Centenary of the Bauhaus
100 years after the founding of Bauhaus, the world’s most influential school of art, design and architecture in the 20th century, celebrates its centennial this year. While only active for 14 years — as the State Bauhaus in Weimar, as a “school of design” in Dessau, and as a private education institute in Berlin — why it is so important that its influences are still felt and continually inspire and shape our society to this day? On the occasion of the Bauhaus anniversary, we uncover the illustrious history of the art movement in all its facets.
What is the Bauhaus?
When architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) founded the Bauhaus in 1919 in the small town of Weimar, Germany, he would never imagine that the impulses of this design utopia would be so enormous that it shed light not merely on German architecture and design, but extended far beyond design to areas of graphics, typography, and even modern theater.
The concept of “Bauhaus” was coined by Gropius as an inversion of “Hausbau” — German for house construction. Seeking to introduce a new way of thinking in art, architecture, education and society, Bauhaus aimed to unify different creative disciplines in art and craft, breaking down the hierarchy between the practice of fine and applied art and architecture, while also bringing together arts, crafts and industry under one roof. Among the most influential early staff of the Bauhaus school is the expressionist painter Johannes Itten. He served as the head of the preliminary course for students rejecting existing aesthetic hierarchies and exploring new ways of considering color and form. At the time the other luminaries involved in teaching at the experimental school included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks, and Josef Albers, to name but a few.
Picturing Bauhaus: The Bauhaus Color Theory
Speaking of the indelible mark the Bauhaus has bequeathed on different creative disciplines and design, one of the most enduring contributions to the modern day is the color theory that influenced generations of 20th-century design, taught therein as a staple in the Bauhaus curriculum by distinguished faculties represented by Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee.
The expressionist Johannes Itten developed a color wheel comprised of 12 colors, based on three primary, three secondary and six tertiary colors. The wheel shows the relationship among colors as well as gradations of saturation. Although the Bauhaus closed in 1933, the color legacies he left behind still work well for artists and interior designers today.
“Color is life; for a world without color appears to us as dead. Colors are primordial ideas, the children of light.” — Johannes Itten
Paul Klee’s color and form theory was also considered by many as a fundamental component of the preliminary course. He formulated his own theory based on a six-color rainbow shaped into a color wheel, and examined the dynamic transitions that occur when placing complementary colors in relation to each other.
“Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible.” — Paul Klee
Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter best known as a pioneer of abstract art, adopted his own theory of color with the experimentation on synesthetic, associating particular colors with both specific geometric shapes and with musical tones and chords.
Design Functionality: Iconic Bauhaus Furniture Items
“The goal of the Bauhaus is not a style, system, dogma, canon, recipe or fashion. It will live as long as it does not depend on form, but continues to seek behind changing forms the fluidity of life itself.” — Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus
What is also worth noting is that the Bauhaus style pioneers the idea of designing everyday objects with functionality, simplicity and efficiency that can be readily adapted to the potential of industrial mass production. Featuring the Bauhaus spirit of practicality, the furniture pieces designed by teachers and students of Bauhaus were reduced to simplistic geometric forms initiating a shift towards a modernist design language. Here we look at four of the most classic design pieces of the Bauhaus.
Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer
Named after the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, the Wassily Chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1926 arguably marks the beginning of modern furniture design. Marcel Breuer was one of the very first designers to create furniture with tubular steel, an innovation considered as perhaps the most important in the 20th century. It is said that the tubular steel of his bicycle’s handlebars inspired him to use the material for furniture manufacturing. The chair was stripped down to the basic elements combined with with a canvas seat, back and arms.
Brno Chair by Mies van der Rohe
Devised by Mies van der Rohe in 1930 for his renowned Tugendhat House in Brno, Czech Republic, the Brno Chair is celebrated for its lean profile, clean lines and meticulous attention to detail. An elegant alternative to wooden side chairs, the Brno Chair built in a cantilever-style, using a single C-shaped bar to support the entire seat with hand-ground, hand-buffed seamless frames demonstrates the groundbreaking simplicity of modernist furniture design.
Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich
The Barcelona Chair was created by Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with his partner Lilly Reich for the German Pavilion, Germany’s exhibition for the Barcelona World Fair of 1929. Design-wise, the chair takes inspiration from the campaign and folding chairs of ancient times, and its surface is created by 40 pieces of leather set upon a light, stainless-steel frame.
Peter Keler’s Baby Cradle
Peter Keler’s Baby Cradle for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 demonstrates as a key example of constructivist ideas being applied to furniture. Originally designed as part of a geometric series of beds for men, women and toddlers, it combines craftsmanship and artistic constructivism in a way that reflects the Bauhaus trademark color theory with its blue circle, yellow triangle, and red square in elementary shapes.