House of Building.

In the last three, maybe four years I’ve been quite fascinated with Bauhaus, the German style of architecture and design that was developed by Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus was a German fine arts and architecture school that was opened in 1919 and closed under pressure from the Nazi regime in 1933. You’ll have probably come across some of the more famous examples of Bauhaus; the Wassily Chair or the Engel House in Tel-Aviv and you’ll have probably heard their motto “Form follows function”; the idea that the shape of an object or building should be based on its intended purpose. The Bauhaus has had massive influence on developments in modern graphic, interior and industrial design, typography and architecture.

Below is an article written by Erik Spiekermann last November for Blueprint magazine discussing Bauhaus as a style.

For more than 40 years my let­ter­head has con­sisted of a red bar at the top of the page, with my name reversed out of it. Some of my edu­cated friends still feel they have to make remarks about that device, espe­cially now that the Bauhaus cel­e­brates its 90th birth­day and Berlin is cov­ered in posters emu­lat­ing what is obvi­ously per­ceived as a spe­cific style.

Per­haps we Ger­mans should be glad that we have cre­ated at least one world-famous and per­haps even pop­u­lar style, but, know-alls that we are, we have to point out that the Bauhaus was much more than a sim­ple style. Hav­ing been invented in Ger­many (if not entirely by Ger­mans), it had to have a the­ory as well as a seri­ous mes­sage to mankind.

Her­bert Bayer para­phrased the Bauhaus propo­si­tion as ‘com­bin­ing the areas of util­i­tar­ian design, after research­ing their con­stituent ele­ments, under the pur­pose of “Bau” (Ger­man for build­ing or con­struc­tion)’. ‘Research­ing their ele­ments’ meant dis­cussing eco­nom­i­cal, social, for­mal and eth­i­cal top­ics to form a the­o­ret­i­cal, sci­en­tific basis for design, in order to move away from per­sonal, purely artis­tic atti­tudes. ‘Bau’ meant every arte­fact, not just build­ings made from stone or steel.

One of the main prob­lems with most of what we know about the Bauhaus (and other peri­ods or styles, for that mat­ter) is that we have only seen these arte­facts fil­tered through some inter­ven­ing tech­nol­ogy: pho­tographs of build­ings; scans of book pages, more often than not repro­duc­tions of repro­duc­tions and hardly ever at the orig­i­nal size. This process tends to be kind to the printed pieces from the Bauhaus work­shops. What was actu­ally fairly crude type­set­ting from a very lim­ited choice of fonts and plain let­ter­press print­ing on bad paper, today appeals to us as lov­ingly hand­made, put together by charm­ing, bespec­ta­cled gen­tle­men, sport­ing inter­est­ing facial hair-styles, under enam­eled lamp­shades in cosy mid-European ate­liers. I bet the poor com­pos­i­tors who had to work to detailed sketches from design­ers such as El Lis­sitzky hated every minute of it. They would have much rather set straight­for­ward columns of plain type instead of hav­ing to com­pose impos­si­ble illus­tra­tions from metal rules and 12-pica full points. At the same time it must have been frus­trat­ing for Lis­sitzky and his col­leagues to have their imag­i­na­tion con­strained by the tight lim­its of a mechan­i­cal craft that was more rule-based than the most Teu­tonic of engi­neers could have wished.

Crude as it was, this new way of con­struct­ing pages, rather than sim­ply set­ting them from the top down and cen­tred, soon cre­ated a demand. In 1928, Bayer observed that more than 50 per cent of the orders taken by print­ers in Frank­furt were spec­i­fied to be set in the ‘Bauhaus Style’. By that time this had been reduced to big dots and heavy bars or, worse still, orna­ments and imi­ta­tions of nature by means of typo­graphic mate­ri­als. The orig­i­nal con­cept of being true to the mate­r­ial had come full circle.

If the Bauhaus con­cept had already been reduced to a mere style as early as 1928, while it was still going – per­haps even as strong as in the begin­ning – how can we be sur­prised that today a red bar is enough to evoke it? What would it mean today to be ‘true to the mate­r­ial’ when the mate­r­ial con­sists of invis­i­ble noughts and ones? How would we define ‘util­i­tar­ian design’ when we are sup­posed to invent expe­ri­ences and vir­tual worlds for the con­sumer to get sucked into?

What’s left? Dis­cussing eco­nom­i­cal, social, for­mal and eth­i­cal top­ics may well be desir­able again when we design not just arte­facts but processes, pol­i­tics and, in fact, our future. Con­nect­ing these issues under the topos of design is what the Bauhaus invented. Cre­at­ing net­works, think­ing across dis­ci­plines. What we call net­works but tend to only get in the shape of cables is the way out for design­ers. The way out of their iso­la­tion, caught between clients ask­ing for free pitches and com­peti­tors ready to do the same work for half the fee. The way out of the alien­ation and iso­la­tion caused by unlim­ited tech­nol­ogy, which, by def­i­n­i­tion, is irresponsible.

If the red bar on my let­ter­head reminds me of this premise, I can live with the fact that, for most peo­ple, the Bauhaus is just another style.

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