It seems that finally our Designer of the Week series has led us to the source, the one person that started it all (at least at the Bauhaus). Walter Gropius is, to many people, the patriarch of European modernist design, and there are many reasons why, so let’s start digging.
Walter Adolph Georg Gropius was born in 1883 in Berlin, at the height of the German Empire. There’s a much-repeated legend which states that, ironically, the master architect could not draw very well. He founded the Bauhaus school in 1919, nonetheless, and became one of the great four of modernist architecture, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Early life, development, and works
Gropius was born to a German aristocratic family. His mother was the daughter of a Prussian leader, so he didn’t have much of a craftsman upbringing, as many of his peers at the Bauhaus did. It is also said that he employed paid assistants in school to help him with his homework when he started studying architecture, and he would continue to do this throughout his early years, until those drawings became realized into everlasting architectural projects.
In 1908, after completing four educational semesters, he joined the workshop of Peter Behrens, where he met Mies and Le Corbusier. The first buildings he worked on started shaping the modernist idea of form following function: the notion that the building itself was not created out of a standard ideal, but rather a marriage between its intended purposes and the design of its interiors and its façade.
Gropius famously dealt with photography over this period, and he wrote articles and treaties that showcased his vision for the future of all kinds of design. Le Corbusier’s book, “Towards a New Architecture,” is heavily influenced by Gropius’ writings and postulates, according to some historians.
He established his own studio in 1910, at 27 years old, and began working on many projects until World War I came to Europe in 1914. Gropius served in the war as a sergeant major at the Western Front. He was already a famous architect at this point, so he was appointed master of the Weimar Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in 1919. The spirit of this school did not entice or excite him, and after writing a manifesto he would shed the lengthy name and transform the campus into a one-word wonder: The Bauhaus.
The legacy of Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus and in furniture
Some of you might be wondering something important at this point: this article is about an architect, but we usually talk about furniture. Did Gropius ever designed a chair? The answer is yes, he did, naturally, but his furniture designs are usually overshadowed by the grandiose title of Bauhaus founder, teacher, and architect.
Walter Gropius famously designed a set of door handles, which don’t really count as furniture, but give us a sense of his outlook on interior design. Truth be told, he might be one of the Bauhaus pioneers that was less concerned with furniture. He usually left that job to other nascent, genius artists, like his pupil Marcel Breuer, and his other Bauhaus peers.
However, he did come up with a chair design that, ironically, is not as popular as those by Le Corbusier, Mies, Reich, Breuer, etcetera. He seemed to have an affinity for bulky, padded objects, immortalized on his F51 director’s chair from 1920, and the accompanying F51/2 sofa. We can also name his D51 chair and couch, significantly more flattened in shape, but still unequivocally his own. These designs were inspired by the basics of Cubism, a form of art he deeply admired.
No 600-word article could ever do justice to the legacy of Walter Gropius, but any introduction is good when it manages to remind the world of his existence. As he famously said, anyway: “if your contribution has been vital, there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.”