Bauhaus Architecture and Design – Origins and Influence

When you think about modern architecture and design you might imagine bold, clean lines, and minimalism dedicated to functionality, these principles originate with the school of Bauhaus! If you look at any skyline today and see the tall, glittering sky scrapers with their clean lines and simplicity or the sleek and simple design of the Apple iPhone, you are seeing designs which would not have been possible if Bauhaus had not pioneered the fundamentals that they follow.

What is Bauhaus?

Bauhaus means ‘construction house’ in German. It was a design school in German and the period of Bauhaus ran from 1919 to 1933. Despite only existing as a school of architecture and design for just over a decade Bauhaus is one of the most influential movements in architecture and design. Almost every modern architectural  and design style from Scandinavian minimalism to mid-century modern has been influenced or inspired by Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus school was founded by the architect Walter Gropius, his aim was to bring the worlds of applied arts and fine arts together to create a united perspective on design in one institute. He created the institute in response to the changing era following the First World War. During this post world war era there was an improved attitude towards industrialization and finding new ways to design buildings and products.

The Bauhaus Institute, Dessau (photo via Ross Sokolovski, unsplash)

Before the Bauhaus design movement, ornate and intricate designs were favoured. An example of such design movements are Art Nouveau and Art deco. Compared to these highly detailed and decorative styles, Bauhaus may have appeared stark and simple.

The Bauhaus institute was primarily an art school, however its intention was to create students who could apply their creativity to any art or design medium. The aim was to achieve ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ a term they coined for aesthetics which translates literally to ‘total artwork’, this was to create an artwork which made use of all or many art forms. At the institute students learned about pottery, printmaking, typography, advertising, architecture and many other things. Student at the Bauhaus were taught to look at the world in different ways. There was an importance put on the ‘nature’ of objects and materials, students were expected to work carefully and respectfully with the materials they used.

The founder Gropius and the staff at the Bauhaus institute thought that objects should function in the most practical way to fulfil its purpose. With this perspective Gropius and his staff created the mantra that Bauhaus is famously associated with ‘form follows function’. This motto has helped to shape modern architecture and design ever since.

Berlin Archive Museum of Design (photo via Florencia Viadana, unsplash)

Bauhaus in Graphic Design

One of the Bauhaus masters most directly associated with modern graphic design was László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy brought about the theory of typophoto, or the synthesis of typography and photography, which has become a central tenet of all advertising today.

Foto Qualität’ 1931 by László Moholy Nagy (photo via the accidental optimist wordpress)

The primary features of Graphic Design at the Institute were carried on by its alumni with the conception of the International Typographic Style or ‘Swiss Style’ which you can learn more about later in the article when we look at the art and design movements which Bauhaus has influenced.

Herbert Bayer was the master of typography at the Institute, he was the inventor of the Bauhaus typeface, called Universal.

The Universal Typeface, 1925 by Herbert Bayer (photo via ffonts.net)

The simplicity of this typeface met the ideals of the Bauhaus Institute, with its lack of serifs. At the time the most popular typeface was the complex and decorative Fraktur typeface, the Universal typeface was very clean and simple by comparison.

Fraktur Typeface (photo via wikipedia)

The Institute also prioritised a utopian idea of excellent design being accessible to all. This shift  from the difficult to read Fraktur font to the Universal typeface made design more accessible and also furthered the scope for flexible and creative designs. The name “Universal” itself illustrated this intention.

Katalog der Muster das Bauhaus by Herbert Bayer 1925 (photo via Bauhaus Kooperation)

The Three Stages of Bauhaus

During the 14 years of its existence,  the Bauhaus school went through three key phases in three German cities.

Bauhaus in Weimar

The first phase began in Weimar in 1919, when the Weimar Saxon Grand Ducal Art School and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art were merged. Even though Gropius was an architect by trade, negligible focus was placed on architecture as a discipline during this period. Johannes Itten taught students about the primary ideas of Bauhaus through the preliminary course. Some other notable faculty members during this time were Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy.

Bauhaus in Dessau

In 1925 the operations were moved to a new building designed by Gropius on the outskrits of Dessau. This building is a masterpiece of everything Bauhaus stands for: combining arts, crafts and industry together into one piece.

The Bauhaus Institute in Dessau by Gropius (photo via The New York Times)

This institute remains as one of the most celebrated examples of Bauhaus design to this day. This period from 1925 to 1931 is considered the heyday of the movement. During this time many leading figures in design joined the movement including; Marcel Breuer, Gunta Stölzl, Marianne Brandt and Paul Klee. There were changes in the directorial direction at the institute during this time, Hannes Meyers took over in 1928 and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930  who replaced Meyers after he was dismissed for political reasons (he was a Communist). Both of these directors took the institute in their own unique directions.

Bauhaus in Berlin

Unfortunately Bauhaus had caught the attention of the Nazis during the 1930’s. The Bauhaus movement’s embrace of modern technology and emerging international style was seen as representing ‘foreignness’ and they viewed their designs as un-German. The Nazi’s criticized the modern style, so when the party gained power and control of Dessau city they had the institute closed down. 

In response Mies moved the school to Berlin for ten months before the Gestapo closed it down again. Mies fought to keep the Bauhaus open, even going so far as to speak to the head of the Gestapo. Despite this, the director and the rest of the rest of the faculty voluntarily shut the school for good in 1933.

Even though the physical school was gone, this wasn’t the end of the Bauhaus design movement by any means. Many of the students and staff of Bauhaus fled Germany during World War II, taking with them the ideas and principles of the Bauhaus Institute. Several of the alumni moved on to open their own art and design institutes which followed the Bauhaus structure and shared its lessons.

(Photo via Susn Matthiessen, unsplash)

World War II and the Spread of the Bauhaus Principles

World War II was not a time for free thinkers in Germany. This time say many Bauhaus thinkers fleeing to more accepting, safe and accepting countries. The growth in communist ideas at the time saw many of the former Bauhaus faculty flee to the Soviet Union, while other notable figures left for the US where they continued to teach Bauhaus ideas. For example; Gropius went on to teach architecture at Harvard.

Many Bauhaus thinkers also fled to Isreal. This exodus spread the ideas of Bauhaus and the design styles all over the world. Most notably in 2004 Tel Aviv was named a UNESCO heritage site because it is home to over 4000 protected Bauhaus buildings. In their attempts to snuff out the ideas and principles of the Bauhaus movement the Nazis facilitated its global spread.

An example of Bauhaus in Tel Aviv (photo via dezeen)
Examples of Bauhaus Architecture in Tel Aviv, Isreal (photos via dezeen)

The Influence of Bauhaus Today

Today we can observe the influence of Bauhaus principles on everything from furniture to graphic design to architecture.

Bauhaus and the International Typographic Style

The International Typographic Style, also known as the ‘Swiss Style’ is a graphic design style that was developed in Switzerland in the 1950s. It valued cleanliness, readability and objectivity. A lot of the designers associated with the creation of this design style attended the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts where the principles of Bauhaus and were taught.

The typical features of the style are asymmetric layouts, use of a sans-serif typefaces (typefaces which do not have tails on the end of its letters) and flush left, ragged right text. Negative space was also a common feature of the Swiss Design movement. Most early examples of this graphic design style focused on the ‘typography’ as the primary element of the piece. In these pieces pictures and other design elements comes as a secondary design elements and this is the reason the title ‘International Typographic Style’ has the word ‘Typography’ in it.

One of the most important figures in the conceptualizing of The Internation Typographic Style was Emil Ruder whose Illustrated book titled Typographie: A Manual of Design. This book is considered one of the seminal texts of Graphic Design and is applied to this day by Graphic Design students and professionals alike.

Examples of Emil Ruder’s work (photos via medium.com)

The International Typographical Style is still widely used today in Graphic Design.

Velvet Underground Poster (photo via 1stwebdesigner.com)

The Influence of Bauhaus on Brutalism

Boston city hall (photo via e-architecture)

One architectural movement whose inspiration from Bauhaus is unquestionable, is Brutalism. The name Brutalism is derived from ‘Béton brut’ raw concrete. It is described as massive, monolithic, ‘blocky’ structures. The defining features of Brutalist structures are its rough unfinished surfaces, unusual shapes, heavy-looking materials, straight lines, small windows and modular features. The modular elements were often used to form masses representing specific functional zones, grouped into a unified whole.

Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, Japan, designed by Kisho Kurokawa and built in 1972 (photo via brutal_architecture)

Brutalism as an architectural movement originated predominantly in the early 1960s and died out in the late 1970s. In the 1960s when Brutalism reached its prime, because life had moved on from the austerity of the 1950s and gave way to dynamism and self confidence.

Brutalism took its direction from ‘The International Style’ (which as mentioned earlier was a direct product of the Bauhaus institute and its influence) and from the Bauhaus school. It followed the principles of ‘form follows function’ and embraced the geometric shapes which were characteristic of Bauhaus.

Monument House, Bulgaria, completed in 1981 (photo via brutal_architecture)

Brutalism is widespread across European communist countries such as the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, but also appeared in other countries like England, France, Japan and the US.

Choux Apartments, Paris (photo via brutal_architecture)

The utopian ideas about accessibility to brilliant design that originated from Bauhaus highlighted the utopian ideas of accessibility coupled with brilliant designing. Brutalist Architecture draws heavy influence from it, which can be seen largely in the construction of progressive housing solutions, government projects, universities, car parks, leisure and shopping centres, and high-rise blocks of flats.

Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv by Arieh & Eldar Sharon (photo via brutal_architecture)

The Influence of Bauhaus on Mid-Century Modern Design

The Bauhaus’ commitment has been to deliver solutions that were simple, rational, and functional. This approach is still relevant and taught to artists and designers today. One such design movement who shows its roots in Bauhaus principles is Mid-Century Modern.

Students of the Bauhaus designed more than just architecture and typography. They also created beautiful and unique furniture and products. These pieces are elegant in their simplicity and functionality.

Original 1920s Buahaus Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (photo via Dezeen)

Mid-Century modern design developed as a style in the US and was a direct derivative of Bauhaus and the International Typographic Style.

The distinguishing features of Mid-Century Modern are: form follows function, sleek lines, geometric and organic shapes, minimal ornamentation and the juxtaposition of different, and sometimes contrasting materials.

Left: Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman by Charles and Ray Eames (1956) Right: Florence Knoll Sofa by Florence Knoll (1954) (photos via apartment therapy)
Saarinen Tulip Dining table by Eero Saarinen (1957) (photo via vntg.com)

Today Mid-Century Modern designs are back in style, with plenty of contemporary designers applying the styles to their newest creations. There’s a huge market for original pieces and replicas.

To conclude, the principles of Bauhaus design are very much engrained in the present architectural, product, furniture and graphic design styles. They have influenced and changed how we approach design forever.

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