Evolution of Design in Germany in the Late XIX and Early XX Centuries

Issue #3 • 1579

Zukhra Rakhmatova,
Art Critic

In the history of art and design the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development and formation of the major Modernist currents that played an important role in the cultural, political and social life of Europe.  The contemporary concept of design originated from the industrialization era that first began in England in the early 19th century and then later in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many new technologies were developed during that period.  Over time, people began to move away from established traditions, which showed primarily in art where avant-garde and Expressionism prevailed (8).  Modernist trends influenced the contemporary concept of design, suggesting a close relationship between design and pictorial art.  The period in question is considered the time of mechanization and machine-building, the era of world fairs (Weltausstellungen) and international competition. (Der Glaspalast, London; Die Eiffelturm, Paris).

34At the start of industrialization in Europe, manufactured goods featured some ornamentation (combinations of different patterns without semantic concept; no novelty) and were made ​​of cheap, low quality materials, thus triggering a reform in design that was often associated with different movements seeking to improve living conditions. Thus, the manufacturing industry’s objective was to make products ordinary people could afford. However, the well-to-do Europeans, on the contrary, demanded aesthetically wrought ​​product that could not be selling well enough to the masses. Economy and trade pursued sales of competitive product in the international markets.
Background of Design Development in Germany
The initial situation in the 19th century Europe was the dominance of historicism and old styles: gothic, romantic, classical… In contrast to this trend, in the second half of the 19th century a movement knows as Arts and Crafts began to evolve, founded by William Morris. He was an artist and critic, sided with socialists and opposed industrial mass production (4). He was also one of the first environmental activists (6). Morris, together with his friend, art theorist John Ruskin, developed a new theory. Morris believed that mass production results in low-quality product, social problems and environmental pollution, as well as aesthetic and social disruptions. To deal with these issues, he initiated a reform in the art domain, whereby, in his view, applied arts and crafts were to take utility objects to a high aesthetic standard. He also argued against excessive historicism, advocating clearly formulated shapes made of natural materials instead (5).
Many artist guilds embraced this theory as a model. As a result, innovatively engineered objects came into everyday use (5). The Arts and Crafts movement produced a strong influence on other art movements in Germany, such as Jungendstil, Werkbund and Bauhaus (6).
From 1895 until the World War I, Jungendstil, or Art Nouveau, was an international movement that went under different names. In England it was popularly known as Decorative Style, in Belgium and France as Art Nouveau, and in Germany the name was derived from the Jugend magazine title (6). Jungendstil popularized jewellery shaped as stylized plants, particularly lily and nenuphar flowers loaded with symbolism (4).
Jungendstil centres in Germany were Munich, Darmstadt and Weimar. In Munich, the group was founded in 1892 in protest against official Academy art. The group’s endeavours resulted in the emergence of furniture and architecture design. Jungendstil artists made drawings for Simplicissimus, a then popular political satire magazine.
In Weimar, the group was created in 1902 by a Belgian architect and artist Henry van de Velde who later on founded the Saxon-Weimar School of Applied Arts (6).
Overall, Jungendstil was a progressive artistic current. Many Modernist designers defied industrial manufacturing and realized themselves in crafts.
Deutscher Werkbund was a German association of artist, architects, designers, and industrialists based in Munich that partnered with product manufacturers such as the Dresden Craftsmen Workshops. This facilitated the departure from decorativeness in favour of functionalism, and a focus on streamlined, pure design that was extra-temporal and regime-independent (4). Important for the group was the work of one of its founders, Richard Riemerschmid, an architect, artist and critic, as well as of the renowned founder of modern industrial architecture Peter Behrens. Eventually, Werkbund went through a conflict over standardization versus individualization, which pushed the German Werkbund to the brink of dissent. In subsequent years, increased standardization led to a stronger functionalism. Therefore, the German Werkbund is regarded as a bridge between Jungendstil and Art Nouveau. It strongly influenced contemporary industrial design.
Bauhaus. As early as during the World War I, anti-capitalist Walter Gropius, who fought in it as a soldier, abandoned the idea of industrial manufacturing that drove the German Werkbund (5). After the war, Gropius founded a training institution – the centre of art consultancy for industry, commerce and crafts (6). In 1919 a Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar through the merger of the Saxon-Weimar School of Fine Arts and the Saxon-Weimar School of Applied Arts founded by Henry van de Velde. The job of directing the new school was given to Walter Gropius, a young architect from Berlin, who right from the start invited a galaxy of artists to teach at Bauhaus: among them were the Swiss artist Johannes Itten, American artist Lyonel Feininger, and sculptor Gerhard Marcks. From that moment the Bauhaus school became a symbol of art reform and the synthesis of arts (1). Following its curriculum, the first year students studied theoretical fundamentals and at least one craft. Not only applied artists taught at Bauhaus; the school also engaged prominent expressionists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (7). In 1923 an argument between Gropius and Itten resulted in the school restructuring. Itten leaves Bauhaus, and its expressionist phase comes to the end. Itten was substituted by the Hungarian constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy, who led a metalworking studio and taught a pre-entry course at Bauhaus.
35In the beginning of 1925, on the initiative of Lord Mayer Fritz Nesse, Head of Dessau municipal council, Bauhaus moves to Dessau to function as a municipal school. Gropius announces a new program that asserts the dominant role of industry and science in design. In June, Bauhaus published its first book, Bauhausbuher, authored by Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Already by autumn, Bauhaus Co. Ltd released its commercial products. In October 1926 Bauhaus received official accreditation from the Dessau government, and its staff was awarded professorships. Thus, Bauhaus became known as the School of Design, with curriculum now corresponding to that of a university (5).
In 1932, Bauhaus ceases to operate in Dessau, yet Ludwig Mies van der Rohe maintains the Bauhaus tradition in a private institution in Berlin, which counted only 14 students by the winter semester. Wassily Kandinsky, Anni Albers, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Reich and Peterhans still remained in the teaching staff.
The Bauhaus idea of the functional design was to be consistently developed in the United States. The German Bauhaus school left a remarkable footprint in the evolution of design in all areas, with some of its elements relevant to this day (1).
Thus, the key design development milestones in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were set by design schools such as Jungendstil, Werkbund and Bauhaus that played a major role in shaping contemporary design. During that period, design followed two evolutionary paths: the rejection of artificial solutions and the dominance of naturalness; and the use of new technologies in manufacturing. This, in turn, resulted in the use of functional design in industry, and in attaining both high quality workmanship and aesthetics of industrial products. That was the time when contemporary design was taking shape in Germany and in other West European countries.

1. Bauhaus Archive Berlin. The Bauhaus Collection. Berlin, 2010.
2. Bernhard E. Bürdek. Design. Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis der Produkt-gestaltung. Schweiz, 2005.
3. Cambell Joan. The German Werkbund. USA, Princeton university press, 1978.
4. Eckstein Hans. Formgebung des Nützlichen. Marginalien zur Geschichte und Theorie des Design. Düsseldorf, 1985.
5. Charlotte &Peter Fiell. Design des 20.Jahrhundert. Köln, 2013.
6. Hauffe Thomas. Design. Köln, 1995.
7. Morteo Enrico. Design-Atlas – von 1850 bis heute. Dumont, 2009.
8. Read Herbert. Kunst und Industrie. Hatje, Stuttgart, 1934.

Pin It

Comments are closed.