A Time-Lapse View of Design History
The title of your exhibition cites the new unity of “art and design”, referring specifically to the Arts and Crafts movement. How does this relate to the new unity of “art and technology” so often described by Gropius?
The Arts and Crafts movement set out to produce well-designed and affordable handcrafted products to counter industrialised mass production, which was then characterised by faux-historical styles. In order to promote craftsmanship and imbue it with new creative impulses, artists were to produce handcrafted works themselves, and the boundaries between pure and applied art would needed to be abolished. When Gropius conceived of the Bauhaus, he initially embraces this position and wants to unite art with craft. But then he quickly realises that industrial production is now so omnipresent, 50 years after William Morris, that the right partners for the Bauhaus are not artisans but technology and industry. So he calls for “art and technology – a new unity!” In my opinion, it’s his use of the word “new” that shows the direct relationship to the concepts of the Arts and Crafts movement. Instead of the unity of art and craft, he now demands a new unity: art and technology.
In your press release for the exhibition, you write: “At the moment of its founding in 1919 and during its initial years in Weimar, the Bauhaus is not a milestone of design history, but the next step in this debate that shaped design all across Europe.” What specific contribution did the Weimar Bauhaus make to this debate?
The Weimar Bauhaus essentially adopts the developmental steps of this debate at an accelerated pace. It begins with the position taken by the Arts and Crafts movement. Then it opens up to technology, which Muthesius had already called for in his 1902 essay “Kunst und Maschine” (Art and Machine). And the third step comes when the Bauhaus absorbs the ideas of the De Stijl group from Holland. Gropius seeks to implement the model developed by the Arts and Crafts movement, by fusing art with the production of everyday objects in a new and more intense way. The educational model used, in which each class is led by both a master of form slash artist and a master of works slash craftsman, links art and craft in the closest way possible.
Your exhibition ascertains how difficult it was for the Bauhaus to find “an independent formal language”. What would be the advantage of such a unique school style? And what misconception led to the misnomer “Bauhaus style” anyway?
The Bauhaus never set out to develop a unique style. Do not forget that the Bauhaus was a school, and consequently education and instruction took centre stage, not the production of objects. Nevertheless, starting in 1922/23 the Bauhaus did develop a style under the influence of the constructivism taught by Van Doesburg and Moholy-Nagy. The primary colours red, yellow and blue, along with a geometric formal language, became the defining elements of design. What quickly became known as the Bauhaus style is nonetheless a general phenomenon of modernism in Germany. There had actually been discussions on the question of a style for modern design ever since 1900. The Glasgow style created by the designers surrounding Mackintosh and the Viennese Secession style around Josef Hoffmann were the first efforts to use a geometric style to now give the modern, machine-dictated world a fitting aesthetic. The Dutch group De Stijl actually reveals this aspiration in its name.
Now that you’ve made a thoughtful analysis of how the Bauhaus fits into the history of European design: Are there any innovations you would identify as truly “typical Bauhaus”, and if so, which ones?
There are two key achievements of the Bauhaus. First, the school revolutionised the education of designers – especially under its second director, Hannes Meyer. In Dessau the Bauhaus became the world’s premier educational establishment for industrial designers. The description “Hochschule für Gestaltung” (School of Design), conveys the assertion that Gestaltung – the German word for design – is a discipline of its own, independent of art. The second important achievement of the Bauhaus came via its role as one of the defining intellectual hubs of modernism, even if not the sole one. As a school, the Bauhaus became one of the think tanks of the 1920s that could take the liberty to speculate about the future.
How do you explain the effect that, in retrospect, the Bauhaus takes up an almost mythical position – albeit perhaps inflated – in the history of modernism?
That’s largely attributable to Walter Gropius, who brilliantly knew to position the Bauhaus – and especially the Bauhaus under his leadership – as a brand. It all began with the 1930 exhibition of the German Werkbund that Gropius organised in Paris. Modernism in Germany in the 1920s was very diverse, with several highly interesting and innovative centres and initiatives. The circle of new advertising designers, for example, the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, the New Frankfurt and of course Berlin, the seething cultural centre of the Weimar Republic, were all on a par with the Bauhaus. It doesn’t diminish the achievements of the Bauhaus at all if these other centres are perceived as equally important and, above all, independent.
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What influence did the ground-breaking ideas of the Bauhaus have on British architects and designers – and which role did modernism play in the tradition-conscious Empire?