I. Building a new kind of school: Bauhaus and its founding principles
To question received knowledge; to experiment with new ways of teaching; to dissolve the separation between artists and craftsmen; and to make art accessible to everyday life were among the core principles of the Bauhaus school of art when it opened its doors in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. While the school remained open for a relatively brief period of fourteen years—in between two world wars and exactly overlapping with the period of the Weimar Republic—it revolutionized the way art is taught around the world. One-hundred years later, “Bauhaus” lives on as a set of principles that are applicable to all creative work. Simultaneously, the art created by the Bauhäusler (the artists affiliated with the institution) continues to speak for itself—exuding idealism and exuberance, forever representing the confluence of creative energy at the school. The high concentration of excellence across media suggests the magnetism of the school in attracting great talent and bringing out the best from the talents it had gathered.
The phrase bauhaus combines the German words bau (from bauen, to build) with haus (house). In the first sentence of his “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program,” architect Walter Gropius, the founder of the school, wrote, “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” The brief and spirited manifesto insisted that the arts had become unproductive and deficient, existing in isolation from everyday life. The way to rescue and revitalize art was for artists to dedicate themselves to thorough training in the crafts—acquired in workshops and in both experimental and practical sites—so that students to masters alike could engage in artistic production through various disciplines including carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, painting, printing and advertising, and weaving. A course in architecture was not offered until 1927, but architecture would later become a major focus when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took over as its third director.
“Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist! Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.”
–Walter Gropius, “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program” (1919)
All Bauhaus students spent their first year of study receiving basic training in the Vorkurs—a preliminary course that focused on experimentation with color, shape and materials. By initiating students through experimentation and play, the Bauhaus set its pedagogy apart from traditional academies of art, where students spent a great deal of time copying from models. Gropius recruited renowned artists to teach as “form masters” in the preliminary course, including Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers, each of whom approached the course differently, in accordance with his own interests and expertise.
Following the Vorkurs, students went on to specialize in discipline-focused workshops with “work masters,” based on their skills and interests. It is worth noting that while the school admitted both men and women (and in fact, more women applied than men in 1919), many of the female students who attended the Bauhaus were discouraged from specializing in the “heavier” trades of wood and metal working, and later architecture. Instead, they were funneled into either the weaving or ceramics workshops that were regarded as more appropriate women’s work. This was a reflection of director Gropius’ view that men were more capable of creative work in three dimensions, while women were best left to two. As Sigrid Weltge-Wortmann put it in her beautifully illustrated 1993 book, “Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus,” “Like women, textiles have traditionally been cast in the supportive role: one notices the chair, but not its cover.”
Gunta Stölzl, who entered the school in 1920 when she was twenty-three years old, gradually took over management of the weaving workshop and became the school’s only female master in 1928. Throughout its run, the school struggled to become commercially sustainable, as it attempted to market its avant-garde artistic products and appeal to public tastes that were hesitant to evolve. Under Stölzl’s direction, with assistance from fellow women weavers Anni Albers, Otti Berger and Benita Otte, the weaving workshop became the longest-running Bauhaus department and one of its most commercially successful.
Among the other Bauhaus women who are less prominently remembered and celebrated than their male counterparts are Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, a toymaker who created the Bauspiel building kit that encouraged free and experimental play. Siedhoff-Buscher was killed in an air raid in Buchschlag near Frankfurt in September 1944. Marianne Brandt, a metalworker, designed iconic globe lamps and a geometric teapot that remains one of Bauhaus’ most famous objects. Brandt taught applied art and design in Berlin and Dresden until 1954, then continued to produce paintings, weavings and sculptures for the rest of her life in Chemnitz. Anni Albers and Marli Ehrman both emigrated to the United States to teach textile design in Black Mountain, North Carolina and in Chicago, respectively, and passed their expertise on to a new generation of American weavers.
Equality of the sexes was among Bauhaus’ incompletely realized ideals, but from its beginnings the founders of the school always envisioned a working community of artists and close-knit relationships between students and masters. Among the principles from the founding manifesto was “Encouragement of friendly relations between masters and students outside of work,” which was implemented in social events such as plays, lectures, poetry readings, music performances, and some legendary Bauhaus costume parties. Another principle: “Mutual planning of extensive, Utopian structural designs” for buildings, aimed at the future. The dynamic school community of shared creative labor and leisure was itself an implementation of the utopian, future-oriented vision of design for a better life.
From 1919 to 1933, the school moved from Weimar, to Dessau, to a campus designed by Walter Gropius as an embodiment of the school’s values, and finally to Berlin. By the time Mies van der Rohe took over as director in the early 1930s, political pressure was mounting from the National Socialist party, which regarded the Bauhaus with suspicion, considering it a hotbed of degenerate and “un-German” art. The Gestapo, under the orders of the newly elected Nazi government, raided the school looking for anti-Nazi propaganda and other incriminating evidence of unsuitable political affiliations. The school was closed on April 11, 1933. Mies received a letter from the Gestapo saying he could reopen the school if the curriculum was rewritten and if some of the more left-wing faculty were replaced with “individuals who guarantee to support the principles of the National Socialist ideology.” Though Mies never condemned Nazi politics outright, a silence which disappointed many of his colleagues, he was not interested in complying with these terms. The Bauhaus was permanently closed.
II. The New Bauhaus: Moholy and Mies in Chicago
After the school shut its doors, many Bauhäusler emigrated from Germany all over the world where they continued to disseminate Bauhaus principles and creative practice. In the ensuing Bauhaus diaspora, two major emigrés landed in Chicago: László Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe. Moholy was among the renowned artists invited to Chicago by Walter Paepcke. Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist who started the Container Corporation of America, got the idea from his wife to commission artists to create innovative advertising campaigns. Some of these extraordinary CCA-commissioned ads were exhibited at the Art Institute in April 1945, in a show called “Modern Art in Advertising.”
The Hungarian-born Moholy was a versatile multimedia artist, proficient in painting, photography, film, sculpture, advertising, product design and stage design. Maggie Taft, co-editor of “Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now,” who is teaching a seminar on Bauhaus at the University of Chicago this spring, explained Chicago’s appeal to Moholy: “Chicago had a nascent design scene, compared to London [where Moholy had lived between 1935 to 1937], where the scene was already well-established. When he came to Chicago in 1937, Moholy saw the opportunity to carry on the ideas that were interrupted by the war in Germany.”
In 1937, László Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago, a design program that continues today as the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the same year, Mies van der Rohe arrived in Chicago to direct the architecture program that would be housed within the same institution. Mies had been prominently featured in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1932; subsequently he received numerous offers of work from wealthy Americans.
The design program directed by Moholy and the architecture program directed by Mies shared the same roof at one point—inside S. R. Crown Hall, the centerpiece of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) main campus in Bronzeville, on the other side of the expressway from the White Sox stadium. Out of the twenty buildings Mies designed for IIT’s main campus—which is still called the Mies campus—and out of all his designs that were built around the world, Crown Hall was the architect’s all-time personal favorite. With glass as its skin and steel columns and girders as its bones, Crown Hall is a pure expression of Mies’ vision for “skin and bones” architecture, exemplifying a modern building whose structure is transparent and stripped of all ornamentation.
After Crown Hall was completed in 1951, “Mies put us [the design program] in the basement,” says Jeffery Mau, an alumnus of the Institute of Design who works as an experience design consultant and now teaches at ID as an adjunct faculty member. “Moholy and Mies did not get along and they did not work together. Moholy was interested in connecting art and design with the senses, and showing students multiple ways to see the world, while Mies was dedicated to creating a new language of architecture as art, insisting ‘there is (only) my way to see the world.’” Moholy is remembered as the more generous teacher, more nurturing of individual talents. In recent years, he has been in the spotlight as the subject of major retrospective exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Moholy is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary, “The New Bauhaus,” directed by Alysa Nahmias and produced by Opendox, which highlights his pivotal role in bringing the Bauhaus to Chicago and his wide-ranging influence on American design.
The New Bauhaus became the Institute of Design (ID), eventually moving out of the basement, and more recently, into a new building called the Kaplan Institute—the first newly designed building on the Mies campus in four decades. Eighty years since the first iteration founded by Moholy, ID retains the Bauhaus tradition of the foundation year. “Bauhaus has always been focused on creating the future. Here, we are obsessed with creating the future. We look to identify opportunities for creating new solutions.” Mau likened ID to a business school for designers. “We lean toward a more business-focused viewpoint, creating new offerings for companies and organizations. We use a vocabulary of methodologies, wanting to introduce rigor to a world that is traditionally creative and subjective.”
Meanwhile, the architecture program continues to live inside Crown Hall. On a day in mid-December, after the autumn semester has ended, both floors of Crown Hall are almost deserted but the tangible evidence of the semester’s labors cover tables and walls. It looks like dozens of students were just working on sketches, building maquettes and sculptural forms and have just stepped away for a much-needed break.
The main floor of Crown Hall has a completely open 120 by 200-foot floor plan. There are no support columns but the interior is divided by free-standing partitions demarcating office spaces. The radical transparency of the exterior façade—almost entirely glass—has the effect of accentuating the opacity of the partitions. The building invites you into an environment defined by transparency and light, so that when you come face to face with solid walls, it can’t help but remind you that not everything can lay out in the open.
Mies’ buildings in Chicago include IIT’s campus, the School of the Social Service Administration at University of Chicago, the twin apartment towers at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and the Federal Center downtown. The latter was Mies’ second-favorite creation; the clean lines and symmetry of the modernist design symbolized a victory in his lifelong battle against disorder. Beyond the buildings he personally designed, the “less is more” Miesian aesthetic of glass and steel—the essential form of the modern skyscraper—became ubiquitous in the skyline of Chicago and countless other cities.
III. The Whole World a Bauhaus
To experience Mies’ vision on a more intimate scale, one can look to the Western suburb of Elmhurst, which is home to the McCormick House, one of only three single-family homes that were built from the architect’s designs for prefabricated housing in the United States. Prefab houses were meant to address the housing shortage in the postwar era, but the materials dictated by Mies’ design resulted in a house that cost nearly twice as much to build as the average home in the 1950s.
After three families had lived there (including one former mayor of Elmhurst), the Elmhurst Fine Arts and Civic Center Foundation purchased McCormick House in 1991. Two years later the house was transported on a flatbed truck from its original location to become part of the new museum’s campus. In recent years, the Elmhurst Art Museum (EAM) has undertaken restorations to preserve the house and to restore it to the original layout intended by Mies.
The museum is among a couple dozen Chicago arts organizations and educational institutions that will celebrate the Bauhaus centenary this spring and will serve as the only U.S. venue for “The Whole World a Bauhaus,” an exhibition touring internationally from Buenos Aires to Mexico City to Elmhurst and culminating in Germany in late 2019. John McKinnon, Elmhurst Art Museum’s executive director, says the exhibition connects Chicago to the international Bauhaus 100 celebrations, and provides an exploration of “the lasting legacy Mies left as the final Bauhaus director, before completely transforming modern architecture from a home base of Chicago.”
“The whole world a Bauhaus” was a phrase used by alumnus Fritz Kuhr, a self-described “eternal learner” who studied with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky before going on to teach drawing and painting at the Bauhaus. The exhibition is divided into sections that examine themes of work and life at the Bauhaus, including “Art, Crafts and Technology,” “Community,” “Radical Pedagogy” and “Experiment” and includes a selection of art and design pieces as well as varied documentation of life at the Bauhaus.
Many exhibitions of Bauhaus works have been organized in recent decades and will continue to be presented during and after the centenary celebration in order to offer an exhilarating and partial view of the unprecedented spirit of the school, and the reasons for its potent and continuing influence on art, design and pedagogy. “There was always lively debate and controversy concerning the purpose and significance of the Bauhaus at the Bauhaus itself, and also outside, and this continues to this day,” curator Boris Friedewald writes in his preface to “The Whole World.” In Chicago, Bauhaus’ emigrants initiated a new generation of American designers and architects; its practitioners transformed domestic interiors and shaped the grandeur of the skyline; and its founding principles continue to inspire the creation of work across many disciplines.
Jan Bartoszek, the artistic director of Hedwig Dances (a Chicago-based company she founded thirty-three years ago) was inspired to create a new dance piece after she was given a book about Bauhaus’ elemental design precepts. Premiering in November 2018, “Futura” was a collaborative project that involved Torsten Blume, a choreographer based in Dessau, Jeffery Mau from IIT’s Institute of Design, Jason White of Leviathan (a creative agency specializing in digital experience design), and ID graduate students. “The Bauhaus ideas still matter because they are rooted in spatial concepts and geometries that are so basic and universal that they are open to infinite possibilities,” says Bartoszek. “As technology and times change, these concepts are re-interpreted and applied to the present moment with new tools and perspectives. The Bauhaus had a forward-looking approach to design with the fundamental belief that great design could impact daily life in positive ways.”
Mau, whose design work is mostly based in the digital realm, says the spirit of Bauhaus continues to be relevant today “because it’s an idea of how to wrestle with craft and technology. Bauhaus is an idea rather than any specific discipline; an idea of creating the future. Bauhaus embraced a modernized world, and the idea of people working with technology.” Technology evolves, but the view of the artist as a designer of systems and the role of design to address problems and proactively shape the future is here to stay. “Moholy would have loved today’s world with new forms of media and experiences, as it is a continuation of his passion for experimentation with how people experience the world where technology and craft work in tandem.”
Bauhaus is making a robust entrance into its second century. “The Bauhaus existed for a short span of time but the potentials intrinsic in its principles have only begun to be realized. The sources of design remain forever full of changing possibilities,” Bauhaus alumnus Herbert Bayer said,” The Bauhaus is dead. Long live the Bauhaus.”
“The Whole World a Bauhaus” is on view at the Elmhurst Art Museum from February 23 through April 21, 2019. More “Bauhaus 100”-related events and exhibitions will be happening around the city through Spring 2019 including at the Smart Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago.