Bauhaus Rules

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, November 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Bauhaus Rules


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


"Houses with lots of glass and shining metal: Bauhaus style," Ernst Kallai, an editor of publications at the Bauhaus, wrote in 1930, lampooning what we now call branding. He is quoted in the catalogue of "Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity," the Museum of Modern Art's multifarious retrospective of the school, think tank, and laboratory of modern art and design. Kallai went on, "The same is true of home hygiene without home atmosphere: Bauhaus style. Tubular steel armchair frames: Bauhaus style. Lamp with nickel-coated body and a disk of opaque glass as lampshade: Bauhaus style. Wallpaper patterned in cubes: Bauhaus style. No painting on the wall: Bauhaus style. Incomprehensible painting on the wall: Bauhaus style. Printing with sans-serif letters and bold rules: Bauhaus style. everything written in small letters: bauhaus style. EVERYTHING EXPRESSED IN CAPITAL LETTERS: BAUHAUS STYLE." Kallai spoke for a surge of radical politics under the second of the Bauhaus's three directors, the architect and Communist Hannes Meyer, who succeeded the visionary founder, Walter Gropius, in 1928, and was replaced by the pragmatic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe two years later. History would resolve matters in exactly the direction that Kallai mocked: toward a set of signature, fungible looks, the alphabet of a lingua franca of corporate chic which persists to this day. The MOMA show, with some four hundred works, is a cascade of invention, brilliant in itself and poignant for its varieties of foredoomed idealism.

First and last, the Bauhaus was an experiment in education. Gropius, who had been a German cavalry officer in the First World War, was invited, in 1919, to head a merger of the Weimar state schools of applied and fine arts. He dedicated the amalgam to "building" (Bau)--the engineering not just of new styles but of modern life writ large. He disallowed hierarchical distinctions between artists and artisans. Egalitarian pairs of artists and craft masters conducted hands-on workshops, rather than classes, in sculpture, metalwork, cabinetry, painting and decorating, printmaking, and weaving. Contrary to Gropius's subsequent claims, the idea wasn't new, but never had it been mobilized on such a scale and with so much talent. Early hires included Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Another painter, the charismatically strange Johannes Itten, bald and elfin, introduced a mandatory course in the supposed fundamentals of color, form, and material. That course, later taught by the Hungarian all-around avant-gardist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the former Bauhaus student Josef Albers, gave the school its lasting character of setting practical enterprise in the thin air of abstract analysis and ineffable intuition. Itten began every session with required yogic exercises, including rhythmic chants. He quit in protest in 1923, the year Gropius coined a slogan--"Art and technology: a new unity"--and ramped up efforts to find commercial partnerships for Bauhaus products. The deals paid off intermittently, notably with lines of lighting and wallpaper, while sparking predictable proprietary squabbles between the individual creators and the school. Gropius preached collective ownership but pursued his own lucrative architectural practice. The students (there were usually about a hundred and fifty) were exploited as unpaid labor, as in churning out copies of a fashionable chess set. Their rewards included a happy-few esprit de corps that was reinforced in zestful theatrical collaborations and at frequent parties.

The five years beginning in 1923 were the Bauhaus's heyday, marked by creative breakthroughs in many mediums, of which, for me, the most astonishing remain the tubular-steel chairs by Marcel Breuer, a former student then in his early twenties. (The late furniture sculptor and theoretician Scott Burton declared that Breuer's club chair, designed in 1925, is at least as important a work of modern art as the "Demoiselles d'Avignon." Once you have entertained that idea, it's hard to shake. …

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