Bauhaus: design or dogma?

When the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus, they made a martyr of an idealistic institution. But has the

Now that the Bauhaus is merely the most influential design movement of the last century, what are we to make of its legacy? Without the Bauhaus and its doctrine of gute Form, preached and applied not by engineers or businessmen but crucially by artists, there would have been no ubiquity of flat-roofed buildings, of smooth white Braun kitchen appliances, of Habitat's ageless modernity. Without the Bauhaus, it would not be the case that eight out of ten of Germany's largest companies use Helvetica as their corporate typeface.

I never met any of the Bauhaus masters, it was that long ago. But more than a decade back, I did meet Dieter Rams, the director of design at Braun, who is one of the numerous living links with the Bauhaus tradition still practising in Germany, and perhaps its best known spiritual heir, combining as he does a career in design, architecture and, above all, teaching. After a morning's interview at his home on the Frankfurt housing estate he designed, Rams, lubricated by Scotch and cigarettes, drove us in his black Porsche 911 to lunch at a local Italian restaurant in the suburbs, one of those ones with fishing nets draped from the ceiling and Chianti bottle candle-holders on the tables. The great German functionalist was greeted as an old friend. He loved it there.

The Bauhaus mythology similarly seems to have separated its heroes from the contradiction of their humanity. As this magazine's one-time jazz critic Eric Hobsbawm notes in Age of Extremes, his history of the 20th century, the Bauhaus faculty posed on one occasion for photographs with a saxophone. Its members were not so prim and robotic as we tend to think.

Eighty years on, Walter Gropius's manifesto reads more than ever like the Morris and Ruskin whom he cites: "We perceive every form as the embodiment of an idea, every piece of work as a manifestation of our innermost selves. Only work which is the product of inner compulsion can have spiritual meaning." Whether or not the products of the Bauhaus achieved this exalted aim, we may now judge for ourselves. Currently on exhibition at the Design Museum is the later work produced within the famous blocky glass complex that Gropius designed for the Bauhaus upon its government-forced removal from Weimar to Dessau in 1925. Many of the pieces have never been seen outside Germany.

What now seems to us the coherent legacy of a homogenous programme only began to come together with the move to Dessau. Before this time, there had been friction between the pure and applied arts, arguments over the agenda of the new institution, and rivalries among the international coterie of artist-teachers. The period of stability was short-lived, too. Gropius resigned in 1928, triggering a creative brain drain. The founding artists gave way to more technocratic leaders who aimed not to capitulate to the machine but to design for it and with it appropriately. But the designs were generally craft-made and rarely got beyond the prototype stage. The focus was traditional genres such as furniture, lighting and tableware, not refrigerators, telephones and gramophone players. Gropius's essay in car design, produced after he had left the Bauhaus, was derivative and conventional, hardly inspired by the principles he had inculcated. Many of these items - most notably Marianne Brandt's lamps - still look startlingly modern, at least at first glance. Closer examination reveals shortcomings in finishes and assembly technique that betray the period and the low-volume production.

It is clear that the Bauhaus succeeded in its aim of producing not a new style but a methodological approach. Few works evince the clear signature of an individual creator. Even a Bauhaus signature is hard to characterise. The Bauhaus output was often drearily didactic and subsumed by collectivist ideals, especially in these later years. But there were giant achievements. The steel-framed cantilevered chairs of Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are still unsurpassed in their ability to produce a thrill and, though this came long after the demise of the Bauhaus, in their ubiquity. But the Bauhaus building itself is not the icon one might expect. This is undoubtedly partly because it has been so hard to get to see it for most of its existence. Now refurbished, designated as a World Heritage Site, and accessible following German reunification, it has at last become a site of pilgrimage. But Gropius's design seems self-effacing in any case and unusually resistant to the replication that afflicts admired buildings. On this occasion, it really was the idea that was taken up.

Trends in other countries show that there was nothing inevitable about the path trodden by the Bauhaus. Their design movements - Art Deco, Constructivism, De Stijl, Futurism - were very different, and tended to be essentially superficial or reliant on individual heroes. As the Bauhausler settled into their Dessau home, one Harley Earl at General Motors was preparing to launch the brash age of tail fins onto an unsuspecting American public. (Here there was only Bloomsbury and suspicion. The fact that architecture of this period is routinely termed Art Deco even when it is plainly inspired by Bauhaus ideas is sufficient indication as to which of the two continental evils we prefer.)

So it is fair to see the Bauhaus as a national movement despite its eclectic staff line-up. It continued the work of the Deutscher Werkbund which attempted to raise the standard of design in German industry until the outbreak the First World War. Bauhaus artists even designed some of the Weimar-era banknotes. The reductivism that led to the geometry of Bauhaus design had surprisingly traditional origins. Wassily Kandinsky's class, for example, began with still-life drawing, and it was from the natural forms of the subjects that students were encouraged to extract pure forms. Herbert Bayer espoused similar reductivism in typography, and it was not coincidental that it was German speakers who spawned this dogma; the language was saddled with its Gothic script and the convention of capitalising nouns. But "why should we write and print with two alphabets?" Bayer demanded.

It was Hitler who gave licence for the Bauhaus to be recast as the universal and inevitable face of design. At a stroke, he created an idealistic martyr, a movement stifled young enough for disaffection not to have bred, and branded as not German - indeed, as un-German. The dispersed designers seeded the idea widely. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy set up the New Bauhaus in Chicago and several of his colleagues largely remodelled American design education. After the war Max Bill, another Bauhaus refugee, established a design school in Ulm that reasserted the rule of gute Form - Dieter Rams is still its most famous graduate.

If Hitler's design consultants, Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, had been Bauhaus graduates, we would view the legacy rather differently. (It is not an impossible exercise to imagine fascism and modernism reconciled. The Italians managed it, but Hitler could not stomach the idea of traditional German Christmas trees in glass houses, and his party wanted to see a pitched roof put on top of the Bauhaus itself.) But as matters turned out, the Bauhaus and Ulm schools exerted unprecedented international influence. It is an accident of history that an essentially German tradition now shapes the global designs of corporations from Philips to Sony.

There is a seldom noticed but uncanny parallel between design and music. In music, too, the Germanic tradition became the norm. At the end of the 19th century, national music took shape in other countries largely in reaction against the dominance of Wagner. The Bauhaus, of course, offered its own version of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, marrying art and craft, architecture and design. This normative tradition continued as the Second Viennese School, around the time of the Bauhaus itself, and then Darmstadt, contemporary with Ulm, occupied the intellectual high ground.

Unlike composers, designers have been reluctant to articulate alternatives to this norm. Few think to question why it is that the Bauhaus tradition still holds sway or whether it should continue to do so. There have been fitful attempts by designers to create alternatives, but these have not seen the success of the music of Debussy or Copland or even the English cow-pat school. One reason may be that designers fear creating merely nationalistic kitsch. There is plenty of this in music as well. But composers have shown that they can do better than this. Music has broken the yoke and gained new riches. Who knows what creative possibilities lie untapped if design were able to do the same?

"Bauhaus Dessau" is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 4 June