Clean lines, a minimal color palette, and little ornamentation are signatures of the Bauhaus style

Design School

The History of Bauhaus

By Meaghan O’Neill
December 27, 2017

The once-radical design style combines craft with fine art—and is easier to understand, and implement, than you might think

Founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was a German art school that combined crafts and the fine arts. The notion was radical at the time; previously, the two fields were taught in completely separate realms. With the dawning of a new industrial age, however, the Bauhaus focused on combining craftsmanship and mass production in fields as diverse as weaving, metalworking, furniture design, and architecture.

“It almost single-handedly developed the idea of design,” explains Melissa Venator, a curatorial fellow at the Harvard Art Museums, which houses the largest collection of Bauhaus art and artifacts outside of Germany. “Bauhaus promoted the idea that artists needed crafts training and that craftsmen needed fine arts training. There was a shared sense that design itself was a real art form.”

The influence of Bauhaus design is ubiquitous today, even if it often goes unnoticed
The influence of Bauhaus design is ubiquitous today, even if it often goes unnoticed

Though its lifespan was short and tumultuous—the rise of the Third Reich in Germany caused the school to shut down in 1933—the Bauhaus amassed a star-studded list of professors and students. Names such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the school’s third director), Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, and Marianne Brandt were just some of the gifted creatives to pass through its halls. Their far-reaching influence on modern design—from contemporary co-working spaces to sink faucets—can still be felt today.

A Barcelona chair and table, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929 and still in production today by Knoll, pair beautifully with a contemporary Divina settee, also by Knoll. Photograph courtesy of Knoll, Inc.
A Barcelona chair and table, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929 and still in production today by Knoll, pair beautifully with a contemporary Divina settee, also by Knoll. Photograph courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

When the Bauhaus shuttered, its professors and students—and their ideas—spread throughout the world. In the U.S., what became known as International Style architecture was marked by rectilinear forms, austere planes stripped of ornamentation, and open interior spaces. Modernist architects like Phillip Johnson and I.M. Pei were heavily influenced by Bauhaus’s efficient ideals, building “glass box” skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra, Eileen Gray, and Alvar Aalto followed suit. In Tel Aviv, architects produced 4,000 Bauhaus buildings in the White City, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bauhaus style revolutionized the practice of blending craftsmanship and mass production
Bauhaus style revolutionized the practice of blending craftsmanship and mass production

New industrial materials such as steel and chrome were used to create practical, functional furnishings and home wares, many of which have become icons of design. Take, for example, van der Rohe’s Brno or Breuer’s Wassily chairs, which are still in production today; antique versions also remain in extremely high demand. The industrial materials used by these designers, says Venator, “symbolized the modern world—and still do.”

Because Bauhaus design has stood the test of time, it pairs extremely well with a broad spectrum of interiors—from corporate offices to urbane penthouses to coastal retreats. “Quite simply, these well-designed objects by the Bauhaus masters—sofas, armchairs, table, and stools—steeped in the history of Modernism, deliver joy decade after decade,” says Benjamin Pardo, design director at Knoll, the furnishings and textiles manufacturer founded in 1938.

Furnishings, such as the side table and Barcelona couch here, both by Knoll, were designed to work in tandem with architectural spaces. Photograph courtesy of Knoll, Inc.
Furnishings, such as the side table and Barcelona couch here, both by Knoll, were designed to work in tandem with architectural spaces. Photograph courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

To this day, the company continues to embrace the Bauhaus design philosophy, and continues to produce many of the eras most celebrated designs. And as a precursor to Scandinavian and midcentury modern styles, its tables, lighting, chairs, and beyond easily slip into any current, on-trend space. A living room with a midcentury vibe could easily adopt a Breuer Wassily chair, for example. But a van der Rohe MR20 would also sit beautifully on an Oriental rug in a traditional interior. Mixing high with low and craft with art was a hallmark of Bauhaus’s collaborative nature. With a few smart pieces, it can be yours, too.