Utopia for the better-off

That the Bauhaus is the most famous design school in history is not in doubt. Its legacy, however, is a different matter – far less certain than its fame.

What do we think of when we think of the Bauhaus? A tubular chair? A white cubic villa? A lamp? It is hardly the legacy one might imagine for a school that set out to change the world, to revolutionise production and a life lived with objects. In fact you could easily argue that the Bauhaus was a failure. Its stated aim of designing a world of functional, affordable buildings and products can be seen to have achieved little more than the production of some exquisitely designed works of craft (meticulously made with a machine aesthetic to appear mass manufactured), labour-intensive and materially expensive, which were bought by the few wealthy and educated connoisseurs who could appreciate them.

Like the architects and craftsmen of the Arts and Crafts movement before them, the Bauhaus designers ended up “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich” (as William Morris put it). In fact, despite the socialist leanings of most of its masters, the Bauhaus’s legacy was subsequently dismissed by the communist GDR regime as “bourgeois”, and perhaps there was something in that. While architects in Frankfurt were building massive social housing schemes, the designers at the Bauhaus were designing villas for themselves and beautifully crafted objects to put in them. Of all the actual designs to emerge from the Bauhaus, it is arguably only the “Wassily” chair that ever became a truly mass-market product (and even then only half a century later).

Marcel Breuer, the mind behind the chair, was also, almost astonishingly, the only student to emerge from the Bauhaus and make a real international impact. Breuer was quickly made a teacher and, after a brief intermission in London, made a career in the US as a designer of houses and a collaborator on big-ticket buildings such as the UN headquarters in New York.

There were others (Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Max Bill, for example, made modest waves) but none reached the iconic status of the school’s founders. The big figures, Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy and Itten, were all teachers.

The Bauhaus coincided precisely with the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. We associate Weimar with a kind of artistic licence and decadence, with cabaret and Brecht, Grosz, Beckman and FW Murnau, Wedekind and Weill, a varied, strange group of artists who explored the angst and trauma of contemporary urban life.

The Bauhaus, however, stood for a kind of modernist utopianism. Those Bauhaus ideals now seem naive, while Weimar’s dystopian cynicism is more in tune with our own times. Perhaps the problem is that the Bauhaus aspired to universalism, the idea that design could foster a language that would transcend the barriers of nationality or politics. This just didn’t work out. The mania for controlling every element of the environment from house to teaspoon now looks suspiciously fanatical and the attempt to create a language from pure geometry appears misguided – a shoehorning of forms into a formal vocabulary in the name of functionalism.

What the Bauhaus did do, however, was to ascribe a value to design, to put it in the same category as art while throwing off the tag of “Applied Art”. Its teachers were concerned not with the decoration of a functional product but with the idea that, simply through expressing a function, a product could exude an inner beauty or truthfulness – that design, in short, had a moral dimension. This is the lasting legacy of the Bauhaus. Its designs may have become instantly recognisable – even if they are as much period pieces as a Chippendale chair – but the influence of the Bauhaus is in the idea of design as something to be taken seriously.

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