Celebrating another of furniture’s enduring style categories
As I write, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dominating the news, driving up oil prices and reminding us of the preciousness and fragility of peace. I am reminded that it has been just over a century since the end of World War I, which ended in 1918. A year later, two very different origins, both in Germany: In 1919, Adolf Hitler joins the German Workers Party and the Bauhaus design school opens its doors in Weimar.
Last summer, I wrote about the ebbs and flows in popularity of midcentury modern, a style that has had more lives than a Scandinavian cat. Bauhaus shares some key hallmarks with midcentury modern, and it is these common elements that explain the “form as function” style king’s lengthy reign.
It is easy to forget just how controversial and, for the Nazis in the 1930s, even heretical Bauhaus was perceived to be, because like midcentury modern, Bauhaus seems ubiquitous today. For a modern-day analog, think of Critical Race Theory being taught somewhere in the heart of West Texas.
Among the subjects I teach here at Berry College is graphic design, and I use as introduction to Bauhaus the typefaces of Paul Renner, including most notably his Futura typeface.
One of the most successful and popular typefaces of the 20th century, and the typeface for Ikea until its famous (or infamous) switch to Verdana in 2009, Futura took the publishing industry by storm when Renner unveiled it in 1927. Boldly embracing geometrics and — gasp! — lower case first letters, Renner’s minimalist typeface rejected the many ornamentations and embellishments of Blackletter and Gothic typefaces favored by the Nazis, so much so that Futura became perceived as a threat to Nazi orthodoxy. I guess you could say Futura shot the serif.
The lesson in the 1930s, as for Ikea in 2009 and The Gap less than a year later in 2010: Do not mess with the typefaces and logos that people love.
(By the way, as historical footnote, Verdana was designed by the legendary type master Matthew Carter on spec for Microsoft, which needed a new sans serif to populate its software and digital environments. Carter also designed one of my favorite typefaces, Georgia.)
It’s an oversimplification to say that Futura forced Renner to flee Germany, but not by much. For the Third Reich, Renner’s ideas about modernism and functionalism, ideas distilled and put on display in Futura, were a direct challenge. The Nazis preferred Fraktur.
The states of Florida and Texas should take note, because history tells us that while Hitler ultimately had to go underground, dying in a bunker, Futura went to the moon as the official typeface of Apollo 11. Go ahead, Google it.
From letterforms to furniture
And while neither Futura nor Renner were formerly part of the very formalist Bauhaus design school, they both belong aesthetically, ideologically and chronologically. Certainly in the more expansive applications of Bauhaus today, they also share the same legacy.
Now, however much fun it is to imagine a world in which typefaces merit the attention of entire governments and get people run out of town, let’s turn our attentions to that which is more practical to marvel at: The long life of an aesthetic that is a staple of modern furniture design still today. With its premium on simple lines, lack of ornamentation, function-first mission and forms, and honesty, Bauhaus is, like midcentury modern, a darling of online furniture sellers. So many Bauhaus forms are conducive to flat packs, containers and end-to-end box shipping.
The names now are legendary: Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. As a formal, organized school, Bauhaus survived but 14 years, ended when the Nazis’ declared it to be “cultural bolshevism.” But, like so many unintended consequences of attempted repression, Bauhaus benefited from the Nazis’ condemnation. Banishment meant the export of Bauhaus practitioners and sensibilities all over the world, notably to Chicago and, ironically, also to Israel. Albers even became a professor at Black Mountain College near Asheville, N.C., right in the backyard of the future of U.S. furniture manufacturing. Ha!
Moholy-Nagy launched New Bauhaus in Chicago, while Kandinsky and Klee took the modern approach to architecture, design and interiors to, respectively, France and Switzerland.
To say that design was ready for the fresh breezes of Bauhaus is to woefully understate how right the time proved to be for a bracing new way of thinking about form and function. Consider the time period. The Victorian Era was ending, a demise punctuated by the Titanic’s plunge to the bottom of the North Atlantic. James Joyce took a torch to literature and the novel with his incendiary, genre-busting new approach to the novel in Ulysses (my favorite book of all time, as indispensable as Shakespeare and the Bible). Meanwhile, in Paris, Marcel Duchamp stood a urinal on its end and dared the world to definitively declare that his statement in porcelain was not, in fact, art.
To quote Dylan, oh, the times they were a-changin.’
“An object is defined by its nature,” Gropius proclaimed in 1919. “In order to design it to function properly, one must first study its nature. For it to serve its purpose perfectly, it must fulfill its function in a practical way.”
Amen and amen.
For a newbie reporter covering furniture in the early 1990s, the term “Bauhaus” confused me. I knew of the relatively small upholstery manufacturer by that name, a company acquired by La-Z-Boy in 1999 and sold off again in 2014. (The product line never made sense at La-Z-Boy.) Along the way, I learned of the (much) broader style movement and ethos that expressed itself in everything from toys and light fixtures to apartment buildings, advertising and art of all kinds.
Bauhaus, which translates as, “Building house,” faced more adversaries than the Nazis, however. The writer and journalist Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with North Carolina’s favorite son, Thomas Wolfe) published his book, From Bauhaus to Our House, in 1981, a book in which he accused Bauhaus of nothing less than ruining cities and propagating high-rise apartment buildings. His thesis statement came in the form of parodic song: “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?” Funny.
But Wolfe and the Third Reich, which is a pairing you don’t see very often, are the minority. Despite the design school’s favor for buildings that, according to Wolfe, “look like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse,” furniture consumers still dig the clean lines, the neutral colors and straightforward designs that Bauhaus inspires, even if they couldn’t name the design era. Ikea, for one, has made big bank on Bauhaus-inspired, function-first, “less is more” looks.
If you doubt Bauhaus’s resiliency, and after persecution by the Nazis and attempted incineration by a veritable bonfire of lupine vanity you most definitely should not, look no further than the Bauhaus Archive/Museum in Berlin. Boasting “the world’s largest collection of materials on the subject,” the archive and museum is getting new digs. The complex expects to open to visitors for the first time in years later this year.
Until that grand opening, satisfy your hunger for stark aesthetics by soaking up all the new Bauhaus-inspired design coming to High Point’s showrooms next month. And because sometimes being holed up in Furniture City can seem to be an exile of sorts, find fraternity in the exiles, nomads, refugees and emigres who, thankfully, brought Bauhaus to the United States. These guys are definitely my type.