100 Years of Bauhaus

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the opening of what may be the most influential design school in history. It only existed for 14 years, yet it has had a profound effect on the objects we use and surround ourselves with. And it has been a major inspiration for Tom.

Founded in Weimar, Germany by the architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus (literally ‘house of building’) sought to erase the distinction between craft and mass production. This approach can be seen as a crystallisation of modernism. “The function of art has in the past been given a formal importance which has severed it from our daily life,” the school’s prospectus stated, “but art is always present when a people lives sincerely and healthily.”The key to good design was therefore reintegrating art with daily life.

The way to do this, according to the Bauhaus, was to ensure that form and function were united in perfect harmony. The school inherited this idea from William Morris, the leader of Britain’s nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement and one of Tom’s heroes, and took it to another level. Ornamentation for its own sake was out. Instead, beauty was to be achieved by clean lines, geometry and the inherent qualities of the underlying materials.

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the director of the Bauhaus, summed up its approach in two memorable phrases: ‘Less is more’, and ‘God is in the details’. This application of this philosophy can be clearly seen in the school’s iconic building in Dessau. It is equally apparent in the gorgeous household objects produced by Marianne Brandt, head of the Bauhaus metalworking department.

Anyone familiar with Tom’s work will not find it difficult to see that he shares common ground with the Bauhaus. His use of tubular steel, for example, is directly inherited from the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, who pioneered its use in furniture-making. One of the first students at the Bauhaus, Breuer got the idea from the handlebars on his bicycle. The strength of the material allowed him to invent the cantilevered chair, resting on a single, bent length of metal. The example of the genre Tom most admires is the MR10, designed by Mies Van der Rohe in 1927. But his favourite chair of all is the Brno, created by the same designer in partnership with Lily Reich for the Villa Tugendhat. A few years ago, Tom made a pilgrimage to the Czech Republic to see it.

Although Tom admires the Bauhaus, he is no slavish disciple. “I don’t make furniture in the same style,” he says, “and I’m not so dogmatic, but I do follow the same principles – clean lines, strong forms and a lack of ornament. Most of what I do relies on line and proportion”. Two Faulkner pieces that illustrate the overlap particularly clearly are the Berlin chair, which pays homage to the movement in both its name and its elemental quality, and the Edge table, which has a distilled, functional, Bauhausian quality.

As Tom acknowledges, the Bauhaus was far from perfect. Despite its forward-looking ethos and the important contribution of women to its output, it was by no means free of sexism, nor, more sinisterly, from the antisemitism that blighted Germany during its era. The school has also been accused of sterility, of taking the humanity out of design. Yet at its best, its work was beautiful, harmonious and at the same time extremely practical. The Bauhaus must have got something right, because its legacy is to be found everywhere, from the white walls that are now the default option for our homes to glass curtain office blocks and the sleek functionality of the iPhone.

Part of the reason for this ubiquity is the fact that the school was never deeply rooted to one place. It moved twice during its brief existence, to Dessau in 1925, then to Berlin in 1932. The Nazi regime, which deemed its output ‘degenerate’, forced it to close down the following year. But paradoxically, this had the effect of spreading its ideas more quickly than ever. Key personnel fled abroad, taking the Bauhaus approach with them. This diaspora, as much as the movement’s central tenets, explains why it morphed into what is known as the International Style. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and the painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy (whose line “designing is not a profession but an attitude” Tom has taken to heart) moved to London. Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe took up the post of director of the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago, and became one of the most important architects on Earth. The ‘skin and bones’ style of building he pioneered is one of the definitive expressions of modernist architecture. Other important players moved to Tel Aviv, which has one of the world’s highest concentrations of buildings in the Bauhaus style.

The centenary of the Bauhaus is being celebrated with events and exhibitions both in Germany and all round the world. For details, visit www.bauhaus100.com.

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