And Then There was Light
[Translate to English:] Absatz 1 – 3
On 4 December 1926, soon after the Bauhaus has moved from Weimar to Dessau, Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building is inaugurated: five unornamented, rigorously designed and modularly linked structures with clear forms. The building is separated into functionally discrete parts and thus embodies the principles of the International Style, as expressed in the principle of “form follows function”.
The excitement over the building is great – especially because of the workshop building’s continuous glass curtain wall. This monumental transparent surface is something entirely new. It overcomes the distinction between exterior and interior space, and it frees up space for an element of great importance to the Bauhaus: light.
The integration of daylight and direct sunlight in architecture was an important issue at the Bauhaus from the beginning. The play of light and shadow, and of light both by day and by night, ought to be taken into account when designing. In no small way, opening up the buildings to light ought to give them the air of something delicate, transparent and lightweight. Instead of retreating into a cave, one interacts with the surroundings. The “New Architecture”, with its aspiration for “light, air and sun”, is in search of new forms of dwelling that depart from the tenements.
Working with light
As households were gradually electrified in the 1920s, the use of light at the Bauhaus was presented with new opportunities. Until then, when dealing with interior lighting, the champions of the Bauhaus had worked on designs for contemporary light sources such as candlesticks. In 1923, László Moholy-Nagy took over as director of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, where he provided important inspiration for the design of light fixtures and lamps. Now the Bauhaus was able to respond to the needs of the new mass market. The Bauhaus principle – the combination of art and craft and the commitment to both design and practicality – were always in the foreground when developing new types of luminaires.
[Translate to English:] Arbeiten mit Licht
Industrialisation entailed working longer and late into the dark of night – also in the Bauhaus workshops. Ceiling-mounted fixtures and pendant lights did not sufficiently illuminate the workplaces. And they only provided light from above; bodies and heads cast shadows on the work, obscuring the view.
With these new lighting requirements in mind, the engineer and designer Curt Fischer, founder of Midgard Licht GmbH, developed the first adjustable sources of light. In 1919 he had already patented his famous scissor lamp, which made it possible to bring light close to the workers and the things they are making. This innovative design was followed by other variants. Model no. 113, dubbed the “whip” (Peitsche), soon found its way into use at the Bauhaus metal workshop. This completes the circle: the invention of swivelling and adjustable luminaires as sources of artificial light facilitated the work on new forms of electric light well after the daylight was gone. And thus the Bauhaus building shone at night like a “giant light cube” illuminated from within, and “working with light” becomes develops a double meaning.
A rediscovered Bauhausler
The luminaires developed at the Bauhaus were never just practical lighting objects but were always intended to also satisfy modern design standards and be perceived as decorative objects. Luminaires created at the time, such as the WA24 globe lamp by Carl Jakob Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld as well as the lamps designed by the acting director of the metal workshop, Marianne Brandt, are still classics today. At the time of its creation, however, the famous “Wagenfeld lamp” was considered neither functional nor modern. Because it does not emit targeted light, it is not a practical light source but more of an aesthetically pleasing sculpture.
Hin Bredendieck, a trained cabinetmaker from the German coastal region of East Frisia, also had his place in the metal workshop at the Bauhaus starting in 1927. He initially wanted to continue working with wood, but Laszlo Moholy-Nagy encouraged him to try something new. After having previously broken off his study at various schools of arts and crafts (he did not want to “decorate”), Bredendieck quickly found his place here. He introduced new ideas and solutions to the development of lamps and light fixtures, and in the process, he laid the foundation for his subsequent role as founding director of the School of Industrial Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
A trove of work left behind by Hin Bredendieck that was not discovered until 2018 now opens up completely new perspectives on the development of this Bauhausler and lamp designer, who emigrated to the United States in 1937. His career and influence on the Bauhaus – not least in the USA – are the subject of the exhibition “Between Utopia and Adaptation – The Bauhaus in Oldenburg” (27 April to 4 August 2019 in the Augusteum).
Bredendieck’s teacher, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, was especially fascinated by the subject of light – its refraction, fixation and reflection – and introduced it into many of his works. The Hungarian-born artist worked in an interdisciplinary way that involved painting and graphic design as well as film and photography. When the Bauhaus began, photographs were only used to document works that had been created. In 1923, Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with the discipline as an aesthetic phenomenon, integrating photography into his teaching. He regarded the photographic process as having “no precedent among the previously known visual media. (...) Just one of its features—the range of infinitely subtle gradations of light and dark that capture the phenomenon of light in what seems to be an almost immaterial radiance—would suffice to establish a new kind of seeing.”
He repeatedly came up with new ways to change how we see and to make art with light. In 1930 he presented his “Light-Space Modulator”, an “apparatus for demonstrating manifestations of light and movement”. This light prop was also an integral part of Moholy-Nagy’s “Room of Our Time” (Raum der Gegenwart), a spatial work of art comprising kinetic walls, film projections, photographs, undulating glass walls, and the modulator. In its totality, this room is a prototype for the exploration of presentation in space and laid a cornerstone for all future work in exhibition design and modern scenography.
[Translate to English:] letzten Absätze
Oskar Schlemmer, the Bauhaus painter who gained renown as a stage designer, also developed new stage sets and forms of theatrical expression with the aid of artificial light. The movement of figures in space could be more effectively perceived with focused light and fostered a deeper sense of space. As a protest against the impending closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazi majority, Schlemmer created his work “Bauhaus Stairway”: Several stylised individuals are seen from behind as they go up a light-filled stairwell. The art historian Karin von Maur sees in this work the “Bauhaus idea, condensed in a painting”. This idea would outlast the darkness of National Socialism and lead the youth to a “brighter future”. The Bauhaus is itself light.
[Translate to English:] headline
The transition from natural to electric light and the holistic approach to architecture, art, design and manual crafts enabled the Bauhaus to think of light as much more than mere lighting. For the Bauhaus, light is both a practical light source and an aesthetic experience. It is the latter both in terms of luminous art objects and as the experience of incident light. This play with incident light, with its control and precise positioning, opens up entirely new possibilities for experiencing spaces and establishing spatial atmospheres. This applies to architecture as well as work onstage or in the design of exhibitions. Last but not least, light itself is the source of art, as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said regarding the medium of photography “This century belongs to light. Photography is the first means of giving tangible shape to light.” At the Bauhaus there was not just light, but also space and art and possibility.
[AV 2019; Translation DK]
More articles on this topic
The bauhaus100 newsletter will be circulated from time to time with news about the Bauhaus Centenary 2019.