Magazine article The Spectator

Design New Build

Magazine article The Spectator

Design New Build

Article excerpt

Bauhaus: Art as Life Barbican, until 12 August The Bauhaus was a sort of university of design, whose progressive ideas eventually fell foul of the Nazis. But as the exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life is keen to impress, it was also a lifestyle, a modernist utopia, where staff and students were encouraged to mix freely, which they did with gusto. This, just as much as its reputation as a nerve centre for a new aesthetic, made it a magnet for the central European avant-garde. Among its teachers were some of the greatest artists and designers of the 20th century: Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee taught art; Marcel Breuer was responsible for furniture; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for product design; Oskar Schlemmer for performance; and Walter Gropius, the school's founder, lectured on architecture.

Rather improbably, the first Bauhaus exhibition, in 1968, was held at the Royal Academy whose mission - to raise the professional status of the artist - is at odds with Bauhaus ideology, which thought that art was bourgeois: 'It is harder to design a firstrate chair than paint a second-rate painting - and much more useful, ' was one of the school's guiding principles.

The Barbican arts centre is a more appropriate setting and a wealth of new material helps tell a more rounded story, not simply about the personalities but also about its folksy, Teutonic roots and hippyish early years at Weimar under the direction of the Swiss-born painter Johannes Itten.

After Itten resigned and Gropius hired Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1926 and reinvented itself, determined to solve practical questions like mass housing using modern materials such as steel, glass and concrete. A large model of the new school designed by Gropius shows an austere but beautifully co-ordinated building and it's here that the Bauhaus flourished.

There are 400 exhibits, from teapots to typefaces and painting to packaging, laid out according to the workshops that every student had to participate in. A revelation is the carpets and wall hangings by Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl (despite Gropius's championing of sexual equality few women made it out of the weaving workshop) because they introduce colour into an architecture that was gradually being reduced to white and grey.

More familiar is the furniture; Marcel Breuer's Wassily Chair, inspired by the tubular steel handlebars of an Adler bicycle, can be bought in the Barbican shop for £1,114, a sharp reminder that, despite its huge influence on 20th-century design, the real thing was not within most people's reach. …

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