Op-Ed: My Bauhaus childhood, when molding was a crime
In 1919, a handful of architects, designers and craftsmen started the Bauhaus design school in Germany to change the world. They wanted to modernize architecture and product design by stripping away old-fashioned ornamentation, streamlining elegant design, and making it available for all people. If they could have hopped into a time machine and traveled 100 years ahead and visited any Target, IKEA or high-rise office building, they would have been astonished how thoroughly successful they were.
My Bauhaus-educated parents had a hand in this transformation, though my younger self struggled to understand their passionate opinions about design.
I remember back in 1983 when my architect father traveled all the way from New York City to Columbus, Ohio to visit my first apartment. The ratty brick house cost less to rent than my parents’ parking spot. My father stepped into my beige-carpeted room and said, “These old places sure do have a lot of molding.”
I commented, “It’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?”
He turned pale. “If you like molding, you are a fool and a failure.” The profound disappointment in his voice made the charge sting even more. He had dedicated his life to Bauhaus values, and he had evidently raised a daughter who, tragically, didn’t seem to share them.
But my life started out with molding.
After they married, my father had moved into my mother’s apartment where she was raising a son from an earlier marriage. I grew up loving the venetian blinds, the hissing radiators, the exposed brick … and the molding. I still look at photographs of that old apartment sentimentally: the bentwood rocker, the round dinner table made of curly maple, the vase of anemones on the windowsill. They sing to me like an origin story from the old country.
At my father’s insistence, we moved when I was 6. My brother was 14 and needed his privacy. My father was 41 and needed his modernism. We followed the moving van to a brand-new apartment building in Chinatown, on the day of the New York City blackout in 1965. There was no molding, no wood, no brick. The junction of wall to ceiling was crisp and simple and white. The windows had nautical rounded edges and no sills. Form equaled function.
It has taken me most of my life to figure out what is “good,” design-wise, from the amalgam of my parents’ tastes. I remember asking myself as a kid, over and over inside my head. “Am I supposed to like this?” I still ponder that question when I find an object that pushes the crafty boundaries of art. My parents’ opinions are sometimes surprising. They loved Shaker furniture. They disliked Andy Warhol. They loved “The Yellow Submarine.” They hated black velvet paintings. They loved laboratory glassware. Designer clothes were stupid. It was all so hard to figure out!
In the second half of my life I’ve worked to communicate their fine-tuned aesthetic to my children and now my wife, Peggy, who asked, while we were first dating, “Who is this Mr. Bauhaus?”
Modern design is the family shield, a family crest.
I was not only born of my mother and father, I was born of Black Mountain College and Institute of Design — two Bauhaus schools established by artists escaping Germany after Hitler shut down the Bauhaus. Mom went to Black Mountain in North Carolina in 1947. Dad went to Institute of Design in Chicago in 1950. They met when my mom hired my dad to build her a geodesic dome studio in the woods of Connecticut. It became the first residential geodesic dome in the world. It has been our summer house and our perpetual work project over the last 62 years.
With my childhood came the task of understanding and distilling their aesthetic. Learning its contours, its history, and its sense of humor. Why a squashed metal garbage-can, found on the street, belonged on our wall. How the shape of a vintage toy top seemed to bring my dad more joy than some works of architecture. My parents weren’t elitist. They liked “outsider art” and childish drawings more than any art in a frame store window.
When I was just 4 years old, I stood on a chair in the dome and drew my parents in bed on the upper story. They said it was a good drawing.
When I went to private school in Brooklyn, I had trouble reconciling our aesthetic with my friends’ homes. “Why can’t we get curtains? Everyone at school has curtains!” I begged. There were other things my friends had: peaceful homes, no fighting, salad on the dinner table, pillows on their couches, everyone pitching in with the dishes after dinner.
But here’s what my family had: my parents and their friends were creating what would be the cusp of 20th century modern art.
My father gave up almost everything to catch the golden ring of modernism. He left his family’s modest apartment in the Bronx with its tchotchkes, to go to Cornell University. He lost any chance of his father’s approval when he majored in ornamental horticulture. After a four-year interlude fighting Germans and freeing Jews in Europe, he returned to Cornell and tried to finish his horticulture degree. But he gave that up to start all over in architecture at the Institute of Design in Chicago.
He gave up two wives — one sweet, one impossible — because he was so devoted to drafting Platonic-solid-based domes. And then he found my mother, who seemed to speak his language, who understood the new look of this 20th century, who was painting large abstractions of the horizon, trees, the moon, and time’s passage, and who wanted a dome studio.
My mom didn’t have to give up as much; her bohemian family loved that she went to Black Mountain, even though it wasn’t accredited. They even sent her to Paris on a troop ship the summer before college, to study art at the Académie Julian.It was there that she met her first husband, Bob Rauschenberg, and brought him back with her to Black Mountain.
I didn’t let them browbeat me out of molding. I live in a 1906 house with plenty. I’ve spent much of my life figuring out my own path as an artist. But the Bauhaus family traditions persist. I gave birth in my art studio to my daughter, who just graduated from art school. I raised a son who repainted his gray walls white. I reflexively know what Mom and Dad and the soul of the 20th century would like.
The Bauhaus turns 100 this year. My father, Bernard Kirschenbaum, passed away three years ago at age 91, leaving his brilliant life-work of minimalist sculptures. My mother, Susan Weil, is 89 and having a show of her work in Munich this summer. My brother, Chris Rauschenberg, who also lives in a house with molding, has a fantastic photographer’s eye. I am writing essays about it all. Fools and failures, none.
Sara Kirschenbaum is a writer and artist in Portland, Oregon.
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