Bauhaus: 100 years old but still ubiquitous in our homes today

Spending a night at the hallowed Bauhaus school in Dessau, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, was my teenage dream come true. The walls of my childhood bedroom were plastered not with posters of pop stars, but with the furniture manufacturer Vitra’s wall chart of iconic 20th-century chairs. As a design geek, growing up in a house bedecked with Laura Ashley, I found the idea of the Bauhaus thrilling: each chair was a mini manifesto, embodying the world of stripped-back modern design that I might one day inhabit (I’m still waiting).

Yet, almost 20 years later, when I got to stay in Josef Albers’ former bedroom in the Bauhaus dormitory block, surrounded by chairs and lamps designed by the school’s various luminaries, it felt disappointingly like a sleepover in an Ikea showroom. There was a stack of four coloured nesting tables in one corner, of the kind readily available from Habitat for £95, but these were in fact Albers’ original version, designed in 1924, now reissued by the German manufacturer Klein & More – yours for £1,614 (from In another corner stood a simple bent tubular steel chair by Mart Stam, of the unremarkable sort you find in restaurants and meeting rooms around the world. There was a steel coat stand, too, which I thought betrayed the hand of Marcel Breuer – but which turned out to be from Ikea.

The success of Bauhaus furniture, a century after the small school of applied arts was founded in Weimar, is that it has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible – so reassuringly familiar, it blends into the background. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair decorates every corporate lobby. Globe lamps, of the kind designed by Max Bill, are two a penny. The Bauhaus continues to influence every aspect of our lives in ways we don’t even notice, from the fabric covering the seats of the tube to bookshelves, kitchenware, road signs, cutlery and fitted kitchens.

Founded in 1919 by the Prussian architect Walter Gropius, the school’s most revolutionary aspect at the time was its model of education. Conceived as “a new guild of craftsmen”, its students were assigned to workshops where they learned the skills of metalwork, cabinet-making, textiles, ceramics and photography in a hands-on, multidisciplinary environment. “Bauhaus workshops are laboratories,” Gropius declared, “in which prototypes of products suitable for mass production are carefully developed and continually improved.”

Living room of the Masters’ House, designed by Walter Gropius.

Living room of the Masters’ House, designed by Walter Gropius. Photograph: Alamy

The reality was rather different. While the school claimed to be designing for industrial production on a massive scale, most Bauhaus products were in fact incredibly labour-intensive, hand-crafted objects. But the pressure for commercial success was ever present. “One thing is sure,” wrote one Bauhaus tutor, Lyonel Feininger, to his wife, in the early years of the school, “unless we can produce ‘results’ to show the outside world and win over the ‘industrialists’, the future of the Bauhaus looks very bleak indeed. We now have to aim at earnings – at sales and mass production!”

When the school moved to Dessau in 1925, having been hounded out of Weimar by the right-wing authorities, it took on a much more industry-focused outlook, abandoning the wood, stained glass, bookbinding and pottery workshops in favour of a “work study” system, where students would be engaged in producing viable product lines for sale. The popularity of designs like Josef Hartwig’s geometric chess set, for example, essentially turned students into tools for fulfilling orders.

As time went on, the school became increasingly business-savvy. The Bauhaus Corporation was set up to market its products, while the graphics department turned its efforts to advertising, and relationships with manufacturers were developed, mindful that students alone couldn’t meet the demand. Marianne Brandt began working with the Kandem lighting company to market Bauhaus lamps, while Marcel Breuer established his own company, Standard Möbel, to sell his tubular steel furniture independently (to the fury of Bauhaus colleagues at the time). Ironically for a place founded on “truth to materials”, the school’s bestselling product was decorative wallpaper.

But beyond the popularity of individual designs – from Breuer’s Wassily chair to Le Corbusier’s lounger – the Bauhaus had a huge influence on how we think about the home. Under Mies van der Rohe, who became director when the school moved to Berlin, expelled from Dessau by the Nazis in 1930, the focus shifted to architecture and interiors. With his partner Lilly Reich, he promoted the idea of open-plan domestic space, with areas separated by hanging fabric drapes and movable partitions. Popularised by exhibitions and publications in the 1930s, the open-plan idea was imitated by countless architects for the rest of the century – and is still the go-to way of living today.

Paradoxically it was the school’s closure, after just 14 years, that guaranteed its lasting success. Shut down in 1933, the mythology of the Bauhaus only multiplied, as its tutors and students dispersed around the world and continued to spread their ideas, each claiming they were the legitimate heir to the original. In its centenary year, its influence is more present around the world than ever before – the ultimate triumph of Bauhaus the brand.

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