Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (2023)

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (1)

The news that Harvard University has put over 32,000 digitised Bauhaus School works online set the creative world buzzing recently.

In the 1920s and 30s, a period of increasing mechanization, Bauhaus teachers and students challenged the conventions of fine art, architecture and design by advocating a return to individual craftsmanship. They also rejected the flowers and frills that dominated the design language of the early twentieth century, and instead sought solutions that were simple, rational, and functional — an approach that remains dominant in design today.

In this article, we’ll explore what the movement was about, outline five lessons the Bauhaus School can offer to today’s designers, and demonstrate how contemporary web design continues to show Bauhaus influences.

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (2)

The Bauhaus School operated in Germany between 1919 and 1933. As a school of thought, it advocated a new way of approaching problems in art, architecture, and design; and as a physical school in Weimar and Dessau, it hosted a succession of prominent course leaders. Teachers included avant-garde artists like Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky, while Bauhaus students included Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer and Gunta Stölzl.

After the rise of the National Socialists, who effectively shut down the school for its “degenerate” ideas, many members of the Bauhaus travelled to other European countries and the USA to continue their work independently. As a result, “Bauhaus” became a twentieth-century movement reaching far beyond the Weimar Republic.

Education at the Bauhaus School was diverse and hands-on, spanning building theory, carpentry, ceramics, fine art, graphic printing, glass and mural painting, weaving, geometry, mathematics, business administration, metal, photography, printing and advertising, and plastic arts. Even parties and stage performances were part of the curriculum, with students encouraged to experiment in costume and stagecraft.

Whereas a conventional education for an artist might focus on brush technique and paint mixing, a Bauhaus teacher would direct the student to study the fundamentals of colour and form, and encourage experimentation across a whole range of materials and disciplines.

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (3)

(Video) Bauhaus design is everywhere, but its roots are political

Here is a reproduction of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’ original diagram of the Bauhaus curriculum. Students entered the preliminary course, covering “elementary form” and basic “studies of materials”. Over the next three years, students were encouraged to experiment in many media, and only after this formation in the fundamentals were the best students allowed to enter the core architecture course (which wasn’t established until 1927).

What set the Bauhaus school apart, though, wasn’t so much what they studied, but their new ideas about how to teach and learn. The essence of this philosophy is set out in a brief manifesto by Gropius in 1919:

“The art schools […] must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive ‘artist’ will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence. Architects, sculptors, painters — we all must return to craftsmanship!”

In his 1931 “Essay on Typography”, Eric Gill echoes Gropius’ manifesto, writing about the loss of craftsmanship that he felt had resulted from industrialism. He advocated a reunion of the artist with their craft.

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Some of the items created by Bauhaus students during this period have become iconic, and Bauhaus forms are often found repeated or imitated in today’s furniture and appliances. For example, here is Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s original 1923 lamp, created while he was a student at the Bauhaus, alongside a reproduction still available through retailers today.

1. Go back to basics

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One of the great insights of the Bauhaus movement is to recognise that creative education is about more than passing on and refining technical knowledge or skills.

Google is full of brilliant answers to every “how to” query. Watching fantastic online content like Aaron Draplin’s logo design challenge gives us great insight into the design process, and inspires us to try for ourselves. But when it comes to solving our own design problems, we need more than a how-to guide.

(Video) Bauhaus: Design in a Nutshell (3/6)

By going back to the fundamentals of colour, form, and meaning in design, we connect with the basic elements of our craft, and free ourselves to be more inventive and to respond authentically to the design problem that we are called to solve.

2. Form follows function

“Form follows function” is now an article of faith for designers, but that wasn’t always the case. The Bauhaus School rejected the purely “ornamental” role that they felt the visual arts had acquired.

This feeling only became more widespread during the Bauhaus period: notably, in 1936, the early critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote about how mechanical reproduction could rob art of its critical power.

Breaking with the widespread ornamentation and ornateness that characterised art, design, and architecture in the early 1900s, the Bauhaus strove for rational solutions to design problems.

This meant stripping away the intricate and floral decorations of the late nineteenth century. In their place, the Bauhaus School required students to reflect and enhance an object’s function, without adding decorative elements for their own sake. We can see this simplicity and rationalism in Josef Albers’ geometrical nesting tables:

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3. Break the rules

The Bauhaus-Archiv explains that “one of the decisive qualities that the Bauhaus possessed was an ability to see diversions or even unsuccessful experiments as potentially necessary lessons and to derive corrections in its course from them.”

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The Bauhaus School’s learning culture encouraged experimentation at a fundamental level. They stand to remind us that rules and conventions are there to be learned, but not always to be observed. Some design problems call for radical solutions that nobody but you believes in. (Remember air travel?)

4. Think big even when your work is “small”

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (9)

The Bauhaus movement set out to change society, and it succeeded — by designing teapots, table lamps, and telephones. The Bauhaus-Archiv explains that, “starting in 1928, the college’s social aims intensified under Hannes Meyer; the solution was now summarized as ‘people’s necessities, not luxuries’”.

The Bauhaus anticipated a major theme of twentieth-century design — that the most serious site of design and transformation is not in grand projects (like designing an opera house), but in the stuff of everyday life. We see this in the domestic items designed by Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs for Braun from the 1950s onwards.

(Video) Bauhaus | The most important school in the world of design | Episode N ° 6 | Design History

So even when our work as designers is “small”, we should still think big, even if we’re just doing a logo design for a friend’s hot dog stand.

5. Get your hands dirty

The Bauhaus School wanted to reunite the artist with their craft, and encouraged students to immerse themselves in the full range of materials and techniques available.

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (10)

So, next time you need to print some business cards, before heading to an online print service, why not buy yourself a home screenprinting kit and do the job yourself? (Here’s a photo of some of mine, which I did with a Riso Gocco PG-11.)The quickest and most effective way to learn about the constraints and potential of materials like paper and ink is to get our hands dirty and work with them ourselves.

1. Economy and hierarchy

Learning in the Bauhaus School: five lessons for today’s designers (and five ways the web still is… (11)

On the left is Vassily Kandinsky’s “Severe in Sweet” (1928). This work highlights the relationships between dark/light, form/space, inside/outside, left/right, and small/large. Compare this to a contemporary website landing page on the right (this one is from Danish). It creates visual hierarchy with similar parameters to Kandinsky’s painting.

2. Color as meaning

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Josef Albers, a Bauhaus student, went on to write a seminal book on color theory, “Interaction of Color”. Today, the best websites are designed with carefully chosen palettes that respect their constituent colors’ intrinsic properties, as well as their meanings in culture and nature.

3. Rational, legible typography

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(Video) What's the Bauhaus?

Building on the emergence of Akzidenz Grotesk in 1896, the Bauhaus School strove to create typography that was rational, clear, and legible. For Bauhaus members like Herbert Bayer, this meant doing away with decorative elements such as serifs, and imposing hierarchy on printed material using standalone uppercase and lowercase text.

It’s often said that web design is 95% typography. Recent innovations in web fonts show that our priorities are still those identified by the Bauhaus — that type should be functional and must primarily facilitate good communication.

We’ve recently seen this in Google’s redesign of their Android font Roboto, and Apple’s introduction of San Francisco. Both of these fonts are carefully constructed neo-Grotesks that optimise the user’s reading experience by incorporating large x-heights and low stroke contrast for legibility on small screens.

4. The Grid

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Rational organisation of a visual field was a theme in the work of many Bauhaus exponents. Websites are often designed to a grid system. This allows designers to lay pages out consistently, organise text logically, and impose careful visual hierarchy on content.

5. Websites that respond to the user’s needs

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By asserting the primacy of function over form, the Bauhaus School laid the groundwork for user-centred design, or as web developers call it, user experience (UX) design. Responsive websites change their size, appearance and functionality depending on the device and the user.

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You will probably be hearing a lot more about the Bauhaus over the next few years, as 2019 is the centenary of the School’s establishment. You can stay informed about Bauhaus100 events at https://www.bauhaus100.de/en/. The website of the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin also has masses of information about the Bauhaus School and the movement it inspired: http://www.bauhaus.de/en/. If you’re ever in Berlin, their museum is well worth a visit.

If you’d like to learn the fundamentals of contemporary design, Designlab offers a Design 101 course that combines online lectures, curated resources, hands-on exercises and expert mentor support. On the course you’ll learn about things like Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design — where the insights of the Bauhaus School are clear. Find out more about Design 101.

FAQs

What are five characteristics of Bauhaus design? ›

Bauhaus designs are characterized by clean lines, simple, useful shapes with little or no decoration, primary colors, and rational use of modern materials such as glass, concrete, and steel.

What was Bauhaus school's concept? ›

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in the city of Weimar by German architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969). Its core objective was a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.

What can we learn from Bauhaus? ›

Education at the Bauhaus School was diverse and hands-on, spanning building theory, carpentry, ceramics, fine art, graphic printing, glass and mural painting, weaving, geometry, mathematics, business administration, metal, photography, printing and advertising, and plastic arts.

What was the theory of the Bauhaus school about all architecture and design? ›

It was grounded in the idea of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk ("comprehensive artwork") in which all the arts would eventually be brought together. The Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential currents in modern design, modernist architecture and art, design, and architectural education.

What is Bauhaus and why is it important? ›

Bauhaus was an influential art and design movement that began in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. The movement encouraged teachers and students to pursue their crafts together in design studios and workshops.

What was one of the most important principles of Bauhaus? ›

What began as a German art school in Weimar grew to be a principle which placed design and function in equilibrium. The “form follows function” ideal, which is still popular today, was propagated by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. Crucially this philosophy was encouraged by mass production and not restricted by it.

How does Bauhaus influenced design today? ›

Bauhaus greatly influenced modern graphic design and topography. Look out for posters, geometric art, and even clothing that relies on stark geometrical shapes, simplicity, elegance of design, and primary colors. This was revolutionary at the time, but today is just seen as good design.

What were three goals of the Bauhaus? ›

Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, the school originally had three aims: to abolish the “arrogant” distinction between artist and craftsperson by recognizing the knowledge and skills common to both; to mobilize all arts and crafts towards the creation of total design environments; and, to foster links between the ...

How did Bauhaus influence society? ›

The Bauhaus movement produced more practical forms of artwork such as architecture, interior design, and metalworking. This led to a resurgence of interest in the artistic world as creatives looking to provide for their families were afforded an avenue through which to do so.

Why is the Bauhaus still important today? ›

The Bauhaus school and style is still relevant to design today, not just because of its history, but because of its philosophy that the marriage of form and function is still the back bone of taste and sophistication. The Bauhaus was an art school founded by Walter Gropius in 1919.

What is an example of Bauhaus? ›

The Wassily Chair is probably the most famous of all the Bauhaus chairs. Designed in 1925 by Marcel Breuer, this chair is an excellent example of the groundbreaking developments that Bauhaus brought, such as the sleek and easily comprehensible design and the innovative use of materials.

Why is Bauhaus such a big deal in design? ›

“Bauhaus is so important because it left behind not just objects but an immaterial legacy that's still influential today,” says Berlin University of the Arts art historian Nina Wiedemeyer. Germany has been going all-out to celebrate the Bauhaus centennial.

How did the Bauhaus school influence the modern architecture? ›

The Bauhaus combined the education of the arts that were considered as 'elite' studies, with crafts – something done for the first time in the world and conceived as a new field of study, called design, as we know it today. This concept of unity in visual material culture was very radical and avant-garde for its time.

What is the Bauhaus school of design? ›

The Bauhaus was an art school that was radical in its uniting of art, craft, and technology in the years following the World War I. Its main goal was to improve people's living conditions through modern design. Founded in Weimar in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925.

What were the main characteristics of the Bauhaus movement? ›

The Bauhaus movement is characterized by economic sensibility, simplicity and a focus on mass production. “Bauhaus” is an inversion of the German term “hausbau,” which means “building house” or house construction.

What are some examples of the continued influence of the Bauhaus on today's design and architecture? ›

  • Hooks.
  • Trash Cans.
  • Boxes & Baskets.
  • Shoe Storage.
  • Magazine Racks.
  • Umbrella Stands.
14 May 2019

What is the meaning of Bauhaus? ›

What does “Bauhaus” mean? “Bauhaus” literally translates to “house of building,” which was derived by inverting the German word Hausbau, or “building of a house.”

How did Bauhaus change the design ideas? ›

The Influence of the Bauhaus Today

An instigator in the minimalism trend which is still one of the most popular styles to date, Bauhaus helped the design world step away from the ornate designs of the early 20th century with its emphasis on function before form.

What is modern Bauhaus? ›

What is Bauhaus? Bauhaus—literally translated to “construction house”—originated as a German school of the arts in the early 20th century. Founded by Walter Gropius, the school eventually morphed into its own modern art movement characterized by its unique approach to architecture and design.

What is the Bauhaus now? ›

'bauhaus now' provides a platform for international protagonists in the fields of urban planning and design: designers and architects, artists and researchers, critics and utopians.

What are the design principles of Bauhaus? ›

Bauhaus artists favoured linear and geometrical forms, avoiding floral or curvilinear shapes. Emphasises on technology. Bauhaus workshops were used for developing prototypes of products for mass production. The artists embraced the new possibilities of modern technologies.

What defines the design as Bauhaus? ›

Bauhaus design refers to the furniture, objects, interiors, and architecture that emerged from the influential early 20th century German school founded by architect Walter Gropius. Bauhaus was a rational, functional design aesthetic that took a form follows function, less is more approach that still resonates today.

What are three characteristics associated with Bauhaus design and typography? ›

Bauhaus style of typography is effective in conveying the message of the design. Balanced layout, harmonious geometric shapes, vibrant colors, and sans-serif letters in upper case or lower case fonts are simple but strong.

Why was Bauhaus influential in design? ›

Today Bauhaus influences can be seen everywhere from furniture to graphic design. An instigator in the minimalism trend which is still one of the most popular styles to date, Bauhaus helped the design world step away from the ornate designs of the early 20th century with its emphasis on function before form.

What are 5 artistic styles of graphic arts? ›

Graphic art mostly includes calligraphy, photography, painting, typography, computer graphics, and bindery. It also encompasses drawn plans and layouts for interior and architectural designs.

How does Bauhaus influence graphic design? ›

Bauhaus design's impact on today's graphics is hard to overestimate. Associated with primary colors, thick straight lines slashing across white space, and that emphatically modern trilogy of circle, triangle and square, the movement's legacy has now become easier to trace due to an online tool via Harvard Art Museums.

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