BAUHAUS: AESTHETIC FOLLOWS FUNCTIONALITY
Sometimes the line between design and art is very fine, I guess. The biggest difference between both would always be functionality. I mean, although both disciplines are linked to a certain craft and totally linked to the aesthetic, design has to fulfill a function and art does not. A painting by Sorolla has to be beautiful and inspire a series of feelings, but it doesn’t have to have a greater background than that. It is clear that, obviously, that ugly sculpture that you bought in a warehouse is very good for you as a paperweight, that’s why it was not made by an artist and it was indeed by a designer.
We could go back to the 19th century to see how and what happened to the development of design as we know it. Until the industrial revolution we could not speak of such a thing, but of artisans from different fields who were sowing seeds in the form of buildings or furniture and who would later give birth to a whole new discipline.
With the arrival of mass production, it seemed mandatory that aesthetics and functionality would be united forever and, in fact, they were, although undergoing a rapid evolution. At the beginning, the first product design firms continued to take medieval models as a reference, with lots of ornamentation and very little practicality, but, at on the early 20s of the new century, everything would change forever at the hands of the architect Walter Gropius. For him, form always follows function, that is, the product must be practical and then aesthetic. And Gropius had that vision for absolutely everything related to chain production and its sale. To lay the foundations for this new way of seeing what we now call industrial design, he would form the Bauhaus School in 1919 and with it lay the foundations for what we know today as design, at all levels. At the Bauhaus there were architects, painters, sculptors, photographers, cabinetmakers… Everything. The school went through some very romantic early years, theorizing about the development of design in all its aspects and idealizing the possibilities of the new industrial system, but little by little they moved towards a more rationalist perspective, in which simple and functional forms prevailed. From there, iconic fonts, furniture that is still a bestseller to this day, or buildings that would change the way of living for millions of people were developed.
Before the Bauhaus, as I said, there were artisans from different guilds who did their part. An agile painter with a brush could earn extra money by making calligraphies for posters, with highly ornate and aesthetically brilliant letters, although no thought was given to the function of these letters. The same thing happened with furniture, buildings, photography, textiles and a long etcetera. It is in Gropius´s school where the reason for each production is sought and meaning is given to the entire composition of the product. For example: the interior design of the German pavilion for the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1929 is commissioned and Lilly Reich, together with her husband, decides to unite tradition and modernity through materials such as stainless steel and leather; looking for functionality and aesthetics, as always, they present the Barcelona chair, based on a chair used by the ancient Romans. This product was a breath of fresh air for the attendees who admired it almost as if it were a sculpture and, later, enjoyed it by reclining on the padded leather. That is why in 1950 it began to be mass-produced and remains an icon even today.
Something similar would happen with another chair designed by the then director of cabinetmaking at the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. Inspired by the simple lines and modular construction, he would create a prototype in 1925 that he would give to Kandinsky, who would automatically fall in love with such a creation and make it famous among the elites of the time. Over time, the popularity of the product led to mass production in the 1960s under the name of Wassily Chair, in honor of the Russian painter. And it happens that Kandinsky was also part of the Bauhaus and was inspired by it just as he inspired everyone in it. At the beginning of the 1920s, the painter abandoned expressionism and flirted with a much more abstract perspective. It is then that he decides to move to Weimar to teach at the legendary school of industrial design and it is at the Bauhaus that he would develop the theoretical plan on which his works would be based in the future.
We could be talking for hours and hours about the influence of this school and how it marked our present. We could talk about the geometric sans-serif typefaces created by Herbert Bayer and used so many times over the years, about the Gropiusstadt that Walter Gropius himself blueprinted for Berlin and that would be imitated throughout the world years later, and we could even talk about your IKEA lamp. The influence of the Bauhaus does not remain in the aesthetic, once again. It’s not timeless just because it’s pretty, but because it works. The school developed a new complex study plan from scratch in which meaning was given to something that, although it is obvious today, did not have meaning before and that to this day continues to be copied by countless institutions on the planet. The Bauhaus had to stop functioning as such when Nazism rose to power in Germany and the freethinkers who worked and studied there were not well seen, but rather persecuted. It died then as a school, but what it had created would last forever.