The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus – the legendary German design school widely acknowledged to be the fountainhead of modern design and architecture – is currently being celebrated with great gusto by the great and the good. According to Sir Norman Foster, ‘Bauhaus at its best was a revolution in the relationship between arts and crafts, aesthetics and functions, conceiving and making.’ Fellow super-architect Daniel Libeskind, who created the Jewish Museum in Berlin, eulogises: ‘Bauhaus, at its core, is about understanding the world and its wonder.’
The impact of the Bauhaus, its faculty and alumni, which included Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Anni Albers and Lazlo Moholy Nagy, is undeniable; and especially so when you consider that the school only lasted 14 years in Weimar and then Dessau from 1919 to 1933, when the Nazis closed the place down.
The Bauhaus philosophy to make explicit the links between architecture, design and art in the service of a startling industrial modernity gave rise to a modern movement in design, expressed through a sleek, pared-back, democratic elegance. Based on a minimalist logic, the unadorned doctrine of ‘less is more’ was designed to sweep away the old bourgeois order with its dated visual hierarchies and fussy decorations.
But while this new international style looked great in a Marianne Brandt teapot, it was more controversial when applied to large public buildings or complex instruction manuals once the Bauhaus masters decamped to America and the pace of 20th century modern life accelerated sharply. Visual hierarchies are actually very helpful, especially for older people with some sight or cognitive impairment.
Modern architects inspired by the Bauhaus removed grand, eye-catching entrances from public buildings (too bourgeois!) so that people struggled to find their way into the base of all those sleek, glass-and-steel office towers sprouting in every city. Graphic designers removed the decorative elements of type and communicated in the universal language of condensed small-print Helvetica that people found difficult to read; some modernist pioneers even wanted to do away altogether with the convention of full stops and capital letters.
By the time the post-modernism backlash fully got underway in the 1980s, modern design was being blasted from very corner. Tom Wolfe’s famous book From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) led the charge. Wolfe was flabbergasted that corporate America at the peak of its economic power should bow down before Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (named ‘White God No. 1’) and his doctrine. Wolfe was simply incredulous that a design style evolved for worker housing in the Weimar Germany amid the social strife of 1920s Europe should be so widely and unquestioningly adopted by post-war American big business.
Today, with the brief blowback of post-modernism blown out, we have again fallen in love with the modern aesthetic, although we now seem to prefer to the Scandi version rather than the Teutonic strain. As artist Michael Craig-Martin told The Observer, ‘It’s only half joking to say that Ikea is the realisation of the Bauhaus dream’. We also have a more balanced view of what works in design for an ageing society, a recognition that reductionist, pared-back simplicity can remove the very things that help to guide older people through places, pages or procedures.
Despite its short life, the Bauhaus has certainly aged well as an institution – to judge from the critical reception on its 100th birthday. It remains one of the enduring artistic treasures of the modern era. But, in the way that its core, easily-transmitted ideas were imitated by those with less skill than the original masters, its legacy also made life uncomfortable for many people for a long time.
credit: Unsplash, Ross Sokolovski
About the Author
Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, Director of WORKTECH Academy and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.
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