Ghosts in the Bauhaus: Glimpsing the human face behind modernism’s mask

THE Barbican’s new Bauhaus exhibition is full of ghosts. These early twentieth-century disciples of modernism are renowned for furniture as coolly perfect as an equation, but it is the human messiness of achievement that haunts every room. A chair that takes the breath away is posed between half-finished student exercises, invitations to parties and dozens of photographs of the German design school’s members eating, playing and working. It’s a reminder that permanent achievement – in design and elsewhere – is never a sterile process, but a living conversation between creative minds as they grapple with their materials.

London today is blessed with its own thriving design community. It’s true that there’s a good pinch of self-congratulation in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s retrospective of modern British design. In an Olympic year, what else can you expect? But we have real reason to be proud of what our designers are achieving today. And I don’t just mean Sir Jony Ive’s iconic work for Apple. Thanks to the community of talent in London, government commissions that could be expected to produce the stodgy, the anaemic and the ephemeral are proving revelations.

Take Thomas Heatherwick, my favourite modern designer. His studio has the first big solo exhibition of its work at the V&A this summer too – and it’s well-deserved. Heatherwick is responsible for taking Boris Johnson’s pledge of a new Routemaster and living up to the old masterpiece. His contemporary response adds a swirling ribbon of glass, opening up the twin stairways and bringing a touch of delight to our everyday streets. The handful of new buses in service deserves to grow. Heatherwick is also responsible for this summer’s Olympic cauldron, and no doubt it will be as provoking and original as the rest of his work.

But we don’t have to rely on one man for inventive design, as the Barber Osgerby Olympic torch has already demonstrated. The Duchess of Cambridge’s outfits for last weekend’s Jubilee – and both the Middleton sisters’ dresses at last year’s Royal Wedding – proved that despite the loss of Alexander McQueen’s irreplaceable talent, Sarah Burton could keep his fashion brand in rude health.

It is the creative imagination of individuals like Burton and Heatherwick that brings life to design. The students at the Bauhaus were often politically naive. Towards the end of the Barbican show, there’s a series of “plans for a socialist city”, where the school’s stripped-down industrial aesthetic ends in a terrible reductio ad absurdum of identikit, inhuman blocks. The movement itself was crushed in the end by Adolf Hitler’s national socialism. Their most elegant visions live on, and we owe a great deal to them, but there are dangers in industrial chic too. Neither design’s consumers nor its producers are machines, and despite the geometric charms of a chilly beauty the best work reminds us that it is made by individuals, for individuals.

First published: City A.M., 8/6/12

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Filed under Art, Human nature, Innovation, Olympics

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