As one of the founders of the great Bauhaus school in Germany, Walter Gropius was one of the most influential modern furniture designers worldwide. Known as the Bauhaus School of Building, Gropius founded the school in 1919 and its influence spread internationally as the modernist techniques the school espoused impacted contemporary furniture design worldwide.
The school was planned to teach art/design, engineering and economics. It originally consisted of the merger of the Weimar Art Academy and The Weimar Arts & Crafts School
Ironically enough, Gropius couldn’t draw and early on required collaborators and partner-interpreters to help present his designs. The son of an architect, Gropius got his education at the Technical Universities in Munich and Berlin. When Gropius founded the great school of Bauhaus in Weimar, modernism was already having a strong influence on modern furniture design. Gropius’ goal was “to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.”
Gropius believed that despite modern manufacturing techniques and the use of mass production, an artist could still create modern furniture that was not only pleasant to look at but also served form and function.
Prior to the founding of Bauhaus, design had been primarily dictated by a much greater ornamentation due to influence from the Catholic Church, but as modern technology began to influence how contemporary furniture such as beds and chairs were created, it changed. Furniture became a little more utilitarian, less ornamented and definitely shaped differently as modern furniture designers began to experiment more with shape, color, design and materials. What Gropius was looking to do in the mid to late 1920s as his designs evolved was to combine art with form, but on a mass scale. As the Bauhaus school gained influence and more and more designers began to spread their influence worldwide, political influences moved the school to Dessau Germany, where top contemporary furniture designers such as Marcel Breuer worked as instructors. In 1933, the Berlin campus of Bauhaus was forced to close under Nazi rule in Germany, but by then, it was already too late as the influence of Walter Gropius and his peers had already made its way to Chicago.
This explosion was profoundly impacted by the availability of new materials, in particular the tubular steel, flat steel as well as other metals, plastics and fiberglass that afforded contemporary furniture designers the ability to create unique pieces never before though of that were light, modern, airy and easier to work with than the large wieldy pieces of furniture previously created in wood.
Bauhaus’ influence and contribution was greater nowhere than in furniture designs. As noted above, Breuer who designed the famous Cantilever chair and the Wassily chair. But after the school dissolved in 1933, Gropius fled Nazi Germany to Britain where he worked with the infamous Isokon group before leaving for the United States. At the Isokon Group, Gropius joined Breuer and others in modern design projects, here Gropius created the aluminum waste paper basket and the side table GT2.
Gropius then went to Massachusetts where, despite his dislike of the term, international modernism began to influence American design. Here Gropius and Breuer taught at Harvard Graduate School of Design.
It was here that Gropius worked predominantly on large scale architecture projects before his death in 1969 at age 86.