The news that Harvard University has put over 32,000 digitised Bauhaus School works online set the creative world buzzing recently.
In the 1920s and 30s, a period of increasing mechanization, Bauhaus teachers and students challenged the conventions of fine art, architecture and design by advocating a return to individual craftsmanship. They also rejected the flowers and frills that dominated the design language of the early twentieth century, and instead sought solutions that were simple, rational, and functional – an approach that remains dominant in design today.
In this article, we’ll explore what the movement was about, outline five lessons the Bauhaus School can offer to today’s designers, and demonstrate how contemporary web design continues to show Bauhaus influences.
What was the Bauhaus School?
The Bauhaus School building in Dessau, where the institution was based between 1925 and 1932.
The Bauhaus School operated in Germany between 1919 and 1933. As a school of thought, it advocated a new way of approaching problems in art, architecture, and design; and as a physical school in Weimar and Dessau, it hosted a succession of prominent course leaders. Teachers included avant-garde artists like Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky, while Bauhaus students included Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer and Gunta Stölzl.
After the rise of the National Socialists, who effectively shut down the school for its “degenerate” ideas, many members of the Bauhaus travelled to other European countries and the USA to continue their work independently. As a result, “Bauhaus” became a twentieth-century movement reaching far beyond the Weimar Republic.
What was it like to study there?
Education at the Bauhaus School was diverse and hands-on, spanning building theory, carpentry, ceramics, fine art, graphic printing, glass and mural painting, weaving, geometry, mathematics, business administration, metal, photography, printing and advertising, and plastic arts. Even parties and stage performances were part of the curriculum, with students encouraged to experiment in costume and stagecraft.
Whereas a conventional education for an artist might focus on brush technique and paint mixing, a Bauhaus teacher would direct the student to study the fundamentals of colour and form, and encourage experimentation across a whole range of materials and disciplines.
Here is a reproduction of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’ original diagram of the Bauhaus curriculum. Students entered the preliminary course, covering "elementary form" and basic "studies of materials". Over the next three years, students were encouraged to experiment in many media, and only after this formation in the fundamentals were the best students allowed to enter the core architecture course (which wasn’t established until 1927).
What set the Bauhaus school apart, though, wasn't so much what they studied, but their new ideas about how to teach and learn. The essence of this philosophy is set out in a brief manifesto by Gropius in 1919:
"The art schools [...] must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive 'artist' will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence. Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship!"
In his 1931 “Essay on Typography”, Eric Gill echoes Gropius’ manifesto, writing about the loss of craftsmanship that he felt had resulted from industrialism. He advocated a reunion of the artist with their craft.
Some of the items created by Bauhaus students during this period have become iconic, and Bauhaus forms are often found repeated or imitated in today’s furniture and appliances. For example, here is Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s original 1923 lamp, created while he was a student at the Bauhaus, alongside a reproduction still available through retailers today.