When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, his pioneering school of design, in Weimar in 1919, it seemed as though it would be a model of equality and progress. The school, created in the bitter aftermath of the first world war, would be open to “any talented person irrespective of age or sex”. It would be a synthesis of arts and crafts, modernism and tradition, men and women, who together would build a new utopia. This promise proved especially popular with the post-war “New Woman”. Young, unmarried and with her hair cut short in Bubikopf style, she was no longer governed by Kinder, Küche, Kirche: children, kitchen and church. The Bauhaus seemed to be the ideal place to exercise her freedom. In the school’s first year, 84 women enrolled to just 79 men.
As it turned out, these New Women faced old prejudices. Gropius was worried that the female majority would weaken the school’s reputation. He solved his “Frauenproblem” by falling back on cliché, sending most of them to the weaving workshop, one of the specialist departments that students were required to join. “Where there is wool”, said Oskar Schlemmer, a German artist and choreographer who taught at the Bauhaus, “there is a woman who weaves, if only to kill time.”
This sexism set the tone. During the Bauhaus’s 14-year existence, women were prevented from choosing their artistic disciplines as men could. Nor were they given decision-making jobs, and very few were offered permanent teaching positions. After the school was raided by the Nazis and closed down in 1933, it was the exiled men who settled in America – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer – who told the story and defined the style of the Bauhaus as it has come to be known: the kind of hyper-rational minimalism seen in Mies’s Seagram Building in New York or Breuer’s tubular-steel chairs. The women and their work were sidelined.
Yet female Bauhäuslers had a lasting influence. They not only designed some of the school’s most beautiful – and now most collectible – objects, they also helped to shape its philosophy. The women of the Bauhaus take us closer to the true nature of the enterprise.
In 1919, a 49-year-old singing teacher from Berlin called Gertrud Grunow arrived at the Bauhaus. She had been invited by Johannes Itten, a Swiss expressionist and mystic who was one of the school’s founding members. Together they taught the Vorkurs, the foundation course that all Bauhaus students were required to take. The classes were strange and esoteric. Grunow focused on the artist’s unconscious experience of the world. She asked students to express themselves through dance and music, and to “tune in” to the “harmony” of their sensory organs. Some of her exercises sound silly – she was known to instruct her classes to “dance the colour blue!” – but Grunow believed she was perfecting her students’ senses and making them fully alive to their materials, whether that meant the tactility of corrugated cardboard or the effect of light on glass.
Despite being from a more rational school of thought, Gropius made Grunow’s classes compulsory. Her experimental teaching inspired the notion of “Materielgerecht”: doing justice to a material by exploring it with every sense. This idea became one of the school’s core philosophies, taken up by teachers such as Josef Albers. At the start of one class, Albers gave his charges a sheet of newspaper, telling them, “I want you to respect the material, make it into something meaningful, taking account of its particular properties. If you can do this without using any aids, such as knives, scissors or glue, so much the better.” When he returned, he came back to boats, castles and airplanes, which Albers dismissed as junk: none of these students had respected the inherent qualities of the material. It was a Hungarian architect who had won the game. “All he had done”, said Albers, “was fold the newspaper lengthwise, so that it stood upright like two wings.” Experimenting with a material’s properties was the key to good design.
One of the most successful exponents of this idea was Marianne Brandt. Brandt was a rarity among women in the Bauhaus: through a mixture of tenacity and good fortune she managed to avoid the weaving workshop in favour of metalwork. At first, her progress was slow. “There was no place for a woman in a metal workshop,” she reflected. “They expressed their displeasure by giving me all sorts of dull, dreary work. How many little hemispheres did I most patiently hammer out of brittle new silver, thinking that was the way it had to be and all beginnings are hard.”
But these little hemispheres proved revelatory. When she began working on her own designs, she wanted to return to the “simplest of forms”, creating a geometrical vocabulary of squares, circles and triangles from undecorated, riveted metal. From it she constructed lamps, ashtrays and teapots whose beautiful functionality soon made Brandt the most commissioned of all the metal artists, licensing her products to renowned German factories like Ruppelwerke and Körtig & Matthiesen. Her Kandem lamp remains a bestseller today, and her MT49 teapot, a concoction of circles supporting a spout and a handle made from a semi-circle of ebony, is one of the purest expressions of Bauhaus design. In 2007, an MT49 sold for $361,000 – making it one of the most expensive Bauhaus objects ever sold.
Other women were so thwarted by the school that they were forced elsewhere. Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein was a ceramicist. Under the tutelage of Grunow and Itten, who often asked their students to paint to music, she developed a style of loose, swirling brushwork which is a long way from the rigid geometry the Bauhaus became known for. Though the masters thought she was talented, Heymann-Loebenstein was offered access to the ceramics workshop only on a trial basis. Shunned, she left after a year to set up the Haël ceramics factory with her husband. Her pieces proved popular: at its peak in the early 1930s the factory employed 120 people, and her designs helped to take German pottery into the modern vernacular.
These women were outliers: most female students were weavers. When Anni Albers arrived at the Bauhaus in 1922 she wanted to study painting, but ended up at the loom. But in her hands, textiles took a painterly quality they had never had before. This was partly down to the master of the weaving workshop, the painter Paul Klee. Albers thought Klee was baffling as a teacher, but learnt about form and composition by looking at his paintings, and took her weaving in bold directions. As well as gridded weaves she created patterns from tangled knots of colour and maze-like networks of lines. The influence travelled in the other direction, too. Klee was affected by the colour achieved by the warp and weft of yarn in woven cloth, which he mimicked in pictures like “New Harmony” (1936). Looking back on her time at the Bauhaus, Albers once said that “Galleries and museums didn’t show textiles, that was always considered craft and not art.” In 2018 she had her first British retrospective at Tate Modern in London.
The weaving workshop was not only a centre of artistic innovation but of industrial innovation too. The weavers visited factories and worked out how to incorporate industrial materials into their work. Among their products were experimental synthetic fabrics, like one made from reflective, waxed-cotton thread which went on to be used in aircraft seating and car interiors. Albers created a material from chenille and cellophane, thereby inventing a new type of soundproofing. “Formally as well as technically we invented incessantly,” said Gunta Stölzl, who joined the weavers in 1920. The irony of Gropius’s treatment of women is that weaving, used as a way to keep women out of the way, became one of the Bauhaus’s most financially successful departments. The money helped sustain the school. But it didn’t buy respect.