Bauhaus: Modern Design

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Bauhaus and the Modern World

In the beginning, the Bauhaus was founded upon the precedents of arts and crafts, deeply rooted in a Romantic and Germanic notion of a return to a medieval way of life. The founding image of the Bauhaus was the Cubist-like cathedral designed by Lyonel Feininger for the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto. Indeed it was the intention of the newly appointed director, Walter Gropius to end the academic distinction between the fine arts and crafts by reestablishing the culture of the workshop. There would be a master of craft, the Handwerkmeister, and the master of form, the Formmeister, who, between them, would join handwork and aesthetics. Indeed the idea of making things, of getting back to the direct experience with materials which were manipulated with the hands was the basic idea of the early Bauhaus. The ideal sought by Gropius was the mythic and spiritual collective memory of the Bauhüten or the masons’ lodges. The idea of the cathedral and the Bauhaus was the Einheitskunstwerk or the total work of art translated into the collective needs of a modern society. But this idea of collectivity was easier stated than achieved.

The Bauhaus student body was definitely a mixed bag, unemployed men looking for something to do, old and difficult veterans, and students who were unprepared for the lofty goals of the Bauhaus. Gropius brought in a sterling faculty with pre-war credentials, starting with Lyonel Feininger and continuing with Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Johannes Itten from Vienna. Itten quickly remedied the problem of the lack of student readiness for an art school by creating a “foundation” course that would teach the basics to all students to create a foundation for the more advanced courses. Classes taught by Kandinsky and Klee complemented this “preliminary course”. Although Itten would be forced out along with the lingering sentiments for Expressionism in 1922, the idea of providing a year of basics in the arts still lingers in art schools a hundred years later. After Itten’s departure, László Moholy-Nagy took over the Preliminary Course, which would later be taught, most famously, by Josef Albers.

Despite their philosophical differences, Itten and Gropius established significant ideas that would leave their mark on twentieth century design and architecture. Itten, who was a hippie before his time, taught his students the fundamentals of the body through yogi or stretching exercises that would get them in touch with their own physicality. This emphasis on the senses was part of the need to give primacy to experience and an awareness of life through exercises in quick sketches in drawing class. Gropius did not consider that the Bauhaus was engaged in “making art” but in conducting “experiments” in a “laboratory.” At the Bauhaus, “abstraction” took on a different meaning as a search for fundamentalism. Abstraction did not stand in for “something else,” but was the process of distilling art making down to the essentials.

This basic core that the post-war artists were seeking initiated a search for artistic forms stripped of any cultural “baggage.” The idea of a tabula rasa was not just a quest for the visual arts; philosophers also turned their attention to the epistemology or the grounds of perceptual knowledge and linguistic understanding. Edmund Husserl wrote extensively of “bracketing” reality and attempting to discern the essentials of perception. Fernand de Saussure proposed a system where in the structure of language could be determined, breaking down linguistics into the “sign,” the “signifier,” and the “signified.” Certainly the thinking of De Stijl was crucial in the Bauhaus’ process of stripping down to a basic code of line and color. As Yves-Alain Bois pointed out in his 1985 book on De Stijl the “elementarization” which narrowed composition to the primary colors, white and gray, and the ruled line at right angle, and “integration,” which binds the resulting forms into a unified whole were the basis of De Stijl philosophy.

What had to be unlearned were outmoded and outdated aesthetic conventions and received ideas of beauty as taught by the academy. The artist of the twentieth century needed to have a mind cleansed of received wisdom and to return to a tabula rasa from which new and clarified forms would emerge. Gropius sought basic modules as elemental building units. Having achieved that level of creative clarity, the artist could be redefined as “a builder of systems.” The emphasis on experience over knowledge meant that communication between viewer and maker should be pre-linguistic and immediate due to the eloquence of “fundamental forms.” In his influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911, Vasily Kandinsky asserted that a form of “psychic shock” would result when the viewer encountered these strong forms. Key to the idea of gaining experience, which would replace conventions was the idea of “play.” The importance of play at the Bauhaus was inspired by the foundational work of Friedrich Froebel who invented the “kindergarten” or the “children’s garden” where children played and learned from their play.

By 1923, Gropius was ready to announce the new philosophy for the Bauhaus. This “reversal of values” moved the school away from the reform of arts and crafts to an engagement with the industrial world. Clearly, the Bauhaus had been profoundly impacted by the art and design done by the De Stijl movement in Holland and by the example of “laboratory work” done in the new Soviet Union. De Stijl founder, Theo van Doesburg, moved to Weimar and gave individual lessons to Bauhaus students but was never a professor there. In Berlin, German art audiences go their first look at the new art of the Soviets at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1922. The world had changed and the Bauhaus reacted with alacrity. Gropius, speaking at a 1923 exhibition of faculty and student work, announced that the Bauhaus had moved into the present and had a new slogan, “Art and Technology: A New Unity.”

Thus the philosophy of the Bauhaus passed beyond the Werkbund spirit that the artist should be a craftsperson first and any aesthetic must be based upon sound craft. The whole notion of “craft” and making had to get beyond the medieval mystique and into mass manufacture. 1923 was the year that Walter Gropius invited the Hungarian artist, László Moholy-Nagy to join the faculty. Moholy-Nagy embodied the new industrial spirit of the new Bauhaus. A photographer, painter and typographer, Molholy-Nagy pioneered in what his called “New Vision,” his version of “the grammar of modern design” sought by Gropius. Like many designers, Moholy-Nagy knew that the visual forms of the nineteenth century had to be updated for the new century. Most importantly, he understood that the modern mind perceived the world in a fundamentally different fashion.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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