The Bauhaus, considered by many as the most influential design school in modern history, opened its doors 100 years ago this month.
The small school in Weimar served as a beacon during the post-World War I malaise in Germany. Founder Walter Gropius proposed that by unifying art and design under one roof, students could direct their talents toward rebuilding a broken society. “Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline,” he wrote in the school’s heart-thumping manifesto. “[The Bauhaus] will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”
Many world-famous artists and designers studied or taught at the Bauhaus, among them Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Anni and Josef Albers, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marianne Brandt, Herbert Bayer, and Marcel Breuer.
The mystique of the Bauhaus also hinges on its dramatic demise. Nazis despised the school’s avant-garde experimentation and rejection of traditional German aesthetics. They forced the school to move its campus several times. From Weimar, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, then finally to Berlin, where they finally closed in 1933. But the Bauhauser school spirit couldn’t be totally quashed. In fact, students and masters spread the school’s ideas when they immigrated to the UK, Switzerland, the US, Israel, Russia, and other places around the world.
Today, the Bauhaus influence can be seen in minimalist home furniture, fashion, graphic design, modern buildings, and the shape of entire cities. Amid this great inventory of products, some worry that the school’s original intent may be lost. The history of the Bauhaus is a lesson in how easily earnest action can be co-opted by the commercial.
“There was always a tension in the Bauhaus between the aesthetic and the functional,” MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll tells Quartz. “I think it came to the surface when the public began to talk ‘Bauhaus style.’ People at the Bauhaus were extremely upset because their aim really was almost non-style. What they were creating was almost a necessity of the conditions of modernity and was not at all anything so frivolous as style, which for them meant fashion.”
On its centennial, Bauhaus champions are trying to exhume the school’s true legacy. It’s not the curvy forms or primary colors, but a fundamental philosophy: that good design can be source of renewal and hope.
Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.
Click here for previous stories.