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Bauhaus Movement: Characteristics & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What's one way to change the arts? Change the way you teach it! In this lesson, we'll look at the Bauhaus Movement of the early 20th century and see how it sought to redefine the arts.

The Bauhaus Movement

There are a lot of things that Germany has given to the world. Beer. Sauerkraut. Lederhosen. Also, you know, Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Albert Einstein.

In the arts, Germany has often been at the forefront of fine art, architecture, and design. But why treat these as three separate categories? In the early 20th century, one movement decided it was time to erase the lines that separated fine arts and decorative crafts and unite them together within architecture. This was the Bauhaus Movement.

The Bauhaus symbol
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The Bauhaus And Its Goals

The Bauhaus movement gets its name from an institution, named the Bauhaus, founded in the city of Weimar by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. It was a school, a place where Gropius could train artists under his avant-garde concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Roughly translating to ''total art work'', the idea was that all the arts could be unified together. While first substantially supported as a way to unify visual arts, music, and dance by Richard Wagner, Gropius saw a similar unification of fine art and decorative crafts through architecture.

The Bauhaus building of Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius
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The Bauhaus was opened as something of a utopian crafts guild, where aspiring fine artists and architects were trained in decorative arts ranging from cabinetmaking to textiles to pottery. Metalworking, typography, and photography also found places within the Bauhaus movement. By learning to perfect these crafts, artists and architects found new ways to unify decorative and fine arts in their designs.

Gropius led the school for the first few years, after which it was passed onto architect Hannes Meyer, and then Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Each man brought a different focus and emphasis to the curriculum, so the Bauhaus movement remained flexible and adaptable. It was relocated to the cities of Dessau and Berlin, and became an epicenter of avant-garde artistic intellectualism.

The Bauhaus students envisioned utopian arts that transformed society, but those ideas didn't sit well with political changes in Germany. In 1933, the rising Nazi Party started putting heavy pressure on the Bauhaus school, which decided to close its doors. Many figures associated with the movement, including Mies van der Rohe, ended up in the United States. There was even a Bauhaus school built in the USA, but when we're talking about the true influence of the Bauhaus Movement we generally end it at 1933.

Bauhaus Modernism

So, what exactly did Bauhaus designs look like? There are, after all, countless ways that fine arts, architecture, and decorative crafts can be combined. The Bauhaus school was, at the base level, dedicated to the principles of Modernism. Modernism had arrived in Germany several years before, and was dominating European intellectual culture at the time. Modernist artists sought to strip their arts of all ornamentation and reduce them to the simplest forms. In essence, they sought to restore the purity of art by removing everything unnecessary and leaving only the line, shape, and color.

The Bauhaus Movement came to define a type of Modernism known as the International Style. Simplistic in design, International art and architecture stressed functionality over all else, and sought to challenge the ways that buildings, art, and even decorative objects like chairs could be used. They tended to be geometric, plainly colored or white, and useful. Bauhaus decorative arts complimented International Style spaces with minimalist designs that stressed the concept of harmony between the object and its functionality. Basically they believed art could be beautiful without ceasing to be useful. Decorative crafts, utilized as furniture or textiles in a home, were a big part of this.

The Wassily chair, designed by Marcel Breuer at Bauhaus, was the first chair that rested entirely on tubular steel
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