Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Walter Gropius’s lofty rhetoric about equality fell short of the essentialist differences that the art school’s founders perceived between the sexes (and imposed on women at the school).
There’s a famous image from the Bauhaus, one that places the school’s design ethos in a tantalizingly familiar setting. It’s the office of Walter Gropius, the director’s original suite at the Weimar Bauhaus, pictured in 1923. His office is a chapel to workplace productivity where light intersects line. It could easily be a contemporary catalog display, an aspirational space just waiting to be shopped. It was even reconstructed in 1999. Walter Gropius’s office is design history within reach.
But some of the details of the restoration are off. The abstract textile, a geometric tapestry by Gunta Stölzl, appears to be missing. And the original rug, a weave of square tiles designed by Gertrud Arndt, has been replaced altogether. The new carpet in the restored Gropius room belongs to a different Bauhaus designer, Benita Otte. Bringing another woman to the fore is in keeping with the original design. But it is also a break from the past, since a woman is getting credit for her work.
“In the past 20 years, there’s been a lot of really wonderful work that’s been done, looking at the contributions of women in the Bauhaus,” says Alexa Griffith Winton, a design historian and assistant professor at Ryerson University. “We still are struggling with this idea of the lone architect as the creative genius that is the source of all of these ideas.”
As the world celebrates the centennial of the school and its contributions to design, the women who shaped the Bauhaus are finding purchase as important makers in their own right. A new book due next month by Elizabeth Otto & Patrick Rössler, Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective, surveys the work of some 45 women Bauhaus designers, many of them forgotten by other historical texts. And Bauhausfrauen (Bauhaus Women), a new documentary film by Susanne Radelhof, screens next week at the Bauhaus Archive and other locations throughout Germany in coming weeks.
Women were integral to the history of the Bauhaus. When Gropius opened the Weimar school in 1919, women (who had just earned both the franchise and fundamental rights in the Weimar constitution) were welcome to attend. Women outnumbered men in the first Bauhaus class (84 to 79) and the school dropped gender-specific tuition rates that charged women a higher fee. “No difference between the beautiful and the strong sex,” Gropius told students in his first speech to the school, according to Ulrike Müller, author of 2009’s Bauhaus Women. “Absolute equality but also absolutely equal obligation to the work of all craftsmen.”
Gropius’s lofty rhetoric about equality fell short of the essentialist differences that the Bauhaus founders perceived between the sexes (and imposed on women at the school). Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky associated masculinity with genius and creativity, respectively. Gropius—who believed that women lacked the mental capacity to work in three dimensions—held bizarre convictions about certain forms or concepts as being masculine (the color red, the triangle) or feminine (the color blue, the square).
Masters of workshops for printing, metals, sculpture, and above all, architecture, feared the competition that women represented for prestige and employment. As of 1920, they came upon a solution. Weaving had been declared a “women’s class” at the Bauhaus, a department where they could steer even gifted and established artists and artisans (Stölzl perhaps the most talented of all). Many women found themselves relegated to the weaving workshop, a course of study with few formal guidelines.
“The fact that the majority of female students and teachers were to be found in the handweaving area, appears at first, to be in accordance with the training structure and the traditional female image,” Müller writes. “However, the ideas and innovations which they unleashed there were anything but traditional.”
Stölzl, who as a student collaborated with Marcel Breuer on several upholstered chairs, was the first director of the weaving workshop. While she was originally not interested in working with Jacquard looms, she realized Gropius’s ambitions to steer the school toward industrial production. Indeed, the weaving workshop became one of the only departments in the Bauhaus that was financially viable—as a 2010 survey at the Museum of Modern Art observed—along with the metal workshop, which was led by Marianne Brandt.
Without the preconceived (and often patriarchal) notions of what defined art and craft, women in the Bauhaus were able to take the workshops for weaving and, to a lesser extent, photography—then a still nascent artistic medium—and turn them into laboratories for experimentation. “The young women of the Bauhaus seem like typical art students, when you see them in pictures. . . . [w]ith their cropped hair and clashing clothes,” as Catherine Slessor notes in Dezeen. That image of the Bauhaus endures in part because women found greater freedom in photography than in other workshops.
Which is not to say that women embraced their second-tier status in the Bauhaus. Some of them resisted the expectations put upon them. Others labored under them: Lilly Reich, a designer who further transformed the Bauhaus in Dessau under Mies van der Rohe, was perceived by some peers as only having achieved her post on the Masters’ Council thanks to her personal relationship with Mies. Müller describes her as “assertive and moreover—to Mies van der Rohe’s delight, who detested organization and bureaucracy—a resourceful manager upon whom he was glad to depend.”
“Weaving? Weaving I thought was too sissy,” Bauhaus artist Anni Albers said in a 1977 interview for a monograph published by the Brooklyn Museum. “I was looking for a real job; I went into weaving unenthusiastically, as merely the least objectionable choice. Later, weaving at the Bauhaus developed a more serious and professional character. Gradually threads caught my imagination.”
Yet as a textile artist, Albers may rank among the most influential of Bauhaus thinkers. The artist, who enjoyed a solo retrospective at the Tate Modern that closed in January, initially wanted to work in architecture. She never abandoned her interest in spatial design, and as a theorist, she approached the German academic literature about the connection between textiles and architecture from the perspective of someone who works in textiles.
“People like me, who are looking at the relationship between textiles and architecture, textiles and spatial design, are still looking at her writings in architecture and textiles,” Winton says.
The work of women in the Bauhaus can still be traced through the work of artists today. Certainly, production houses such as Knoll and Maharam can trace their lineage to the breakthroughs of the women of the Bauhaus (in fact, Albers worked for Knoll). Elena Manferdini stands out as a designer who employs some very Bauhausian ideas about line, color, and space in her work in textiles and architecture. Winton names Claudy Jongstra, a textile artist who has worked with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and Neri Oxman, a design polymath, as descendants of the Bauhaus school (the part of it more focused on material production).
The history of the Bauhaus has frequently betrayed a narrative that favors the work of men over women. High barriers between the fields of craft and design, exlusionary categories that still persist today, enforce a hierarchy that still serves men in architecture, art, and design. The conversation is changing, at least. Ten or 15 years ago, for example, furniture designer Charlotte Perriand might not have come up in a conversation about Le Corbusier. Similarly, the names of Gropius, Breuer, and Klee don’t make sense without the context set by Stötzl, Albers, and Reich.
“Gropius was very fond of his role as the founding father of the Bauhaus, and writing people out of his narrative of the school,” Winton says. “Historians for a long time just went along with that.”