by Danelle Cheney
Shortly after World War I in April 1919, Das Staatliche Bauhaus—The State Home for Building—opened under the leadership of 31-year old Walter Gropius. The new Bauhaus was a merger of two existing schools: the Weimar Arts and Crafts School and the Weimar Art Academy. This marriage of applied arts and fine arts was the Bauhaus ideal.
The roots of Bauhaus thinking can be partially traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in the mid-1800s as a fear of industrialization and decline of beautiful, hand-made objects. Gropius’ aim was to train a new generation of craftsman—who were equally skilled in both aesthetics and technology—to create objects both functional and beautiful.
“The complete building is the ultimate aim of all the visual arts. Once the noblest function of the fine arts was to embellish buildings; they were indispensable components of great architecture. Today the arts exist in isolation… Architects, painters, and sculptors must learn anew the composite character of the building as an entity… The artist is an exalted craftsman.”
—The Bauhaus Manifesto, published in German newspapers, 1919
Comparison of these seals demonstrates a shift of thinking at the Bauhaus from handicraft and expression to objectivity and mechanization.
Images via Meggs’ History of Graphic Design.
In 1924, existing tensions between the Bauhaus and a new conservative government in Weimar increased, and the Bauhaus faculty and staff elected to move the school to Dessau. It was during those years (1925–1933) that the Bauhaus ideals were fully realized; De Stijl influences were present but applied in a focused, critical manner that produced logical, functional and beautiful design solutions. Furniture and dwelling designs, revisions of everyday products and communication pieces were consistently released from the Bauhaus and began to influence life in the twentieth century (and as we now know, well into the twenty-first century too). In 1926, the Bauhaus was renamed Hochschule für Gestaltung—High School for Form—and began publishing the highly regarded Bauhaus magazine.
Images via ikeafans.com and Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.
Reflecting back on that time, Gropius later said “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”
Now, let’s fast forward, but only slightly. In 1943, 17-year old Ingvar Kamprad founded Ikea—then selling pens, wallets, picture frames, table runners and other household items through mail order—at his uncle’s kitchen table.
Kamprad’s extreme attention to detail, careful finances, and meticulously crafted image of both himself and his company finds us now with over 300 Ikea locations (I know you’re wondering: they serve approximately 150 million meatballs a year) in over 40 countries. Kamprad ranks among the wealthiest individuals in the world (Ikea is now owned by a foundation, an arrangement conceived by Kamprad to ensure administrative stability and durability). This sort of business success does not happen by accident or coincidence. Does Ikea, our enormous contemporary landmark (literally) of Bauhaus ideals, truly embrace any of the philosophies that the Bauhaus strived to live?
Image via Ikea.com.
The Bauhaus is credited with originating the statement form follows function. This was a guiding philosophy for much of the work created by faculty and students in Weimar and Dassau through the 1920’s. Do Ikea’s forms follow function? Generally speaking, I’d have to say yes—Ikea products are functional (my LACK coffee table holds books and magazines nicely and without fuss), practical and logical.
Ikea is an entity that seems to inspire either love or hatred, depending on your personal tastes (also thinking of Apple; it falls in this category too). Ikea-haters generally pinpoint one characteristic that separates Ikea from the Bauhaus (or any other bastion of great design): quality. In 1995, Ikea issued a manifesto they called Democratic Design: “For us at Ikea, form, function and affordability are as indivisible a trinity as faith, hope and charity.” So here is Ikea’s completion of the Bauhaus principle: form follows function follows price.
No one can argue that Ikea has capitalized on efficiency (flat packing, for instance) and kept manufacturing costs low. Many of their products are designed by choosing a price tag first; for example, “Let’s sell a lamp for $3.00. How do we make it?” The tradeoff, of course, is less durable material—particleboard, thinner fabrics, hollow furniture pieces (that LACK coffee table of mine has been taken apart twice now, and I’m not sure it would survive a third move. Same goes for my Ikea-made desks). This is the sticking point for those who dislike Ikea.
The most successful brands are ones that fully embody a lifestyle until they’ve become synonymous with it: Apple, Disney, Mercedes, Tiffany & Co., to name a few. If you haven’t already, look through Interbrand’s Top 100 Brands of 2013. Guess who ranks in the top 50? Ah, yes… Ikea.
Ikea took a life philosophy and added the business principle that would make it the giant it is today: price. We can’t deny the success of their business philosophy (if you want to try, talk to Kamprad’s $4.2 billion): form follows function follows price. At the end of the day, that’s what Ikea is… a business.
The Bauhaus closed in 1933 due to political pressure from the Nazi party, who called the work “degenerate art.” That’s chuckle-worthy today as the Bauhaus’ influences are incredibly far-reaching; you’ve likely touched, used, seen, or bought an object whose design was directly informed by Bauhaus principles.
Should we hold successful businesses like Ikea to a higher ideal of form and function, one not driven by money? Possibly. If the motive’s not money, is it still a business? Probably not. This is not to say businesses shouldn’t carry social responsibility, and while we’re on the topic: Ikea is reasonably well-respected for helping fund education in underdeveloped countries where it’s located. We can and should expect businesses to be socially and environmentally conscious, but to do that, they must turn a profit.
I’d say that while Ikea definitely isn’t the Bauhaus, they’re doing just fine on their own terms… and that you might catch me picking up more cheap picture frames to fill with my own Bauhaus print replicas.