Skip to content

Bauhaus Fatigue

Post date:

I can’t say Ludwig Kurz was representative of all craftsmen any more than I can claim Anton Hofer represents The Bauhaus but this post is not about individuals – it is about two different approaches to education, design and production that coexisted once. Ludwig’s Kurz’s formal education took place over the three winters of 1922-23, 1923-24 and 1924-25, a period corresponding to the final three years of Weimar Bauhaus.

As I wrote last week, I was pleased Ludwig Kurz and Anton Hofer found a shared interest in recording culturally-important buildings threatened by war but I was also slightly puzzled because their alliance contradicted two things I’d always thought true about design, education and production in the twentieth century. One is that the approach of the craftsperson was not the way forward and the other is that the approach of The Bauhaus was.

What constitutes “the way forward”of course depends upon for what and for whom. What might be the way forward for some is not necessarily the way forward for others or the way forward for all.

By 1850 in Britain the growing middle classes had money to spare on the decorative arts and the production of household goods such as fabrics and rugs was already mechanised. Some observers began to identify a dysfunction between the quality and cost of a machine-produced item and how it looked. This below, for example, is a cast iron umbrella stand from circa 1850. Cast iron could be made to look like a lot of things and those same some people began to think designers of cast iron umbrella stands didn’t know what a cast iron umbrella stand wanted to look like. [The next century would encounter a similar problem with plastic, and the one after with 3-D printing.]

There would have been few umbrella stand designers in 1850 familiar with the properties of cast iron and its casting techniques, and cast iron might not have been the ideal material from which to make stands for dripping umbrellas anyway but these were matters of no consequence to persons having the raw materials and the facilities to make them as long as there were people to buy them. This problem of the relationship between design and production was to fester throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, centering around these new things called machines.

AGAINST: “Ruskin had argued that the separation of the intellectual act of design from the manual act of physical creation was both socially and aesthetically damaging. [“W“]

FOR: “Morris and his followers believed the division of labour on which modern industry depended was undesirable, but the extent to which every design should be carried out by the designer was a matter for debate and disagreement. Although Morris was famous for getting hands-on experience of many crafts (including weaving, dying, printing, calligraphy and embroidery), he did not regard the separation of designer and executant in his factory as problematic.” [

This is interesting because Morris is speaking of “design” as if it were a craft in itself. We don’t know if he was fence-sitting or merely had a sense for cashflow but he does seem nonchalant about who or what was going to be doing the making. Morris’ innovation was to have people regard the act of designing as a craft, thus making it possible for something to be crafted in its design and machine-made in its production. Once that conceptual leap is made, it’s a win for designers and a win for manufacturers but death for craftspersons as there is no longer any need for their skills nor indeed any conceptual space to apply them.

AGAINST: “Walter Crane, a close political associate of Morris’s, took an unsympathetic view of the division of labour on both moral and artistic grounds, and strongly advocated that designing and making should come from the same hand. [

FOR: Lewis Foreman Day, a friend and contemporary of Crane’s, … disagreed strongly. He thought that the separation of design and execution was not only inevitable in the modern world, but also that only that sort of specialisation allowed the best in design and the best in making.” [

Day advocated a clear split between design and manufacture and design did become a standalone activity and manufacture was delegated to others, at first to those in one’s proximity and under one’s supervision but soon to factories in remote towns [and, in later centuries, to countries increasingly remote]. At the time, there was a growing sense that the form and ornamentation of an object should take its manufacture into account and this notion arrived at the Deutsche Werkbund via Day, his friend Lethaby, and his connection Muthesius. The problem of what mass-produced goods were to look like had now been debated in Britain for over half a century and in 1907 Germany decided to do something about it.

FOR: “The Werkbund was less an artistic movement than a state-sponsored effort to integrate traditional crafts and industrial mass production techniques, to put Germany on a competitive footing with England and the United States.”[

So far so Wikipedia but, even in this statement, we can see the results of the crafted object being valued yet the contribution of the craftsperson to that crafted object being ignored. Most of us never appreciated, let alone even knew, what the approach of a craftsman was anyway. Until a few weeks ago I was one of those people.

The above Wikipedia statement recognises there was something good about traditional craft objects but it sees the fact they can’t be mass produced as a negative – as if the only fault of the crafted object is that it can’t be mass produced. This contradiction can be efficaciously resolved by ignoring the input of the craftsperson to the finished (i.e. the produced) object. Although many of the things craftspersons made were inessential, most weren’t. Craftspeople were not the creators of high-value art objects – they were how things were once made. They were a method of production. This was inconvenient for the new arrangement in which the design component was entrusted to designers and production assigned to machines. In this system there was no place for craftspersons integrating design and production as they always had. There was nothing wrong with integrated design and manufacture. It was the production that was the bottleneck to getting more stuff on the market.

Turning now to Chapter 5 (p69) of Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age we find Muthesius (p69) in 1907 founding The Werkbund at the same time as the AEG company hired Peter Behrens to spruce up their image. Industry was quicker than designers to understand the implications of Muthesius’ message of value-adding design. (p70)

At the 1911 Werkbund Congress attended by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius & Bruno Taut, Muthesius’ address delivered an economic imperative as an aesthetic one. By this time the still then Charles Edouard Jeanneret was no longer working for Peter Behrens and still in Germany. Banham finds echoes of Muthesius’ words in Le Corbusier’s early writings, probably referring to this quote that makes it clear that designers are open for business. Le Corbusier doesn’t mention the c-word but he makes it clear his world has artists that design and machines that make.

Between 1911 and 1920 design and production became standalone activities divorced from craft.

Banham relates all this engagingly but, all the same, his venerated book is not called Theory, Design and Production in the First Machine Age. It discusses the history of machines as sources of design inspiration rather than as devices for making objects having the value-added design component industry demanded. To his credit though, on page 199 he observes that, in the 1920s it was “general practice to ignore the actions that generate history and to [instead] make history the generator of the actions.” Viewed in this light, this sudden interest in designing for machine manufacture is not so much a case of prescient designers alerting manufacturers to the design possibilities of new methods of production (for they were already alert), but a case of designers designing the things manufacturers wanted to make because they were able to make and sell them. In other words, designers now did the bidding of manufacturers. To paraphrase Banham, industry was the dog wagging the tail rather than designers being the tail wagging the dog.

One early example of dog wagging tail was Mart Stam’s tubular steel chair from 1924. “The design won immediate acceptance [presumably by manufacturers at first and the market later] and the proliferation of such integrated designs for steel tube chairs was so rapid and universal that it soon appeared an autnomous, automatic creation of the zeitgeist.” Handmade Tiffany lamps with over a thousand pieces were on the way out, and objects that could be manufactured easily and inexpensively by machines were3 the future. All that remained was for them to be inexpensive and, to a lesser extent, modern and/or beautiful. Modernism as a smokescreen style is a separate story.

Gabriel Voisin was an interesting character. He didn’t invent the automobile but he built one for himself when he was 19. He also designed and built the first aeroplane capable of self-powered heavier-than-air flight in Europe.

Voisin Avions manufactured the first ever fighter plane for use in WWI though others can’t have been that far behind if it was involved in the first ever aerial dogfight.

When the war ended Gabriel Voisin decided to keep his factory busy by manufacturing houses and Maison Voisin was the result.

The panels had an exterior skin of steel over plywood, plywood interior faces, and cork insulation between. It was offered in 3 floorplans of 400, 700 and 1,000 square feet, the smallest of which could be shipped anywhere in France on the back of a single truck. The modular house was not only far less expensive than traditional stick-built houses, but could be erected in just three days by the purchaser, rather than needing to hire a contractor. Voisin built a demonstration model of each size and put together a catalog with diagrams and photographs. 

This threat to the monopoly of the construction industry so alarmed its representatives at the trade show where Voisin was displaying maquettes and photos, that they publicly declared such a house to be “impossible”, and accused Voisin of trying to defraud gullible home buyers. 

[This account comes from the blog post “Wings, wheels and the impossible house”, an account of the life of Gabriel Voisin.]

Banham finds it odd (p221) the gable truss spans the length of the building rather than its depth, saying this is “presumably derived from some aircraft practice” yet uncurious about what. His desire for a mechanistic explanation blinds him to the building practice of hangars for aircraft that are usually wider than they are long.

Spanning the length means one truss size could be used for the three different house widths, and also provide a cantilevered roof for the “hangar” at the end. Banham writes (p222) that “Le Corbusier himself will not admit to any part in their design, but his description of them (in L’Esprit Nouveau, No., 2, p11) shows that they lay very close to his own ideas.”  Or at least what they might have been in 1920.

As we’re already urgently being told, 1919 was the beginning of The Bauhaus at Weimar even though the official birthday won’t be until April 1. From the website and many other places we know that

“In the text of the [founding] Manifesto, Gropius does not demand a new style or a new form of art, but much more fundamentally a reform of artistic work. Artistic work is to return to its foundations and first premises, which he sees as lying in craft work – regarded as the treatment of the material – as the foundation of all the arts. The relevance of the social purpose of craft work for art is also noted; it is now given a role in the social context of labour. Since only craft work, rather than art, is capable of being taught, the Bauhaus theory is to be based on craft training in workshops. The ideal of a working community of all the arts corresponds to the idea of the unified art work, the reuniting of all the arts and crafts disciplines – sculpture, painting, applied arts and crafts – to establish a new art of architecture.”

This echoes Banham’s description. There’s an emphasis on craft, but only as long as it is craft taught by artists at The Bauhaus and not the craft as practised by craftspersons. Gropius is claiming there will no longer be a “professional art” but that all would be united as craftspeople under the direction of the architect.

Banham goes on to say this emphasis on craft was what was unique about the The Bauhaus “method” of education, forgetting to remember that “learning by doing” was already well established in the apprenticeship system that existed at the same time.

The Vorkurs is known by different names in architecture schools around the world but is essentially a set of exercises intended to teach students some supposed basic principles of design. The other essential part of the Vorkurs was to clear students’ minds of “preconceptions”.

The Weimar years didn’t end well. This summary is from the bauhaus website.

1920: In Weimar, the Bauhaus encounters public hostility. The attacks are ideologically motivated, but are also triggered by artistic issues. The conflicts are conducted in political meetings, in the press and pamphlets, and finally in state parliament. As the Bauhaus is a state-owned college dependent on parliamentary approval of grants, its existence is constantly threatened by these quarrels and by changes in the political majority in the state parliament.

1921: In the summer, Johannes Itten visits the Mazdaznan Conference in Leipzig. Through him and Muche, this eastern-oriented, mystical religious teaching gains considerable influence on some of the students – while also exacerbating internal conflicts at the college.

Theo van Doesburg, a member of the Dutch art group De Stijl, stays in Weimar from April 1921 to November 1922, with a few breaks. In the lectures and courses he gives, which are also attended by Bauhaus students, he opposes the Bauhaus’s Expressionist and craft-oriented approach. He advocates his own new concept of constructivist design that takes a positive view of technology. Although van Doesburg represents an opposite pole to the Bauhaus in Weimar, he influences the college’s turn towards industrial design in 1922 and provides inspiration for its formal language up to 1924.

1922: From the beginning of the year, Walter Gropius starts to reassess his ideas about the Bauhaus’s aims. An engagement with industry and its implications for design move into the foreground. During the summer, disputes over this arise with Johannes Itten, the central figure in the early Bauhaus, who rejects it and gradually withdraws.

1923: Walter Gropius formulates a new approach under the motto ‘art and technology – a new unity’, recognizing industry as the defining force of the age. An engagement with industry and machine production becomes a prerequisite for all the rest of the Bauhaus’s work and defines the way it is understood down to the present day.

James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia gives an account (pp92-109) of The Bauhaus’ Weimar years and Gropius’ shift from the Morris-Ruskin ideal of the place of craft to the Muthesian one of designing for machine production. The unspoken reprimand is that The Bauhaus had to start paying its way and providing something of value in return for its government subsidies.

Marianne Brandt’s 1924 Tea and Coffee Service is one of the first fruit of Gropius’ new direction of designing machine-made instead of handcrafted artefacts for relatively well-off clients. Reproductions are available in silver plated brass and black lacquered wood, or sterling silver and ebony.

The same year brought us Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Coffee and Tea Service in brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures. Designing for premium materials made it easy to to add value to simple geometric forms devoid of ornament.

1925: Walter Gropius announces a new programme in which the importance of industry and science become predominant for design. He declares that the task for the Bauhaus is a ‘contemporary development for housing’ that is to range from ‘simple domestic equipment to a complete residence’. Gropius requires ‘systematic experimental work in theory and practice – in the formal, technological and economic fields’. The workshops are described as ‘laboratories’ for manufacturing models for industry. 

Oscar Schlemmer had noticed as early as 1921 that not much architecture went on at The Bauhaus. Georg Muche was initiator and designer of the 1923 Haus am Horn.

By 1925 at the latest Le Corbusier would have realised buildings weren’t going to be machine-made anytime soon. His association with Gabriel Voisin would have taught him the world did not need inexpensive quality products undercutting existing systems of production. He didn’t need Gropius to tell him designing buildings was one activity and their production another.

By 1927 Gropius was gone and headed for a new career in architectural education despite having no experience of it. He didn’t take with him much of a portfolio, apart from The Bauhaus buildings at Dessau [though Curl is keen to attribute the lion’s share of the work to Adolf Meyer]. Gropius’ selling point seems to have been in promoting the notion that designing buildings is a craft and how they are built does not matter. This has had many poisonous consequences for architecture, architectural education and the built environment. I expect I’ll keep adding to and refining this list.

  • Unless design is redefined as industrial design it is impossible to resolve the contradiction of value-adding design with the cost-reducing process of mass production.
  • The separation of architectural design and architectural production perpetrates the architecture vs. building argument that has existed for almost a century now. Building design existing separate from building production is unresolvable but this is the situation we have.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for not building anything.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for not designing anything that can be built cheaply and for the benefit of many. Or even interested in.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for courting the clients of architecture and not its users.
    • It explains why we have architects designing what client businesses, client cities and client countries want designed. “Most highly evolved are the starchitects keen to deliver the architecture wanted by the economic system that rewards them, while dutifully avoiding addressing any problems created by that economic system.”
    • A polarised system of design and manufacture only equates to not only the architecture vs. building (a.k.a. production) divide, but also to the development (a.k.a. production) gain and perception management pairing.
  • Despite the many problems of the world for which a building might be part of a solution, we have an architectural culture more interested in design than production when and where it matters. This only reinforces what is already entrenched.
    • It explains why we have an architectural culture (and an architectural media culture) that values anything of no relevance to the real world, real needs and anything to do with the production of buildings. The greater the inapplicability, the greater the interest and subsequent reward.
    • It explains the contemporary fascination with digital architectures, virtual architectures, data architectures, etc. “Everything is architecture.”
  • We have a system of architectural education that is as valued as it is ubiquitous for perpetrating this split between design and production. Somewhat surprisingly, “machine-style”, “Modernism” as a style, and styles in general have little to do with anything.

All but the last point can be expressed as designers doing their own thing and clients and contractors doing theirs. This is where Morris’ separation of design and production as promoted by Gropius for times no longer industrial but corporate took us. Now we are heading into times beyond the corporate and the separation of design and manufacture seems more fit for purpose than ever. So no, I won’t be lighting any birthday candles come April 1.

As a kind of corollary, we now have a way of understanding why the misfit architects don’t fit into this system. They each cared to bring back into architecture some solitary aspect of the craft that was surplus to requirements and for this they have been, by and large, ignored.

• • • 

The Walter Gropius Tea Service for Rosenthal, 1969

• • •