Bauhaus Celebrates 100 Years
The renowned German school of art and design celebrates a century of influence.
By Alison King
If you’ve ever read a headline set in lowercase letters or slipped on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones while toting a Bloomingdale’s bag, each featuring a distinctive lowercase “b” in its design, you’ve felt the radically sleek touch of the Bauhaus—a German school of art and design that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus boldly forged a new unity of art and technology.
We might take this concept for granted today, but imagine a time when craft was seen as inferior to art. As decorative arts radically evolved and relied on technology in the Industrial Age, craft, such as woodworking and textiles, was further separated from its sibling, fine art. The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and the Bauhaus movement that followed sought to mend that relationship.
Founded by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus school was stocked with master faculty whose names are now legend in the art and design world: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, László Moholoy-Nagy and Marianne Brandt to name just a handful. The students would grow to be just as talented. While the original intent was to be daringly co-educational, women were still often segregated to the weaving workshops; little did the men know that their female counterparts were pushing the state of the art using advanced loom technology in place of canvas and paint.
The Bauhaus was hastily disassembled after 13 years following a series of campus relocations and the rise of the Nazi party. It’s widely believed that the greatest gift the school gave the world was the dissemination of its students and faculty as they scattered like seeds to land in France, England, Israel and areas of the U.S., including Illinois, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
While it is not well-documented whether any Bauhaus faculty or students spent significant time in Arizona, there is evidence that our state’s architects, artists and designers were following their advances and kept abreast of those who landed and spread their ideas in California. This was furthered by the arrival of Californian Cal Straub as a professor at architecture and history at Arizona State University in 1961. A consummate educator, Straub embodied the more playful spirit of the Bauhaus and closely witnessed the success of European émigrés who furthered Bauhaus sensibilities in the West, including Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Phoenix’s Bauhaus appreciation swelled in the early 1960s, beginning with an Albers exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. A photography exhibition by van der Rohe was also arranged by the American Institute of Architects at ASU, introducing the radical ideals to the mainstream.
It’s a testament to the strength of the Bauhaus spirit that its filaments took root so deep in America that we too—even in in the remote desert—fed on its rich sap of truth to craft a new standard of stripped-down and elemental beauty. We’ve selected eight artists and designers who we think embody the Bauhaus spirit in Arizona and juxtaposed them with the century-old foundation from which they sprang.
Once your eyes are opened, the timeless elegance of Bauhaus ingenuity will be difficult to ignore.
A New Unity
While many might easily recall the minimalistic functionality of a Miesian glass pavilion as the ultimate expression of Bauhaus sensibility in architecture, the early founders believed in a principle called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art. “The ultimate goal of all art is the building!” declared Gropius. To this end, murals, stained glass and color fields painted both inside and out were integrated into buildings to create an immersive, aesthetically pleasing experience.
In Phoenix, architect James Flynn’s mysterious floating box building on the corner of Thomas Road and 16th Avenue exemplifies van der Rohe’s ideals of minimalist functionality—his “less is more” philosophy became a guiding principle for midcentury architects in the mid-20th century, including Al Beadle. This Miesian approach is seen in his Beadle House #6, one of Phoenix’s most Instagrammed midcentury architectural treasures. In contrast, one of his most famous and appreciated masterworks, built when he was just 33 years old, is Executive Towers in midtown Phoenix. Conceived as a total work of art, it features a colorful symphony of striped Venetian tile work, a biomorphic sgraffito mural, an exuberant concrete sunshade and a monolithic faceted glass installation by Scottsdale’s famed Scottsdale Glassart Studio, led by Glidden Parker. In 2018, Executive Towers was named to the National Register of Historic Places, a testament to how much Beadle’s artistry is treasured today.
Danielle Hacche is a Phoenix artist who is continuing the tradition of geometric interior mural design. Her recent installation at the McKinley Club uses a vocabulary of simple shapes and subtle colors to activate a space designed for conversation and contemplation. New to mural design, her smaller geometric paintings evoke the discipline of Bauhaus master Moholy-Nagy, whose juxtaposition of flat planes in artificial perspective pierced by dynamic and delicate lines are an exercise in the obsessive elimination of surface texture. Hacche strives for the same precision.
Modern day color theory was deployed on a mass scale at the Bauhaus through the mystic Johannes Itten and master Albers. Their exercises are still used in art schools today as a new generation learns the power of color interaction. Albers’ studies were often pure abstraction but in some cases were inspired by shapes he observed in architecture.
Tucson artist and educator Claire Campbell Park continues to juxtapose subtle vibrations of color pairings in her own textile weavings, inspired by the methods that Albers and his wife, Anni, brought with them to Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, when they emigrated in the 1930s. The warp and weft of fiber forces optical color blending on a minute scale. When banded together, the color fields generate the simultaneous contrast (or changes in color perception) that Albers was after.
“Many women of the Bauhaus wanted to be painters but were told they should study weaving instead,” says Park. “They responded with a very experimental and artistic approach,” whereby textile design became a proxy for painting.
Purity of Perception
No artist has advanced Albers’ ideas to their purest conclusion more than Arizonan James Turrell. Working with light, air and architecture, Turrell’s large-scale installations surround the total field of vision to stimulate an obliteration of the body and absolute surrender of the senses. Designed to change with the seasons and weather over the course of a day (or night), no two viewings can ever be alike. His most anticipated and monumental masterwork at Roden Crater in Northern Arizona recently entered into partnership with ASU and will ensure that future generations of students will experience the profound and transformative power of color. Two additional works, “Night Rise” and “Air Apparent,” can be experienced, respectively, at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the ASU campus in Tempe.
Despite the corralling of women in the weaving workshops, Brandt was able to become director of the Bauhaus metal workshop, crafting some of the world’s most iconic functional objects of the 20th century. Primitive shapes, such as spheres, cones and cubes, were sliced by intersecting discs and planes that highlighted their geometric perfection.
“I once held one of Brandt’s teapots in my hands,” says Phoenix-based jeweler Heidi Abrahamson. “It was overwhelming. Growing up with German immigrants, my parents instilled in me a great respect for Bauhaus. ‘Very Bauhaus’ was a common utterance.”
Abrahamson’s work draws upon these simple yet timeless methods to create larger-than-typical jewelry that can easily be classified as sculpture.
Her Tucson counterpart, jeweler and art educator Rameen Ahmed, was trained as an architect and is an alumni of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. Her kinetic neckpieces, which display as sculpture when not in use, evoke the spirit of Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator, a twittering machine that masks projected light in an early example of multimedia theater. Ahmed’s work harnesses the power of gravity and motion to never present the same experience twice.
“I’m always torn between the perfect geometric shapes in Brandt’s objects versus the complex constructivism presented behind Moholy-Nagy’s constructions,” says Ahmed. “I love the clarity of purpose and composition.”
The Play’s the Bling
While Bauhaus architecture typically presents a serious facade, the spirit of play was central to learning at the radical art school. Physical exercise, a vegetarian diet and theater were woven into the curriculum to draw attention to the body as an exquisite vehicle for expression. Even though there was no formal theater program, the theater workshop provided a splendid construct around which all the arts could collaborate in a total aesthetic experience from lighting to set design to costuming. Oskar Schlemmer was the Master of Form at the theater workshop, and he is perhaps most famous for designing the outrageous “Triadic Ballet” costumes that padded, contorted and mechanized the dancers’ bodies into toylike mannequins.
Miles McDermott, a 25-year-old graphic designer in Phoenix, embodies Schlemmer’s spirit of play. Not merely satisfied with the opportunity to create dada-inspired murals at his day job, his extracurricular passion as a furniture, lighting, and interior and fashion designer demonstrates the “Gesamtkunstwerk” principle as a delightful (yet sometimes admittedly exhausting) practice.
“Moholy-Nagy’s simple geometric paintings and experimental use of photography had a huge impact on me while I was in design school. Herbert Bayer’s typography is fully responsible for my deep interest in type design. As I’ve become more fluent in fashion design, Schlemmer has won a special place in my heart,” says McDermott, “as both a genius and a psycho.”
McDermott’s garments, tapestries and wallpaper patterns use simple geometric shapes in dazzling high-contrast vibration reminiscent of Schlemmer’s cross-contour striped costumes.
These obnoxiously playful vestments remind us that life is far too short to be serious. Just don’t tell van der Rohe.