Love a good lesson in design history? Well, you’ve come to the right place. At Modsy, we love looking back at design movements of the past and exploring how they impact trends and styles today.
One era that we’re seeing continually influence design today is the Bauhaus design movement. What started as a school in Germany quickly became a philosophical approach to design that took the global design world by storm. Interested in learning more about this iconic moment in design history? Read on for the full scoop on Bauhaus interior design, with insights from our resident design historian, Alessandra Wood. Plus, we’re sharing how we’re seeing Bauhaus influences show up in the design world today!
The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany.
What is Bauhaus?
So, what exactly is Bauhaus? Is it a design style? A movement? It’s actually a little of both—but before it was either, it was a school. The Bauhaus was a German art school that operated from 1919-1933.
“The school was founded under the principle of unifying all the different art and design disciplines,” says Alessandra. She says it was all about bringing artists and designers together, to learn from and be inspired by each other rather than each field of art being “siloed” on its own. The school sought to elevate craftsmanship to the level of fine art, getting rid of the distinction between craftsman and artist. (Craftsmanship including trades and mediums like architecture, interior design, crafts, and textiles.) As such, the Bauhaus served as a combined architecture school, crafts school, and academy of the arts.
The Bauhaus school of design was established by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, where it was until moving to Dessau in 1925. From 1932-33, the school was located in Berlin.
Photo of Walter Gropius taken circa 1919.
“Gropius wasn’t the first thinker with this idea of unifying the arts, but the Bauhaus was very formative in changing the trajectory of how we view the arts today,” says Alessandra. “It was revolutionary.” The school became famous for its approach to design and the unification of art, craft, and technology. In this creative space, individual artistic vision was combined with craftsmanship and modern mass manufacturing techniques in an attempt to bring together function and aesthetic.
Alessandra adds, “Gropius was also really interested in design and production. He wanted to create things that were accessible to the masses. He was really driven by ‘good design’ and bringing good design to all people.”
The Bauhaus school was only in existence for 14 years due to pressure from the Nazi regime (they dissaproved of the school and what it stood for, seeing it as an epicenter of communist intellectualism). But the design principles that the school established lived on—as faculty and graduates of the Bauhaus left Germany and found refuge around the world, bringing their design philosophies with them.
Alessandra says that, as instructors and students left Germany, they brought the philosophy of the Bauhaus with them. Many stepped into positions where they were teaching the next generation of architects and designers, which “shaped the whole movement of design, internationally, and eventually became the basis of the Mid-Century Modern design movement.”
What are the main principles of Bauhaus interior design?
The Bauhaus school and subsequent design movement was all about simplicity, which had a major impact on modern furniture and interior design. Bauhaus style focuses on reducing designs down to their most basic elements, resulting in clean, minimalist spaces; streamlined forms; and an absence of ornamentation. The intention is to create harmony between an object’s function and design.
In the realm of furniture design, this simplicity also lent itself to mass production. Bauhaus artists embraced the industrial technologies of the day, using mass-production techniques to make their designs more accessible.
Read on to learn more about the most iconic and enduring interior design principles of the Bauhaus movement.
Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers.
Form Follows Function
In the world of architecture and interior design, the idea of “form follows function” speaks to the idea that the shape of a building or piece of furniture should primarily relate to its intended purpose. Translation? Keep ornamentation and frills to a minimum, focusing first and foremost on practicality of use. In the Bauhaus philosophy, a sofa is no good if it’s beautiful but not comfortable. A chair is useless if it can’t comfortably support you. A lamp is primarily for adding accent lighting to a room not to make a style statement.
That’s not to say that Bauhaus design is strictly utilitarian. However, the purpose of a piece of furniture or decor should be the starting point for its design. The result is that practicality and functionality were valued by Bauhaus designers more than aesthetics.
“This idea comes out of the early minimalist theory, which negates applied ornamentation,” says Alessandra. “They believed that the function of the piece is so core to its existence, that its aesthetic should merely support the function. Of course, it should be beautiful—but without additives.”
Less is More
The term “less is more” actually originated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus school. Bauhaus designs were all about simplicity and reducing pieces to their simplest forms while also keeping them accessible, functional, and with some aesthetic value. Sound familiar? This is a major tenant of minimalist design—and Bauhaus is where many of today’s minimalist design ideas originate.
“Instead of adding ornamentation, like gilding, carvings, or design elements that weren’t inherently part of the function of a piece, Bauhaus artists instead created pieces that celebrated the worker and their ability to produce something functional,” says Alessandra.
The “less is more” approach was also practical as Bauhaus artists explored mass production techniques. “If a piece is super decorative, it’s more difficult to mass produce,” notes Alessandra. “When a piece has a simple form, it can be more easily reproduced and therefore be more accessible to more people.”
Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, where marble walls take the place of decoration
Truth to Materials & Material as Ornament
A core tenant of Bauhaus design is the belief in “truth to materials,” where materials like steelwork and concrete were used in their most “honest” form, resulting in leaving them exposed and unpainted.
This was intimately connected with the elimination of unnecessary ornamentation and embellishments in favor of functionality. By the intentional use of materials that offer inherent ornamentation (which gets at the idea of “material as ornament”), buildings and furniture were kept visually interesting. In the 1920s and 30s, Bauhaus-era designers used materials like tubular steel, glass, wicker, and concrete to bring visual interest without adding additional ornamentation. Today, we see that same philosophy applied through the use of ornamental materials like marble and granite.
“The Bauhaus designers weren’t trying to mask materials they were using,” says Alessandra. “This often came through in the use of natural materials—like stone with rich patterns, leather, or woven materials in a natural colorway, all of which use color and texture to create depth in a design.”
Other notable features of Bauhaus designs:
- Simple geometric shapes, like rectangles and spheres
- Buildings, furniture, and fonts with rounded corners
- Furniture featuring curved chrome metal pipes
- The use of primary colors
- The innovative use of materials
Iconic Bauhaus Designs
Some of the most iconic designs from the Bauhaus school and movement are still in production today (both the original designs as well as replicas). Here are a few of the most iconic Bauhaus designs.
The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer
Also known as the Model B3 Chair, it was designed from 1925-26 by Hungarian modernist architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer. He was one of the first and youngest students at the Bauhaus. The chair design was inspired by bicycle handlebars; he used the same tubular steel that’s used on bicycle handlebars as the frame of the chair. The form was inspired by an overstuffed club chair, but Breuer significantly simplified the form, then used canvas for the seat, backrest, and arms.
The Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich
Bauhaus school director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona chair in conjunction with architect Lilly Reich for the Barcelona International Exhibition in 1929. The simplistic form of this low lounge chair features two slim cushions over a light, X-shaped stainless steel frame.
“This chair was re-popularized in the mid-century and was used in a ton of Mid-Century Modern designs,” says Alessandra.
The Brno Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
The Brno Chair, also known as a cantilever chair, is a great example of an object being reduced to its most basic elements and form. Designed by van der Rohe in the late 1920s, he was playing around with the idea that a chair doesn’t necessarily have to have four legs. Instead, he designed the Brno Chair in a cantilever style, with the seat being supported by a single C-shaped bar.
“A lot of Bauhaus designers experimented with this shape of chair,” says Alessandra. “In a production setting, you’re bending one piece of metal to get the shape instead of assembling multiple pieces—making mass-production easier. As we think about the Bauhaus philosophy of designing for ease of production, this is part of that ideal coming to life.”
One example of a similar design that has stood the test of time? The Cesca chair, which was designed by Breuer in 1928. The notable difference between the Cesca and Brno chairs is that the Cesca chair was made with tubular steel, while the frame of the Brno chair was made with a flatter steel. However, both used really modern, industrial-first materials and production methods.
The MT8 Lamp (aka the Wagenfeld Table Lamp) by William Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker
The MT8 Lamp, also known as the Wagenfeld Table Lamp, was designed by Bauhaus students William Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker in 1923. It later became known as “the Bauhaus Lamp” for the way that it so beautifully embodies the Bauhaus principle of “form follows function.” With a simple circular base, a cylindrical shaft, and a spherical shade, it has a minimalist, geometric shape. It was very economical in its use of materials and the industrial techniques used to produce this lamp.
The Bauhaus Bauspiel by Alma Siedhoff-Buscher
A set of wooden blocks for children, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (a student in the woodcarving department) designed the Bauhaus Bauspiel as part of an exhibition at the Bauhaus in 1923. The assortment of 22 colorful wooden blocks can be stacked together to create a ship. The design highlights the colors and shapes of the Bauhaus and most certainly follow the “less is more” design principle. Immediately becoming popular, the Bauhaus produced and distributed various versions of this play set, and a replica of this set is still produced today by the Swiss company Naef.
Household Objects by Marianne Brandt
While not one specific design, today Marianne Brandt is known more for her body of work—which includes metal household objects such as lamps, ashtrays and teapots. A German painter, sculptor, photographer, metalsmith, and designer, Brandt studied and later taught at the Bauhaus. She designed her pieces with mass production in mind, and many reproductions are still available today.
Bauhaus-Inspired Designs Today
The philosophies and impact of the Bauhaus are far from in the past. “Today, we see a lot of pieces that were designed by Bauhaus designers continuing to be produced and popular today,” says Alessandra. “People are still using these designs.”
And beyond literal design, Alessandra says the design philosophies of the Bauhaus school are still being practiced today by many designers. “Minimalism is still very popular, as is the idea of creating pieces and homes with a ‘less is more’ approach.” We’re also continuing to see a lot of “material as ornament” in the re-popularization of natural materials in interior design. “Designers today are still leveraging beautiful natural materials like marble, leather, and caning to create that sense of ornamentation without added ornamentation,” says Alessandra.
Alessandra also notes that, in the past several years, there have been a lot of furniture and home decor brands emerging that are trying to create “good design for the masses,” with pieces that can be easily and affordably reproduced. “A lot of the pieces we carry here at Modsy follow that same sentiment—we carry pieces that are beautiful, well-designed, and affordable while also making interior design accessible to more people.”
Want to actually see how our Modsy designers are using the principles, shapes, and materials or the Bauhaus design movement in their designs today? Scroll down for some beautiful examples.
Understated and Functional
For this living room inspired by the Bauhaus, we kept things pure and true to the philosophy of this movement: form follows function. This was the primary motivating factor behind the design. The furniture itself is simple; however, each piece is shapely, featuring interesting frames and solid textile surfaces. The interest and movement comes from the primary colors in this space—which were widely used when color was used in the original Bauhaus era. And the marble-top coffee table? Material as ornament at its finest. The overall design is understated from today’s perspective of style, but it’s functional and welcoming all the same.
A Timeless Classic
The iconic forms of Bauhaus furniture (and Bauhaus-inspired pieces) are truly timeless. Exhibit A: the cantilever chairs. Their form is so striking—an art piece in and of themselves. We centered the design of this dining room around the chairs, creating a space that is inspired by the Bauhaus movement but could easily be in a millennial’s home today. By keeping the decor minimal but layering some texture with artwork, the rattan-clad chairs, and the faux hide rug, this space is simplistic in each piece individually. But together, it creates a rich and unique look that spans many decades!
Simplicity reigns supreme here! This minimalist bedroom puts function on par with style. In classic Bauhaus fashion, there is little-to-no ornament, save a single piece of art, a few vases, and the spotted rug. But these pieces take a back seat to the sculptural forms of the foundational furniture. Another layer of decoration comes through from the saturated colors in the design. The deep rust bed, gray walls and chair, and blue rug all create a striking visual impact in the space. Modern Bauhaus style at its finest!
Want to try Bauhaus style in your own home?