Beauty through Form and Function: Art Nouveau’s Influences on the Early Bauhaus – Part 4


Deutscher Werkbund was established in Berlin in 1907, with the predominant intent to analyze recent development and improvements in contemporary German arts and crafts. 1 Founded by Hermann Muthesius, the group included Behrens, Obrist, Endell, Riemerschmid, and van de Velde (Art Nouveau veterans seeking the next logical step in form), as well as young modernists Bruno Taut, Hans Poelzig, Heinrich Tessenow, and Walter Gropius. 2 It was, in essence, a continuation of the progress made in the Darmstadt colony and the Werkstätten, and an attempt to develop a design standard uncorrupted by over-representation and misinterpretation.

Though all agreed on the transformative powers of art in society, there was dissonance among the members of the Werkbund — due in part to Muthesius’ considerable emphasis on mechanized standardization. It is particularly interesting to note is that earlier in his career, Muthesius had praised originality of ornament — particularly in Art Nouveau — as an almost sacred celebration of the common object and as a mouthpiece for the artist. 3 It is unclear why his stance changed, but under his leadership, the group pursued more technologically-inclined objectivity (a common philosophy of the time referred to as Sachlikeit), which de-emphasized individual creativity and at times held the unification of design and craft in abeyance. 4 This direction did not sit well with those who still maintained Jugendstil aesthetics and philosophies, and the frequent conflicts of interest ultimately culminated in the renowned debate between Muthesius and van de Velde at the Werkbund’s 1915 Köln exhibition. Muthesius maintained that standardization was the undeniable future of design and architecture, and the only path by which to establish a “generally accepted and reliable taste” that he believed paramount to ideal societies. 5 Henry van de Velde, fiercely defied what he foresaw as the death of creative design, asserting that true artists would never accept standardization. 6

Schism was the inevitable outcome. Van de Velde, who supported the last bastions of Art Nouveau, naturally found favor with Endell and Obrist — but also and more surprisingly with Taut and Gropius, who cautioned that one should recognize in standardization and doctrine the possibility for stagnation and restriction (particularly with respect to Germany’s history), and in beauty the inherent quality of intimate, personal expression. 7 Behrens, Riemerschmid, and much of the Munich branch of the Werkbund sided with Muthesius — intent on achieving a more socially responsible art form that best served the public’s needs in the most economical and practical manner.

Nationalism and xenophobia

Ultimately, van de Velde lost — and not only in terms of the Köln debate. Nationalism and xenophobia were slowly rising in Germany; this, coupled with Weimar’s growing inclination towards classicism, led the Belgian expatriate to resign from his School directorship the same year. 8 Three candidates were considered for succession: Obrist, Endell, and Gropius — whom van de Velde highly recommended. The new Grand Duke of Weimar was eager for a replacement who could represent the school with a more “national” (or rather, Neoclassically-derived) spirit, so Gropius’s lack of direct ties to Jugendstil and its anti-historical tendencies no doubt lent him an advantage. When the architect accepted directorship in 1919, he did not, however, re-establish a Beaux-Arts style within the School.

By the time Gropius had reformed the Weimar School into Bauhaus, Art Nouveau’s era had passed, but its influences were evident in the new institution’s workshops. Gropius did not share Muthesius’ dependence on typisch for design. 9 His calls for universal standards referred more to content and quality, to design representative of its time and achieved through equal use of technology and artistry. He — like fellow architect Taut — celebrated and promoted creativity, imagination, and variety as necessary richness. 10 His Bauhaus Manifesto also extolled the importance of craft and unity in the arts in manners reminiscent of that first Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration article:

“‘Architects, sculptors, and painters, we must all become craftsmen again. For art is not a profession. There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman, the artist is a craftsman of heightened awareness… craftsmanship is indispensable to all artists. It is the prime source of all creative work.’” 11

Gesamstkunstwerk revisited

These ideals were not merely unpracticed theories; early Bauhaus curriculum and structure prominently employed them. Workshops were established for various disciplines — with painting, sculpture, and weaving alongside metallurgy, printing, and bookbinding — and together, they sought a common aesthetic vocabulary derived from contemporary materials and fabrication methods. 12 Form and craft courses were administered simultaneously in an effort to dissolve any perceived distinctions between fine and applied arts, and principles learned in these classes were ultimately applied to final, large-scale collaborations amongst the workshops — Gesamstkunstwerk revisited. 13

Under Gropius’ direction, Bauhaus students and faculty produced work that reflected the integrity of their designs in both technique and materiality “A breach has been made with the past,” the architect remarked in his writings about the school, “which allows us to envisage a new aspect of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed, and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling.” 14 Steel, glass, and concrete became favored materials of Bauhaus architecture, which pushed forward the the endeavors of Horta and Guimard in their explorations of structural and aesthetic clarity. Simple facades emphasized large expanses of non-structural glass, arranged in asymmetrical patterns, and independent of structure — descending directly from the designs of Maison du Peuple and Atelier Elvira. Mass production technology was also thoroughly explored, but only after rigorous prototyping that involved hand labor in the craft workshops. Hours of manual labor and multiple iterations refined designs to their most minimal, machinable forms, which would, in turn, result in a mass produced product that met high standards of quality. 15 This process was instated to allay the concern that mass production would result in products that falsely purveyed an impression of handicraft — which in the worst case scenario, was used as an excuse for imperfections or irregularities.

Grete Reichardt, Mussel Mosaic (1930?)
Grete Reichardt, Mussel Mosaic (1930?)

To promote the production of economical goods, Bauhaus aesthetic generally favored austere, platonic forms. But even these designs bore the visible traces of Art Nouveau. Under the instruction of Johannes Itten, students relearned principles of design through lines, solids and voids, proportion, textures — emphasizing the importance of rhythm and fluid continuity. 16 In his pedagogy, which he presented with an air of near-mysticism, Itten echoed his predecessors, stressing that “great strength is associated with everything that is rhythmic.” 17 Thus, the dominant line and the organic, abstracted natural form often manifested themselves within the students’ work — some of which recalled Art Nouveau in its prime. Free-form exercises in charcoal bore striking resemblances to flourished jewelry and typefaces. With its curvilinear forms and asymmetry, Grete Riechart’s tapestry, Mussel Mosaic is reminiscent of Obrist’s Rootlike Ornament. Even Walter Gropius prominently depicted rhythm and balance through asymmetry in his design for the Dessau Bauhaus facility — one of the first of many Modernist buildings that would employ such concepts. 18

However, it is through its ultimate stance on standardization and ornament that later Bauhaus principles finally belied Art Nouveau design ethics. Both shared belief in art’s importance in life and its restorative powers for society, and that every object was worthy of an artist’s creativity. 19 The resulting work from both movements was meant to be accessible to all demographics, and made affordable through the use of common materials and mass production. 20 In Art Nouveau, however, ornament was seen as a mark of individuality, as much as it was a reflection of the material and design of an object. With fully mass-produced objects, though, appearance is no longer unique; and through repetition, it loses its inherent link to the creator. The concept of decoration as an integral element capable of emphasizing structure and material was also rendered inconsequent: full mass production achieved the same end through the clarity and simplicity of unadorned surfaces.

 Mechanical manufacture

Bauhaus increasingly viewed technology and function as primary dictations for design, on the premise that human needs were, in most circumstances, universal. 21 In response, the school turned to mechanical manufacture, even to the point that it considered itself a factory. Beauty of design still emerged from structure and material, but was instead called “formal integrity” and was mostly governed by technical rigor and the once-dreaded standardization. Ornament, perceived as a superfluously applied mask, was ultimately discarded. Art Nouveau, had thus served its purpose and met its end. The machine, which the style had supported from infancy, had outgrown its first artistic proponent, finding full validation in Bauhaus’ modern design standardization.

But still, one must acknowledge the importance of the short-lived period. For in breaking from the stagnating historic, eclectic styles that preceded the Industrial Revolution — by embracing progression in form and materiality as sources of inspiration — Art Nouveau paved the way for the evolution of Modern Art and Architecture as it is understood today.

Linda Just

1] Gillian Naylor, The Bauhaus Reassessed (London: The Herbert Press, 1985), 43.
2] Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, Art Nouveau in Munich (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1988), 12;
Frank Russell, ed. Art Nouveau Architecture (London: Rizzoli International Publications, 1979), 194.
3] Naylor, 28.
4] Marcel Franciscono, Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1971), 94.
5] Russell, 195.
6] Russell, 195.
7] Naylor, 46.
8] Naylor, 50.
9] Naylor, 46.
10] Franciscono, 95.
11] Johannes Itten, Design and Form: The Basic Design Course at the Bauhaus and Later (New York: Van
Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1975), 7.
12] Lerner, 213; Rowland, 24.
13] Rowland, 14.
14] Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (Great Britain: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1966), 19.
15] Rowland, 14.
16] Gropius, 53.
17] Itten, 98.
18] Gropius, 82.
19] Gropius, 7-8.
20] Rowland, 10.
21] Rowland, 12.