FURNISHINGS : From Bauhaus to Our House to Craft Museum in New York
The 20th Century is winding down, and decorative furnishings from the first half of the century are well on their way to becoming antiques. Chief among pieces considered museum classics are those that came out of the Bauhaus, including Breuer chairs and the Jena teapot.
This small design school was organized in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius at Weimar, Germany. It moved to Dessau and then to Berlin, where it closed in 1933. Although short-lived and not particularly successful at home, the Bauhaus has had worldwide influence on home furnishings development, Ursula Ilse-Neuman says.
Ilse-Neuman is curator of “Bauhaus Workshops: 1919-1933" at the American Craft Museum in New York. On display in the exhibit marking the 75th anniversary of the Bauhaus founding are 85 famous and lesser-known objects made at the school or manufactured from prototypes designed there.
The creation of finished products at the school is noteworthy because designers prior to Bauhaus typically sketched their ideas and handed them to an engineer to make the working drawings or to a craftsman or artisan to build.
The school set what would become the standard method of teaching design, with separate workshops for researching new materials and technologies and for working with wood, metal, clay, fiber and glass.
Hitler’s Germany was not hospitable to the ideas or the designers, whose ranks included leftists, freethinkers and Jews.
Many of the leading lights of the school--Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Anni and Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy among them--emigrated to the United States and dispersed, carrying their ideas with them.
Gropius taught at Harvard, and Josef and Anni Albers taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and later at Yale University.
“In retrospect, the furniture workshop may have been the most important workshop,” Ilse-Neuman says. “It revolutionized the way homes are furnished.”
Indeed, Bauhaus furniture deviated from the ornate, heavy pieces that were the norm.
Breuer, who was in charge of the furniture workshop, devised tubular steel chairs with flexible seats and backs that were both light and strong. His Wassily chair of 1925 is believed to be the first to use tubular nickel-plated steel.
Breuer and others also tackled the concept of ergonomics, or how furniture and the human body work together. They experimented with standardized furniture with interchangeable parts and designed space-saving items such as nesting tables.
In the textiles workshop, the cover for Breuer’s tubular steel chair was created for durability. Called “eisengarn,” or iron yarn, the fabric is cotton yarn treated with wax and paraffin.
Anni Albers developed light-reflective and soundproof materials, and weavers created tapestries in abstract modern-art designs.
The glass workshop experimented with heat-resistant glass. The Jena teapot, clear with a glass infuser, a glass coffee maker and modular glass refrigerator storage containers are among items on view at the museum.
Even the differing points of view of Bauhaus members turned out to be prophetic. Some, especially Hannes Meyer, the Swiss architect who became the Bauhaus director in 1928, “emphasized the designer’s social responsibility to provide low-cost, well-designed objects for the common man,” according to Ilse-Neuman.
Others, she says, such as Mies van der Rohe “incorporated formal perfection and costly finishes in manufactured objects.”
Still others, notably Johannes Itten, trained students to express themselves in unique ways. Which of these three strains of modernism is most important is still argued today.
“The Bauhaus members were not the first or the only modernists,” Ilse-Neuman says. “But they are the most forceful and the best known, perhaps because they had to leave Germany. The uniqueness of the Bauhaus lay in the extraordinary group of artists assembled by Gropius. It was their genius and personality that shaped the character of the institution and its students.”
The Bauhaus exhibit continues through Oct. 9 at the American Craft Museum, 40 W. 53rd St., New York, NY 10020. Open Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2 for seniors and students, free to children under 12.