An influential German school of art and design founded in Dessau in 1919 under the architect Walter Gropius. It was based on workshop training rather than academic studios, and is celebrated for its functional design.
The Founding of the Bauhaus
The Bauhaus was founded in Weimar, Germany in April 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. He united the Weimer Academy of Fine Art and the School of Arts and Crafts, to encourage the blending of craft and design with fine art practices. Gropius hoped for a community ethic in the Bauhaus where teachers and students would live and work together, pursuing all artistic media including fine art, industrial design, graphic design, typography, interior design and architecture. The name of the school referenced the German word Bauhutten, alluding to medieval masons’ lodges.
Key ideas and the course structure
In his 1924 essay, Concept and Development of the State Bauhaus, Gropius outlined his major influences, which were John Ruskin and William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Henry Van de Velde of the Art Nouveau style and Peter Behrens, linked to Judgenstil, who he described as people who, ‘consciously sought and found the first ways to the reunification of the world of work with the creative artists.’
Teachers in the school from 1912-22 included Johannes Itten, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Gerhard Marcks and Wassily Kandinsky. Itten famously developed the vorkhurs, a Preliminary Course for all students, including studies in materials, tools and colour theories, studying the pictorial techniques of the Old Masters. He encouraged ‘learning by doing’, as influenced by American philosopher John Dewey, which became a highly influential educational model. Kandinsky and Klee taught courses relating to the study of colour and form.
On completing this first training, students moved on to being taught by a skilled artist and a tradesman, learning practical skills such as mural painting, bookbinding, metalwork and ceramics. Itten’s background was in Expressionism and this more spiritual approach was at odds with other members of the faculty. He was later replaced by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who transformed the vorkhurs along with former Bauhaus student Josef Albers into a program focussed on practical skills and links with technology, encouraging the production of one off, handmade objects and practical designs for industry.
The Bauhaus in Dessau
The School moved to Dessau in 1926, housed in a famous building designed by Gropius, now recognised as a landmark of modernist architecture with specially designed buildings for school, students and staff. The new school developed an architecture department for the first time. In 1928 Gropius handed management over to Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, an active communist and Marxist. Six former students also became members of staff: Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Gunta Stolzl, Hinnerk Scheper, Joos Schmidt and Josef Albers. Work that emerged was simple and refined, with a distinctive geometric abstraction and primary colours reminiscent of the Dutch De Stijl. Meyer’s left wing politics attracted criticism from the local government under control of the Nazis and he was forced to resign in 1930, with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe taking his place.
The Bauhaus in Berlin
In 1932 the Dessau Bauhaus lost its grant under Nazi rule, who felt the school was not ‘German’ in style, and was forced to close. The school was moved to Berlin and established as a private institution, before closing due to pressure from the Nazis, who described it as, ‘one of the most obvious refuges of the Jewish-Marxist conception of “art”.’
Despite its closure, the Bauhaus ideas lived on through its former students and faculty members, who spread their ideas across Europe and the United States. Gropius and Breuer went on to teach at Harvard University, Moholy-Nagy opened a new Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937, Mies an der Rohe became Director of the College of Architecture, Planning and Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Albers taught at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina.