The future-facing idiom of the Bauhaus, the German design school founded, in 1919, by Walter Gropius, is now antique, but its distinct vision of modern life is not a thing of the past. A relatively small repertoire of photogenic artifacts sometimes stands in for the entire Bauhaus phenomenon. It is easy to call to mind the iconic Wassily chair, a tubular steel frame that looks like an oversized paper clip; or the Barcelona coffee table, a glass square whose lethal corners seem designed to dent an ankle or a toddler’s forehead. In the nineteen-nineties, when modern furniture came back into fashion, Bauhaus chairs were unearthed in attics and storerooms, their caned seats brittle, their metal frames pitted from neglect. The first vintage-modern shops began to spring up, often in places where cadres of elderly bohemians and academics were dying out. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, you could find half a dozen retailers selling secondhand Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired pieces. Early models, spotted by trash pickers and estate-sale trawlers, commanded impressive prices. Demand trickled down, and by the turn of the century a severely edited version of the Bauhaus—a shopper’s version, free of historical context—was once again in style.
The Bauhaus aesthetic always drew sophisticated detractors. In 1981, Tom Wolfe, whose own taste in interiors ran to damask and lacquer, published “From Bauhaus to Our House,” a polemical defense of “coziness & color” and an indictment of the “whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness” of austere modern design. What bothered Wolfe most was the style’s erasure of affect, pleasure, and chance, subtractions that made a house into something resembling “an insecticide refinery.” It had been this way since the early twenties at the Bauhaus—the school, in the city of Weimar, Germany, where the aesthetic originated. From the start, Wolfe writes, Gropius, “the Epicurus” of the place, had insisted on “a clean and pure future.” Wolfe identified with Alma Gropius, the architect’s first wife. When Alma, a voluptuous and refined woman, visited the Bauhaus from her native Vienna, she was especially repelled by its high-minded diet of “a mush of fresh vegetables.” Years later, she remarked that the Bauhaus was best defined not by clean lines and pure materials but by “garlic on the breath.”
Fiona MacCarthy’s “Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus” (Harvard) is a comprehensive biography of the figure whom the painter Paul Klee, a teacher at the Bauhaus, called “the silver prince.” The aroma of nineteenth-century nobility, all the Old World values and social distinctions that the Bauhaus aspired to dismantle, nevertheless clung to Gropius. He was born in 1883 in Berlin, into a distinguished family at the nexus of business and the arts. His great-grandfather had a silk-weaving company, and a great-great-uncle manufactured theatrical masks. Another uncle was an architect; his father, who aspired to the trade, lost his nerve. The family outfitted young Gropius abundantly with Kultur, but industry was everywhere in fin-de-siècle Berlin, whose population more than doubled between 1871 and 1900, to 1.9 million. Gropius fell asleep every night, as MacCarthy writes, to “the rhythm of the metropolitan railway and the distant sound of carpet beating.”
When Gropius enlisted in a Hussars regiment of the German Army, in 1904, at the age of twenty-one, he was still a citizen of the nineteenth century. A photograph from that time shows him proudly wearing his uniform, with its heavily tasselled pelisse, mostly unchanged since the Napoleonic Wars, and later favored by Jimi Hendrix. He left the aristocratic corps after a year—the minimum requirement—worn down by the expense of keeping himself and his horse looking spiffy. Restless and in search of inspiration, he travelled in Spain for a year, and met Antoni Gaudí in the midst of constructing his masterpiece, the Sagrada Família. Back in Berlin, Gropius apprenticed to the architect and designer Peter Behrens, who taught him the arcana of the trade, from the “secrets of the medieval mason guilds” to “the geometrics of Greek architecture.” According to MacCarthy, Behrens was “the founding father of industrial design and corporate identity”; he designed not just buildings but the rooms and objects nested inside them. Gropius, for his part, seemed to know in his gut how to create a visual brand by combining materials—Moorish-style ceramic tiles and desert cacti, poured concrete and frosted glass.
When he was twenty-seven, Gropius was treated briefly at a naturopathic retreat in the mountains, where patients undertook a daily regimen of fresh air, exercise, and vegetables. On walks in the woods, he fell in love with another patient. Alma Mahler, already sexually notorious, was thirty-one. Her marriage to Gustav Mahler was on the rocks. (Mahler was at work on his Tenth Symphony when he learned of Alma’s feelings for Gropius, and travelled to Holland to consult with Sigmund Freud about his libido.) After Gustav Mahler’s death, a year later, Gropius found himself in a romantic triangle with the intense and frightening painter Oskar Kokoschka. When Alma finally left him, Kokoschka had a life-size nude doll made in her likeness.
Gropius’s personal awakening was abetted by a global one. “On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “human nature changed.” Individual artists were suddenly granted the freedom to design the arc of their own lives. Collectively, this freedom inspired the consistent period aesthetic that we call modernism. In 1911, Gropius returned to his architectural practice and, with a partner, designed an astonishing building: the Fagus orthopedic shoe-last factory, in Lower Saxony, one of the greatest buildings of early modernism. Its shimmering glass curtain wall, a feature that later became essential to Bauhaus design, brought together everything Gropius loved. It made a factory feel as dignified as a cathedral, expressing the near-holiness of modern work. Like the radically inventive poems and paintings of the era, it synthesized new materials and methods in ways that somehow felt classical, as though art had leapfrogged over the nineteenth century, the sentimental world of Gropius’s childhood.
But this fresh start was a false start. In 1914, Gropius’s regiment was called up just days after the onset of the First World War and sent into combat in the Vosges Mountains. In a single hour of fighting, early in the war, eighty of the three hundred men in his unit were killed. Gropius was wounded, and was decorated for his valor, but for decades he suffered flashbacks of a grenade explosion. On furloughs, he struggled to manage his professional and personal affairs. In 1915, he and Alma were married, and she gave birth to a daughter the following year. In 1918, a son was born prematurely and died within months. The child’s father, Gropius discovered, was the poet Franz Werfel.