The Forgotten Story of “Mrs. Bauhaus”

Katy Kelleher
Sep 7, 2018 5:27PM

Ise Gropius’ wardrobe. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Portrait if Ise Gropius. Courtesy of Historic New England.

On May 19, 1970, a group of nearly 1,000 revelers gathered in and around the offices of an architectural firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to celebrate “Grope Fest.” Less libidinous than it sounds, the party was named to honor Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus who had passed away the year before, on July 5, 1969. The party, which took place a day after what would have been his birthday, was organized by his widow, Ise. The 73-year-old writer, editor, and artist was a vision in a bold, black-and-white printed gown paired with a metal crown made from fan blades, packing strips, and wire. She partied with the best of them, swilling champagne and chasing the bubbly with handfuls of strawberries. According to a New York Timesarticle published the following day, the party was attended by artists, designers, and a “30-foot-long dragon with brilliant silver scales that snaked through the crowds, its baseball-size eyes bounding wildly.”

“My husband would have loved this,” Ise told the reporter. “It’s just like the parties we had in the Bauhaus.”

Portrait of Ise Gropius. Courtesy of Historic New England.


Although more people know Walter’s name than Ise’s, they were true creative partners. Had she lived today, we might view Ise as Walter’s equal. At the very least, she might have had better opportunities to explore her own creative impulses and carve out a space for herself inside the white walls of the Bauhaus. But Ise was born at a time when women were expected to stand behind their men, championing their causes, typing their manuscripts, and making their dinners. Ise did all this and more. After her death in 1983, the Times remembered her as a “widow of the architect Walter Gropius and an archivist, interpreter and promoter of his work.” In the four-paragraph article, only the final sentence is devoid of any mention of Walter: “She is survived by a daughter, Ati Forberg Johansen of Brooklyn, and a granddaughter.”

Yet Ise was remarkable, and not only because Walter was remarkable. Ise was brave, she had vision, and she lived—completely and fully—according to her aesthetics. From her handmade headdresses to her carefully planted garden to her experiments with photography, Ise’s entire life was her art.

Ise met Walter Gropius in 1923 at a lecture in Hanover, Germany. Ise Frank was a typical bourgeois girl, unmarried but just days away from her wedding, when she ventured out one evening to attend a scholarly talk about a new artistic movement called the Bauhaus. Even though her family was relying on her impending marriage to secure their financial stability, Ise became smitten with Walter almost immediately. “Their eyes met across the lectern,” said Wendy Hubbard, site manager of the Gropius House for Historic New England located in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “He found out who she was, and he began to pursue her.” Ise, she explained, made the decision to cancel her wedding “without even meeting Walter formally. She hitched her future to something that wasn’t secure.”

Living room of the Gropius House, Lincoln, MA. Courtesy of Historic New England.

They married, and Ise officially became Mrs. Gropius, though family and friends often referred to her by another name: Mrs. Bauhaus. “Ise was the quintessential woman behind the man,” said Laura Johnson, also a curator at the Gropius House. “She was called Mrs. Bauhaus because that was the role she articulated for herself. She chose it actively.” Ise believed in the Bauhaus and its ideals: the celebration of everyday items, and the elevation of their designs by marrying form with function.

She began to style herself with the Bauhaus ideals in mind, becoming the walking, talking epitome of the style. She said that the Bauhaus “infected” her. Inspired by the modernist movement, Ise decided to bob her long hair so that she would look more modish. “Being contemporary was very important to her,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just about being wedded to Bauhaus. She changed her style all the time.”

Her emulation of Bauhaus style extended beyond personal presentation, and soon, Ise was collaborating with Walter on design projects. She contributed to the interior design (particularly the kitchen) for the famed Masters’ House in Dessau, where the couple lived briefly in the late 1920s before their move to Berlin. A few years later, terrified by the rise of Hitler and Nazism, the couple fled Germany on the pretext of taking a temporary visit to Italy for a film festival. (The National Socialist government shut down the progressive Bauhaus school in 1933.) After spending some time in Britain, they arrived in America in 1937. Walter accepted a position as professor of architecture at Harvard, and they settled in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a place where Ise’s career would both flounder and flourish.

Portrait of Walter and Ise Gropius. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Interior of the Gropius House, Lincoln, MA. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Ise began experimenting with photography and making jewelry, crafting a fierce and artful image of herself through self-portraits and her personal style. She’d drive down to the local hardware store in nearby Concord to pick up washers and wire, which she would fashion into earrings and headdresses.

Ise knew how to choose articles of clothing that would fit her body while suiting the Bauhaus aesthetic. She even thought about what cosmetics would go with her Bauhaus look, and what dresses would pair well with the modern style. “You can tell she had a strong personal aesthetic, and Walter contributed to her crafting of self,” Johnson added.

When she lived in Germany, Ise wrote several well-received essays on design, fashion, and technology (including one titled “Wie sieht die New Yorkerin aus?” or “What does the New York woman look like?”). Ise was a good editor and a strong communicator; she knew how to make Walter’s voice accessible and clear, and she had her own ideas to promote, too. Ise hoped to continue her work as an author in America, but one particularly devastating rejection got too far under her skin and dashed her dreams entirely.

In the late 1930s, Ise submitted an article to the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Grandma was a Career Girl,” which espoused the benefits of allowing women into the workplace. According to the Bauhaus Archives, the unnamed editor didn’t just decline to publish the article, but also derided her argument. In the rejection letter, Ise was informed that the magazine did not wish to support or promote the “dreadful idea” of working women. From there on, Ise did not seek to publish her own writing, and instead switched her focus to editing Walter’s articles.

Exterior of the Gropius House in Lincoln, MA. Courtesy of Historic New England.

In some ways, Ise retreated into the private sphere. She turned her efforts to gardening and homemaking, and to raising their daughter and hosting their artist friends, a group that included luminaries like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef and Anni Albers. And even though Ise didn’t have a separate career from her husband, she continued to work alongside Walter to advance the aims of the Bauhaus movement, and is largely responsible for turning their home into the headquarters—and embodiment—of the New England Bauhaus.

Walter designed their house in Lincoln to speak to the region’s traditional architecture in a modern way. Although the squat structure has little adornment, it fits with the big square farmhouses and the pitched roof colonials in the town, thanks to his use of local materials like white clapboard siding and fieldstone foundation.

“They took traditional materials and forms and gave them a twist, using them in new and creative ways,” Hubbard explained. “They used the house as a teaching school for students, clients, and colleagues. It was a business card in three dimensions.”

Ise had a strong role in taking care of the Lincoln house and in choosing items for it. “[Walter] called her ‘the majority,’” Hubbard continued. “He would say ‘the majority has spoken’ when she made a decision.” Everything from the furniture to Ise’s hat collection was part of this portfolio. The closets were left open so visitors could see Ise’s clothing. Their modern kitchen utensils, sleek-yet-comfortable furniture, and art collection (many works were gifted to them by fellow members of the Bauhaus) all aligned with the couple’s aesthetic principles. “In our house, esthetics were always a primary consideration,” remembered their daughter, Ati Gropius Johansen. “Every nook and cranny always had to be on display and picture-perfect.”

Portrait of Ise Gropius at the Breuer Home to celebrate Alexander Calder’s jewelry. Ise is wearing the necklace her daughter Ati made out of matchsticks and cellophane tape. Courtesy of the Gropius House, Historic New England.

After Walter died, Ise continued running the house like a museum. Though it was not officially open to the public, she frequently gave tours of the house to those interested in the ideals and aims of the Bauhaus movement. She also planned Grope Fest, which was in line with Walter’s final wishes:

“Cremate me, but ask not for the ashes. The piety for cinders is a half-way thing. Out with it. Wear no signs of mourning. It would be beautiful if all my friends of the present and of the past would get together in a little while for a fiesta—a la Bauhaus—drinking, laughing, loving. Then I shall surely join in, more than life. It is more fruitful than the graveyard oratory. Love is the essence of everything. Ise, you whom I have loved most, please put it order and manage my spiritual heritage, as to the property on hand, handle it as you see fit.”

Even in her grief, Ise was happy to oblige. She managed Walter’s estate ably. Ten years after his passing, Ise decided to donate the house, which she called her “small but perfect thing,” and all of their belongings to Historic New England, a nonprofit that preserves buildings and sites in the region for public use.

“They were part of this experimental group,” Hubbard said. “At the time, our society was an old and fuddy-duddy one that had very Colonial and Victorian properties. But Ise believed the house could be part of this modern movement, to be taught in the continuum of New England architecture.” She was right, and every year, thousands of visitors get to walk through the halls and marvel at their shared vision.

So many of the Bauhaus ideals have permeated our daily lives; we no longer notice a well-designed toaster or a simple yet elegant door handle. But if you look closely, you’ll see the genius of both Ise and Walter in every sleek hairbrush, every graceful armchair, and every black dinner plate. Ise was, to the end, a powerful force—a writer, an archivist, a supporter of the arts, and an artist in her own right.

Katy Kelleher