Learning and Unlearning from the Bauhaus

A centenary spotlights how the school's influence lives on, but needs redefinition for today.

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An iconic Bauhaus production, Marcel Breuer's Wassily chair (1925-6), was inspired by the designer's tubular-steel bicycle handles.

Under the heading of “what’s old is new again,” the 100-year-old Bauhaus, a radical experiment in art, architecture and design education, is once again having a Moment. To mark the centenary, exhibitions and symposia are happening not only across Germany where the Bauhaus was born, but in Japan, China, Israel, Brazil, Russia, the Netherlands, and the US. Founded in the city of Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the school lasted just 14 years — until 1933, when the Nazis shut it down. Short on duration but long on durability, Bauhaus ideas spread throughout the world. They still shape art education, design, and modernist art and architecture. Appraising its influence means analyzing its legacy — both positive and negative. “With distance,” said Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, “we can see both its failures and successes.”

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Glass façade of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany, 1926. Photo: Lucia Moholy.

What was new and distinctive about the Bauhaus? “The most influential, single innovation,” according to Rhode Island School of Design art history associate professor Eric Anderson, “was the idea of starting art and design education with a general, preliminary course that taught fundamental elements of art and design independent of individual media and craft skills.” Instead of copying historical models and learning to draw or sculpt, all 1,250 students during the school’s brief existence began with workshops in areas like book-binding, ceramics, carpentry and metalwork. This approach implied there was a universal foundation for art and design practice and elevated manual craft skills, traditionally perceived as inferior, to equal status with fine art.

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Team teaching was another novelty. Both a master artisan and a master artist led each workshop. And what teachers they were! Among the master artists were avant-garde modernists like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Josef Albers and Lionel Feininger. The school’s directors, as it moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, were the architects Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “The school was pioneering in bringing together different disciplines and experts,” said Laura Muir, curator of “The Bauhaus and Harvard,” an exhibition at Harvard Art Museums until July 28. The idea, she said, was a return to craft and materials, creating objects out of collaboration, putting form and function together.

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Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker table lamp, 1924. Photo: Harvard Art Museums.

What elements of Bauhaus teaching survive in practice? Michael Hendrix, partner in the global design firm IDEO, said that designers today must be highly flexible — grounded in abstract design principles but able to apply those principles to create new things. With technology rapidly mutating, no one learns from a manual any more. You leap in, your skills morphing with each new challenge. Jeffrey Mau, adjunct professor at Chicago’s Institute of Design, agreed: “That way of working is still important because our world is accelerating in complexity. We need methods of working in teams, integrating theory and practice to learn by making. Prototyping is considered a new idea, but it goes all the way back to the Bauhaus.”

“There’s always a relentless push towards specialization in our culture,” said Juliet Kinchin, Museum of Modern Art curator of design. “Yet clearly we need lateral thinkers and people who can move between different kinds of practice because things change so rapidly.”

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What makes the Bauhaus spirit both timely and timeless is this holistic, experimental, go-with-the-flow approach. “The sense that you could discover through making,” Andraos said, “is still the foundation of how a studio is taught.” The Bauhaus’s willingness to suspend preconceived notions and the determination to improve everyday life through good design are still pronounced on today’s campuses. “The level of engagement, advocacy and activism is very strong,” according to Andraos. “A new generation is trying to bring together aesthetic aspirations with social aspirations,” she said, especially facing the challenge of climate change.

Germany after World War I was in crisis; in the face of social and economic devastation, everything was up for grabs. Today we also need to reinvent how we live and work and share public space. “What fired up Bauhaus designers was the idea that you could really make a profound impact on people’s everyday lives through design,” Kinchin said. “It wasn’t just about expensive, fancy, fashionable objects, but often the understated, often anonymous design that has such an impact,” she added. “Design is about the art of living.”

“The young generation today is interested in saving the planet,” Steven Eppinger, professor of product development and innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, said. Called human-centered, environmental or responsible design, this movement mirrors the Bauhaus’s quasi-utopian ideals with a difference. High-quality design now requires less waste and less impact, goals not considered by Bauhaus designers, who embraced technology to offer objects created through mass production.

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Lean and clean Bauhaus style also needs an update. “There’s a lot with the Bauhaus that we have to unlearn, particularly the modernist focus on simplicity,” said Laura Forlano, associate professor at the Institute of Design. “We’ve designed ourselves into these white boxes.”

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Bauhaus Masters Housing, Dessau, Lucia and László Moholy-Nagy living room, 1927-8. Photo: Lucia Moholy.

Bauhaus architecture connotes streamlined right angles and steel-framed, glass-curtain-walled rectangles. It’s the opposite of forms bristling with Victorian ornament or sinuous, curving Art Nouveau structures that prevailed when the school originated. Nothing about Bauhaus design is remotely gemütlich (cozy).

Over the years, in the hands of lesser artists, monotonous knockoffs proliferated. From Denver to Doha, pseudo-Bauhaus, International Style skyscrapers became a cliché. “Where any movement goes wrong,” Hendrix said, “is if it becomes dogmatic.” In reacting against applied ornament and historical references, the Bauhaus became formulaic, insisting on white walls, primary colors, and geometric, platonic forms. Also crucial today (but ignored then) are engagement with urban planning and integrating architecture with green space and landscape.

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Anni Albers, Design for a Rug, 1927. Photo: Harvard Art Museums.

Perhaps the Bauhaus’s most egregious fault was its marginalization of female students and instructors. The sole female faculty member, Gunta Stölzl, taught weaving, where women were assigned regardless of their ambitions. Anni Albers, who initially wished to be an abstract painter, created abstractions in rugs and tapestry wall panels. Others also made their mark, like Lucia Moholy, the main photographer of Bauhaus objects, and Marianne Brandt, who designed elegant light fixtures and metal tableware.

“We have to make room in the design field for the voices of women, people of color, indigenous people and those with disabilities,” Forlano said. She calls this “decolonizing design.” It requires “post-human design,” a shift towards embedding sustainability in design and taking into account as equal not just human needs but the best interests of animals, plants and the natural environment.

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Martin Thaler, visiting associate professor at the Institute of Design, sees a reaction against mass manufacturing today, with designers creating personal, small-scale, local products and multi-use objects. Computer-assisted design and 3-D printing can make crafted objects affordable. With more awareness of the downside of industry (like pollution, climate change and depletion of resources), designers today are less enamored of technology. “The developed world can learn from other non-Western contexts,” Forlano said, “where due to scarcity of materials or lower income, people find innovative ways to reuse materials.”

If it’s not too late, unlearning the Bauhaus’s faith in mass production may help fast-developing economies like China and India avoid some of the environmental degradation that more technologically advanced societies suffered. “We need to rethink, unlearn and unmake some of the things we take for granted,” Forlano added, to move towards less harmful, more ecological practices.

Thinking about the ethics of what we design and why we design means moving beyond a purely human-centered perspective. The critical framework and tools for such an about-face are not yet embedded in design curricula, which should include creative, generative, experimental and artistic approaches as well as ethical values. Design will always be focused on problems, needs and solutions, but perhaps less-developed economies offer a path towards a sustainable future. It might produce not just a better mousetrap but what the Bauhaus ethos hoped for — a better world.