How Much Bauhaus Do We Care To Remember?

Alana Pockros

Review: Bauhaus: A Graphic Novel, Penguin Random House

When we look back at cultural movements, we often explain them as “reactions.” It’s a framework that allows us to divide the chaos of history into neat, orderly sections and provide rationales for what is not easy to decipher. Most frequently, the reactions we speak of arise in relation to phenomena like economics, politics, or global disasters: struggles so troubling and destabilizing that the artistic and cultural expression that follows ends up embodying their polar opposite.

In 1915—early on in WWI, in an austere and imperial Europe—a German architect named Walter Gropius was stationed in Muasson, France, when he started daydreaming about what a better, freer future might look like. He imagined a creative playground of sorts, where artisans, architects, sculptors, painters, textile designers, and other object-makers would design cohesive spaces—Gesamtkunstwerks—that prioritized aesthetics and functionality in equal measure. It was a progressive, almost utopian concept; an idea of a world made by men and women for men and women, and replicable enough to reach across socioeconomic classes. For Gropius, living in wartime, it was a liberatory aspiration.

With the support of a paltry government fund, Gropius actualized his idea in the form of a school called the Bauhaus, which opened in Weimar, Germany at the end of the war. It would swap cities and directors several times throughout its 14-year lifespan. Bauhaus, a graphic novel written by Valentina Grande and illustrated by Sergio Varbella, the most recent book to recount the movement’s tenure, offers proof of the ways in which the design-inclined have both capitalized on its perennial legacy, and purged its central, imperative ethos.

The book does not open in 1919, but 100 years later, in the half-deserted halls of the Bauhaus school buildings in Dessau and Weimar, which by this point have been dubbed World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. In the atriums through which students used to pass on their way to class or stop to converse with peers sit only a few empty Wassily Chairs, their chrome foundations holding their leather straps taut like circus tightropes. The asymmetrical concrete buildings, with their shadowy corners and lambent ceilings, no longer foster education. All they have to offer is “the beauty and the pain of having been and now no longer being,” Grande and Varbella explain. The protagonist is the school itself, personified: “you cannot hear them, those voices, still so alive, that have traversed me,” it tells the reader. “But the walls have absorbed their frequencies.”

We lurch back in history for the first official chapter on the school, where we meet Gropius and his personal and professional lives, which are presented as running on opposite tracks: “He who designed buildings where transparency was the guiding principle, in his personal life was deceptive like a 19th century facade full of stucco.” Still, we understand that the personal and professional can’t ever veer too far apart—the Bauhaus school was defined by its teachers and, often, their personal convictions. Among the first of the vanguards was Johannes Itten: a monkish, ethereal leader as obsessed with fundamental materials like clay and sand as he was enamored by primary colors. But while Itten valued the bespoke work of art, Gropius put a premium on mass production. Their differences forced Itten to resign. He took his followers with him.

Mass production as a means for people across the socioeconomic spectrum to access goods and housing endured as a tenet of Gropius’s Bauhaus. Including the working class in design considerations became a priority partly due to Gropius’s prior association with the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Work Council for Art), a group of socialist architects that advocated for accessible art education and affordable housing. But many of his students and fellow teachers valued universal access, too. Their commitment was so strong that sometimes Gropius, according to his biographer Fiona MacCarthy, encouraged students and teachers to keep their political opinions within the school’s confines, so as to not attract suspicions from the Lantag, the anti-socialist German Parliament. But his efforts did not go far. The painter Oskar Schlemmer described Bauhaus as a “cathedral of socialism” in public-facing materials. Meanwhile, the Lantag, which was beginning to cultivate more serious jingoism, demanded that the school show an exhibition of its work to the public. Held in 1923, the show was enormous, featuring a prototypical “house of the future,” which, keeping with its progressive politics, used energy-efficient materials and wasted no space, obviating the need for hallways and using walls in children’s rooms as blackboards. The school failed to win over the government for a new contract, and it was forced to shut down and move elsewhere.

In Bauhaus, Grande and Varbella present this history in clipped, synchronous scenes: errant sozialismus flyers are pasted to brick walls; a white-knuckled Gropius monologues about the respect and support his school deserves; silhouettes of disappointed professors stand beneath a rainstorm of ripped contracts. “I was uncomfortable politically,” the school tells us. “The right-wing parties won the elections, and we were bizarre and revolutionary creatures with leftist leanings.” At this moment, the politics of the school, often idle scenery in design-oriented retellings, move to the foreground.

The Bauhaus’s second and most pivotal phase, covered in the book’s second chapter, began in Dessau in 1925. This is where some of the masters whose names we most recognize today—Paul Klee, Joseph Albers, and Wassily Kandinsky—found their stride overseeing a host of specific and overlapping courses. It was also where Gropius would resign, and the school would enter its most definitive era. After he walked out in earnest, a polarizing communist named Hannes Meyer took the reins. Some students formed a Marxist faction around him, while others denounced him due to his radicalism, or simply because he was new. “Can I say it? I thought he was brilliant,” the school tells us in Grande and Varbella’s rendering, as if a little scared to admit love for a communist.

Whether a student liked Meyer or not, he forced them to look beyond their canvas onto matters of state. “During that period, I discovered myself as politically engaged,” Bauhaus says. “It wasn’t enough to have ideas. I needed to strive to change the world for the proletariat.” This charge extended beyond the mass-production approach that Gropius had taken. Before he retired on account of Meyer’s radicalism, Herbert Bayer, a student and then professor in the printing workshop, came up with a new typeface for Bauhaus communications. It elimited not only all serifs, but capital letters, too, in an attempt to reflect democratization: “Why write capital letters when you cannot speak in capital letters?” It's a curvilinear style now called Bayer’s Universal, recognizable as similar to the fonts used by Nutella and Google.

The school’s last phase of life was short. The minimalist Mies van der Rohe replaced Meyer and pushed the school more strictly toward architecture than the test kitchen Gropius had conjured. Bauhaus would not abandon its socialist values, but van der Rohe certainly deemphasized them. It was 1931, and the Nazi Party was taking hold. The party pulled funding from the school and demanded that all non-German instructors be fired. Bauhaus had one last breath in Berlin, where van der Rohe privately rented an old telephone factory as a work space. But it wasn’t long before the Gestapo arrived, demanding that the school close for good unless it fired its Jewish staff. It was the end of the school as an institution—but not as an influence.

Throughout the book’s historical journey, symbols and styles will feel familiar to the urban Craigslist browser: white walls with perfect angles, warm globe lights, chrome trimmings, Barcelona Chairs. If the Bauhaus’s aesthetic influence wasn’t obvious by this point, it becomes so by the book’s end. The final page is littered with illustrations of things like stacking tables, subway signs, and a white iPhone. We walk away with the suggestion that nothing in our modern world would look as it does had the Bauhaus never existed.

This is not an uncommon approach to writing about the Bauhaus or later mid-century styles. Grande and Varbella’s book joins a canon of texts that look back at these movements to emphasize their impact on present-day design. For example, Kyle Chayka’s 2020 book The Longing For Less uses the connection between mid-century artists and modern minimalist design trends as one of its guiding theses. “There’s a particular genre of apartment building popping up like geometric fungi all over the world…their facades are made from no naturally occurring material. Instead of a few regularly spaced rectangular windows they have floor-to-ceiling glass walls,” he explains of an apartment you might find in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood. “The precedent for these glass boxes is a single glass box that rests hidden from the road on the flattened slope of a grass hill in New Canaan, Connecticut.” (That’s the Glass House by the Bauhaus-adherent Phillip Johnson he’s describing.) In 2020, the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Nicholas Fox Weber, a longtime friend of the Albers, artists who played a significant role in the school’s Dessau era, wrote a book gawkily titled, iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design. Weber’s book draws a comparison that goes beyond just physical appearance, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive weren’t capitalists.

In Bauhaus, however, the school’s aesthetic impact takes a back seat to its history and politics: a construction that, somewhat startlingly, reminds us just how much of the Bauhaus we choose to forget in contemporary America. With this realization in mind, the book’s initial declaration that its buildings hold only “the beauty and the pain of having been and now no longer being” reads more complicated. The legacy of the Bauhaus does live on, in everything from the IKEA MALM line to the cuboid Getaway houses that stud the outskirts of metropolitan cities. Bauhaus even goes so far as to say, “I live again each time that a teacher allows creative freedom; that a designer thinks first of function than of form." But perhaps the pain of the school’s demise comes from the disappearance not of its stylistic philosophy, but of its political one.

While not perfectly equanimitable, the Bauhaus gave us some of history's most indispensible women designers. In addition to Anni Albers, Bauhaus alumna included Alma Buscher, designer of the idealistic children’s room; Marguerite Friedlaender, the first woman in Germany to receive a degree in ceramics; Benita Otte, designer of the utopian kitchen; and Marianne Brandt, whose globe lamps were some of the first to go into mass production and whose aesthetic influence still looms large today. While Bauhaus was forced to occasionally take its politics inward for self-protection, it never abandoned its dedication to social progress, community, environmental sustainability, and most of all, indiscriminate access to functional and beautiful living spaces.

This will likely sound too good to be true to today’s New Yorker, who has accepted that housing is either luxurious, expensive, and driving out low-income communities, or affordable, but slipshod enough that a wayward space heater could incinerate several units. The flaky history of modern affordable housing in New York started in the 1930’s, when NYCHA built buildings like the international style Williamsburg Houses. The idea of public housing at all started a red scare, to which the city government responded by creating campaigns to convince people of its benefits. Unsurprisingly, they employed Bauhaus typefaces, thereby attracting the community with the very design whose ethos they despised.

Fortunately, it seems like the city might be trying a modern project again with a forthcoming supportive housing project in Downtown Brooklyn, but such proposals still remain few and far between. At the civilian level, urbanites are largely still mired in a capitalist impulse, with few incentives to upend their current system. Those who purchase leather Eames loungers and transform their brownstones into boxy mansions are still more concerned with the scarcity of their well-earned spoils than what such efficient design could do for a community, or why providing access to it might even be an aspiration. In present-day America, we are still conditioned to believe that the beautiful is reserved for the select few as a reward to keep secret.

Let Bauhaus not disappoint us with this reminder, but rather provide a horizon toward which to move. The only rational reaction to the inequality, homelessness, and uncomfortable living of recent memory is a radical turn toward more inclusive and accessible design, which adopts Bauhaus principles not in parts, but as a whole. After all, that is the spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Alana Pockros is the engagement editor at The Nation and a contributing editor at Cleveland Review of Books. She is currently getting sunburnt and fiending for a new leftist magazine hat.

Image from Bauhaus: A Graphic Novel by Valentina Grande and Sergio Varbella. Courtesy Prestel.

This article appeared in our July-August 2022 Issue, #30. It is sold out. Click here to receive the current and future issues.