What is Bauhaus Design?

Aesthetics, Design

Ever since I visited the Bauhaus archive and museum in Berlin many years ago, I am a fan of Bauhaus design. However, my understanding of what „Bauhaus design“ actually is was rather vague. In the last months I had the opportunity to visit many further exhibitions which are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. These exhibitions and reading up on the topic have lead me to a deeper understanding about what is specific about Bauhaus design. In this article I will explain the historic background, typical characteristics of Bauhaus architecture, product design and graphic design. I will also discuss reasons for why the Bauhaus became one of the most influential design schools of the 20th century.

The Bauhaus was a German design school, active from 1919 to 1933 subsequently in the cities Weimar (1919 – 1925), Dessau (1925 – 1932), and Berlin (1932 – 1933). The relocations and final closing of the school were due to pressure from the rising Nazi party, who were opposed to the liberal views and the internationality of staff and students at the school. At the Bauhaus many contemporary trends in art, design, and architecture were taken up, amalgamated and further developed into what would become modern design.

At different times, different personalities were active at the Bauhaus. This makes it difficult to talk about it as one homogenous school of thought on design. At least four phases can be identified with different emphases:

1919 – 1922: Expressionist and handicraft phase: Architect Walter Gropius founded the school in Weimar with the aim of teaching all applied art disciplines required for furnishing buildings („Bau“ means building, „-haus“ means house). In contrast to academic art schools of that time, students were educated in handicrafts in workshops. The concept of artist-craftsmen/artisans had previously already been advocated by the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten introduced and lead the seminal „Vorkurs“ (preliminary course) in which students learned to design with colors and materials in a playful experimental way. The work of students followed the aesthestic of expressionism, the dominant art movement in Germany at that time.

1923 – 1928: Constructivist geometric phase: When Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy took over the Vorkurs (together with Josef Albers), he introduced concepts from Russian Constructivism. Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg gave lectures at the Bauhaus in which he introduced the De Stijl art movement. The Bauhaus started to cooperate with companies that industrially produced prototypes developed in the workshops. The combination of these three influences resulted in the design style which is most associated with the Bauhaus today.

1928 – 1930: Industrial design for the people phase: Architect Hannes Meyer was appointed second director of the Bauhaus in Dessau. He criticized the dogmatic following of the prevailing Bauhaus style, and advocated for more functionality. Holding socialist views, he also criticized that the Bauhaus up to that time had mainly designed luxury products for the rich. During that time the most profitable cooperations between the Bauhaus and companies took place, notably with the company Rasch for the Bauhaus wallpaper.

1930 – 1933: Architectural phase: When the third Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, again an architect by profession, took over, he reformed the Bauhaus into an architecture school.

As already explained, the second of these four phases is the one for which Bauhaus design is most known today. My further discussion will focus on this phase, with many aspects also being relevant for the more functional third phase. Specific design characterstics can be noted for architecture, product design, and graphic design. Paintings associated with the Bauhaus tend to have individual abstract and expressionist styles of the corresponding artists (namely Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, all of them teachers a the school). Other art genres such as Bauhaus textile design and Bauhaus dance are not considered here.

All three Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were architects by profession. Strangely the Bauhaus only started giving courses on architecture in 1927 when Gropius appointed Meyer for this function. During their time as directors they were given several building commissions. Usually the Bauhaus workshops were then involved in furnishing the buildings.

Typical characteristics of the designed houses are:

  • The buildings are made up of cuboids with flat roofs.
  • Exterior and often also interior walls are colored white.
  • There are no ornamental elements. This property of modern architecture had notably been advocated by Austrian architect Adolf Loos in his 1910 lecture Ornament and Crime.
  • The buildings often have large window fronts.
  • The buildings were ususally designed to include a contemporary high standard of sanitary and heating installations.

As an example, the photo below shows the Meisterhaus Kandinsky/Klee in Dessau, 1925 by Walter Gropius. The building exhibits all characteristics listed above. It was one of several buildings that Gropius designed for senior staff of the Bauhaus in Dessau. (Photo source: Thomas Wolf / Wüstenrot Stiftung)

Other examples of typical Bauhaus architecture are:

  • Haus am Horn in Weimar, 1923, designed by Bauhaus student Georg Muche. The house and its interior design served as a first public demonstration of Bauhaus work.
  • Bauhaus Dessau, 1925, by Walter Gropius. The building was designed to accomodate the school as it moved to Dessau.
  • The White City in Tel Aviv, 1930s, by diverse architects. These 4000 buildings were designed by Jewish former Bauhaus students who fled from the rise of the Nazis to Israel.

Bauhaus style architecture would later be seen as a part of International Style architecture. All three Bauhaus directors were featured in the defining 1932 exhibiton at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York: Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and the influential associated book/catalogue.

As in architecture, products designed at the Bauhaus had a specific style and influenced product design thereafter. Typical characteristics of the designed products are:

  • Objects are assembled from basic shapes such as spheres, cubes, cones etc. Students were encouraged to rethink products starting from their basic functionality. This lead to geometric, minimalist designs that broke with the traditional forms of such products. The principle of geometric construction was adapted from Russian Constructivism.
  • Often only a basic color palette is used, consisting of the primary colors red, blue, and yellow and the achromatic colors white, grey, and black. This color scheme was adopted from the De Stijl art movement were it was intended to be universal i.e. objective and international.
  • Designed products were intended to be industrially mass produced. This resulted in simple products without ornamental elements. Industrial materials, namely metal and glass, were used in new ways. The demand for the development of product designs appropriate for industrial manufacturng had previously been made by the Deutscher Werkbund, of which Walter Gropius was also a member.

The photo below shows a typical Bauhaus product, the Table lamp WG24, 1924, by Wilhelm Wagenfeld. It notably shows the construction from geometric elements and the use of the industrial materials metal and glass. (Photo source: Tecnolumen)

The photo below shows a cradle designed by Peter Kehler in 1922. It shows the construction from geometric elements and the use of primary colors. (Photo Source: Klassik Stiftung Weimar).

Other typical product designs of the Bauhaus are:

  • Chess pieces, 1924, by Josef Hartwig. Showing geometric construction. Black and natural wood are the only colors.
  • Tea Infuser, 1924, by Marianne Brandt. Showing geometric construction and new use of metal. Black is used as the only color
  • Wassily Chair (model B3), 1925, by Marcel Breuer. Showing geometric construction and innovative use of steel pipes. Black is used as the only color.

Similar principles as in architecture and product design were also applied in graphic design. Typical characteristics of Bauhaus graphic design products are:

  • Sans serif fonts and geometric sans serif fonts were used, notably Schelter & Giesecke (breite halbfette) Grotesk and in later years Futura (1927 by Paul Renner, not himself active at the Bauhaus). Diverse bespoke headline fonts were designed. These were typically geometrically constructed. Notable examples are Herbert Bayers’s draft for an universal font (1925), based on a circle shape, and Josef Albers stencil font Schablonierschrift (realized together with Paul Renner as Futura Black) and the modular Kombinationsschrift (1928).
  • Efforts were made in standardization, both in standardization of fonts as well as in paper formats according to DIN (Deutsches Insitut für Normung) specifications.
  • Only small case letters were used in texts. This was introduced at the Bauhaus in 1925.
  • Few ornamental non-textual elements were used, with the exception of horizontal and vertical bars.
  • Often red was used as the only color with otherwise black on white content.
  • Black and white photography was used instead of previously used printed graphics. Photographs were usually held in an objective tone. This documentary style called Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) was introduced at the Bauhaus by Lucia Moholy, and later perfected outside the Bauhaus notably by Albert Renger-Patzsch. A contrasting type of photography at the Bauhaus was Neues Sehen (new seeing), which often took on unusual perspectives in an experimental way. This type of photography was favored by Lázló Moholy-Nagy.

Moholy-Nagy’s style of graphic design was influenced notably by constructivist El Lissitzky and dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Outside the Bauhaus, this graphic style was further refined by Jan Tschichold and became known as Neue Typografie (new typography) or Elementare Typografie (elementary typography). Nazi propaganda took up some of the elements of this style notably in propaganda posters. Swiss typographers took up many elements in the 1950s into Swiss Style typography.

The picture below shows Herbert Bayer’s design for an universal font. The font consists only of small case letters. Such geometric fonts based on a circle shape are most associated with the Bauhaus today.

The picture below shows a typical example of Bauhaus graphic design, an advertisement brochure for the city of Dessau by Joost Schmidt, 1926.

Other typical examples of Bauhaus graphic design are:

Some of the Bauhaus designs listed above still look great from today’s perspective. However, the dogmatically geometric construction of some designs make them seem somewhat clunky and unergonomic today.

The style of Bauhaus design influenced following generations of designers. The architectural style was incorporated into International Style architecture. Product designs influenced modern, minimalist, industrially produced goods. Examples coming to mind are electric appliances by Braun which later in turn influenced Steve Jobs at Apple, or scandinavian design such as furniture by Ikea. Typographic and graphic design principles of that time were later taken up notably by Swiss Style graphic design.

Ironically one of the reasons why the school was so influential was it’s closure in 1933 under pressure from the rising Nazi party. Staff and students were then dissipated all over the world. Foreigners returned to their home countries. Jewish students fled to Israel. Many former Bauhaus teachers emmigrated to the USA. From 1933 on Josef and Anni Albers, later also Walter Gropius, and other former Bauhaus teachers taught at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers transferred the teaching methods of the Bauhaus with its Vorkurs. In 1937 Lázló Moholoy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Only in 1953 did a design school in the tradition of the Bauhaus reopen in Germany, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. Among the founders was the former Bauhaus student Max Bill.

Former director Walter Gropius later worked on spreading the myth of the Bauhaus. Due to German Bauhaus design being dissociated from Nazi reign 1933 – 1945 and World War II, it was recognized as a German design tradition both in post-war Germany as well as abroad.