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The Birthplace of Modernism

Finding the origins of contemporary design at Germany’s Bauhaus Dessau.

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“THE MIND IS like an umbrella,” said architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus design movement in 1919. “It functions best when open.” This was no coffee-mug platitude — there was no culture of quotable kitsch (and certainly no Pinterest) in the Weimar Republic. Instead, Gropius was serious, and he devoted himself to theorizing a spiritual path for artists. His goal: to improve the material reality of human beings the world over through simple, functional design. Famous artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe made their intellectual and often their actual homes at the Bauhaus school, which first opened in Weimar, Germany, before moving to Dessau in 1925, and finally to Berlin in 1932, where, under pressure from the Nazi regime, it closed in 1933.

The fruits of the movement’s artistic labors are visible in modernist works of architecture, art, design, and in so many consumer objects that it’s easy to take this history for granted. But a trip to Bauhaus Dessau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, puts visitors right where the action was and, through exhibitions and the preservation of artists’ homes, shows the fascinating genesis of a now ubiquitous modernist design language.

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If cleanliness is next to godliness, Bauhaus really was a new faith. Its practitioners were among the first to develop what we now think of as ‘clean’ design.

The city of Dessau is an hour and a half southwest of Berlin and, like nearly every city in the country, easily accessible by Germany’s bafflingly clean, famously punctual rail system. It’s a short walk from the station (through the pretty Anhalt University of Applied Sciences campus) to the Bauhaus building, an icon of modernist architecture designed by Gropius himself. Its interior is now a museum where guests can venture through open rooms, including former workshops. “One has to walk around this building to grasp its corporeality and the function of its elements,” wrote Gropius in 1930.

During my late-summer visit, a chatty septuagenarian guard presided over an exhibit in the basement called “Archaeology of Modernism,” a collection of original Bauhaus building materials, including flooring, moldings, doors, windows, and concrete blocks. The artifacts on display were compelling, but the gift shop may be the best place to trace the past into the present: With its boldly colored Bauhaus-reproduction furniture, textiles, and lamps, it resembled a small proto-IKEA. (So this is where midcentury-modern comes from, one thinks.) The museum cafe on the ground floor served surprisingly good food and strong coffee. And for around 50 euros, guests committed to cosplaying art history can even spend the night in the sparse studio building — now a guest house — which has been meticulously restored to its original condition. So, too, can they tour the Masters’ Houses, though they were closed at the time of my visit. Plus, the nearby Bauhaus Museum Dessau boasts the second-largest Bauhaus collection in the world. There, the focus is less on the famous artists associated with the movement and more on the lives of real Bauhaus students and the vibrant day-to-day workings of the school.


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Students of the Bauhaus school were to work in harmony across disciplines, striving toward the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, a process that combines different art forms into a cohesive whole. Gropius sought to dissolve boundaries (and class distinctions) between artists and craftspeople, writing in his radical 1919 manifesto, “Let us together will, conceive, and create the new building of the future, which will unite everything in a single form — architecture and sculpture and painting.” Such a structure, he continued, would rise “heavenward from the hands of a million craftsmen as a crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”

If cleanliness is next to godliness, Bauhaus really was a new faith. Its practitioners were among the first to develop what we now think of as “clean” design: spare, open, airy spaces; ample natural light; and simple, durable, monochromatic fittings and fixtures. This focus on hygiene and being orderly was partly a reaction to the rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which wrought clamor and chaos, darkness and disease. (Boon though it was, the advent of electricity didn’t help; it simply revealed a world of dirt.)

The Bauhaus movement envisioned a daily life of dignity, unified by thoughtful design. Alas, it was a future they could only build for 14 years, until the Nazis’ ruthless repression of the arts began. Still, the influence of Bauhaus is so mighty that to many, it may as well be synonymous with modernism.

A visit to Bauhaus Dessau humanizes the movement and inspires a new appreciation for the design elements we now see everywhere (including in my own home as I type). Nearly a century before Marie Kondo, Bauhaus adherents understood that material objects ought to spark joy — and that there is a kind of liberation in the mastery of one’s space. Against the onslaught of modernity, they knew that clean air, natural light, and simple, functional objects — essential ingredients for a harmonious home life — were the working person’s best defense.

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Our Contributors

Nina Renata Aron Writer

Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.

Martien Mulder Photographer

Dutch-born Martien Mulder combines portraiture, architecture, landscape, and still-life photography. She lives in New York, and her clients include commercial brands, cultural institutions, magazines, and newspapers. Mulder’s work has been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, and she has published two books.

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