In the words of MTV's documentary series Diary,
"You think you know, but you have no idea."
This phrase comes to mind whenever I'm scrolling through a blur of vintage furniture attributed to Bauhaus or come across a bonafide Mart Stam S34 in the wild. Much has been written and shared about the stylistic features of the works that emerged from the Bauhaus, but these qualities are too often flattened — literally — to simple lines, colors, and shapes.
The real story of Bauhaus design's defining characteristics is one of tension: between structure and freeform experimentation; between Nazi Germany and leftist, communist thought; and between the soul of a work of art and its utility. For a school that lasted little over a decade and moved venues three times (across Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin), the Bauhaus movement has had an enormous impact on modern architectural and furniture design — thanks, in large part, to the relationship between these extremes.
It's hard to overstate just how radical and revolutionary the Bauhaus school (c. 1919-1933) was. You've likely read about the Bauhaus's animating purpose for each student to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (translation: a "total work of art"), also known as a creation comprising myriad art forms. To realize this ethos, students were encouraged to pursue many art forms at once, although the curriculum ultimately centered around architecture. After all, Bauhaus literally means "building house."
The fundamental principle of Gesamtkunstwerk was a revolutionary, holistic view of design. At the time of the Bauhaus's founding in 1919, only monarchs had access to comprehensive works of art. What's more, Bauhaus student designers began mass producing their total works of art to pay to continue their studies as the school, funded by a Weimar Republic that was riddled with war debt, struggled to stay afloat. This scale of production made the works of art that we feverishly collect today accessible to the masses for the first time.
The hallmarks of Bauhaus design are marked by the contrast of seemingly opposing forces. Each defining characteristic is a principle working in tandem with its opposite.
"Form follows function," oft-uttered in the hallowed halls of the Bauhaus, means an object's use dictates the shape and make of a design, rather than aesthetic concerns. At the same time, the Bauhaus's founder Walter Gropius was quoted saying that design was less about material concerns, but rather a necessity for everyone in a civilized society to feel alive.
This soulful functionality is embedded in Marcel Breuer's Wassily chair: Breuer took the silhouette of a club chair and reduced it to its most necessary components, but the inspiration to use tubular steel as the frame while riding his bike is the stuff of pure artistic expression. The Wassily chair is proof that functionalism does not come at the expense of decorative value in Bauhaus design.
Geometric shapes are ever-present in Bauhaus design, stemming from the school's emphasis on simplicity. Marianne Brandt's iconic Tea Infuser and Strainer comprises functional shapes (circles, a half moon, triangles), but they are arranged abstractly to achieve an intentional asymmetry.
Asymmetry was prized as a method of keeping the combination of industrial materials and functionalism from being too stodgy. Asymmetry is recognizable in the distribution of furniture throughout Bauhaus interiors; if you look at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Chicago from straight-on, you'll see a glass box with its right angles and straight lines, but inside the furniture is arranged in odd numbers.
Before the Bauhaus shook up the twentieth century for good and for always, furniture was draped in elaborate frippery, the forms and lines concealed by textiles or ornamental carving. Bauhaus designers saw the beauty in concrete and steel, expanding the public imagination of the emotional quality of industrial materials. The Bauhaus aesthetic also embraced wood, glass, metal, and other naturally occurring substances. Marcel Breuer's Cesca cantilever chair personifies these polar energies; The sleek, tubular steel of the cantilever frame and the beachy, woven cane is a masterful blend of manmade and organic elements.
Close your eyes and think of a building made by a Bauhaus architect — I bet I can guess which colors it is. A limited color scheme is evident across Bauhaus architecture and furniture, featuring neutrals like black, white, and beige, or else primaries of red, blue, and yellow. The colorblocking throughout Bauhaus design is evidence that simple color schemes are hardly boring. In Josef Hartwig's Bauhaus Chess Set, black and the natural beige tone of the wood is combined to evocative effect. Ask anyone still riding high on the checkered trend, a board like Hartwig's is an instant statement.
It's the tension that's created by these attributes, in all their contradictions, that makes a Bauhaus design so much more than a piece of old furniture. It's the ineffable magic that makes an object feel alive, and the owner or beholder of said object feel invigorated in its presence. Ultimately, the signature of Bauhaus design is the push-pull of industrial structure and freeform artistry, of rigid forms and the abstract, and the mass production of art — a holistic view of creation that paved the way for its enduring legacy.