Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive offers a comprehensive overview of Germany’s most famous design movement…
Though short lived, Germany’s Bauhaus design school went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most influential and pervasive movements. Almost every major European and American city features some example of the Bauhaus style, whether one of the school’s linear, flat-topped buildings or one of the many lamps, tables and chairs produced through the years.
As Annemarie Jaeggi, Director of Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive has pointed out, ‘Bauhaus is better known abroad than Goethe or Schiller‘.
The Bauhaus (‘building house’ in German) began life in Weimar in the aftermath of World War One. Rooted in modernism and bolstered by the liberal milieu of the Weimar Republic, founder Walter Gropius was specifically inspired by British designer William Morris and prior German movements like the Deutscher Werkbund and the Neues Bauen.
Exploring the links between fine art and craftsmanship (and later art and mass production), Gropius set in motion the fusion of form and function that would become the Bauhaus trademark.
Gropius inaugurated the school in 1919. The first Bauhaus teachers were Swiss painter Johannes Itten (who taught the school’s all important Vorkurs or preliminary course until 1922), German-American painter Lyonel Feininger and German sculptor Gerhard Marcks. Not long afterwards the German painter, sculptor and designer Oskar Schlemmer (who headed the theatre workshop) and the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky joined.
Though the school began in Weimar it really took off in the industrial town of Dessau, where it moved in 1925 following financial cuts by the Thuringian government. Housed in a building designed by Gropius, the school hit its creative stride here underpinned by the new motto: ‘art and technology – a new unit'”. The final stage of the Bauhaus school occured in Berlin, where the school operated in an abandoned telephone factory for a year before being closed down by the Nazis.
Today the main repository of all things Bauhaus is also in Berlin, namely the Bauhaus Archive in the city’s Tiergarten district. Housed in an idiosyncratic building designed by Gropius himself (1976-1979), the Archive/Museum’s distinctive roof, reminiscent of a flotilla, tends to polarise (Bauhaus member Max Bill derided it ‘a screwed-up old man’s design’) but makes it easy to find at least.
Its surprisingly demure interior is the best place to get an overview of the breadth and depth of Bauhaus’ expansive activities, which ranged from architecture and furniture to ceramics, metalwork, photography and more. Set on one floor of the main building, the exhibition space is not huge but it manages to pack in insightful work from Vorkurs students and Bauhaus heavyweights alike.
There are some gorgeous examples of tubular steel furniture from Hungarian Marcel Breuer, including a cherrywood and horsehair original, and leather and wicker armchairs from Mies van der Rohe, who also created the marvellous rosewood writing desk also on display.
The endearing black and white documentary of Gropius’ home, for which he designed every aspect for ‘maximum efficiency and simplicity’ underlines the Bauhaus commitment to everyday functionality. While paintings from Itten, Schlemmer, Feininger, Albers and Klee testify to the influence of Goethe’s Colour Theory, and the wallpaper samples – wallpaper allegedly being most profitable Bauhaus product of all – illustrate the stylistic reach of the movement.
There’s also a host of remarkable pieces rendered in clay, wood and metal, ranging from classic lamps to a beautiful chess set (see photo) by Josef Hartwig in oak, maple, pear and oak, each piece designed to reflect the moves it can make in the game. Also of note is the reconstruction of Gropius’ curvaceous coffee bar, designed originally for the 1930 Werkbund Paris exhibition.
In the back room are models of some of the larger Bauhaus projects. Strangely, although the school’s original vision was centered on buildings, they didn’t begin an architecture school until 1927.
However, the Bauhaus building at Dessau adequately display the school’s legendary architectural vision, all flat roofs, clean lines and a determined lack of ostentation.
If all this doesn’t sate your curiosity, pop next door to the main archive where you’ll find the largest Bauhaus resource in the world, featuring books, magazines, newspaper clippings and more.
There’s also the shop, which stocks a surprisingly large range of lovely Bauhaus reproductions and also sells a map of the key Bauhaus buildings in Berlin (one of the more prominent being Mies van der Rohe’s Neue National Galerie on Potsdamerstraße). And if you’re feeling intrepid, it’s worth checking out the Bauhaus school in Dessau, 130 kilometres south-west of Berlin.
For more information, check out the Bauhaus Archiv’s website.