To celebrate the centenary of the Bauhaus movement, The Conran Shop digs a little deeper and explores some of the key materials used by the influential German art school. Founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, the teaching at Bauhaus encouraged the use of previously-overlooked materials such as concrete, tubular steel piping and glass.
Truth to materials
Bauhaus architecture was built to serve a purpose and lacked the ornamentation and unnecessary embellishments seen in other architecture movements of the day. Instead, the elements of a building’s structure were left in plain sight and followed a core tenet of Bauhaus teaching, ‘truth to materials’. This approach to design was adhered to by the school’s students and required materials to be used in their most ‘honest’ form, meaning steelwork should be exposed and concrete left unpainted.
Despite being in direct contrast to the synthetic materials that were becoming increasingly common at the time, the ‘truth to materials’ principle was as prevalent in Bauhaus furniture as it was in its architecture.
During the mid-1920s, Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer began experimenting with tubular steel. Inspired by Adler bicycles, Breuer wrote to the manufacturers asking for some of their tubular steel to build a prototype design, a request that was promptly denied. However, Breuer continued his experimentation and in 1928 he partnered with Thonet to create a tubular steel range.
Concrete was an essential component of much Bauhaus architecture, admired by the school’s students and teachers for its strength and resistance. Acting as a precursor to Brutalist design, the Bauhaus’ appreciation of concrete is most notable in its starring role at the school’s Dessau campus. With a striking, reinforced concrete frame, the school’s main building wholeheartedly embraces concrete and modernist design.
The robust material opened doors for a revolutionary approach to architecture and can be seen in buildings across Europe, including the Harnischmacher House in Wiesbaden and London’s Isokon Building, as well as the Neue Meisterhäuser in Dessau.
Wicker is another material seen throughout Bauhaus furniture design. Very much in line with the principle of ‘truth to materials’, the use of exposed wickerwork displays the material in its purest form. Wickerwork can be seen in some of the Bauhaus’ most celebrated furniture, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s D42 Armchair, Marcel Breuer’s F41E Breuer-Couch and Peter Keler’s Bauhaus Cradle.
Spurred on by the revelation that sunshine benefits health and wellbeing, Bauhaus architects began using huge panes of glass in their designs to allow in natural sunlight. The Bauhaus’ main building in Dessau still features a huge glass façade with an exposed framework, and its workshops and studios inside are illuminated by walls of glass.
Outside of architecture, glass was used as a medium of design and the Bauhaus taught glasswork as part of its main curriculum. One of the most prolific users of glass was Josef Albers, husband of textile artist Anni Albers, who used glass as one of his primary mediums. Throughout his career, Albers designed stained glass windows for churches, residential homes, museums and factories, little of which remains today, unfortunately.