Design Deconstruction: Bauhaus

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WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly


It may have only existed as an educational institute for 14 years, but the Bauhaus school remains a powerful influence on contemporary design – and here’s why.

A century ago, architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany with a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts in a single creative expression. Glass-fronted concrete buildings, built-in kitchens, tubular steel furniture and stark white walls all link back to this school of thought that stripped everything to its bare-bones function before fashioning form. Gropius insisted on designing by “starting from zero”.

So, in walked sans serif fonts lacking capital letters (serifs and uppercase wasted time and printing money) and right-angled flat-roof dwellings (pitched roofs and voluminous hallways were superfluous). Originally established to unite the art of the elite with the craft of artisans during a post-WWI era in which society needed a reality check, the Bauhaus philosophy was to make design accessible to all, utilising modern materials and industrial techniques. Here, apprentices and journeymen (they were never called students) learnt in workshops (not lecture halls), challenging design assumptions through experimentation and play.

By teaching metalwork, stained glass, mural painting, joinery, typography, pottery, weaving, book-binding and even theatre, the school was a hub of creative energy fuelled by an enquiry into technical skill, presented by Masters (don’t call them professors!) such as Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Herbert Bayer.

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Segelchiffe by Paul Klee
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Circles in a Circle by Wassily Kandinsky
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A Gunta Stölzl rug, from a design painted around 1927

It’s from this school that the dynamic textiles of Gunta Stölzl emerged, along with the spherical ashtrays of Marianne Brandt, complete with nifty cigarette holder, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s bulbous table lamp. When it relocated to Dessau in 1925, with Director Hannes Meyer, it began to pay attention to architecture too.

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Peter Keler’s 1922 cradle design
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Marcel Breuer’s vintage chromed nesting tables
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An example of a Bauhaus lamp. The original was designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in 1924

Under the later directorship of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the school became predominantly focused on this discipline but, after relocating again to Berlin, it shut its doors in 1933 as a result of Nazi political pressure.

The school’s spirit, however, endured, as Gropius and Breuer moved to the US to teach at Harvard, while other Masters relocated to the Soviet Union, Israel and other parts of Europe and the US, spreading the pioneering design movement of “less is more” and introducing Bauhaus’s avant-garde system of instruction to international curricula.

Even today, in South Africa, the impact is evident – not least because one of the school’s last students, Pius Pahl, relocated to Stellenbosch. His buildings can be viewed around the country, their geometric forms overtly Bauhaus.

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Bauhaus-inspired pieces by Dokter and Misses.

A contemporary generation of local designers has been equally influenced, as noted in pieces like Joe Paine’s tubular Santa Barbara Shelf (he says that a school project on Bauhaus is what provoked him to study design); the stripped-back modular Format System of Dokter and Misses, who describe their very first designs as “Bauhaus-meets-Dr Alban”; and The Ninevites’ colourful symmetrical rugs that could sit comfortably alongside the patterned, colour-coded artworks of Bauhaus power couple Josef and Anni Albers. The 100-year-old Bauhaus is, it would seem, still fulfilling its legacy.

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The Ninevites’ colourful, graphic rugs
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Looking for more on design? Read all about the Art Deco design movement.