Anthea Streeter at Te Papa

Anthea Streeter at Te Papa

The German Bauhaus, although short-lived (1919 to 1933), “ushered in modern design”. This was Anthea Streeter’s main message to her audience of about 130 Friends and members of Wedfas (Wellington Fine and Decorative Arts Society). Anthea gave a very informative talk that clearly outlined the main phases of the Bauhaus – as well as the background to its development and its ‘afterlife’. She illustrated this with many images from the time.

The Bauhaus was founded by architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) who had been a member of the German ‘Werkbund’ – founded in 1907, this was a group of artists, designers and industrialists who felt arts and industry should work together to improve designed mass-produced objects made in modern factories. Central to this was reforming arts and crafts training and in 1919 Gropius took over the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar amalgamating it with the School of Crafts and renaming it the Bauhaus (literally ‘building house’). Coming soon after World War One, materials and funds were in short supply – Gropius relied on crafts people in the area to provide studio space and materials for some of his courses.

The first phase of the Bauhaus lasted until 1923 – despite Gropius’s desire to work closely with industry, the ‘Bauhaus Manifesto’ of 1919 and these early years involved more of a looking back to the English Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and further back to an ideal of Medieval craftsmanship – mixed with some spiritual mysticism. Teachers were called ‘masters’ and students ‘apprentices’ – nevertheless Gropius attracted well-known artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee as teachers. Their focus was on colour theory and the ordering of shapes. The Vorkurs – or foundation course – was an integral part of the teaching and until 1923 was taught by Johannes Itten – a monk-like figure who emphasised craftsmanship with simple materials rather than designing for mass production. After a student graduated from the Vorkurs he or she could choose one of 12 workshops – Anthea covered three of them, noting that the pottery workshop had early successes with some of its designs being taken up by industry and mass produced. This was what the Bauhaus was supposed to be about – good design for all.

After the Dutch ‘de Stijl’ movement artist Theo van Doesburg arrived as a teacher in 1922 and Itten was replaced by the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1923, the Bauhaus moved into another phase – one which emphasised geometric, repeating designs, abstract shapes, and the more forward-looking industrial approach that Gropius had intended from the start. In 1925 the Bauhaus was forced to move from Weimar and found a more congenial home – for seven years – in the industrial town of Dessau. This was its most successful phase; its Gropius-designed building was the first large modernist building in the world. The students lived on site. Tubular steel furniture designed by Marcel Breuer began mass production. Gropius designed houses for himself and some of the teachers – fitted furniture units, clean lines, minimal ornamentation, and bathrooms that would not be out of place in a contemporary 2015 home! In line with its principles of amalgamating arts, crafts and architecture, the Bauhaus also reformed graphic design and typography; undertook touring theatre and ballet productions, making the striking costumes and masks; had a jazz band, and parties and present-giving were encouraged.

However, the Bauhaus existed during turbulent political and economic times. The Weimar Republic was coterminous with its short life, and the rise of the Nazi party was the reason the Bauhaus moved twice until it was ultimately closed down. The final director was Mies van der Rohe who moved the school to Berlin in 1932, only for it to close in August 1933. This had the unintended effect of disseminating its ideas around the world as the teachers moved.

Anthea Streeter exhorted the audience to go home after her lecture and look around the house at what might have begun its design life in the Bauhaus – fitted furniture in combination units, tubular steel chairs and tables, mixer taps, strip lighting – the list could go on. Many things we associate with the fifties or sixties actually began in the Bauhaus in the twenties and thirties.

Vivienne Morrell