The History of the Bauhaus.


Bauhaus & Functionalism 1919-1933

The most prolific kind of architecture ever, has been the International Style. It has been based on simple geometry and what people thought were ‘rational’ forms. The International Style can be seen all over the world and the best examples are skyscrapers with hundreds of regular, grid-like windows, which make them took like a giant monuments. You probably live right near an example of International Style. There is so much of it around that we tend not to notice it or ask why it is the way it is.

The ideas behind the International Style didn’t just happen, they were a part of the Modern movement which was nurtured in its early years at the Bauhaus, a German school dedicated just to design. It was founded by Walter Gropius, who realised that machine production would be of great importance in the 2cP~ Century. This may have had something to do with the power of the machines he saw in action during his service in the First World War.

It was at the Bauhaus that the idea of a designer being both an artist and a craftsman came into being. The development of industry presented designers with exciting new opportunities and the relationship between art and industry was re-assessed. William Morris had been concerned with this in the late 19th Century. He saw craftsmen as necessary to raise the standards of mass-produced items, but held and ongoing suspicion of industry. The Bauhaus however, embraced industry and its creative possibilities for mass-production.

The Bauhaus started in Weimar in 1919 and moved to Dessau until 1932, and then it moved to Berlin during its final few months. Although the Bauhaus itself had a very short life (thanks to Nazism), its ideas didn’t.

One of the biggest ideas to come out of the Bauhaus was ‘functionalism’. It shaped what we know as the Modern Movement. Functionalism is all about designing things to look functional. It is important to make clear that this didn’t always mean that these things were actually any more functional.

The machine was the inspiration for functionalism. At the time of the Bauhaus people were very impressed with the power and scope of machines. Huge structures could be built, mass production was possible, and wars could be waged. Through the power of the machine a new era had dawned. C. Toynbee gloried in the success of the machine saying that through machines we would always be victorious over nature. The machine provided the inspiration for design. It became a symbol for the future.

Machines are rational, non-ornate, and based on scientific principles. Functionalism takes these ideas and applies them to designed objects. Adolf Loos was perhaps the most extreme believer in the possibility of functionalist design. He hated any ornamentation and believed the development of a society could be judged on how much ornament they had on buildings and objects they designed. Where primitive cultures were attracted to ornamentation, more advanced societies were presented with the possibilities of the machine to produce perfectly geometrical and regular forms. Loos said that advanced societies should and avoid ornament as a testament to their highly developed state. He said “culture advances with the banishment of ornament”.


        Tea Caddy, Hans Przyrembel, 1926                           Groupis Sugar bowl                                Ashtray Marianne Brandt, 1924


He also said, “nothing that is not functional can be beautiful”. This signified a serious reassessment of the place and purpose of ornament, which the Bauhaus continued in the expression “form follows function’. Aesthetic assessments were made in terms of function, and beauty was defined in terms of utility. This approach was very attractive because it gave designers a strong framework from which they could analyse the built environment.


                Desk B91Marcel Breuer, 1930                                                                    Chair B6,Marckel Breuer, 1925

Much of the design work from the Bauhaus can be considered functionalist. They adhered to the idea of ‘truth to materials’. This meant that if glass were to be used for an object, then it had to look like the best material for the job. It also had to be used in a way, which didn’t hide or obscure the fact that the material was glass. This was considered a very honest approach to design. Bauhaus designs often incorporated straight lines and geometric forms and were very critical of useless ornamentation. Primary colours (red, yellow, and blue) were supposed to have a special relationship with what were considered primary forms (circle, square, and triangle). This was an attempt to make design a kind of science. They were convinced that their work was timeless, as an object’s function didn’t change. Function became the purest expression of an object.

The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and many often students and lecturers went to America where their ideas flourished and helped to establish the Modern movement from which grew the International Style of architecture. Gropius became the Dean of Architecture at Harvard, Mies Van der Rohe became Dean at Illinois Institute of Technology, and Moholy-Nagy founded a new Bauhaus in Chicago. The German Bauhaus developed a new way of teaching design, which has affected design courses throughout the world.


Table lamp, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, 1924

It is strange looking back at the obsession with functionalism. Designers were more concerned with how an object looked in the end rather than in the function of the object. If an object looked functionalist then it was and that was enough. Today we know some of the failures of the International Style of architecture are completely to do with function things like how well people use and move through spaces. This is a real failing of a design philosophy whose main idea was to address function.

Questions from the text

1.What is meant by truth to materials’?

2.What part did the machine play in the development of functionalism?

3.Why do you think the Nazis wanted to close the Bauhaus?

4.Why did Bauhaus designers use geometric forms with little or no ornamentation?

5.What does ‘form follows function’ mean?

6.Why did Adolf Loos want designers to avoid ornamentation?


The Bauhaus at Dessau

Walter Gropius