The Bauhaus: The design utopia we’re still living in

Bauhaus in Dessau.
Bauhaus in Dessau.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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It’s been 100 years since architect Walter Gropius transformed a cloistered German art school into arguably the most influential modern design academy in history. Built on utopian principles, the Bauhaus sounded like a creative wunderland: Printing! Carpentry! Dance! Ceramics! Painting! Have we mentioned dance?

Image: Giphy

The Bauhaus bubble lasted for only 14 years, but its influence reverberates in just about every aspect of modern life today. For better or worse, its DNA is manifest in minimalist home furniture, the shape of tech products, whimsical Halloween costumes, and boxy architecture all over the world.

A century after its founding, you might ask, why do we still bow to the Bauhaus?

Bauhaus basics

The Bauhaus—literally “school of building”—was a German avant-garde arts and crafts academy. Inaugurated six months after the end of World War I, the school encouraged artists and designers to use their talents to help rebuild the broken society.  

With Germany in total ruins, many thought it was time to start from scratch. The Bauhaus grammar—a triangle, a square, and a circle—evoked this back-to-the-basics mentality. They challenged everything, including the usual method of schooling. Gropius borrowed the idea of gesamtkunstwerk, or “synthesis of the arts, from composer Richard Wagner, envisioning a school that would  “unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting.” (Architects today love dropping the term.)

Gropius instructed students to leave behind “sentimental, aesthetically decorative conceptions… drawn mostly from past cultures.” Shedding decorative cruft built up over generations meant studying the “nature” of objects and designing from that. You can easily draw a line from the Bauhaus to the iPod—Steve Jobs said as much in 1983 when he addressed the International Design Conference at the Aspen Design Institute, which is part of the Bauhaus diaspora.

The Nazis thought the school’s rejection of traditional aesthetics was a rejection of Germanic pride. They chased down the Bauhaus from Weimar, to Dessau, then finally to Berlin, where it was forced to shut down in 1933—and in doing so, spread its influence throughout the world.

How did Bauhaus become a super-brand?

Designing products for mass production had been core to the Bauhaus’s founding principles. With the slogan “Art into Industry,” workshops produced handsome steel-frame chairs, charming kitchenware, and textiles. This made the Bauhaus design philosophy portable. After the Nazi crackdown, outposts popped up in the UK, Switzerland, Israel, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, the US, and elsewhere around the world.

Walter Gropius in 1933.
Walter Gropius in 1933.
Image: AP Photo

Founder Walter Gropius ended up at Harvard University where, with help from a Museum of Modern Art exhibition, he elevated the Bauhaus to mythic status. Director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was lured to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago; his plan for the campus is a modernist icon. Bauhaus-trained artist László Moholy-Nagy set up the School of Design in Chicago, which was absorbed into IIT. (It’s probably not coincidental that a major popularizer of modernist design was fellow Chicagoan Hugh Hefner.)

Bauhaus design also fit the post-World War II era, when swords were beaten into cars, refrigerators, TVs, houses, and other chrome and steel delights. The war revolutionized assembly-line manufacturing, and when it was over, the Bauhaus style was there waiting to turn this new industrial revolution into an artistic impulse for a middle class that was about to explode. “It’s only half joking to say that IKEA is the realisation of the Bauhaus dream,” artist Michael-Craig Martin told The Guardian. And as its ideas spread, corporations found that the clean break the Bauhaus made with tradition also meant that it crossed borders, an appeal in an increasingly international economy, and a major reason why it speaks to so many people today.

Watch and learn

Quartz’s Michael Tabb followed the Bauhaus breadcrumbs—from Dessau to Harvard University—and exhumes the school’s true legacy. Watch his fascinating primer through the lens of fonts.

Key dates

1918: World War I ends with the Treaty of Versailles.
1919: Gropius merges Weimar’s Grand-Ducal Saxon College of Fine Arts and the Academy of Fine Art into the “Bauhaus,” from the “Bauhütte,” a medieval guild of craftsmen who built cathedrals.
1923: The school’s first large-scale exhibition opens in Weimar.
1932: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe moves the school into a derelict factory in Berlin.
1933: The Bauhaus shuts down.
1937: László Moholy-Nagy arrives in Chicago and becomes director of The New Bauhaus.
1938: Walter Gropius arrives in Harvard University, Bauhaus: 1919–1928, MoMA’s incomplete retrospective of the Bauhaus opens at the underground mall in Rockefeller Center.
1972: The District Court of Mannheim rejects the Bauhaus Archive’s petition to ban other companies from using “Bauhaus” in their name.
1979: The Bauhaus Archive opens in Berlin.
1981: Bauhaus Roppongi, Tokyo’s largest rock concert venue, opens.
2009: Baohaus opens on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
2019: A new Bauhaus museum opens in Weimar and another in Dessau is to open in September.

Bauhaus school spirit

Image for article titled The Bauhaus: The design utopia we’re still living in
Image: Photo by Apic/Getty Images

Costume parties were taken very seriously at the Bauhaus. During frigid German winters when dancing was considered a “health requirement,” students and teachers tried to outdo one another with their outfits. Painter Oskar Schlemmer, head of the school’s theater workshop, became patron saint of these bacchanals. His design for the Triadic Ballet—or “ballet of geometry” has been the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust’s jumpsuit , Nicki Minaj’s “Barbie Tingz” and many, many

By the numbers

24,000 Size of the Bauhaus’s Weimar vegetable garden in sq. meters.
$361,000 Amount paid for a 1927 tea infuser designed by Bauhaus master Marianne Brandt.
52 €  Average price of an overnight stay at one of the original Bauhaus work-live studios at Dessau-Roßlau,
32,696 Entries in Harvard Art Museum’s Bauhaus collection.
131 Bauhaus sites in Germany listed in the “Grand Tour of Modernism” tourism campaign.
11 Bauhaus sites across Germany included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
250 Branches of the Swiss-registered home-improvement chain Bauhaus.

A European home improvement chain of the same name.
A European home improvement chain of the same name.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich

4,000+ Number of buildings built in the Bauhaus style in Tel Aviv’s White City.

How to spot authentic Bauhaus furniture

Signet designed by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922
Signet designed by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922
Image: The Bauhaus Archives, Berlin

Knockoffs of Bauhaus furniture abound. The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin is the only body that can authorize editions of the original Bauhaus furniture. Certified pieces, like those by the German manufacturer TECTA, are stamped with a signet designed by the school’s Master of Form Oskar Schlemmer.

Pop quiz

Which top menswear designer cites the Bauhaus as a big influence?

a. Virgil Abloh
b. Ralph Lauren
c. Tom Ford
d. Tommy Hilfiger

Persons of interest: The Bigwigs of Bauhaus

The Bauhaus produced many superstars—including trailblazing female artists and designers. Here’s a shortlist to get you started.

Image for article titled The Bauhaus: The design utopia we’re still living in
Image: Courtesy of Bauhaus 100

Walter Gropius
Subject: Architecture
Essential: Buried alive for three days during World War I; founded the Bauhaus
Party fact: Was married to Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler
Quotable: “Specialists are people who always repeat the same mistakes.”

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Subject: Architecture, furniture
Essential: Designer of the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, Chicago Federal Center, Seagram Building
Party fact: Born Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, changed his name to sound more noble
Quotable: “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”

Marianne Brandt
Subject: Industrial design, painting, photography
Essential: Designer of beautiful minimalist home goods
Party fact: First woman to join the Bauhaus metal workshop; later appointed head of that workshop
Quotable: “At first I was not accepted with pleasure—there was no place for a woman in a metal workshop, they felt…How many little hemispheres did I most patiently hammer out of brittle new silver, thinking that was the way it had to be and all beginnings are hard?”

Anni Albers
Subject:  Textiles, print-making
Essential: Founded art department at Black Mountain College with husband Josef Albers
Party fact: Once had an “anti-precious” jewelry line
Quotable: “The human brain is a computer. Total chaos is not human.”

Image: Giphy

Wassily Kandinsky
Subject: Painting, art theory
Essential: Pioneer of abstract art, painter of dorm room favorite Squares with Concentric Circles
Party fact: Kandinsky was a synaesthete and could hear colors and see sounds
Quotable: “Everything starts from a dot.”

Tel Aviv, Bauhaus hotspot

“There are so many Bauhaus buildings, you might not notice them,” wrote illustrator Maira Kalman, who spent her childhood in Tel Aviv. In the 1930s, German-Jewish architects fled to Israel’s Mediterranean coast and created “White City,” where the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings can be found.

A Bauhaus building at 35 Petah Tikwa Road in Tel Aviv.
A Bauhaus building at 35 Petah Tikwa Road in Tel Aviv.
Image: Reuters/Nir Elias

Bauhausers resisted being identified by a single style—after all, the style is supposed to emerge from purpose. Boiling down architecture to its essence inevitably produced some identifiers of Bauhaus, which are on display in Tel Aviv. You’ll find boxy shapes, unadorned white facades, flat roofs, and the basic shapes of the form: square, circle, triangle. But purpose requires adaptation, and many feature small recessed windows to deflect the Mediterranean heat and glare. Many apartment buildings were erected on raised pillars to allow cool air to course through them.

The Bauhaus backlash

Not everyone was sold on the Bauhaus. Critics decry its characteristic plain surfaces, mechanical rules, and sterile forms. Among the Bauhaus’s most colorful critics is Tom Wolfe, who in 1981 penned a 143-page rant titled From Bauhaus to Our House. “Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery,” Wolfe wrote.

Look at this: Bauhaus road show

“Wohnmaschine” on tour.
“Wohnmaschine” on tour.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

There is a 15-square-meter (161 square-foot) replica of the Bauhaus Dessau building somewhere in the world today. Apart from being a cute, traveling billboard for the Bauhaus centennial, the “Wohnmaschine” also serves as a gathering place for questioning what  modernity really means.

DIY: How to Bauhaus

Image: Giphy

Art History Teaching Resources has a list of Bauhaus exercises for your own classroom (or house party, if that’s your thing).

Pop quiz answer. a. Virgil Abloh, recently named creative director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, studied a Mies van der Rohe-derived curriculum at the Mies-designed Illinois Institute of Technology.