In October of 2014, and as an extension of our Makeshift initiative, we began a new series of events and conversations called On Design. This series explores art, design, makers, relationships, and how those who create can elevate craft in general. Natalie hosted our inaugural event, which was an exploration of the school of Bauhaus and the creative process. While it’s no substitute for being there in person, here are some of Natalie’s thoughts from the presentation. Feel free to share your own thoughts and join the conversation. (And we look forward to seeing you at the next event.)
When making plans to expand The Factory beyond a space used solely for manufacturing, I initially imagined a place for our workshops to be housed along with a kitchen for catering. We now have a beautiful space for working and making, as well as a kitchen that accidentally developed into a weekday, lunch-only café that works in-service to our store and design + manufacturing facility.
This space has further developed into a place for the community to meet over tables and food and design and conversations and (hopefully) more.
I grew up in the community of Central, which is about 10 miles west x northwest of The Factory, as the crow flies. I grew up in a time when there was very little art in the school curriculum, but there was still much making being done in the home. My grandmothers and grandfathers planted gardens, raised cows, put up tomatoes, made bread, tatted lace, and made their environments as beautiful as possible with the resources they had available. This work came to inspire my entire work history and the space known as The Factory today. I always said that I went to the art school of “Pinkie and Blue Boy.” Those were the only paintings that hung in our home as I was growing up. These, along with several other paintings, with names like Tyrolean Hof, and Jesus on the Rock, were always in the background, subtle inspiration for our daily lives.
In 1919, around the time my grandparents were growing up, getting married (and purchasing Jesus on the Rock), Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus school—which, literally translated means “house of construction” or “School of Building.” The school was founded in Weimar, Germany—just after World War 1—and would come to change the way people looked at painting, architecture, graphic design, and textiles.
On the morning of the Bauhaus presentation, I was talking to my daughter Maggie about the conversation I would be leading and she asked me to define the word “movement.” It took me aback because this is a word we toss around a lot today and the answer to her question wasn’t immediately clear to me. I explained the idea of a movement being a style of making art or design that shares a similar look. I described the Memphis movement that started in Italy in the 1980s (she loved that idea) and that her daddy had coined a term for his own personal movement that he calls “Intertwangalism.”
Movement, in this case, is a noun and, according to Webster’s Dictionary, means: a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.
When I read this, I immediately thought of COLLABORATION between people and ideas, which is exactly the principle at the core of the school of Bauhaus.
The main influences behind the Bauhaus were Modernism, the Arts and Crafts movement and, perhaps most importantly, Constructivism.
Modernism, (which will require another hour-long lecture to even scratch the surface), I believe began—as most movements do—as an idea, but became primarily a philosophical movement. Think: Friedrich Nietzsche.
The English Arts and Crafts movement (which we will also discuss later and in more detail) was an international design philosophy that flourished between 1880 and 1910, continuing all the way to the 1930s. It was led by the artist and writer William Morris, who I’ve often quoted as saying, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to use, or believe to be beautiful.”
This movement developed first (and most fully) in the British Isles, but spread across the globe from Europe to North America. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often applied medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform, and has been said to be essentially anti-industrial. (In fact, Morris described art as “man’s expression of his joy in labor.”) Made-by-hand, by artisans…sound familiar?
But Bauhaus also took heavy influence from Constructivism, which was an artistic and architectural philosophy originating in Russia around 1919—a rejection of the idea of self-directed art. In other words, it advocated making art for the sake of the community. The movement was in favor of art as a practice for social purposes. Constructivism had a great effect on many modern art movements of the 20th century, influencing major trends such as the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. Its influence was pervasive, heavily impacting architecture, graphic and industrial design, theatre, film, dance, fashion and, to some extent, music.
With the school of Bauhaus, Gropius wanted to marry these very different and divergent influences. Within the Bauhaus movement, the reigning principles were unity of form and function, the idea that design is in service of the community, and a belief in the perfection and efficiency of geometry. Its core objective was a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.
Page 197 from Bauhaus: 1919-1933
Even though contemporary styles had influenced design before Gropius opened the school, the Bauhaus movement was considered a radical step towards Modernism and modern life. And, very importantly, it was one the first (if not the first) Art/Design schools to open its doors to women—though they were almost exclusively placed in the weaving workshop (one of the only financially viable workshops at the Bauhaus).
Imitating the medieval guild system with apprentices, journeymen, and masters (instead of students and teachers), the Bauhaus philosophy encouraged everyone to collaborate.
Upon entering the Bauhaus school, all students were required to complete a preliminary course covering theoretical aspects and practical perspectives of the movement before continuing onto the specialized workshops (see the wheel at the beginning of this post). Preliminary classes included the study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships of shape and geometry, in preparation for more focused classes. The preliminary classes were often taught by artists including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Joseph Albers—who later became renowned in the design world for his work on color theory.
And, in an action that was radically different than most of the art/design schools that came before the Bauhaus, design and production were considered equally important.
The belief was that Bauhaus should generate designs for mass-production, designs that were simple, rational, and accessible to all people.
Bauhaus artists and students began creating prototypes for industrial production, their rational designs based on simple geometric shapes and primary colors.
This approach to education proved very important to me, as the design school at North Carolina State University used this same method, and those preliminary studies changed my life. In some ways, I could say that it saved my life. In the early 1980s, my education required a one-year program of theory and execution that guided all of the principles that were to come afterwards.
While the Bauhaus school’s principles remained largely the same over time, the school’s physical location periodically changed locations. It was housed in three German cities: Weimar from 1919 to 1925, Dessau from 1925 to 1932, and Berlin from 1932 to 1933, under three different architect-directors: Walter Gropius from 1919 to 1928, Hannes Meyer from 1928 to 1930, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1930 until 1933, when the school was closed by its own leadership under pressure from the Nazi regime.
This dissolution of the physical school is how the Bauhaus came to change my life and my community. The artists and teachers of the Bauhaus fled Germany and Europe and spread across the globe. Some wound up teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In the late 1930s, Mies van der Rohe settled in Chicago and was later joined by Moholy-Nagy, who founded the New Bauhaus which eventually became the IIT Institute of Design*. Edith Heath (original founder of Heath Ceramics) began her career at the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to work with the Federal Art Project (FAP) training school, leading to her acquaintance with the ideas of leading artists, including Bauhaus designer László Moholy-Nagy.
Designers influenced by the Bauhaus school reads like a “Who’s Who” of 20th century designers, and include, but aren’t limited to: Edith Heath, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van De Roe, Herbert Bayer, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, and Charles Eames . It’s also noted that even Ikea furniture designs are influenced by the Bauhaus.
In my opinion, the movement opened the gates for Modernism and the influence of this movement surrounds us every day. The coffee mugs used in our café were designed by Edith Heath. The staff here at Alabama Chanin have encountered Bauhaus every time they participated in a class on service or wrote a vision for their collaboration with the company.
There are many artistic movements growing today, as the internet has helped people find like-minded communities…something which required travel and books and years at the time Gropius was founding the Bauhaus. You can go to the internet today and, with the click of a mouse, find the movement that makes your heart sing. Alabama Chanin is a part of a growing makers’ movement founded on Bauhaus ideals of collaboration, service, and community. We exhibit these principles through our philosophy, our approach to design and making, and our growing School of Making.
Purchase Bauhaus: 1919-1933 by the MoMA for more information on the Bauhaus movement.
*From what we gather, it was called the New Bauhaus (1937–1938), the School of Design (1939–1944), and the Institute of Design (1944–present). The Institute of Design is at IIT, and referred to as ”IIT Institute of Design.”