When Art Meets Technology

How the Bauhaus reinvented the handcraft industry

By Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Sewing Machine and Housewife (2015-01-22) by liccastyle-716132Original Source: Pixabay

The new trend

“Do it yourself!” is a slogan for our times. Craftsmanship and working by hand are the trend and have for a long time ceased to be a matter of age. Many young people are sewing their own clothes, baking their own bread or brewing their own beer – so called ‘craft beer’. But where does all this enthusiasm for doing it oneself come from? After all, it demands quite a bit in the way of patience, time and often money as well. Apart from the desire for self-realisation and individuality, trend researchers have come up with the following motivations.

Bead sampler (2010) by Bead People Berlin—Bead and Textile ArtMuseum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

• The wish to create the world with our own hands – as an answer to the digitalised world.

• The need to want to understand how things work.

• The longing for traditions and so for a better and less complicated world.

In short: it’s all about taking the world literally in our hands, a world that is getting ever more complex and threatening.

But it is not the first time in history that people have rediscovered working by hand for these reasons.

New England Factory Life – "Bell Time" – Drawn by Winslow Homer (Harper's Weekly, Vol. XII) (July 25, 1868) by Winslow Homer|Harper's WeeklyThe Metropolitan Museum of Art


Industrialisation led to a rapid growth of the cities and plunged wide swathes of the population into poverty and misery. For many, machines are the root of all evil and their products are soulless. With the rate of change too much to handle and tortured by fears for the future, people longed to go back to the good old days. That was when the Arts and Crafts Movement started, with a call for a return to craftsmanship and working by hand. And it quickly found many followers.

Portrait of William Morris (Mar 24, 1834 - Oct 3, 1896) (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

One of its main initiators was the multi-talent William Morris (1834-1896), an architect, a poet, a painter, an engineer and a printer. One of his core principles was that the fine arts and the applied arts should not be separated. He wanted plain, simple designs and material to be treated seriously. Does this sound like the Bauhaus? But it looks different.

The Backgammon Players The Backgammon Players (1861) by Philip Webb|Sir Edward Burne-Jones|Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This early masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts Movement from 1861 demonstrates the attempt to combine art and craft.

The painting on leather with an embossed background is itself a craft medium.

And its plain, linear design by Philip Webb is way ahead of its time.

War (undated) by Walther KlemmBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Germany, 1918

The First World War devasted the country and shook the people deeply. As a result of the war, Germany lost a tenth of its population and a seventh of its territory. Inflation exploded, reparations created huge debts and the political situation was unclear. Many people held the modern age with its illusive practices to be responsible for the devastating war and its consequences and consciously turned their backs on the present.

Untitled (Strasbourg Minster) (undated) by Franz EhrlichBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was one of those who were heavily affected by the war, which he experienced at first hand as a soldier. He wrote some of his concept for the new school he wanted to establish while he was still directly on the front line. His 1915 draft already makes reference to the Gothic masons’ lodges, known as Bauhütten (literally ‘builders’ huts’), the mediaeval workshop associations of all the workers needed to build a church – stonemasons, carpenters, masons, smiths and glaziers.

The Bauhütte, led by one or more master builders, was not just a kind of enterprise, but an ideal community of craftsmen whose special concern was to train future generations.

The Bauhütte in Strasburg for the cathedral in that city (here drawn by Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) was the most important of the Bauhütten. When the Gothic era ended, so too did the heyday of these associations. Emperor Charles VI finally banned them in 1731.

Portret van Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1791) by Lips, Johann HeinrichRijksmuseum

In fact, nobody called them Bauhütten at the time. They got that name much later from no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He coined the term ‘Bauhütte’ in his 1816 essay ‘Kunst und Alterthum am Rhein und Mayn’ (Art and Antiquity on the Rhine and Main).

Walter Gropius in front of his home in Dessau (1926/27) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Just over a hundred years later, in Goethe’s adopted home of Weimar, Walter Gropius created a name for his new school based on Goethe’s coinage. What he wanted was a community of craftsmen similar to the Bauhütten. And instead of a Hütte, a hut, he made a house – the BAUHAUS!

Dessau. Bauhaus (Bauhaus building, architect Walter Gropius, exterior view with Bauhaus sign by Herbert Beyer) (1931/1932) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The concept was as revolutionary as the name. By bringing together art and crafts, it was something completely new in the academic landscape of the time.

Untitled (Design for intarsia with crafts symbols) (undated (ca. 1950 ?)) by Reinhold RossigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“Architects, sculptors, painters—we all must return to craftsmanship,” says the Bauhaus manifesto of 1919.

“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”

“There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan. Merciful heaven, in rare moments of illumination beyond man’s will, may allow art to blossom from the work of his hand, but the foundations of proficiency are indispensable to every artist. This is the original source of creative design. So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists!”

Ruth Hollos at the loom in the Bauhaus Weimar (1925) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Focusing on craft

This meant that handcraft took on a central role in the curriculum. Every student had to learn a certain trade and complete her or his training with an examination by the Chamber of Trades and gain their journeyman’s certificate. Which workshop each student was then assigned to – carpentry, weaving, metal workshop, printing shop, etc. – was decided in the foundation course.

Study from Josef Albers' . Material study. A single and a double paper sphere (ca. 1926) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

It was not just the students’ skills that were being tested there, but above all what the various materials such as metal, clay, textiles, paint and paper were capable of as well. After the experience of the Great War, there was massive mistrust at the Bauhaus of existing knowledge, and so the exploration of materials became especially important.

Otti Berger on the balcony of Preller House (undated) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

This did not at all neglect their sensuous side, either. As Bauhaus student Otti Berger wrote in her text ‘stoffe im raum’ (fabrics in space) in 1930, “for one must listen to the secrets of the fabric, trace the sounds of the materials.”

Untitled (Carpet for a children's room) (1929 (design), ca. 1977) by Margaretha (Grete) ReichardtBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The local Chambers of Trades watched with a great deal of skepticism what was being produced at the Bauhaus ...

... and criticised the products with their Expressionist and geometric approach as being “anti-traditional”.

The Sublime Side (Bauhaus postcard no. 4 for the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923) (1923) by Paul KleeBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Master vs. master

Not only master craftsmen trained the students in the Bauhaus’s workshops. There was a master of form as head of each workshop, who covered the artistic side. In the print shop, this was Lyonel Feininger, while in the wall painting workshop it was Wassily Kandinsky, and in Weimar Paul Klee was head in turn of the bookbinding workshop, the metal workshop and the glass painting workshop. (pictured here one of his postcard motifs for the Bauhaus exhibition 1923) This bipolar training model was vital for Gropius, for “a new generation [must] be trained who are capable of uniting both qualities”.

The masters of the Bauhaus (after 1926) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

While the manifesto stated that there was “no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman”, there was, however, a difference in salary. The craft masters were paid more poorly and had no vote in the Masters’ Council of the Bauhaus. And in photos like this one you can look for them in vain – they stood in the shadow of the artists.

But the artists were dissatisfied too. Oskar Schlemmer (on the right in the picture) noted in 1922, “I do not believe that the craft trades as we undertake them at the Bauhaus can fulfil any deeper social mission beyond the aesthetic. ‘Putting out feelers to industry’ is not enough. What would be needed is to enter fully into it and merge with it. But that cannot be what our (the artist) mission is. We must turn our backs on the Bauhaus.”

Untitled (Abstract head with arm in basic geometric forms) (1922-12-02) by Alfred ArndtBauhaus Dessau Foundation

It was not the artists of whom the Bauhaus took its leave a little later, but the “mediaeval idea of craft trades” (Schlemmer), and in the following year it set a new course.

Man and technology (ca. 1929 (1960 ?)) by Franz EhrlichBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Laboratories for industry

In 1923 Walter Gropius issued the new motto – ‘Art and technology – a new unity’. Traditional handcrafts were to be redefined in cooperation with industry. While the designer must still know her or his trade, she or he must keep an eye just as much on the specific form processes of machine production. What was to be produced from now on were ‘models’ for serial production.

Untitled (Bauhaus building, Dessau, architect Walter Gropius, southwest view) (1931/1932) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

This swing towards planned cooperation with industry was manifested with the move from Weimer to the industrial city of Dessau in 1925-6.

Chair ti 201 in maple, beech and cherry wood (1928) by Martin Decker (design) and Bauhaus Dessau, joinery (made)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

“The Bauhaus will not be a school for craftsmen, nor will it breed artisan eccentricity [sic!], but it consciously seeks a link with industry, for the craft trades of the past no longer exist,” wrote Gropius in 1925.

Chair ti 201 from the House Müller, Dessau (1928) by Martin Decker (design) and Bauhaus Dessau, joinery (made)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

From 1923 on he frequently used the term “craft” in the sense of “modelling”.

Ruth Hollos on loom in self-woven dress (1931/32) by Erich Consemüller (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

This new direction was welcomed by the Bauhaus members. Otti Berger and Anni Albers, for instance, the most talented students in the weaving workshop, were pleased that the creative craftsman or woman was once again becoming a pioneer. They saw themselves as an experimental outpost for a specialised industry.

The fact that what were being worked with here were pre-industrial methods seemed not to trouble anybody. On the contrary – the head of the weaving workshop Gunta Stölzl – who, by the way, as a young master combined the roles of both craft master and master of form – categorically rejected the use of the programmable Jacquard loom, on the grounds that weavers should be able to feel the fabric in their hands so that they can get closer to the essence of the textiles.

Hannes Meyer while inspecting the building site for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau (1928) by Hermann BunzelBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Under Hannes Meyer (1928 to 1930) as Bauhaus Director craft trades were industrialised even more. Now the Bauhaus students worked all day in the workshops from Tuesdays to Thursdays – eight hour days, just like in industry.

Prototypes were created by hand for industrial production –

Untitled (bauhaus-wanderschau (Bauhaus Travelling Exhibition) in Zurich. Products from the weaving, wood, typography, sculpture and metal workshops) (1930) by Ernst LinckBauhaus Dessau Foundation

furniture for the ‘people’s flat’, towards which Hannes Meyer directed all design efforts ...

... functional fabrics from the weaving workshop as curtains and upholstery ...

... interior equipment from the metal workshop ...

Untitled (bauhaus-wanderschau (Bauhaus Travelling Exhibition) in Zurich, products from the wall-painting workshop (Bauhaus wallpaper), weaving and wood workshop) (1930) by Ernst LinckBauhaus Dessau Foundation

... occasionally also tubular steel furniture ...

... the wallpaper designs that soon as Bauhaus Wallpaper were set to be the school’s bestsellers ...

Advertisement for Kandem lamps (1931, undated) by Hubert Hoffmann (Hobby)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

... and the lamps for Kandem.

Glass high-rise by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, model with landscape features by Oskar Herzog in front of the former Deutsche Kolonialmuseum building in Berlin (1922) by Curt Rehbein (?) (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Focusing on architecture

In 1930 Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe arrived at the Bauhaus. The avant-garde architect had already made an international name for himself with his bold high-rise buildings (in this picture a 1922 design for a glass high-rise in Berlin) and created a furore most of all with his Barcelona Pavilion for the 1929 World Exhibition. When he became Director, production operations were done away with and the foundation course was no longer compulsory. Models were now made only sporadically for industry. The emphasis was on architecture – the field with which we now primarily associate the Bauhaus.

Ruth Hollos at the loom in the Bauhaus Weimar (1925) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

On the other hand, it is often overlooked today how definitive handcraft was for the Bauhaus. At the Bauhaus it became modern and was redefined. It was utopia and laboratory for industry. And the members of the Bauhaus achieved truly great things. Using traditional techniques and often pre-industrial methods they created nothing less than – the aesthetic of the modern age.

Credits: Story

Text / Concept / Realisation: Cornelia Jeske

Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske

Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau


Credits: All media
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