Think “Bauhaus” and what comes to mind? Geometric shapes? Primary colors? Sleek modern chairs in lobbies everywhere? All of those would be valid associations.
Founded by German architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus school aimed to unite art, craft, and industry. So it makes sense that common perceptions of the Bauhaus are largely aesthetic-driven and object-based (unless you immediately think of one of countless entities that have since cleverly adapted the name, from steamed-bun-selling Baohaus to doggie day cares named Bowhaus to modernist-home-gawking Wowhaus).
Across three locations in Germany and the span of 14 years, the Bauhaus cultivated vanguard painters, architects, textile artists, furniture makers, graphic designers, and other experimental thinkers not so easily classified. Their works have come to define modern art and design for many—even, or especially, after the Bauhaus’s forced closure at the hands of the Nazi party in 1933.
But the physical products of their pioneering thinking, as wide-ranging and, in some cases, widely known as they are, paint only one layer of the Bauhaus legacy.
How do you define a school that many consider a movement that challenged the foundations of design, art, and architecture? How do you examine the impact of its “avant-garde” and utopian visions in the context of today’s mass consumption and midcentury mania?
To understand the Bauhaus on its 100th birthday, Curbed talked to nearly a dozen design leaders hailing from various creative disciplines, who can help articulate the conscious and unconscious ways we experience the enduring effects of the iconic school.
From the most important way the Bauhaus changed design to its value in solving today’s biggest challenges, here’s what they had to say.
The interviews have been condensed and edited.
What is your first remembered encounter with the Bauhaus?
Barbara Bestor, architect, founder of Bestor Architecture: I was pretty young, [probably around 10]. Where I grew up there was the Busch-Reisinger Museum, an art and design museum, and there were these weird [light sculptures] by László Moholy-Nagy, paintings by Oskar Schlemmer. I most especially loved Paul Klee paintings and drawings.
Michael Bierut, graphic designer, partner at Pentagram: Freshman year of college was when I started encountering [the Bauhaus] as an idea. I distinctly remember a boss at one of my internships pointing at a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and saying, “What you want is to get two of these chairs and a glass coffee table and on that table you have to have this book.” And the book he was talking about was the famous book that MIT Press put out on the Bauhaus that, for most of my life, defined what that legacy was.
Maurice Blanks, cofounder of Blu Dot: I totally remember that one shot of the [Dessau Bauhaus building], the vertical “Bauhaus” in the foreground, and the long part of the building recedes. I saw that for the first time in Art History 101 in college. ... The building as the professors talked about it manifested a new way of looking at the world.
Jay Osgerby, designer, Barber & Osgerby: If you speak to any Brit who’s been to college, everyone will talk about their foundation year as being the year that really made them. The foundation in the U.K. is a year—sometimes two—after high school but before university when you get immersed in multiple disciplines of creative subjects. When I was 18, I did a foundation at Oxford University in the arts- and design-related subjects. They borrowed [the curriculum] from the Bauhaus. The first thing we did was study [Johannes] Itten and color theory. Then we did painting, ceramics, sculpture, fashion design, costume design, industrial design. All of these are kind of quick, two- or three-week or up to half-term sessions where you really learn about that topic. Then at the end of that academic year, you choose which course to go on to study for a degree.
Elizabeth Timme, architect, cofounder of LA Más: When we got to [learning about the Bauhaus at undergrad at USC], it was like a breath of fresh air because all of a sudden we were talking about gestalt [a theory that says the whole is more than the sum of its parts]. As a student, this was the first time I heard anyone talk about perception or the phenomenological. This was the first time it was even hinted that there was this study of something through the engagement with it as a person.
Dong-Ping Wong, architect, founding director of FOOD: I’m sure the first time I learned about it was undergrad. ... The first time I was actually influenced by it was seeing one of the chairs. And you don’t even necessarily associate it with Bauhaus. It’s just kind of so ubiquitous now. You just associate it with, Oh, that’s what design is.
How do Bauhaus principles show up in your work today?
Malene Barnett, designer, artist, and founder of the Black Artists + Designers Guild: I’m constantly going between craft and fine art. I don’t want to be caught in one medium or even one discipline. The idea that as an artist, we’re constantly evolving — I want to be able to explore as many mediums, disciplines, techniques as possible. Each one allows me to bring my voice to the public in a different way.
Maurice Blanks: The intent to express, or the desire not to repress, the industrial production, the things that are inherent in the production process. With [Blu Dot’s] Real Good Chair, perforations become ornaments. They are what make the chair.
Debbie Millman, writer, host of the podcast Design Matters: The strongest tenet of the Bauhaus, to me, is that everything in a person’s life can be deliberately designed, that it can all come together to create this sort of higher sense of spirituality and meaning. That’s how I try to live my life. Believe it or not, that’s my religion.
Elizabeth Timme: If you go into our office, we have 10 materials drawers and at the bottom we have over 300 buckets of colored paint because we’re that obsessive about color. We study it in a way that is directly inspired by Josef Albers and also Itten, by proxy. ... When we’re working on storefronts [with the Watts Community Studio] and the store owner comes out and sees it for the first time, in every instance they’re overcome, because color has this way to remind you of your history, your values, and your context. It carries with it the psychological and also the experiential. It never would have occurred to me to be that explicit or intentional about color if I hadn’t been taught gestalt and if I hadn’t read Albers’s book The Interaction of Color.
Harriet Wallace-Jones, textile designer, cofounder of Wallace Sewell: The Bauhaus did massive exercises in playing with materials, playing with forms. [Emma Sewell] and I have this incredible link in that way. ... We both had fantastic grounding in those wonderful principles: color theory, thinking about proportions, thinking about how you divide up a rectangle. We think quite like painters.
What’s your favorite Bauhaus design?
Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro professor of art history and archaeology, director of undergraduate studies at Columbia University, MoMA curator, and author of Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity: My favorite thing is often the last thing I’ve been thinking about. Since I just finished a book on Marcel Breuer, I’m very keen on his designs. I long to have a set of his nesting tables. There’s an incredible simplicity to his work and an incredible pursuit of a key idea. The key idea in all his experiments with tubular steel is he wanted to figure out if he could make the material almost act as if he was drawing it and look like he never lifted his pencil from the paper.
Barbara Bestor: Breuer’s beautiful projects on the Cape Cod seashore, with color planes. They’re like the Barcelona Pavilions of Cape Cod.
Michael Bierut: I remember the late Tibor Kalman, a graphic designer whom I admired quite a bit, used to send me a presentation where he would say, “These are the rules of graphic design.” One of them was, “Never stack type.” What that means is, you’re never supposed to take capital letters and array them from top to bottom, like you’re filling out the down squares of a crossword puzzle, because the type isn’t designed to align that way. But Tibor would show that slide and then the very next slide would be the exterior of the Dessau building, which has that big sign on it, B-A-U-H-A-U-S stacked vertically. That image, as a graphic designer, is both an example of beautiful classic graphic design, on one hand, and a lesson on how there are no rules. Any rule you have is capable of being broken beautifully.
Debbie Millman: It would be László Moholy-Nagy’s posters. The typography is spectacular. He really opened up graphic design in an entirely new way.
Michael Rock, graphic designer, partner at 2x4: A diagram I often refer to is one Herbert Bayer made of this guy in a suit, but instead of a head he has one big eyeball—a very well-dressed eyeball. And then there’s this big array of screens that are all angled toward him. That became a really essential diagram for the 20th century because if you think about it, the normal quality of the city required you move through space to find information. But this new model was this eyeball fixed in one space and all the information was pointed toward it. It was like presupposing this new media landscape wherein information comes to you rather than you having to navigate it.
Who’s an unsung Bauhaus hero we should be paying more attention to?
Barry Bergdoll: The person we should be paying more attention to is Hannes Meyer. The history of the Bauhaus for us, in U.S. terms, was written by Gropius and, to a certain extent, Mies. And so they’re writing out Hannes Meyer’s engagement. His whole position of architectural, social, and scientific research—which I think people would find much more attuned to a lot of current positions—has unfairly been diminished. That certainly was not the case in the Soviet Union since Hannes Meyer went there. Under Hannes Meyer, the Bauhaus had a much more environmental approach and a much more holistic approach. It dealt more with everything to do with the body—the physical body to the psychological rhythms of the body—as a scientific base for design. Certainly, that’s something that resonates with the challenges of today.
Barbara Bestor: Lots of women: Söre Popitz’s graphics; Anni Albers’s textile designs; Lilly Reich, who designed all of Mies van der Rohe’s interiors and furniture and is severely under-recognized!
Michael Bierut: If you see [Josef Albers’s] sketches and preliminary work, you realize what beautiful thought he put into those things. He also has this sensational quote, “I paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel.” The exhibit I saw of Anni Albers’s work at the Tate was just flabbergasting—it so vividly presented the irregularities of weaving combined with this absolute precision of the choices of the colored threads. She’s not as well known as she should be, and he’s not as respected—or not as understood—as he should be, given that it’s easy to look at that work and not really see the depth behind it.
Debbie Millman: I would say without a doubt László Moholy-Nagy. He learned a lot about photography from his wife, Lucia, and so I think she’s definitely an unsung person in that realm. ... Lucia Moholy was definitely a big, big part of László’s life, but didn’t get nearly as much attention as he did, and she was very actively involved in the Bauhaus and his practice.
Michael Rock: I’m really drawn to Herbert Bayer. His typography and photomontage are really important. Bayer was so good at so many things: He drew beautiful diagrams, incredible letterforms, and he did typographic compositions. To me, he’s the ultimate Bauhausian in the sense of establishing certain principles and coherence to his work, which he was able to employ across platforms.
What’s the most quintessential quality of the Bauhaus?
Malene Barnett: The idea of designing with a purpose, designing intentionally for the particular purpose—thinking more about the end use, how these products and spaces will be used.
Barry Bergdoll: My big point—and I’m not so sure I would’ve been able to make this point before spending a couple of years researching for a Bauhaus exhibition at MoMA—is that the Bauhaus was a school. It wasn’t a movement. It wasn’t a style. It was a school. It was the most famous, or the most successful, of the experimental art schools after the First World War that wanted to break with the notion that if you want to become an artist, you copy great examples of things, whether it’s nature or the body or orders of architecture. Rather, the Bauhaus tried to find a method where the making of forms or the making of any creation came from the combination of some set of inner psychological urges and understanding of fundamental flaws of form.
Barbara Bestor: This mothership model, where many arts are under one roof and are in conversation with each other—so textiles, industrial design, architecture, painting are all related. And I do think that is in reality what the world is, and yet, in our contemporary moment, we’ve become really splintered and specialized and you lose out from not being in constant contact with each other.
Michael Bierut: There’s a kind of first-year design school awkwardness to them. That Breuer tube chair or Bayer’s Universal Alphabet projects—those weren’t refined pieces of design. There is a kind of rigor and clarity to it, but is still humanist.
Jay Osgerby: What’s very, very hard for us, 100 years on, is to look at the Bauhaus’s work with the eyes of someone from 1920 or from 1922. Because what the Bauhaus created is our modern vernacular for almost everything from architecture to tubular steel furniture. I’m actually sitting here talking to you from a tubular steel chair! In all honesty, it could have come from the Bauhaus. Just think how radical these things were at the time.
Harriet Wallace-Jones: Playing with that absolute rhythm of proportion. It’s this thing about the golden section and how things actually work within a rectangle and how it’s comfortable and harmonious. What is really amazing about many of the Bauhaus pieces to me is: You don’t know why they work, but they do.
Dong-Ping Wong: I think worldwide, it’s just the aesthetics of it. It’s a style that translates into virtually any context, which means it’s really easily commodifiable, a really easy thing to buy. It’s why I think all the industrial design products from the Bauhaus era do really well. They’re like the blue-chip [versions] of what design is now. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. Bauhaus’s role in commodifying design has really helped pigeonhole what most people understand “design” to be.
What’s the most important way the Bauhaus changed design?
Malene Barnett: The idea of the merging of art and craft. What the Bauhaus was doing was: We are all one, we’re creators, and this is how we can create as a community. Currently it’s starting to come back, but there’s been a period where it’s been so separate. The word “multidisciplinary” is used so much more now.
Barbara Bestor: It wasn’t just a school. In a way, they did a pretty early version of branding. It helped to coalesce a whole lot of disparate murmurings of modernism across different disciplines and give them a much bigger voice.
Maurice Blanks: It offered and hoped for an artistic expression through industrial production, rather than stand by and let things be as efficient and banal as they could possibly be.
Debbie Millman: The Bauhaus changed design by really introducing the concept that design is not a discipline unto itself. I think we see that now with the modern practice of branding. Branding is the result of a journey of positioning. That positioning is done verbally, visually, economically, anthropologically, psychologically. All of these things together to create the brand, or the design, and that is very much an original tenet that was first brought to life in the Bauhaus.
Elizabeth Timme: The Bauhaus is the beginning of all of us having a conversation about the value of design and making it an accessible conversation for the everyday person. Before this moment, design was a kind of relegated to a few people or to a series of salons or to artists in their own community. The birth of the diagram, as the Bauhaus used it, was a tool to investigate something and also was a way to engage a larger audience about design.
Harriet Wallace-Jones: I think it just made things more honest. It made us really think about aesthetic and materials. It’s all about really, really looking at how things work in a space and in a particular environment.
What’s something the Bauhaus did not do so well?
Malene Barnett: If we’re talking about that period of time, the reality is: How many people of color were actually involved during that time? The voices, representations, and points of view of the world were not present. The idea of wanting to bring the disciplines together was great, but then the idea of bringing all the voices and people together didn’t happen.
Jay Osgerby: The problem with the Bauhaus, unfortunately, is what it ended up doing was creating novelties for a new bourgeois rather than great things for everybody. The ethos of good design for everybody doesn’t really work. You could argue that the pursuit of that ideal became monetized rather than intellectually pursued. One of the key things that presents itself to us as designers—who really are the point of making a difference whether it’s for good or for bad—is the promotion of more stuff.
Elizabeth Timme: When I look at great architects doing projects in Los Angeles, there are all these chess pieces, like a library, museum, or court house. The [architects] don’t engage the local population, they don’t understand how to engage the street, they don’t have any concept of how a building is urban. I think that’s a real byproduct of the way we have relegated design to being the gestalt of an object. Architects don’t have any concept of how to be contextual or engage because we’ve been designing in this kind of object-based vacuum. That’s a sad outcome of the Bauhaus—if it did all these purest diagrams and the idea was to study and to communicate, but really what it did was confirm to a bunch of white male architects that they could study things in a vacuum and that they could make a perfect object and then they could sell that thing.
Harriet Wallace-Jones: What I’m disappointed by is the fact that it wasn’t completely egalitarian. The women produced the most amazing work, but they pushed themselves and they had to fight. They were basically not really allowed to be in any other department but the weaving department. I always assumed this amazing art school that was so seminal to art schools today would show how equal everything can be, and apparently it wasn’t.
Dong-Ping Wong: I think the same thing that made it really successful—the aesthetic side—always felt a little narrow. The reason it translates so easily is because the Bauhaus style is pretty defined. You know it when you see it. It makes for a very sellable design object. But it also makes what people think is design very limiting—if it doesn’t look like that, is it really design?
What’s the most Bauhausian product we interact with today?
Malene Barnett: I think of Knoll, and I think of furniture in general, because that’s the most accessible to people.
Barbara Bestor: Floor-to-ceiling glass.
Debbie Millman: I’m thinking about the ways in which branding has permeated pretty much every single part of our lives. Maybe starting with the civil rights movement and the peace sign and then the AIDS ribbons. It’s become much more bottom up than top down. With things like Time’s Up, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter, humans are using the very tenets of branding not for profit, not for market share, not for shelf presence, not for return on investment, but to further their own ideas about what the world should be and what’s right and righteous.
Elizabeth Timme: My personal opinion is this idea of gestalt. Most people assume that there’s an inherent value to the thing that they are interacting with and they assume that there’s a totality to something, like a total kind of symbolism or a total artifact. Like the iPhone, iPod, or iPad. It’s an organized, total, whole thing.
Dong-Ping Wong: An iPhone. Apple feels like a new version of the Bauhaus, with its aesthetic, global reach, its pared-down nature. I can’t think of much else that really embodies what total design could be more than the iPhone—you really use it for everything, it’s with you at all times, it touches every aspect of your life.
What are the most pressing issues facing designers today? Are the teachings of this 100-year-old school relevant in addressing them?
Malene Barnett: What’s most pressing now is that we need to have different points of view in design and not be so focused on trying to assimilate to what we think good design is. There are many forms of good design and they all need to be celebrated, and there’s not enough of that. If we’re only focusing on one particular group that’s going to experience this work, then we’re not really solving the problem of designing for the masses.
Barry Bergdoll: I don’t know that we need to go to the Bauhaus in order to respond to the challenges of the day. I don’t think the Bauhaus could imagine the environmental disaster of our own making we’re living in right now, our own inability to find a response that’s in any way adequate to the drama of climate change, pollution, and the way we’re destroying the possibilities of ourselves being on this planet.
You could go back and look at an object lesson of how the Bauhaus struggled with how one can be a politically engaged designer, because a desire for political engagement and the desire to survive through party politics is writ very large in the history of the Bauhaus. We’re in a period that we worry might have a lot of similarities to the early 1930s, which led to the closing of the Bauhaus. It’s very easy to judge Gropius or Hannes Meyer or Mies for being timid when it came to asserting a left-wing agenda. That was always present as an idea at the core of the Bauhaus, but was to the peril of it as an institution in the shifting political climate, particularly in a climate that was shifting rapidly to the right from about 1928 onward.
Barbara Bestor: I think today the most pressing question is how to create a whole lot of high-quality housing that is compressed, but also creates really strong communities, as opposed to a crappy warehousing of people. One of the main reasons people are into modernism is for the larger social good—improving the lives of everybody, not just rich people. Now we need to look into the entire reason for the modern movement—the sense of sharing high-quality life with everyone, making that possible for everyone through design, that’s what we need more of.
Maurice Blanks: A lot of the problems that we face today are rooted in technology and industrial production. [In the Bauhaus], there was anxiety about what this new technology meant for the built environment, what it meant for the workers. There was also an optimism that this was a new future. We’re in a similar spot. Technology can do many things (maybe we can 3D-print a house or city one day) but there’s also a lot of concern about consumerism and overproduction. Uncertainty about tech was both a fear and inspiration for Bauhaus. One hundred years later, we’re still really uncertain with our relationship with tech.
Jay Osgerby: The Bauhaus wasn’t just concerned with ideology and the intellectual pursuit of a dream; they were also practical people who actually created objects themselves. And so maybe the message is about choosing wisely, buying and consuming a lot less, and actually maybe even becoming more content to create our own objects. In a way, just being smarter about what we consume, what we design, and what gets produced.
Dong-Ping Wong: The most direct one is, as impossible as it is, climate change. I do think the idea of thinking internationally, the idea of thinking in a way that could be mass... if not produced, then certainly mass-received, like mass-effective. That to me is gigantic. Finding ways of really creating change without huge expense, in ways that are very repeatable, in ways that are very accessible to as many people as possible. That as a philosophy is still very relevant.