The exhibition Craft becomes Modern. The Bauhaus in the Making tells the story of the workshops from the perspective of craft in the original setting, the weaving workshop in the Bauhaus building in Dessau. At the Bauhaus the relationships between art, applied art, industrial production and craft were discussed in more radical terms than elsewhere. And the backdrop to these domains, the economic and political situation in the Weimar Republic on which the school was dependent and in which it also aimed to actively intervene, had a far greater influence on the fate of this institution than any other.
“Craft becomes Modern. The Bauhaus in the Making”
13 April, 2017 – 7 January, 2018
Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
Gropiusallee 38, 06846 Dessau-Roßlau
The leitmotif for the exhibition, which is divided into five thematic sections, is the quest to redefine craft at the Bauhaus as utopian – as a critique of, but also in coexistence with, industrial culture. Ultimately, this was about finding creative ways forward in a social setting in which the distance between everyday things and their makers and users had grown. As controversial as the ideas and concepts of craft at the Bauhaus Dessau were, they shared a concern about mankind’s agency. A similar situation appears to prevail today: Embroidery, do-it-yourself and the digital crafts have ceased to be contradictory and now offer scenarios for human initiative in a world shaped by digitalisation, globalisation and technology.
Craft at a crossroads: The exhibition on craft at the Bauhaus thus begins with contemporary positions. Inquiring and conceptual designers such as Formafantasma, Álvaro Catalán de Ocón, Assemble, Sarah Ouhaddou, Dirk Vander Kooji, Natsai Audrey Chieza and Opendesk demonstrate with their experimental, activism-orientated, socially engaged projects aligned with vernacular tradition that craft is now a hybrid sphere in which the boundaries between design and manufacture, expert and amateur are dissolving and in which thinking and doing are being reconnected.
The exhibition goes on to shed light on the microcosm of historic practice in the wood, metal and weaving workshops. The subject area Unequal Partners: Masters of Works and Masters of Form provides insights into the various conflicts about the status of craft in the design of modern consumer goods at the Bauhaus Dessau. This involved the attribution of roles and the hierarchies in the everyday activities of the workshops as well as the self-images of artistic design. Thus the lamp designs of Alfred Schäfter, the metal workshop’s master of works, little noticed in the school and in the Bauhaus historiography, testify to the artistic talent of the craftsmen that were so pivotal to the activities of the workshops.
Anni Albers shared her fascination with indigenous pre-Columbian handwoven textiles with her colleagues: visits to the Ethnological Museum were, after all, part of the curriculum. Margaretha Reichardt, in her 1928 collage “Sie brauchen das Bauhaus” (You need the Bauhaus) expressed criticism of the mounting pressure on production, on “education for the production line” in the weaving workshop, allowing no time for experimental work. And Gunta Stölzl’s textile wall hanging “5 Chöre” (5 Choirs), created on a Jacquard loom, is, with its ambiguous title – both a poetic metaphor and a technical term for a process on the power loom – a woven manifesto of a transition. In this sense the workshops in Dessau were places of transition between factory and workshop, between the training workshops of the schools of arts and crafts and laboratories for industrial prototypes, between experiment and Fordian piecework, between unique work of art and industrial mass product.
In the Machine Park machines and tools find a place in a Bauhaus exhibition for the very first time. These are essential to an understanding of craft; here, the cultural technologies and methods of working and forming materials are revealed. The Dessau workshops had a substantial machine pool compared with the more modest technical equipment of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. But although the metal workshop was re-equipped with new lathes and milling machines with assistance from the Junkers factory, vessels were still produced at the silver and coppersmiths’ workbenches. The (initially unused) machines in the metal workshop triggered a heated controversy which denounced as “amateurism” the backwardness of Bauhaus production compared with the achievements of industry. In the weaving workshop too, the coexistence of Jacquard and hand looms led to conflict about the identity of textile handicraft. Rationalisation and mechanisation in the textile industry served as a foil for a return to the hand loom, which the weavers perceived as a condition of a new access to industry.
Each floor of the workshop wing of the Bauhaus building had its own material store. These are addressed in the exhibition’s Material Store. Here, visitors will see objects from the lessons in materials that demonstrate the importance of materials science in the preliminary course and lesson notes from the workshops on materials science. Based on selected modern materials such as aluminium, cellophane and artificial silk they will gain insight into then already global flows of resources and materials behind the production economy of the Bauhaus.
The section Object Biographies sheds light on the consumer goods produced at the Bauhaus and their varied fortunes in the public domain. Their paths to development as prototype, bestseller, patent or personal heirloom tell us something about the institutional, cultural and economic contexts in which these objects were integrated and that defined their careers as products. The KANDEM lamp is one of the most prominent examples of a hand-made prototype that contains within it the complexity of industrial manufacture. But the Leipzig-based lighting company did not name the Bauhaus as the designer of the lamp. A successful progression from unique object to industrially produced, anonymous, mass-produced article? Conversely, the wrangling for patent registration exemplified by Otti Berger’s upholstery material expresses the move to reclaim authorship, the redefinition of the role of the artist or designer in an everyday world increasingly shaped by anonymous mass production.
The still evolving career of Marcel Breuer’s Club Chair reflects the dynamics of branding in the consumerist society.