What can designers today learn from the history of design?
This year the Bauhaus school celebrates its centenary. This institution of art and design, born in the sleepy town of Weimar a hundred years ago, remains a powerful force not just in design form – the icons of mid-century design we’ve come to love – but also more potently, in design thinking. It represents a significant cultural movement – the very epitome of modernist ideology. The Bauhaus was formed in 1919 in response to the economic crisis and devastation following the first world war, at a time of complete social and political chaos and rise of populist movements. The Bauhaus represented a collective voice desperate to forge a new world order and fight the regressive politics through creativity.
We are in similar volatile political times, with the urgency of climate change, the rise of nativist sentiments worldwide, and politics that promote extremism and hate. The arts are a powerful tool, a platform to open progressive dialogues. Art, says the sculptor Antony Gromley, is about the possibility of hope. Creative projects can give back the social platforms in which we imagine a future, he says. This is possibly why dictators and populist figures in history have feared artists.
The Bauhauslers championed the force of imagination and freedom of expression. They believed strongly in bringing the art of craft to industry, they explored utopian ideas, celebrated the avant-garde and encouraged open love and creative madness. Then, long after they were forced to shut down, pressured by the Nazis who saw their progressive ways a threat after assuming power in 1933, as émigrés in London and Paris and New York, their dissident voices continued to be heard.
During the decades that followed, many of its prominent members found new schools to teach, taking with them their thoughts and ideas, which in time evolved and changed with their new homes. The post-Bauhaus story is an even more compelling one for it saw a local movement find a global voice through cultural exchanges between the émigrés and creatives in their adopted homelands.
In the US, the Bauhaus titans flourished hugely. The school’s founder Walter Gropius prospered at the Harvard architecture school, Marcel Breuer designed great monumental buildings, László Moholy-Nagy set up a new Bauhaus school in Chicago, while husband and wife team Anni and Josef Albers breathed life into the brilliant liberal Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The Bauhaus story shows how a global dialogue based on the ability to evolve and change can lead to exciting new possibilities. Creatives need to be engaged in the wider society, and design history teaches us the power of the arts and the force of the creative community to shift perspectives, move society and ultimately help make a change.
Images: Pedagogical Sketchbook by Paul Klee from the Bauhausbücher series © Lars Müller; London Fountain Co’s public drinking fountain by Michael Anastassiades; Rami running prosthetics at Japan House © Kato Yasushi; Urban Cabin by Sam Jacob for MINI Living research project; seeing the world from different perspectives at Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters.
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