Living with Icons
Visitors may be slightly irritated on entering the exhibition “bauhaus – form und reform” at the Landesmuseum Mainz. It is not what we usually recognise as Bauhaus design. Indeed the first platform of exhibits appears to be rather opulent. Artisanal, yes! But Bauhaus? No, not Bauhaus, although it certainly is context. Such playing on expectations is one of the characteristics of this exquisite and very successful exhibition in Mainz: it broadens the perspective on the Bauhaus.
The 150 exhibits allow us to grasp the scope of different thinking the Bauhaus idea of a workshop inspired. Instead of strolling past showcases, visitors walk through a field of platforms, allowing them to view the pieces from all angles and even hold selected objects in their own hands. For instance the door handle by Walter Gropius: everyday objects that we constantly use without thinking about it. An invitation to pause, reflect and sense what makes good design so special: its material, function and form.
The exhibition has a chronological order and places the Bauhaus idea of fundamentally, holistically rethinking design in a broader context. Or as Dr. Eva Barchert, the exhibition’s Head Curator, explains: “The Bauhaus didn’t just fall out of the sky. It is the institutionalisation of an idea.” That distinction was already important to Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. He considered “style” to be a constraint. And this makes the interdisciplinary approach of the Bauhaus more tangible.
In this interaction between artisanal production, art and industry, what catches the visitor’s eye on entering the exhibition suddenly becomes logical: the opulent desk by the Mainz cabinetmaker Heinrich Rohne (1683-1755), with its inlays and four drawers, absolutely has its place.
The piece of furniture, which was commissioned for Mainz’s Prince Philipp Carl von Eltz, is unique. And the one-off piece stands at one end of the scale of possible furnishing. The other end contains everyday objects, such as the chair characterised by functionalism: although it is less exclusive, it is nevertheless artisanal. In the late 18th century, a new movement developed out of that spectrum. Pure pragmatism was enriched through interaction with new forms of production. The most famous such example is certainly the bentwood chair by Thonet, which was until recently the most prolifically produced chair in the world. It can also be seen in Mainz.
The idea of serial production also defined Bauhaus designs. After moving to Dessau, the focus shifted to developing prototypes for industrial manufacturing. The aim was to give a broad range of buyers access to affordable, high-quality products.
The presented exhibits demonstrate how diverse functional furniture and chairs can be despite their great reduction. Most of them stem from the collection of the entrepreneur Sebastian Jacobi. And what was the first piece he acquired for his collection? The Thonet chair. However, the Landesmuseum Mainz not only presents immediate predecessors of Bauhaus designs, but also later design classics, such as the Ant Chair by Arne Jacobsen. It highlights how strongly the Bauhaus idea affected later periods.
Anyone who is enthusiastic about Bauhaus furniture should participate in the collector’s tours. On four specific days, Sebastian Jacobi himself will enthusiastically guide visitors through the exhibition at the Landesmuseum, as well as bringing additional exhibits with him, which are then open to closer inspection. The collector stresses that “touching them is encouraged”.
A passion for furniture has never been unfashionable. But what about other objects we use every day, sometimes without much reflection? Yes, they should please, but taste is subjective. They should also be high-quality and practical. Most people don’t want fifteen different cup shapes in their cupboards and prefer a calmer image of harmonious unity. Ideally, they should be stackable and timeless in terms of their material and form.
That is the idea of “Zweckform”. The prosaic sounding fact that it often has roots in artisanal work can be seen in the cups by the ceramic designer and Bauhaus master Otto Lindig. His timeless cups made of glazed stoneware are derived from the simple form of a semi-orb and remain a familiar sight today.
The subtitle of the exhibition at the Landesmuseum Mainz is “From artisanal reform movement to living with icons”. It clearly shows how strongly our way of living is still influenced by the underlying ideas of the Bauhaus.
Does the Head Curator have a favourite exhibit and if yes, why? Dr. Brachert answers without hesitation: “The yellow Resopal cup by Christian Dell is one of my favourite pieces. The material had a cheap image when it was first introduced to the market. But in terms of functionalism for industrial production and its forms, the crockery set is the embodiment of the Bauhaus idea of combining art and technology.”
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