend the lifetime of the piece.
So many Bauhaus pieces have become timeless classics because of the high level of craftsmanship that was at the heart of the movement, though at the same time, the Bauhaus also pushed notions of mass production and to make modern design accessible to the masses.
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