Design expert Guillaume Cuiry explores the influential Bauhaus and Modernist movements and their impact on contemporary design in his regular column for Selections
The Bauhaus movement, initiated in Germany in the 1920s, is at the origin of modern design. This artistic current was intended to be functional, with the use of straight, pure lines, tubular steel structures, new materials and innovative industrial techniques. But what exactly is the Bauhaus movement?
Basic Bauhaus Principles
From the end of the First World War, the Bauhaus and then the Modern movement defined a new aesthetic for the “new man,” whose principals were opposed to those of the earlier traditional styles.
Furniture, like dwellings, must be functional. All unnecessary items were deleted. Decoration was cancelled, revealing stripped structures, large smooth surfaces and plain colours. The shape and beauty of the object derived from its function and the quality of the materials used. This led to the concept of functionalism, which influenced a large majority of designers until the end of the 20th century.
Furniture designers and architects replaced traditional methods of cabinet making with new techniques and materials from modern industry, such as steel and glass. Their goal was to produce furniture in large quantities using machines, industrially and at low cost. It was the era of “furniture for all.”
These new functional designers, or design objects, became the very first designers.
The Modern Movement
The Modern movement, which appeared in the mid-1920s and is also known as Modernism, is the source of modern furniture. Modernism shares the functionalist thesis of the Bauhaus movement and gave birth to constructivism, where the solidity, lightness and assembly of different materials take precedence.
The association of the architects and designers of the time, such as the Union of Modern Artists, along with the permanent promotion of their new creations in international exhibitions and the publication of magazines such as the Esprit Nouveau, launched in 1920, together made this new style known to institutional investors and the general public.
Architects like Le Corbusier extended their architectural design to interior space and furnishings. Like the dwelling, they regard furniture as a structure of lines in space. The first pieces of metal and glass were presented at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1927. At that time, a break in philosophy appeared between the Modernist style and Art Déco, which emerged at the same time.
In the 1950s, the taste for Modernism really took off, with, for example, the institutional orders for school furniture by Jean Prouvé. The Modern movement came to an end in the 1980s, when the rigidity and coldness of functionalism were abandoned to give furniture a more aesthetic appearance.
Among the great designers inspired by the Bauhaus and the Modern style are Le Corbusier and his LC series of furniture, Arne Jacobsen, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Eileen Gray, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, Joseph Hoffmann, Marcel Breuer, Rohe, René Herbst and his tubular furniture, Thomas Rietveld, René Prou, André Arbus, Jacques Adnet and even Alvar Aalto and his first furniture in curved wood, from which the famous Scandinavian style was born.
Aesthetics and New Forms
The use of new materials allowed for the creation of new shapes that met the functional needs of Modern furniture. The geometric, cubic or rounded elements combined with the raw structure in chromed or lacquered metal.
The complete abandonment of ornamentation, the end of inlays, veneers and incrustations left room for large surfaces that were smooth and pure, almost hygienic. Moreover, many hospitals were equipped with this style of furniture, which was easy to maintain.
Designers worked on the texture of the materials and on their solid, fresh and brilliant colour. They usually used only two or three different materials per piece of furniture, skilfully blending them to create contrasts. The silver chromium was reflected on the gloss of the lacquer or in the transparency of the glass.
The coldness of this Modern furniture was compensated by combinations of surfaces and horizontal and vertical lines.
Techniques and Materials
The chrome, nickel-plated, polished or matt tubular steel used as a structure became a standard of construction in Modern furniture of the time. The elegant, cheap metal resists the constraints of central heating, disastrous for veneered wooden furniture. There were also structures in flat steel bar, as in the Brno Chair by Mies van Rohe. The first aluminium garden furniture, such as Marcel Breuer’s Model 313 chaise longue, was weatherproof.
Simple or reinforced glass was used for table, desk and vanity tops. Raw or waxed leather cut into straps and stretched canvas served as a seat or backrest. Designers chose the cheapest indigenous woods, such as beech and lacquered or rough pine. After the Second World War, rubber, plywood and celluloid appeared. Decoration materials, such as copper and bronze, precious wood and mother-of-pearl, disappeared.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, the furniture of the Bauhaus and the Modern movements was remained in the form of prototypes or produced in limited series. Indeed, the public, still attached to classical tastes, did not adhere to the aesthetics of Modern metal furniture, which was judged too cold and too expensive. This furniture, presented in the art magazines, found its clientele only among the higher classes of society. For example, the sale of the first metal furniture from Thonet, known for its curved wood furniture, was a commercial failure.
It was not until the post-war period that mass production began. Furniture companies such as Cassina, Knoll and Gavina played a major role in promoting these styles by purchasing production rights. For example, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair, created in 1925, was not produced industrially until 1952. In parallel, manufacturers of furniture and department stores added Modern furniture to their collections, in section “furniture for young people” of Modernist inspiration.
Bauhaus and Modern Markets
Today, Bauhaus and Modernist furniture are definitely fashionable. These creations have become classics of interior decoration and are very expensive because they remain sought after by collectors and art lovers. The pre-war prototypes or limited series have become museum pieces: they represent the origin of the design creation of the 20th century.
The first post-war reissues gradually emerged on the antique market and now command tens of thousands of dollars. Even recent copies of Bauhaus or Modernist furniture remain expensive because they are very trendy and easy to use for the decoration of our modern interiors.
This homogenisation of interior design furniture has pulled prices up, creating a speculative bubble at the expense of more traditional furniture.
New Modern Furniture
From the 1920s onwards, architects, decorators and designers created the furniture together with the home. Cupboards replaced wardrobes and sideboards. Cubic beds became cosy-corner. Glass and metal coffee tables revolutionised the living room layout. Only the seats kept their primary function, while becoming the source of experimentation and preferred inspiration of designers.
Among the reference furniture of the Bauhaus and the Modern style are Marcel Breuer’s S32 Cantilever Chair and Wassily Chair, Le Corbusier’s LC furniture suite and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair.
In the great and young history of design there is a before and an after the Bauhaus movement. The most important thing to note is that this amazing story is not, and never will be, finished.
By Guillaume Cuiry
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One to Watch #40, page 144-147