An Introduction

Inside a special 53rd edition of the Berlin based ‘Lowdown’ Magazine, one of the designers interviewed suggested that our generation would never experience a movement as profound and influential as the Bauhaus.1 At the time of publication back in 2006 they were probably correct. But just over ten years later, newer developments would begin to suggest we could be on the verge of something altogether different, and much, much more exciting.

The Bauhaus began in 1919 as an art school in Weimar, Central Germany. Founded by Walter Gropius, it sought to unify the arts, design and architecture under one philosophy and style. The school placed its emphasis on the harmony between form and function, rejecting further embellishments as entirely unnecessary. Through this simplistic unadorned style, the Bauhaus had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture and design throughout the entire 20th Century.

By 1933 the school was placed under pressure by the Nazi Party to close. But in just over a decade, it had already travelled to three different locations under three different leaders. The Bauhaus doors may have been pulled shut, but the mind-shifting ideas the school seeded were alive, and began to thrive. As both students and teachers were pushed to different corners of the world, filled with a desire and belief to design a completely different kind of future.

Why start this journey together towards theories of a more sustainable future with the Bauhaus? Well, as arguably the most influential modernist art school of all (and also the first), it was an important foundation to the entire Modern Movement. As such, it had a profound effect on the philosophy, culture, and products of the entire 20th Century. Everything from the standardisation of paper sizes and motorway signage, the re-imagining of common household objects and everyday furniture, through to masterpieces like the Barbican and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water House, can all be traced back to these first classrooms in Weimar.

Since then, we’ve been rolling around pretty much with what the Bauhaus kicked off. But distilled by time, and filtered of meaning, a lot of the Bauhaus’ original values have been lost or clouded. In the same Lowdown interview, the designer Matt Irving spoke of the dilemma faced by more recent times: “These days, almost everyone is marching to the beat of their own drum, so the world is quite eclectic”.2

For the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve been bathing ourselves in this warm and comfortable eclectic pool which Matt mentions. Most of today’s most enterprising generations (namely X,Y & Z) were brought up during a period where the direction offered by modernism was lost, and we began a new era, commonly referred to as Postmodernism.

As the clock has kept ticking, we’ve been busy designing buildings, furniture and products, in fact all the artefacts of our everyday lives, largely pulling influence from every other movement which has already happened. We dress ourselves in a mixture of the old and the new, the vintage, rehashed and recycled. And whilst jumping between these styles with flippancy, what’s most apparent is that we’ve not really been designing a completely relevant, or more secure long-term future at all.

It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault that a new unified collective vision hasn’t emerged sooner. The changes in technology of the last 30 years have been just as tumultuous as those witnessed during the Agricultural or Industrial Revolutions of centuries past. The Digital Revolution has changed how we’re employed, how we share information, interact, trade, distribute, and how we socialise; and it continues to disrupt our daily lives in unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways.

In much the same way that Modernism didn’t really begin to emerge as a large-scale movement, until the biggest upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution had already taken place. We’ve been forced to wait patiently again for the latest transformations to settle, and for at least some of the dust to clear.

It’s also not necessarily that we haven’t been trying. The last 20-30 years has seen us dealing with this tricky conundrum: Where do you go from here? When you’re already busy pulling inspiration and practices from everything and everywhere, the natural tendency, as we have been following, is to start to spiral inwards. Modernism’s relationship with Capitalism has from the very beginning, been delicately intertwined. As the two have danced together on an increasingly downward trajectory, the culture too has gravitated ever inwards. Largely towards the self, and away from the needs of society or those of nature as a whole.

Big movements, new values, and new direction only really emerge with strength once the defining tools and products from the latest bursts in technology also become established. The things we make, are of course only as effective as the materials and tools which we use to make them with. Likewise they only prove as useful as the tools which we employ to measure them against. Within these constantly spinning cycles, one detail which becomes ever more apparent is that whatever it is that we make, it will only be as valuable as the principles which we use to also define the ways we live.

Thus Modernism didn’t even begin to come to fruition until new industrial processes had already led to significant breakthroughs such as the Wright brother’s first powered flight in 1903, or Henry Ford’s first production line motorcar in 1908. It’s no coincidence that soon after, one of the first modernist definitions sprang to life in February 1909, when the first Futurist Manifesto was published in Le Figaro. It launched an art movement which rejected the past, celebrated speed, machinery and industry.

History shows us that no major cultural or artistic movement has ever happened without a whole series of external forces coming together. Leaps in technology, combined with political and social change. Advances in engineering and environmental factors. These become the influencing factors, the kindling wood, and the sparks for a clarity of new ideology to take shape. Here a contraction in thinking around a simple set of new rules helps provide vital oxygen. Like any human project, cultural movements need people to physically bring new ideas together in the just right proportions, and distill them in a such a way that they make a convincing enough set of principles to work within.

The key to any successful new recipe relies just as much in the ingredients which you choose to leave out, as those you decide to include. And of course, in order to convince enough people to join you in the process of making, the secret to conversion does not necessarily lie in the list of ingredients, or the manifesto. The conversion of minds is often a gradual process which only gains traction once the fruits of a new blueprint begin to emerge. The proof, as your Mum might say, is in the pudding. This applies both to apple tarts, and the making of artistic or cultural movements which have the power to shape and define the course of an entire century. So let’s begin by taking a closer look at the eclectic trap, from which we’ve been so desperately trying to escape.

Next ︎
Chapter 2 —
The Rise and Fall of the Eclectics

Credits & Notes:
1 – 2
Matt Irving
Lowdown Magazine
No.53 – The Bauhaus Issue 

Sep 2006

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
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