We all know the look: that sleek, simple, even utilitarian aesthetic that unites IKEA furniture, smartphones, office buildings and office furniture, and more. The ubiquitous minimalism that some defend as honest and accessible – and others criticize as sterile and lacking in identity – defines many of the products we own and the commercial spaces we occupy. Capitalism has been good to this aesthetic, which has its origins, ironically, in a very anti-capitalist art movement: Bauhaus, which turns 100 this year.
The Bauhaus school was founded on April 1, 1919, by the German architect Walter Gropius, who was riding the wave of experimental and revolutionary social change that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had inspired in post-World War I Germany. “Form follows function” was the rule at Bauhaus – a novel idea at the time, but a necessary one, Gropius thought. The “salon art” of the bourgeoisie was unimaginative and tepid, and the aristocracy couldn’t be trusted to be the bearers of German culture. Gropius had a utopian vision for the Germany of the future. The Bauhaus would merge technology with art to appeal to the industrialized world and its working class – the Bauhaus school based in Weimar, Germany, would teach everything from metalworking to basket weaving. Chairs would reveal their aluminum infrastructures rather than be concealed, and buildings would be sheer, meaning no unnecessary columns or domes – just severe geometry, flat roofs, and glass windows.
The Bauhaus was radical in both aesthetics and its underlying political philosophy; it was resentful of the “bourgeois” and wanted to unburden the Bauhaus students (not artists; they rejected this term because it reflected class distinctions) of the “historical baggage” of conventional art. Socialist utopianism undergirded Bauhaus – while this was obvious in the manifesto of the Bauhaus (“Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist”), it was also apparent in many of the Bauhaus leaders’ leftist politics, such as those of Hannes Meyer, a committed Communist. The school became so entrenched in leftist politics, Gropius eventually attempted to neutralize it.
Bauhaus has since been the subject of criticism, most popularly by Tom Wolfe in his witty jeremiad From Bauhaus to Our House, published in 1981. Wolfe pulls no punches; he detests the Bauhaus’s insidious penetration into American architecture circles, where its leaders had landed after the Nazis pressured the Bauhaus to shut down in 1933. Wolfe was derided by the art cognoscenti for being misinformed and philistine – he lambasts the Bauhaus movement for inspiring ugly buildings such as the Seagram Building in New York City, and for its rejection of the ornament and decoration that makes classical structures and furniture beautiful (think Rococo furniture, with its ostentatious tufted couches and exaggerated curves, now substituted with more “efficient” materials such as aluminum and steel).
Robert Florczak, an American artist who also teaches the art of the great masters, tells me that the Bauhaus standard – function before form – placed its utopian motives before aesthetics, and the results were more often cold and severe than inspirational. “Visit the 300 block of Park Avenue in New York on any day and witness the thousands of people who walk by the Seagram Building, an exemplar of Bauhaus architecture, never bothering to look up at the glass and steel monolith, let alone feel inspired by it.”
Wolfe is certainly correct to an extent – Bauhaus did introduce ideas of simplicity and minimalism to a country strewn with buildings that couldn’t possibly serve a purpose beyond an purely functional one, and open to similarly utilitarian furniture like IKEA’s. Florczak is also correct – the Seagram Building is uninspiring. The famous Barcelona chair designed by Bauhaus’s director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is dreary.
But a century later, Bauhaus is ubiquitous. Our buttonless, sleek, metal-and-glass iPhones are Bauhaus. The sans-serif fonts we use regularly (such as Helvetica and Arial) are Bauhaus. Our minimalist, corporate-looking swivel chairs and other office furniture are Bauhaus. Our cities, with the tall skyscrapers with flat roofs and ant-farm transparency due to the assembly of glass windows – beaucoup Bauhaus.
Despite its often-socialist leanings, capitalism has been a boon for Bauhaus.
I’m sure most people would agree that 19th-century Louis XV-style handcrafted sofas are more beautiful and regal than IKEA’s Karlstad sofa, built with plywood, particleboard, and polyurethane foam. But the ideas that germinated from Bauhaus harmonize with the business models that allow for companies such as IKEA or Apple to run efficiently and meet consumer demand – IKEA has stores in 38 countries and is the largest furniture retailer in the world. Apple reached $1 trillion in net worth in 2018 (before tech stocks took a beating at the end of the year). It’s no surprise that creating products that prioritize function and simplicity would be immensely profitable – they’re readily available in large quantities, have a collective-design ethos, and their standardization makes it possible for them to suit more people. IKEA has even integrated the Bauhaus’s emphasis on efficiency into their packaging – IKEA flat-packs their products to save themselves and the customer money (and space).
Apple is only becoming more Bauhaus – it’ll soon be taboo to have a button on your phone at all, as demonstrated by the avant-garde iPhone X. Our phones and laptops are becoming lighter and thinner, a pastiche of the Bauhaus’s Marcel Breuer’s pursuit of lightness: Breuer designed chairs that were almost weightless and used only tubular steel and thin strips of fabric, and he dreamed of a day when chairs could levitate.
While criticizing Bauhaus is certainly fair – I’ve lambasted it to architects before – its influence on our everyday lives is indelible. A brief cost-benefit analysis of IKEA products leads us to decide that we can purchase a low-priced couch for our college apartments that’ll soon enough become petri-dishes for spills and crumbs, and justify discarding it after graduation because it did the trick while not costing a fortune (Millennials are more often renting homes than buying them, and our furniture is similarly fleeting). Our smartphones are operating at increasingly faster speeds and are becoming more intuitive, and their light and lustrous designs reflect these technological developments, keeping the consumer’s convenience in mind.
The Bauhaus sought to integrate art with machinery and, to a great extent, it succeeded. Its members created an enduring zeitgeist that is progressive in its ability to conform design to perpetually advancing technology. A century later, it’s ironic that a movement that attracted professed Marxists owes so much of its continuing vitality in our everyday lives to the free market and its rules of supply and demand.
Whether in the realm of technology or furniture, companies have had to tune into the market’s demands and to accommodate them, a feature of capitalism that has made Apple and IKEA successful. For the facets of our lives that require products that are simple and intuitive, Bauhaus fits the bill.