The Bauhaus Has Shaped Our World for 100 Years

Karen Chernick
Mar 20, 2019 6:35PM

The members of the Bauhaus coined a nickname for architect Walter Gropius, the idealistic founder and longtime director of their avant-garde school: Pius. The moniker was short for Gro-pius, and also a lighthearted jab at the intense fervor with which their utopian leader guided them in a new direction that collapsed the barrier between fine arts and craft, while also adapting artists to the machine age.

More than a clearly defined visual style, Bauhaus was a conceptual approach, encapsulated in a manifesto Gropius wrote at the time of the German academy’s founding in Weimar, in 1919. “Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artist,” Gropius avowed. “Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.”

Bauhäusler, as a result, were ambidextrous in art and craft, just as adept at conceiving their sleek designs as they were executing them. Students were encouraged to accept utilitarian objects—such as light fixtures, teapots, and chairs—as projects worthy of artists, and to tackle the challenge of creating good design for mass production. Useless ornamentation was rejected in favor of designs that followed an object’s function; many items created in the Bauhaus workshops are characterized by clean lines, an innovative use of materials, and an affectionate embrace of technology befitting a modern lifestyle. The Bauhaus was like an über-designed version of IKEA, churning out items for everyday use that were nonetheless fit to populate the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.


To instruct this new guild of creatives, Gropius assembled an impressive faculty of distinguished artists. These “masters,” as Bauhaus instructors were called, taught a wide range of workshops, including architecture, sculpture, metalworking, ceramics, stained glass, printmaking, stagecraft, advertising, photography, wall-painting, and weaving.

Gropius’s radical Bauhaus was a short-lived institution; the school was only open for 14 years, between 1919 and 1933, and migrated between three German locations before it was shut down by the Nazis. Still, its inventive design philosophy has enjoyed a long afterlife and far-reaching influence in the 100 years since its founding.

The leaders of the Bauhaus

Gropius had grand ideas for the Bauhaus and invited some big-name artists to execute his educational vision. The school was exceptional in that many of its instructors were already leaders in modern art circles. The faculty unified personalities such as the early abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky and fantastical colorist Paul Klee; the choreographer Oskar Schlemmer and multimedia Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy; and the angular Expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger alongside the minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

“We must not start with mediocrity,” Gropius wrote in a letter during the earliest days of the Bauhaus. “It is our duty to enlist powerful, famous personalities wherever possible, even if we do not yet fully understand them.”

The Bauhaus also attracted a different kind of student, one ready to abandon tradition and adopt its community-minded spirit. Because the school opened at the end of World War I, the first class was a mixed group of war veterans between the ages of 17 and 40, all eager for a fresh start. The majority were men, and the approximately one-third of women in the group were encouraged to adopt female-coded mediums such as ceramics and textiles.

A few Bauhaus alumni—such as geometric painter Josef Albers, textile artist Anni Albers, typographer Herbert Bayer, designer Marcel Breuer, and industrial designer Marianne Brandt—were invited to stay on as masters, often assuming leadership of the very workshop where they first learned their craft.

Breuer belonged to the first crop of Bauhaus students and directed the carpentry workshop after graduating. In his popular cabinet-making course, Breuer taught his students to whittle down design to its absolute essence. Around the same time, in 1925, he bought his first bicycle and had an aha! moment while admiring its curved handlebars. If lightweight, durable steel could bend to make a mass-produced bicycle, Breuer thought, it could certainly bend to fashion furniture.

Back at the workshop, he designed the Wassily chair, reducing the traditionally plush club chair to its most basic outline in tubular steel and waxed canvas strips. “It is my most extreme work both in its outward appearance and in the use of materials,” Breuer said of the typically Bauhaus chair. “It is the least artistic, the most logical, the least ‘cozy,’ and the most mechanical.” The chair was named for Breuer’s colleague and friend, Wassily Kandinsky, who admired the groundbreaking item and was the first to own one.


Another early Bauhäusler, graphic artist Herbert Bayer, applied the Bauhaus’s “less is more” attitude to typography in the workshop he opened at the Dessau campus in 1925. His most famous accomplishment was eliminating the need for capital letters, a practice he advocated in his own writing: “why should we write and print with two alphabets?” Bayer theorized. “we do not speak a capital A and a small a.” He designed a universal sans-serif typeface free of capital letters, streamlining the alphabet for quicker writing, more simply constructed—and therefore cheaper—typewriters, and less expensive printing.

Meanwhile, Marianne Brandt was the first woman permitted to join the masculine metalworking workshop and soon proved her mettle when she and fellow student, Hin Bredendieck, crafted the Kandem desk lamp, a wildly popular invention that trumpeted the Bauhaus as a leader in industrial design. The lamp’s ability to swivel and point in different directions according to the needs of its user exemplified the school’s focus on functionality, while demonstrating the balletic flexibility of steel.

Bauhaus between the two World Wars

Political odds were stacked against the long-term success of the Bauhaus, causing it to migrate between three locations in Germany (Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin) and to shutter its doors after a short 14 years. The school opened in the immediate aftermath of World War I and closed following pressure from the Nazi Party in the years leading up to World War II. The Nazis believed that many Bauhäusler were Communists actively working against their party. When the Gestapo demanded that the Bauhaus rewrite the curriculum to align with their beliefs, to fire left-leaning teachers such as Kandinsky, and to hire instructors supporting the National Socialist ideology, then–acting director Mies van der Rohe closed the academy.

The Bauhaus was active precisely during the politically tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic, the period after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and Germany became a people’s republic. In fact, Bauhaus and the fledgling new democracy both originated in the same German cultural capital of Weimar. That particular post-war moment was characterized by disorder, unrest, and uncertainty, sprouting institutions like the Bauhaus that forcefully rejected the ways of the past.

Bauhaus was not alone in refuting tradition in the interwar period. The simultaneous Dada movement explored new (and often absurd) modes of artmaking; the Surrealists held up the irrational and the unconscious instead of tried-and-true rational thought; and in post-revolutionary Russia, the Constructivists hoped to invent new art forms that served the Communist masses.

But unlike those movements, Bauhaus practice survived well past World War II. The school’s closure unexpectedly helped spread its ideas by forcing its students and teachers to relocate outside Germany. Many Bauhaus teachers fled to the United States and secured positions at influential American art schools. Gropius and Breuer taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design; Josef and Anni Albers became longtime faculty at Black Mountain College; and Moholy-Nagy founded a New Bauhaus school in Chicago (where Mies van der Rohe also established residence).

Why does Bauhaus matter?

Herbert Bayer
Omnibus Gallery

When Josef Albers taught the Vorkurs (German for “preliminary course”), a six-month class required of all entering Bauhaus students, he trained them to turn commonplace materials on their heads. During their unit studying paper, for example, glue was forbidden; instead, Bauhäusler stuck pages together by sewing, buttoning, riveting, typing, and pinning them. It was this relearning of basic materials’ elementary properties that reoriented students to color, form, and possibility in a way that broke down the distinction between the working methods of an artist or a craftsman to foster experimentation.

By reconstructing its students’ understanding of the building blocks of their trades—wood, stone, metal, and glass—the Bauhaus trained a generation of modern creatives to imagine entirely new uses for time-honored materials. The products that came out of the school’s workshops have revolutionized their fields, and several Bauhaus designs—including Anni Albers’s rugs, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chairs, and Marianne Brandt’s Kandem lamps—are still being manufactured today.

The Bauhaus was primarily a school, but its longevity has been aided by the fact that it was also a publisher, fabricator, and industrial design partner. Even after it closed in 1933, products conceived in Bauhaus workshops were widely available to the public. Contemporary creatives tasked with designing the utilitarian objects that fill our environments, from Apple products to company logos, attend the Bauhaus message that, yes, even when objects are made by the millions and fashioned from fiberglass, they deserve to be functional and beautiful.

As Alfred Barr, the famed first director of New York’s MoMA, wrote of the school on the occasion of a Bauhaus retrospective in 1938, “It is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting—and much more useful.” It is largely thanks to the Bauhaus that artistry today is not confined to the walls of museums and churches, but can be found in our living rooms and kitchens, too.

Karen Chernick

Portraits of Water Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne Brandt, and Gunta Stölzl courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Marcel Breuer by Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

Header Image: Joost Schmidt, Plakat Zur Bauhaus - Asstellung in Weimar 1923, 1923. Courtesy of Omnibus Gallery