Breaking Down Boundaries

4th October 2019

This year marks the centenary of Bauhaus – an iconic design movement that sought to bridge the gap between art and industry by combining crafts and fine arts. Deborah Mulhearn tells us more…

In the 1930s, many people fleeing Nazi Germany were helped to find jobs and homes in Britain. A small group of these émigrés comprised men and women who had taught and studied at the famous Bauhaus school of art and architecture in Berlin. Their names are largely forgotten now, apart from the most eminent: the architect Walter Gropius, artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and designers Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer. But these Bauhaus men – and some lesser-known women – were influential in ways that would surprise most of us today. The Bauhaus school, which was founded by Gropius in Weimar in eastern Germany, lasted less than fourteen years, but it had an enormous influence on the design world following its forced closure – through pressure by the Nazis – in 1933.

Bauhaus is a familiar term but one that is difficult to define. It’s usually associated with an austere form of Modernist architecture – typically rectangular, flat-roofed houses with metal window frames and smooth external walls finished in bright white render or ‘Snowcrete’.

This year, on the centenary of the 1919 opening of the Bauhaus school, a series of exhibitions, events and new books have been exploring its work and legacy. The presence in Britain of the ‘Bauhauslers’, although fleeting, kept the spirit of Modernism alive, and many architects and designers were influenced by their thoroughly modern ideas. The simple, geometric forms and humanistic design ethos that they replicated, found their place not only for houses, schools and civic buildings such as cinemas, but also in graphic design, textiles, ceramics and photography. In architecture, Hertfordshire County Council led the way, building several schools based on Bauhaus principles, including, locally, Little Green Junior School in Croxley Green.

Bauhaus is an invented word created from the German words for ‘building’ and ‘house’. But Bauhaus is much more than a style. Gropius himself always insisted that Bauhaus was not a style but a school with a particular teaching ethos. It was his intention that students learn from direct physical contact with materials, and indeed the Bauhaus slogan coined by him was ‘Art and Technology: a new unity’.

After the devastation of the World War One, people wanted a more optimistic future. Bauhaus promised bright, spacious homes, offices, schools and factories with large windows and flat roofs to maximise sun and fresh air, all filled with furniture and household items designed from simple geometric forms and innovative and versatile new materials such as plywood.

Familiar domestic items that you likely own today – a reclining chair made from a single, curving piece of plywood or bent tubular steel; a goose-necked table lamp; a coffee table fashioned from an elegant loop; a ‘floating’ bookshelf; a minimalist two-colour rug with a geometric design; even a fitted kitchen – all are inspired by Bauhaus.

They could be vintage pieces (lucky you!), but they are most likely to be contemporary and mass-produced (think of a certain Swedish furniture store). But their simplicity of form, basic colour palettes and functionality echo designs that are nearly a hundred years old.

“Bauhaus was first and foremost a school focused on social transformation in a newly forming modern world. It was about making or crafting the modern age,” says Judith Winter, senior lecturer at Gray’s School of Art in Edinburgh and an independent curator who has researched and curated exhibitions on the Bauhaus, its influence and ethos.

‘‘Though he left Britain in 1937 for the US to become head of architecture at Harvard and develop his private practice, Gropius had a huge influence on post-war architecture and design education here,” she points out. “László Moholy-Nagy was involved in many projects from social, anthropological and design, including stage sets for the sci-fi film Things to Come and experimental films that were forms of visual anthropology, before moving to Chicago to set up a New Bauhaus. Marcel Breuer designed furniture and worked on a number of proposals in the UK.”

Bauhaus bridged the gap between the artist and industrial systems. “It courageously accepted the machine as an instrument worthy of the artist/maker and faced the problem of good design for mass production,” explains Winter. “Through its radical teaching methods, it broke the hierarchy which had divided the ‘fine’ from the ‘applied’ arts, and in so doing acknowledged that the basis of all arts was craftsmanship… indeed, its second purpose-designed building at Dessau was the most important example of educational architecture of the 1920s.”

Gropius joined the British architect Maxwell Fry in practice. After several commissions fell through, they finally saw some of their schemes realised. Fry was a rare British Modernist, and had already designed several private residences including the Sun House in Hampstead and Little Winch at Chipperfield Common, near Sarratt, in Hertfordshire. Both are now Grade II* listed. With Gropius he designed a ‘white cube’ house at 66 Old Church Street, Chelsea, for the politician and playwright Benn Levy, and the Wood House in Shipbourne in Kent – both Grade II listed – and the Grade I listed Impington Village College.

Gropius and his wife Ise found a natural home in Hampstead at the brand new and gleaming Modernist Isokon building, also known as the Lawn Road Flats, until they left for America. The story of Isokon and its residents is told in a fascinating new book, Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain, by Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund.

Marcel Breuer went into practice with the British architect FRS Yorke, who, in 1934 had published the influential book The Modern House. Together they designed the Gane Pavilion, a temporary show house in Bristol, Sea Lane House at Angmering-on-Sea in West Sussex, Shangri-la at Lee-on-the-Solent in Hampshire (once owned by singer Gracie Fields) and several houses at Eton.

But admirers of the Bauhaus were few and far between, and commissions for foreign architects were not plentiful in 1930s Britain. There was also much resistance to Modernism, with opportunities for modernist architects and designers limited to individual residences and furniture. America with all its openness and opportunities was calling. Gropius left in 1937, quickly followed by Moholy-Nagy and Breuer.

As architectural historian Alan Powers points out in his book, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America, these contacts could take on a greater significance in retrospect: ‘There was no simple narrative here, and so [Bauhaus] is best understood as a patchwork of personalities, institutions and events, in which product design, more than architecture, played the leading symbolic role.’

The Bauhaus was unusual in that it enrolled women on its courses – although they were usually channelled into the ‘softer’ disciplines of weaving and textile design, pottery, jewellery design, children’s furniture and toy making. A few insisted on studying ‘male’ subjects such as architecture and photography, but – apart from a few famous names, such as weaver Anni Albers, subject of a recent Tate Modern retrospective, Edith Tudor Hart who is important for her photographic work of the social conditions in Britain in the 1930s, and photographer Lucia Moholy, who took the iconic but uncredited photographs of the Bauhaus school in Dessau with its distinctive lettering – their lives and work have gone largely unsung, or they have been remembered as adjuncts to more famous husbands.

Anni Fleischmann met and married Josef Albers while at the Bauhaus, but whereas he was encouraged to study stained glass and was promoted to professor, Anni had to make do with weaving. Luckily she excelled at this, and eventually became head of the Bauhaus weaving workshop until the couple, who were Jewish, fled to the US. Anni Albers was the first textile designer to have a solo exhibition: in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

One of two significant Bauhaus-trained women weavers to come to Britain was Margaret Leischner, who, after being interned as an enemy alien during World War Two, found work developing new fabrics and techniques for British textile companies. Otti Berger was a brilliant young textile designer who also came to Britain in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime. She struggled to find work, however, partly because she was deaf; suffering from depression, she returned to her native Croatia to look after her mother. Nothing was heard of her after 1941, and it was later discovered that she had died at Auschwitz in 1945.

The Bauhauslers themselves may be long gone, but their spirit lives on not only in our everyday surroundings but also in our more progressive educational values, exemplified in post-war Hertfordshire.

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