The Bauhaus was an important design school centred on the applied arts and founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. Its founder, Walter Gropius, was an influential modern architect and later a teacher and director at the Bauhaus school. In addition to influencing modern architecture, art and graphic design, the Bauhaus school made significant contributions to early 20th-century furniture design.
Bauhaus Design Philosophy
The Bauhaus school based its design philosophy on the principles that design should be relevant to the needs of society and that it should utilise modern technology and materials to inexpensively meet consumer needs. The Bauhaus school eschewed what it considered “bourgeois” decorative details and instead promoted functional, inexpensive, consumer products where form follows function and less is more. This philosophy resulted in clean, simple and modern design.
One important contribution made by the Bauhaus school was the use of steel as frames and supports for different types of furniture, including tables, chairs, sofas and even lamps. The use of machine-made, mass-produced steel tubing created simple forms requiring little handicrafting or upholstery. Tubular steel greatly reduced production costs and thus the cost of the final product. It also contributed to the streamlined, modern look of furniture.
The Hungarian-born architect, furniture designer and Bauhaus instructor, Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), first introduced the use of tubular steel in furniture design when he debuted his Wassily chair in 1925. Breuer taught at the Bauhaus school from 1924 to 1928, and though trained as an architect, taught furniture design at the school. The lightweight and graceful Wassily chair had a chrome-plated tubular steel frame and simple but elegant canvas and leather upholstery embodying the Bauhaus philosophy of functional form. Breuer later immigrated to the United States. In 1929, another influential Bauhaus furniture designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), a director at the school, designed the Barcelona chair. The Barcelona chair featured curved “x” shaped legs and curved steel supports covered in removable leather back and seat cushions.
The furniture workshop at the Bauhaus school approached furniture design by first examining function. The Bauhaus school believed that furniture should be comfortable for sitting, and designers created simple forms to achieve this. Out of this approach came a series of furniture design requirements based on functional analysis of furniture. These standards included elastic seat and chair backs, prohibition of expensive stuffed upholstery, angled seats to alleviate pressure on the legs while providing support and an angled chair back to support the torso. The final design consideration ensured that the spine remain free to avoid discomfort or unhealthy pressure.
The Bauhaus school had a succession of three different campuses during its lifespan until the oppressive Nazi regime shut it down in 1933. Many of the Bauhaus teachers fled to other countries where they carried their progressive ideas of art, architecture and furniture design with them, leading to an international Bauhaus influence. Bauhaus influence was monumental, and its presence can still be seen in today’s modern furniture designs.