Saturday 8 August 2009

Before Ikea, there was Bauhaus

The Bauhaus movement, founded in 1919 with the aim of changing the world through design, is now a byword for modernity. Its legacy is now to be celebrated in a new exhibition

IF HISTORY HAD taken a different turn, Bauhaus could have been bigger than Ikea – an idea worth considering as Irish shoppers experience first-hand in Ballymun how democratic design can conquer the world, one room at a time.

Although Ikea presents itself as being more Swedish than Pippi Longstocking, the furniture company owes a huge debt to the pioneering work of Germany’s Bauhaus movement. The design school’s famous philosophy – form follows function – may seem obvious to someone screwing together a flat-pack coffee table. But that eureka moment occurred just 90 years ago, when a who’s who of contemporary artists, architects and designers found their way to a new school in the eastern German city of Weimar.

Under the guidance of architect Walter Gropius, professors and students embarked on a voyage of design discovery that lasted just 14 years, but that would change forever the face of modern architecture, furniture design, interior decor and urban planning.

A landmark exhibition in Berlin pulls together the legacy of the Bauhaus movement, scattered to the winds by the Nazis and separated by the Cold War.

Pooling for the first time Germany’s three major Bauhaus collections, Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model celebrates the movement’s triumphs while casting an unjaundiced eye on its many failings.

“Even today, Bauhaus stands as a synonym for modernity, although not everything that is modern is Bauhaus,” says Philipp Oswalt of the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau.

“What made it special was the radical way in which so many different artists were brought together, from painters to dramatists to architects, though all styles. And all in one place.”

A casual visitor to the Berlin exhibition will need to pace themselves – with 1,000 objects spread out over 18 large rooms, it’s quite a while before one encounters the usual Bauhaus suspects: flat-roofed houses, tubular metal chairs and funky coffee pots.

It is these classic lines that encapsulate the demand of Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer in 1927 that designers strive to “the optimum of function” with products that meet “people’s needs not luxuries”.

Yet Bauhaus was already eight years old – with just six years to go – when Meyer, a Swiss-born Marxist, put his finger on what many viewed as weak spot of the movement. It wanted to be radical and change the world, but until then it resembled more a loose collection of intellectuals and artists who fought over the function of a chair while, outside, the price of a litre of milk in hyperinflation-wracked Germany cost 280 billion Reichsmarks.

The aim of the Berlin exhibition is to re- calibrate popular perceptions of Bauhaus. Far more than just a factory of functional furniture, it was a modernist movement as well as a hothouse of artistic and intellectual experimentation.

“Often, one thinks of Bauhaus as a style,” says Annemarie Jaeggi, director of Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive. “But, first and foremost, Bauhaus was a school that – typical for this modernist and upheaval time period after the first World War – wanted nothing less than to change the world.”

BORN IN THE chaos of the collapse of the German monarchy in 1919, Bauhaus understood itself as a future laboratory where creative brains pondered how humans would live and work in the coming decades.

From its start to its end, Bauhaus was a highly political endeavour that battled the conservative German establishment during its 14-year itinerant existence.

It was founded in 1919 in the eastern city of Weimar where, in the same year, German politicians gathered to create the inter-war republic. The aim of founding director Walter Gropius was to create an interdisciplinary academy that combined high arts with architecture and design in experimental teaching methods and practice-oriented workshops.

In its early years, the school was a free-wheeling mishmash, juxtaposing seminars of functional aesthetics with debates on how modern architecture can address social problems.

By engaging as professors artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Gropius was anxious to let into architecture and design the liberating wind of the avant-garde that had already stirred up the artistic world. Only when the “arrogant barrier between the craftsman and artist was lifted”, he said, could a proper artistic flow begin.

Students were encouraged to travel the country as journeymen before beginning their studies, then allowed experiment in all media before finding their creative home. They could choose from courses in furniture design with Marcel Breuer and graphic design with Herbert Bayer, Oskar Schlemmer taught performance, Gunta Stölzl lectured on textiles and product design was the responsibility of László Moholy-Nagy.

The school used the mass media and advertising to increase its profile and held exhibitions on themes that remain relevant, such as 1923’s Art and Technology: A New Unity.

The early years were dominated by the expressionist, spiritual approach of Swiss painter Johannes Itten. Far from clean lines and Germanic efficiency, the new school was influenced by the works of German expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger, who illustrated the cover of the school’s first catalogue. This gave way to a building-blocks approach to artistic education, evidenced by exhibits such as material and colour charts.

It was only in 1923, with Itten’s departure, that Bauhaus adapted to the New Objective movement, a school Gropius said was “adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars”. The concept began to firm up on its 1928 move to Dessau, when the school was housed in futuristic Gropius-designed buildings, and Gropius was succeeded by radical functionalist Hannes Meyer.

ALTHOUGH BAUHAUS described buildings in its founding manifesto as “the end goal of all visual activity”, it was only under Meyer that the school even began teaching architecture.

A Swiss-born Marxist, Meyer had little time for the aesthetic side of the programme and encouraged study of functionality, cost and industrial production.

“The idea that one can create mass products well, that are functional and even low-priced is understood as a given today – but back then, it was really new and revolutionary,” says Jaeggi.

Meyer left amid a sex scandal in 1930, by which time the school was coming under fire from the Nazis. In the Bauhaus movement they saw a threat of “cosmopolitan modernism” they said was favoured by communists, liberals and Jews.

The school’s move to Berlin in 1932 was its last. When the Bauhaus school closed its doors forever a year later, its leading lights fled the country. By banning Bauhaus, the Nazis ensured its legacy spread further than anyone could have expected.

The final Bauhaus director, architect Mies van der Rohe, was expelled from Germany and moved to the US, where he built on his Bauhaus legacy of model architecture to gift American cityscapes with the kind of architectural contours fate and taste had prevented in Germany. Walter Gropius ended up at Harvard, where he influenced generations of architects from Philip Johnson to IM Pei.

After showing the breadth, flow and contradictions of the Bauhaus movement, curators of the Berlin exhibition continue the story beyond 1933. They give generous space for modern artists to present their amusing takes on the contemporary influence of Bauhaus, from the Ikea living room to a red toolbox from a German DIY chain store that carries the movement’s name.

It’s a light-hearted end to a celebration of designs that, 90 years on, retain their fresh, modernist edge. The Bauhaus school was creative chaos at its dizzying best.

Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model runs at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin until Oct 4. See

Irish Times

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