Back to School - the Bauhaus revival
In the last few years, original Bauhaus furniture has experienced a revival.****Bauhaus design has historically been considered a radical choice, particular to the zealous Modernists of interior design and architecture.
More recently, items of Bauhaus furniture have entered the realm of the vintage and collectible. A new generation has become inspired by the vision and characteristics of this style. Manufacturers look to Bauhaus for inspiration, and collectors seek out forgotten treasures. Pieces crafted in the early-mid 20th century by pioneers of the German Bauhaus design school are becoming valuable and sought-after collectors’ items.
If you’re lucky enough to have a piece of original Bauhaus marking time in a damp basement or cobwebbed corner, rescue it immediately. It belongs on display as the highlight of a treasured collection, or crossing the auction block in front of multiple waving paddles.
The movement ‘Staatliches Bauhaus’ arose as a school of design, art and architecture in Germany, founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. Following World War I and the fall of the German monarchy, the abolition of censorship under the liberal Weimar Republic led to a new wealth of artistic experimentation. Walter Gropius aimed to unite artists, sculptors, painters, designers, craftsmen into a single group to develop the legacy of Modernism into one ‘new architecture’.
Bauhaus quickly became one of the most influential design forces of the early 20th century. Yet it was more than just a school of design. It represented a vision, breaking away from the ornamental obsessions of Art Nouveau and Victorian aesthetics, moving with the times to combine the potential for mass production with a stylised clean cut aesthetic.
The Bauhaus philosophy focused on the harmony between the function of the object and its design, the marriage of usefulness and beauty. The movement wanted to make good design accessible to the masses, and promoted this as a vision of the future.
The Bauhaus school studied with Modernist artists Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky and others, engendering a reciprocal influence.
Pieces of Bauhaus furniture are characterised by simplicity and angularity, and materials including bent wood, leather, plastic and steel. They are designed to be easily mass produced and affordable, as well as comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.
At the time of its conception, Bauhaus furniture was admired by converts to the school, yet others dismissed it as elitist, the furniture efficient but unappealing, an attempt to force the public’s taste to conform to sparse Modernist design preferences.
The Bauhaus school closed in 1933, under pressure from the Nazi regime who considered the Modernist influences ‘un-German’.
Now, many new designers are inspired by the Bauhaus style, and manufacturers are re-introducing many of the ‘Modern classic’ furniture models. The originals have become iconic pieces of 20th century design.
While there are increasing numbers of modern reproductions of Bauhaus furniture, original Bauhaus pieces comprise those produced from the school’s formation in 1919, until the early 1930s.
Names and pieces to look out for
The founder of the Bauhaus school was more of an architect than a furniture designer. However, during his leadership, the F 51 armchair was conceived by Gropius to demonstrate many key elements of Bauhaus design. In 1923 he also designed a selection of door handles, now considered the epitome of 20th century design.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Mies van der Rohe led the Bauhaus school from 1930 until 1933. His Barcelona chair, conceived in 1929 with the aid of Lilly Reich, represents totally the intentions of the Bauhaus design movement. Two curved X-frames of chromed steel strips support rectangular leather cushions. A Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Tugendhat coffee table sold for £180,000 at Phillips de Pury & Co in 2012.
Breuer was a Hungarian designer who pioneered the design of tubular steel furniture. His most famous design, and one of the most iconic pieces of furniture in history, is the Wassily armchair (1925). Featuring chrome plated steel tubing and canvas, this is a symmetrical abstraction of thin geometric planes that appear to be suspended in space. An example of this design sold for $28,000 in 2005. He was also the designer of the cantilevered side chair in 1928, a tubing and wood framed cane seat with back panels. Two oak Lath armchairs by Breuer sold for £58,700 and £54,300 at Christie’s in 1999. Many Marcel Breuer designs were reissued by manufacturers in the 1940s-1960s.
Brandt was the head of the metal workshop at Bauhaus from 1928. She specialised in designs for household objects, such as lamps, ashtrays, teapots, and is now seen as the harbinger of modern industrial design, and her works among the pinnacle of Bauhaus decorative arts. Marianne Brandt pieces often fetch some of the highest prices at auction. A three piece tea set of brass and ebony by Brandt sold for $180,000 at auction in 2008. A Marianne Brandt rare tea infuser sold for $361,000 at Sotheby's in 2007, and an ashtray sold for $34,375 at Sotheby's in 2012. However, other Marianne Brandt works have sold at auction for just a few thousand - it is possible to find some more affordable examples of her work.
Wagenfeld specialised in glass and metal works. He believed that household objects should be ‘cheap enough for the worker and good enough for the rich’. His 1924 Wagenfeld lamp was designed with Carl Jacob Jucker at the Bauhaus Metalwerkstatte. An example sold for $68,000 in 2005. Other Wagenfeld items can be found for much less than this though, from just a few hundred upwards.
Le Corbusier, while practicing in France, upheld very similar philosophies to the Bauhaus movement, seeing houses as ‘machines for living’, and furniture the tools that made this possible. Also a pioneering architect and artist, he created several chrome plated tubular steel chairs in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret: the LC-1, LC-2, LC-3 and LC-4.
Klint was a Danish designer who embraced the Bauhaus principles in the 1920s. He kicked off the Danish mid-century modern furniture style, that is also now experiencing a revival. Known as the father of modern Danish furniture design, his pieces are characterised by clean, pure lines. The function of each object was meticulously researched to allow pieces to fulfil their purpose, be clear in their construction, have proportions corresponding to the human body, and materials and craftsmanship of high quality. His ‘propeller stool’ is an example of this.
Tips for collecting Bauhaus furniture
Ironically, considering the Bauhaus philosophy of affordability and accessibility, as the examples above show Bauhaus furniture and objects fetch increasingly high prices at auction. This could make them out of reach to many collectors.
A shrewd option for a new collector would be to hunt down examples currently owned by people who do not know or appreciate the gems that they possess. There may yet be some remarkable pieces languishing in damp basements or cobwebbed corners, in second hand stores or even on the way to the dump, awaiting rescue by a discerning collector.
Be ruthless in determining the age of an item: whether it is an original, a 1960s or a modern remake will have a huge effect on the value. Most pieces you see on eBay specify ‘Bauhaus style’ if they are not originals, but some may not. Be wary of anything claiming to be Bauhaus unless you can verify it yourself.
It may also be wise to seek out pieces that doubtless emerged from the Bauhaus school between 1919 and 1933, yet are unattributed – lacking the recognisable names, yet still sterling examples of this school of design. Many of these exist, and they will generally be much more affordable than a Breuer or Mies van der Rohe attributed example. For example, a Bauhaus telephone set designed in 1929 at the Dessau school sold for just €1,500 in 2007. A Bauhaus textile sold for $1,200 in 2006. A mirror ball for the Metallisches Fest made in 1929 fetched $13,000 in 2011.
If for now all you can do is dream while you save up to deck out your living room in the manner of 1920s Berlin, original Bauhaus magazines are also very collectible.