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One hundred years of Bauhaus in colour

An anniversary year packed with celebrations is now behind us, and during this time, the way the Bauhaus has been viewed has broadened considerably. A more wide-ranging look back makes it clear once again that the Bauhaus was an approach and not a style. Contemporary design linked to the Bauhaus is often based on the guiding creative principles of that period, such as “form follows function” and “less is more”.

The "Meisterhaus" Paul Klee / Wassily Kandinsky in Dessau.

The "Meisterhaus" Paul Klee / Wassily Kandinsky in Dessau. Photo: Uwe Jacobshagen

Its colour scheme is associated with black and white as well as primary colours. In architecture, too, we now refer to houses built in “Bauhaus style”, limiting the originally complex design ideas to white cubes with flat roofs. True Bauhaus architecture was by no means “white” – instead, it was distinctly colourful, as can be seen in the interiors of the restored Masters’ Houses in Dessau, among other examples.

The holistic communication of colour at the Bauhaus

Colour played an important role in Bauhaus theory in general, and it was firmly rooted in the classroom. In his preliminary course, Johannes Itten brought together various colour theories and taught his students about the subjective experience of colour combined with the objective fundamental laws of colour perception. The colour theory he developed at the Bauhaus still represents an important foundation in design theory as well as in art classes.

In his elementary classes on form, Wassily Kandinsky taught design on the basis of geometry, colour theory and composition theory. In his course on mural painting, for example, he had his students explore questions of craftsmanship and the psychological effects of colour on the walls of the workshop rooms. It was a holistic approach to design using colour, form and material within a space, which is unfortunately rarely ever taught in this way today.

Colour and material in the weaving workshop

Geometric fabric design by Anni Albers i

Geometric fabric design by Anni Albers in a new edition. Photo: Designtex

During Germany’s Weimar Republic – the name given to the period after the First World War and contemporaneous with the Bauhaus – it was normal practice for architects to also arrange the textile furnishings in their buildings. Just like the colour scheme and choice of materials, fabrics were also part of the overall concept, and so the weaving studio at the Bauhaus, led by its "master of form", Johannes Itten, became one of its most successful workshops. Here the students experimented with material and colour and transferred the principles of the colour and form theory they had been taught onto the loom. Anyone who saw the Anni Albers exhibition in Düsseldorf's K20 was able to witness for themselves the sensuality and openness to experimentation evident in her textile artworks. Together with her husband, the Bauhaus master Josef Albers, she explored abstraction at various levels throughout her life. However, she often stood in the shadow of her famous partner, who gained world renown thanks to his groundbreaking studies on the subject of colour.

The decoration of the Masters’ Houses

Like other Bauhaus artists, Anni and Josef Albers lived in the Masters’ Houses residential development in Dessau, which was seen by the Bauhaus as a kind of experimental laboratory for a new way of living. Today the houses are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. In 1926, the colour designer Alfred Arndt developed a colour plan for the Masters’ Houses that envisaged pastel shades for the exterior walls – pale yellow, pink and light grey. According to his colour scheme, the cubes’ overhangs, window reveals, downpipes and railings would have been painted in contrasting vibrant reds and blues. Walter Gropius, however, did not realise Arndt’s colour scheme and had the façades of the houses painted a chalky white instead.

The interiors were designed by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Georg Muche and Oskar Schlemmer. The aim was to use colour not only as a decorative element, but to emphasise the spatial effect of the buildings through the choice of colour. For example, the colour scheme in the Kandinsky/Klee semi-detached house shows the colour palettes typically used by the two artists and creates the effect of a three-dimensional painting in the room. In their restored form, the two halves of their semi-detached house are now connected to each other, so that the artists’ approach can be compared with different colour schemes in identical spatial situations.

Finishes and details

The Feininger house also used more than 40 different colour shades, with the result that every room was individually designed in terms of both colour scheme and finish. Details such as skirting boards, wall cupboards, doors, windows and window reveals were all considered design elements. In the stairwells, sometimes even the handrails, balustrade panelling, treads and risers were painted in distinct colours to give even more expression to movement in this part of the house. The rooms have a special effect on us today for various reasons, including the fact that the walls were largely finished with glaze techniques, which, in contrast to a monochrome coat of paint, convey a completely different depth of colour.

The careful renovation work has revealed that up to seven layers of paint were applied using the distemper technique as a result of various colour schemes – apparently, the masters experimented a little until they achieved the appropriate colour harmonies. Historical data was used to analyse and recreate the shades in terms of their pigmentation and binder composition; they were then applied in such a way that the brush marks and unevenness typical of the period remain visible.

Linking the rooms

The colour scheme in the houses was skilfully used to create a visual link between the rooms, some of which are quite small, resulting in a fluid transition from one room to the next. Another wonderful example of a continuum of space created by colour is the Haus Auerbach (also known as W33) in Jena. Walter Gropius’ plans for this house, which he developed in collaboration of Adolf Mayer and Alfred Arndt, actually pre-date the design of the Masters’ Houses in Dessau. The colour scheme devised by Alfred Arndt also incorporates structural details. He does not use primary colours in his concept, but rather veiled colours and pastel shades, resulting in a “soft” colour composition, which is contrasted with strong shades where accentuation is required.

The colour scheme here extends beyond the confines of the individual rooms, with changes in colour not always occurring at the edges of the room, but also within individual surfaces. Decoration of the ceilings and walls includes exciting combinations of pink, dove grey, pastel blue, light turquoise and olive green, without the architecture appearing weighed down. These colour tones provide a wonderful background for the minimalist design language of the Bauhaus furniture. The effect of the combination is to intensify the experience of space.

The colour palettes and atmosphere of all of these spaces are remarkably timeless and will continue to inspire us for the next 100 years ... It was for good reason that Walter Gropius said: “Multicoloured is my favourite colour.”

A guest commentary by Julia Hausmann, FARBARCHITEKTUR.