Workshop of the world

The Bauhaus’ principles still have much to teach us, argues Sally Feldman

June 14, 2012

Defiance of convention jostling with rigorous instruction; a building designed to foster creativity and collaboration; freedom of expression combined with a pressing need to generate income: these are the hallmarks of any number of today’s art colleges. And that is what is so striking about the Barbican’s majestic exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life. That extraordinary school, on first impression at any rate, was so very similar to our own establishments. It is only on closer inspection that you notice the differences.

The Bauhaus, too, had a mission statement, fearlessly proclaimed by its founder Walter Gropius in his 1919 manifesto. His vision was for equality between the arts and crafts, embracing technology and creating designs for practical living. “Schools must return to the workshop,” he proclaimed. “The world of the pattern-designer and applied artist, consisting only of drawing and painting, must become once again a world in which things are built.”

But while the workshops pictured at the exhibition - woodwork, metalwork, weaving, printing, stone, ceramics, stained glass - look uncannily like ours, the principles on which they operated were very different. Following Gropius’ utopian vision, the artists and the technicians were afforded equal status.

Imagine being a student of wall-painting, for example, where the workshop master (or in our world, technician) was Wassily Kandinsky. Unlike us, he and the rest of the Bauhaus’ formidable team of instructors didn’t appear to be too concerned with quality assurance. There is no evidence of student feedback, credit weightings or assessment criteria - unless you count Kandinsky’s famous questionnaire on the relationship between primary colours and elementary forms.

When Paul Klee decided it would be good for students to learn to make toys, he started teaching them without so much as a module modification. And Oskar Schlemmer’s extravagant theatrical performances became a staple of the curriculum with no need for formal validation.

And the Bauhaus handled branding rather differently, too, although it was as vital for the school as it is for today’s institutions. Instead of being imposed as a corporate directive, its branding was initiated by the students - two enterprising ones in particular. Herbert Bayer and Joost Schmidt were so adept at graphic design that they started to create promotional materials for the school and invented its striking visual identity. Bayer eventually joined the faculty as master of typography and advertising.

He and his team also began to take on external design work - not just because the school was always in need of “third leg” income, but also because Gropius wanted its designs and artefacts to be suitable for industrial production. The 1923 exhibition was intended to showcase the school’s work to manufacturers - an exemplary foreshadowing of today’s quest for “external engagement” and “industry links”.

It is not difficult to guess what Gropius would have made of today’s emphasis on conceptual art. He despised “salon art” and what he referred to dismissively as the “unproductive artist”. Condemning the “arrogant barrier” between the arts and the crafts, he maintained that there was no essential difference between them.

“The artist is an exalted craftsman. By the grace of Heaven and in rare moments of inspiration which transcend the will, art may unconsciously blossom from the labour of his hand, but a base in handicrafts is essential to every artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies,” Gropius’ manifesto states.

For the Bauhaus vision, in line with its Modernist values, was to satisfy, in the words of Gropius’ successor Hannes Meyer, “the needs of the people, not the needs of luxury”. Indeed, its building in Dessau, where the school moved in 1924, was a paean to Modernist design: a practical, unadorned and liveable environment conducive to the creativity it nurtured.

The Barbican exhibition’s examples of textiles, domestic utensils and furniture, designed by the students, all display the clean, angular lines and use of new materials that so characterised the school. And it is here that they excelled in reaching that elusive holy grail - “impact”. Their influence on contemporary design is manifest in modern brands such as Ikea and Muji - even Apple.

Steve Jobs himself regarded the Bauhaus as his greatest inspiration. Almost 30 years ago he predicted the demise of the heavy grey-and-black style favoured by computer companies such as IBM in favour of the Bauhaus model, relating design to functionality and true character. “What we intend to do is to allow products to be high tech, and then package them clean and pare them down,” he announced in a speech to the Aspen Design Conference in 1983. “We intend to make them as small as possible, and then you can make them attractive and white just like Braun are doing with (their) devices.”

But the most profound legacy of the Bauhaus is its transformation of art and design education. Despite the many ways in which we have departed from its original principles, one British tradition remains true to them. Art foundation courses still follow the Bauhaus model (where students were required to take a general course for a semester before progressing to a specialism) and maintain that holistic ideal.

At a time when financial support for arts education courses has been so stripped, their continuing survival is something to be celebrated. For, while paying tribute to their creative roots, it’s sobering to reflect that, when the National Socialists came to power in Germany, first they cut the funding to the Bauhaus School; then they closed it.

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