I wanted to start my Age of the Weimar Republic reading project in Weimar itself. (Not in Berlin, the setting of many of the most famous novels of the age; I’ll be spending plenty of time there soon enough.) Given that 2019 is the centennial of the Bauhaus, which was founded in Weimar, Frances Ambler’s The Story of the Bauhaus seemed like the book to start with.
Born out of the destruction of the First World War, the Bauhaus was an attempt by its founder, Walter Gropius, to achieve a unity through art and design, rethinking their role in shaping society.
The school did not have teachers and students, but masters and apprentices. The syllabus was wide-ranging, every student needed to attend the preliminary course, which taught the basics of working with multiple materials, before progressing into specialised workshops. Their creative objective to produce Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art or a synthesis of the arts), but also functional pieces for modern living. The Bauhaus wasn’t just a school. The idea was for the workshops to be become self-sustaining through industrial contracts. It was a industrial partnership that convinced Gropius to move the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau in 1925. Political issues (i.e trouble with the Nazis) provided the impetus of the move to Berlin in 1932; issues which didn’t abate leading to the formal closure of the Bauhaus in 1933.
For a design institution that existed for only 14 years, it was (and remains) pretty influential. From small everyday objects to high-rise design. Tea infusers, lamps, nesting tables, stacking tables, fitted kitchens, flats with balconies, glass and concrete skyscrapers. All designed by Bauhaus masters or apprentices. Many of the original Bauhaus designs remain in production (although their price tag is somewhat beyond my reach). Take a look at some iconic examples of timeless Bauhaus design here. (I really, really like the chess set, with pieces designed in accordance with its movement on the board.)
To celebrate the centenary, The Story of the Bauhaus has 100 one-page chapters, each focusing one aspect of the institution: be it a director, master or apprentice, a Bauhaus object or building or a significant event, including the Bauhaus parties! This was the Age of the Weimar Republic after all! Each chapter is accompanied by a full-page glossy photograph.
There is space to celebrate the triumphs and also admit to the mistakes. Not even the Bauhaus got everything right first time, particularly in those housing estates in Dessau. And it was an institution of its time. Too liberal for the Nazis, but not liberal enough for today, especially with regard to its attitude towards women, who were mostly shunted into the weaving workshop, or, if married to the famous Bauhaus men, ended up working without renumeration or official recognition. In this book, the Bauhaus women are given as much space as their partners.
The Story of the Bauhaus is a beautifully designed book. With a nod to the functionalist ethic of the movement, there’s even a fold-out corner separating the main text from the endnotes. Just to ease the moving back and forth as you make your way through the book. I’m sure Gropius would have smiled at that too.