Recently, the 100-year anniversary of the Bauhaus has led to a worldwide celebration, commemorating the dawn-of-the-century German movement which has influenced the core of every design school to date. The Bauhaus style and teaching model have resulted in a design revolution, working in the spirit of industrialization, artistry, and multidisciplinary collaboration, and has even led to iconic and beloved symbols of these values today, like IKEA.
However, to fully understand these impacts, we must first journey through the roots and history of the Bauhaus, starting with this:
Wie Hat Die Welt Ausgeschaut?
Picture this. The Industrial Revolution is in full steam in Europe and North America. Cottage industries, that is to say, artisan businesses and handcrafted work, are being slowly abandoned in favour of the new mass-produced assembly line structure. As a countermeasure to this careless and heartless design, the British Arts and Crafts Movement and artists like William Morris look towards nature and organic, beautiful forms to hold on to artisan creations.
And then the world is plunged into war. Using the technology available because of the industrial revolution, weapons of mass murder are engineered with chilling precision and frequency. Beauty is no longer a consideration for those trying to stay alive.
And then it is all over.
Europe lays in ruins. America celebrates its victory over the Japanese and begins an economic uptick. Artists like Marcel Duchamp and E.E. Cummings question the very nature of what it means to be human in this new age. Design is about nothing but form and function.
Enter the Bauhaus.
In the wake of this confusing, complicated, and uncertain time, German sculptor and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius began to build a philosophy of merging two nearly polarised worlds: industrialisation and art.
Gropius, unlike many Romanticist artists, embraced industrialisation and argued that, ultimately, if things were to be mass-produced, designers should make sure that they were mass produced beautifully.
Along with several other contemporary thinkers across disciplines, like Kandinsky and Klee, Gropius opened the Bauhaus school and began this revolutionary work. Students were from a diverse range of social and educational backgrounds, and created the perfect conditions for a multi-disciplinary, boundary-breaking design environment.
Yet all of this was short lived. As the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, they declared the Bauhaus degenerate, and closed the school. Teachers and students alike fled the country and immigrated to America, Switzerland, and a host of other countries – taking the Bauhaus doctrine with them.
100 years later, the Bauhaus is a cornerstone of nearly every design institution, and its values are perpetuated in styles, modern media, and even in courses like our very own GMD.
So what exactly was in the Bauhaus doctrine that was so revolutionary?
Der Bauhaus Manifesto
The Bauhaus manifesto and teaching model was and even still is, to some extent, an alien invention. It focused on the blend of the artist and artisan, promoting the idea that all designers are builders and the idea of a multifaceted and multidisciplinary school – one which relied more on the character and composition of the art, and not on the actual correctness of it.
Simply put, these values translate into craftsmanlike industrialization, fine art + design + craft, encouraging interdisciplinary instruction across all building and design fields, and infusing artistic worth into any functional item.
The industrial designer could do anything in any media, and work towards a purely functional, collaborative, and universal outcome.
The teaching model of the school above reflects just that, encouraging multidisciplinary exploration for design and promoting working with varied and physical media. The boundaries of creative representation were increasingly blurred, and not only between fine art and design, but between architecture, dance, music, painting, and sculpture as well.
Altogether, this amounted to one key effect: redesigning what the term “art school” meant.
But even after it had been dismantled and the students spread out, there was significant criticism for the Bauhaus school. While in part abhorred by those who thought that design and art should remain, as traditionally, separate, there was one criticism which is still extremely relevant today.
In the Bauhaus, the designer holds a significant amount of responsibility. And if that responsibility is misused, the role of the designer as the enabler of industry could result in manipulating consumers and working purely for corporate interests.
While the Bauhaus takes many forms in today’s world, let’s analyse two different paths it has taken.
First, let us continue on the path of design responsibility. Today this is increasingly relevant, as we saw with the First Things First Manifesto and current corporate identities. Designers do serve as the facilitators of image and ideas, and therefore yes, they can also serve as the conveyor of capitalist interest, even tailoring their personal work away from their own styles to meet industrial standards.
As a case study, take a look at Facebook. Facebook is a corporate rebranding of a surveillance company within the narrative of the self; i.e, it is designed to look much friendlier than it is. In fact, it is branded that way by…you guessed it, designers.
That being said, there is also a major disconnect on the side of the corporations and clients. While perhaps now used for manipulating minds and pushing brand identity, industrial graphic design still bears all the hallmarks of a fully formed design process, arduously experimenting across media and ideas. This, as a short aside, is part of the misrepresentation. Designers seem like they are a seamless and natural part of the corporate fabric, replaceable and unimportant, but truthfully, without them, the system does not work.
This is, in a way, what I believe the Bauhaus stands for. The industrial designer is an integral part of a changing world, and with so many skills across an increasingly globalised planet, truly has immense power.
This leads us into more modern applications of that Bauhaus doctrine.
The Bauhaus is now associated with a style, such as specific product designs and the swiss graphic design of the 1900s. Just take a look at the logos below, which were redesigned as part of the 100-year anniversary of the Bauhaus:
All of these logos have the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style; simple, functional, and succinct.
The Bauhaus mode of thought has also been applied, wittingly or unwittingly, in several product design and industrial design projects. A fantastic example of this is the bullet train in Japan. By using biology, designers were able to concoct the perfect shape for the train to be most efficient while also being quiet.
And of course, last but not least, my absolute favourite modern example of Bauhaus engineering and thought: Swedish furniture builders, IKEA.
IKEA embodies the exact values of the Bauhaus; a cost-accessible, multimedia, simplistic, functional, and easy to build set of products. From its font choices to its overarching brand, products, and company message, IKEA is a fantastic example of what Bauhaus is and can be in the modern era.
Even IKEA manuals are simplistic, black and white, and combine technical drawing with cartoons and information design.
These, among others, exemplify Bauhaus in the modern era, and show us the long path the school has journeyed from the beginning of the 20th century.