The Bauhaus
Designing life

Woman sitting in Marcel Breuer tubular steel chair, 1926.
Woman sitting in Marcel Breuer tubular steel chair, 1926. | Photo (detail): © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Dr. Stephan Consemüller

If you’re thinking of upgrading your living room with a Bauhaus classic, like a Marcel Breuer Cesca chair, or setting decorative accents with a Wagenfeld lamp, you’ll have to reach deep into your pockets to pay for one of these prized designer objects these days. Given the mantra followed by Bauhaus designers, who designed furniture with less well-heeled in mind, the prices their work fetches today seem paradoxical. And the prevailing opinion of Bauhaus pieces has done an about-face in keeping with their market value. Nowadays, their simple elegance is more trendy than revolutionary. Yet back in 1919, the Bauhaus was established with a radical agenda to create a new creative framework that could completely modernise everyday life.

The Bauhaus art school was founded in a society suffering the devastating effects of the First World Word and the industrialized economy. Inflation, hunger, unemployment, homelessness and social unrest fuelled the desire for a new social order. In this environment of political and social unrest, a group of artists came together around architect Walter Gropius, who would go on to found the Bauhaus art school in Weimar. Gropius felt direction from a creative designer was the solution to the dire social straights his country was mired in. "Building is the design of life processes," he said about architecture, and some critics accused him of succumbing to a romantic utopia.

Radical modernization of life 

Unlike the British Arts and Crafts movement, which idealized the Middle Ages and reclaimed Gothic shapes, the Bauhaus focused on a new approach to design. Interdisciplinary groups of artists would work, initially with craftsmen in Wiener, then later with industrial machines in Dessau, to create objects that would then shape the culture of the future.  In the Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius wrote: "The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building! […]Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! […]The artist is an exalted craftsman."

If Bauhaus artists wanted to improve the living conditions for lower-income people in particular, then their work had to be affordable. It was important that objects could be inexpensively mass-produced, so the Bauhaus forged a new design aesthetic no one had ever tried before. Their return to the most basic geometric shapes, the humble square, circle and triangle, was unconventional, as was the limited colour palate using just the most basics: red, yellow, blue, black and white.  Art critic Paul Westheim visited an architecture exhibition organized by Gropius, and was less than impressed: "Three days in Weimar and if I never see another square as long as I live, it will be too soon.”

Art? Not at the Bauhaus!

Bauhaus proponents strictly adhered to its principles. Artistic aesthetics went against the ideology, so design took its cues from purpose and function, rather than style. This functionalist approach set the stage for inevitable conflict with those Bauhaus professors – known as “masters” in the Bauhaus jargon – who came to Weimer and Dessau as visual artists.

This austere and innovative design language was particularly apparent in everyday objects. In the coffee and tea sets produced in the metal workshop, it is obvious that the individual elements did not have to fit together to satisfy the artistic standard.  The cream pitcher, sugar bowl and pot are all quite different in style, and sometimes don’t look like they belong together, as their role determined their design and not the desire to create a set in the traditional sense. This tea infuser by Marianne Brandt is just one of example of how the movement turned its back on the applied arts. The “form follows function” motto was not new to the Bauhaus, but is inextricable linked to the Bauhaus style today.