By Andrej Kupetz.
The German nation, its federal states and their respective institutions have all dedicated the past year to celebrating the 100th anniversary of this unique school which, like no other, has helped to shape modernism in architecture and design, and whose global influence still permeates the world to the present day. Given that Bauhaus has only positive associations, it stands alongside other great works in the German canon, such as Kant’s philosophy, Beethoven’s music and Goethe’s poetry. However, this is a relatively new interpretation – and is perhaps the most important outcome from the year marking the Bauhaus centenary.
Narrative of the new Germany
Germany did not in fact realise just how invaluable the Bauhaus school was for the nation’s image abroad until much later on. In West Germany, it started when a Dutch retail chain offering DIY products adopted the as yet unregistered name. In East Germany, given the GDR’s ideological distance from any form of modernism branded as formalism, a tentative rapprochement only began in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the Bauhaus school in Dessau. Consequently, it was not until after the reunification that Bauhaus became an all-German project.
Even then, it took time for the myth to become part of the narrative of the new Germany. As recently as 2009, which happened to be the 90th anniversary of the Bauhaus school, when asked if the Goethe Institutes, as ambassadors of Germany’s “soft power”, could be fitted out with furniture from the Bauhaus masters, the president of the Goethe Institute replied that this was not his responsibility. Or take the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin: already in the late 1990s, this attracted more international visitors than any other museum in the German capital. But for several decades the Berlin Senate refused to even consider the much-needed structural expansion. Since 2019 was to mark the Bauhaus centenary, in the 2013 coalition negotiations the CDU and SPD finally agreed to erect a new building.
Unlike the museum projects in Weimar and Dessau, this was not completed in time for the centenary year; in fact it was only just begun, with the symbolic ground-breaking ceremony attended by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, Monika Grütters. But at least the archive’s most exciting exhibition to date – featuring material that had never been seen before – is on display in the Berlinische Galerie. The slides Gropius used on his lecture tours are an undeniable highlight; they may not tell us much about Bauhaus, but they do tell us a lot about Gropius and his view of the world.
Women in Bauhaus
In order to generate popular interest, ARD and ZDF commissioned a film entitled “Lotte am Bauhaus” (Lotte in the Bauhaus), as well as a series entitled “Die neue Zeit” (A New Era). This resulted in well-made prime time entertainment whose creators were not afraid to distort the history of Bauhaus, its masters, and students, or to focus narrowly on a sentimentalised view of the personalities. That being said, they do relay one aspect that can certainly be seen as true, and that resonates with us in 2019: the Bauhaus school gave young women an opportunity to participate in shaping the future. Moving towards emancipation and equality in a new Germany, the year that the Bauhaus school was founded was also the year that German women got the vote.
Design and morality
What of the Bauhaus legacy? What of the newly emerging designers and architects? One hundred years after the school was founded, the spirit of Bauhaus seems to be more alive than ever in the universities and academies. And this phenomenon is not simply due to the centenary events hosted by various institutions – it is due to the enduring appeal of the design movement conceived by Gropius and his comrades-in-arms. Because Bauhaus aspired to do nothing less than educate our industrial-age society – with designs modelled on the austerity of simple physical forms in experimental arrangements. Walter Gropius fused design with morality in his concept of the designer’s role and responsibility to society. And he insisted on this vehemently in the principles that he applied to production in the Bauhaus school. The approach based on “simplicity in multiple forms” and on “economical use of space, materials, time and money” was primarily intended to improve the quality of life for the general population.
If the cost of manufacturing could be reduced by using less material and making sure that the designs took into account the production processes, this meant products could be sold at a lower price. Large sections of the populace would benefit from this, because they would then be able to afford the products. By adopting such an approach, designers were able to make a clear statement regarding their position on social issues – they served humanity by focusing their design work on the tangible benefits of a product.
What the future holds for Bauhaus
Today, a hundred years later, the focus is no longer on social issues. Instead, the moral aspect of design is largely defined by ecological issues. The social issues have not disappeared, but given the parallels between poverty and wealth, communism and post-capitalism that we see in our globalised society, the sweeping threat of climate change is the one universal existential challenge that everyone must face – without exception. Accordingly, shifting the spotlight onto ecological issues is a matter for the whole of society. And this is in keeping with the Bauhaus ethos, because the designers of today and tomorrow must continuously confront the issues of production, materials, form and distribution – i.e. the ecological footprint of their work.
The author: Andrej Kupetz
CEO German Design Council
Andrej Kupetz (*1968) has been CEO of the German Design Council in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, since 1999. He studied industrial design, philosophy and product marketing in Berlin, London and Paris. In 1997, after various positions in design management and university liaison, Andrej Kupetz joined German Railways (Deutsche Bahn AG) where he was responsible for brand management in the DB Group and for the implementation of various corporate design processes. Kupetz is member of the advisory board of the Design Management Institute Boston. Since 2011 Kupetz has been a member of the higher education council of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main. That same year the European Commission appointed him to the European Design Leadership Board. Kupetz is married and has three sons.
Article picture: Bauhaus Building Dessau, Walter Gropius (1925–26). Copyright: Tadashi Okochi © Pen Magazine, 2010, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau