Art Into Industry: The Bauhaus and Design Education

Sooner or later all beginning artists and designers encounter references to the Bauhaus in Germany. It was quite possibly the most important art school in the twentieth century and when we think about the best examples of mid-century modern design they usually have some connection to the Bauhaus. Although the school was a regional institution – and existed for only 14 years – its influence was enormous. And that influence continues today.

Chair by Marcel Breuer and rug by Gunta Stoizl

Marcel Breuer, chair; Gunta Stoizl, rug

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. It had three primary goals:

1. To create a new model for art and design education. Students following this model progressed from basic workshops on form, color and materials to more specific studies of individual elements and technical skills. By the end of their coursework students were expected to have a working knowledge of architecture and engineering as well as how to design and prepare sophisticated functional items for manufacture.

2. To reunite art with manufacturing. Gropius wanted to recreate, in the modern world, the medieval guild notion that art, craft and industrial production were one unified experience.

3. To create an atmosphere for learning and producing that was based on experimentation and problem solving at both the intellectual/theoretical level and in actual practice.

The word Bauhaus means “house of building” and the slogan of the school was “Art into Industry.” At the Bauhaus traditional crafts such as ceramics, metal working, textiles and cabinet making were placed on par with fine arts. Typography, print design and photography were equal to painting and sculpture. All aspects of architecture, art, design and manufacture were investigated and researched in an intellectually rigorous environment.

The prevailing artistic style of the Bauhaus emphasized clean lines, geometric shapes and efficient compositions. Architects and furniture designers frequently used undisguised industrial materials such as concrete and steel. Graphic designers favored sans serif typefaces and the bold use of single photographic images. Painters created flat compositions emphasizing shape and color relationships. Although this style was generally minimal the Bauhaus artists and designers were very creative and experimental within its boundaries.

Tea pot by Marianne Brandt, building by Mies van der Rohe

Marianne Brandt, tea infuser; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, house

One of the many impressive things about the Bauhaus was the quality of its faculty. Gropius assembled an amazing group of teachers that included some of the finest talents in their fields. Among the many important artists teaching at the Bauhaus were Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Gropius was replaced as the school’s director in 1928 by Hannes Meyer, another architect. Meyer was replaced in 1930 by yet another architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. By 1930 the liberal and experimental Bauhaus had developed unresolvable problems with the Nazi party. In 1933 Mies van der Rohe responded to political pressure and closed the school.

In the years between the closing of the Bauhaus and the beginning of World War Two many of the school’s teachers emigrated to the United States. Most of them flourished there and had significant influence on art education, architecture, art and design. Gropius and Marcel Breuer went to teach at Harvard. Josef Albers taught at Black Mountain College and then at Yale. Mies van der Rohe joined the faculty of the Illinois Institute of Technology. These brilliant artists and their colleagues taught generations of American students using the techniques they developed at the Bauhaus.

Much can be written about the Bauhaus and its individual faculty members. We have already discussed the definitive color explorations of Josef Albers. In future blog posts we will discuss the work of other faculty members as well as other aspects of this groundbreaking school.

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