Inside the Collection

100 years of the Bauhaus

Red circular inkstand with a black ball finial on hinged cover, photographed from above.
Inkstand, part of desk set, enameled metal, designed by Marianne Brandt for Ruppelwerk Metallwarenfabrik, Gotha, Germany, 1930-1931. MAAS collection: 2003/137/2. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has just opened a display with striking objects, photographs and archival material from its extensive decorative art and design collections, to celebrate the centenary of the Bauhaus, the most influential 20th century school of design. In this post, we’ve selected a few highlights.

The Staatliches Bauhaus was founded by German architect and designer Walter Gropius in 1919 in the town of Weimar, Germany. Although it was closed in 1933 amidst the political turmoil of the Nazi-era, it fundamentally redefined the role of design in society, introducing interdisciplinary design concepts and teaching. Central to the school’s philosophy was the unity of art, craft and architecture, and the designer’s role as an agent for change.

Square-format magazine cover in white printed with geometrical shapes and lines in black, red and grey. Top left section features the word WENDINGEN in grey positioned diagonally.
Cover for the journal Wendingen, designed by El Lissitzky for issue 11, which was devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright, Amsterdam, Holland, 1921. MAAS collection: 97/242/1. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

The progressive ideas at the Bauhaus owed much to avant-garde artists who came from across Europe, drawn to the Bauhaus and the exciting possibilities it offered for creating radically new forms of art and design that they hoped would inspire a better world. The cover of the Wendingen magazine and the ceramic plate illustrated below, were designed by Russian Constructivist artist Lazar Markovich El Lissitzky, who was also the Russian cultural ambassador to Weimar Germany. They illustrate his revolutionary approach to non-objective art represented through Prouns, or spatial constructions of geometric shapes and lines. El Lissitzky’s art and ideas around the transformation of all art forms for a modern society paralleled and influenced artistic experimentations of the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy who advocated for the unity of art and technology. Through the teachings of Moholy-Nagy, who joined the Bauhaus in 1923, El Lissitzky exercised a radical influence at the school.

A black circular plate decorated with bold red design of variously sizes dots and two curving bands.
Ceramic plate designed by El Lissitzky, Germany, 1922-24. MAAS collection: 2003/137/1. Photo Ryan Hernandez

Moholy-Nagy changed the Bauhaus’ direction from an emotional apprehension of forms and colours, to a focus on rationalised and functional forms for mechanised production. His impact on students in the metalwork workshop, where Marianne Brandt studied and worked, was particularly profound. Some of the most talented students at the Bauhaus were women, and in 1928 Brandt became head of the workshop, taking over from Moholy-Nagy when he left the school to establish his own studio in Berlin.

Writing set in red metal with black detail, comprising a blotter, pen tray and circular inkstand with a black-ball handle on the cover.
Desk set, enamelled metal, designed by Marianne Brandt for Ruppelwerk Metallwarenfabrik, Gotha, Germany, 1930-1931. MAAS collection: 2003/137/2. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Brandt designed this desk set soon after she left the Bauhaus at the end of 1929, when she was asked to modernise various household articles – from ashtrays to inkwells and napkin holders – for Ruppelwerk, a large metalware manufacturer in Gotha, Thuringia. Machine-cut from steel sheeting and finished in a range of bold colours, Brandt’s affordable designs proved to be highly marketable. Today, surviving objects from these modernist lines can be found in museums and private collections as examples of the application of Bauhaus ideals to industrial production.

Black and white postcard with a stylised profile of a face on the left, and red and black text on the right which reads: Good Health and Happiness Ahead / Laszlo and Sybil Moholy-Nagy / 7, Farm Walk, N.W. 11 / 1937.
New Year’s card from Laszlo and Sibyl Moholy-Nagy to Dahl and Geoffrey Collings, designed by László Moholy-Nagy, 1937.  The card features a photogram of a self-portrait made by László Moholy-Nagy, 1925. The Australian designer Dahl Collings worked with Moholy-Nagy in London in 1936. The Collings corresponded with Moholy-Nagy and his wife Sibyl after they left London. MAAS collection: 2007/30/1-29/5. Photo Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Working across disciplines, Moholy-Nagy was also instrumental in creating a new photographic style. He exploited the possibilities of the camera to break away from ‘the painterly trend’. His ideas spread to other schools where former Bauhaus instructors taught, such as the Contempora Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst (Contemporary School for Modern Applied Arts) in Berlin, where students explored unconventional angles and extreme close-ups to allow familiar objects and architecture to be seen in new ways. Wolfgang Sievers, one of Australia’s most acclaimed post-war architectural and industrial photographers, studied and taught photography at Contempora from 1935 to 1938. Just before he escaped Nazi Germany to migrate to Melbourne via London, Sievers worked on commercial advertisements for Elbo Stockings. His photographs with their unusual details, soft shadows and sharp lines exemplify the legacy of the Bauhaus’ streamlined and modernist view of the world.

Black and white photograph showing face of a young woman holding in her hand a section of a stretched nylon stocking which covers top part of her face like a thin veil.
Elbo Stockings, gelatin silver photograph, Wolfgang Sievers with Erich Balg, Berlin, 1938. MAAS collection: 98/99/2. Photo Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

100 Years of the Bauhaus is on display until 30 June 2020 on Level 2 of the Powerhouse Museum, outside the theatrette.

Written by Eva Czernis-Ryl, Curator
July 2019

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