Collecting Bauhaus design

The school’s ethos of “total work of art” meets “designs for everyday life” is chiming with contemporary design enthusiasts, says Jenny Dalton

Late-1920s wool, cotton and cellophane Gunta Stölzl tapestry, sold by Christie’s for £33,650
Late-1920s wool, cotton and cellophane Gunta Stölzl tapestry, sold by Christie’s for £33,650

“Everything modern goes back to the Bauhaus,” says Magnus Englund, co-founder of design store Skandium. “It spread to cultures all around the world.” Little wonder, then, that Bauhaus furniture continues to make a striking impression in today’s homes.

Englund lives in the penthouse of the Isokon building in Hampstead, north London, the iconic concrete apartment block that housed Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, two of the leading figures of the Bauhaus design school, when they fled Nazi Germany. Today, the building that was once a hub of avant‑garde design activity – Breuer designed the onsite Isobar restaurant, whose regulars included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, while Jack Pritchard, one of the building’s founders, collaborated with residents on the Isokon furniture brand – is host to Englund’s Isokon Gallery, showing Breuer’s 1930s furniture designs and celebrating the Bauhaus connection to the UK. Englund’s personal Bauhaus-related collection, meanwhile, comprises Breuer furniture, and includes a letter from Gropius accepting an architectural commission in the UK.

c1925 chrome, steel and wood wardrobe, €4,600 from Zeitlos 20th Century Objects
c1925 chrome, steel and wood wardrobe, €4,600 from Zeitlos 20th Century Objects

Staatliches Bauhaus, to give the arts and crafts school its full name, was founded by architect Gropius in Weimar in 1919, moving to Dessau, then Berlin, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was director, before closing in 1933. Its spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) put furniture, textiles, photography, metalwork and ceramics on an equal footing with painting – like the works of its teachers Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

Fortunately, prices for Bauhaus design today aren’t equal to a Kandinsky or Klee. While at the upper end of the scale are Mies van der Rohe’s rare one-offs from the 1920s, which easily reach €250,000, Breuer’s mass-produced furniture is much more affordable, says Catharina Hoffmann, owner of Zeitlos – Berlin gallery, who has one of his tubular console tables from the 1930s for €800. A c1925 Breuer brass-plated desk lamp, meanwhile, is on sale for €2,280 at Aimo Room in Switzerland.

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Aesthetically, the movement is known for its austere straight-lined shapes and an abundance of tubular steel, typified by Mies van der Rohe’s cantilever chairs (Kunsthandel Kolhammer has an MR 20 Weissenhof chair from 1927 for €12,500) and Mart Stam’s seating (Design Market has a Dutch S33 Thonet dining chair from the 1930s for €570). But that’s not the whole picture; Gropius discouraged the idea of a Bauhaus “style”, and the cool and minimal often give way to soft and colourful.

Breuer’s and Mies van der Rohe’s chairs, for example, were made in tactile cane as well as black leather, while at German dealer Zeitlos 20th Century Objects a c1925 Bauhaus wardrobe (€4,600) combines a signature steel base with eye‑catching pistacchio-green lacquer. And although many of the designers embraced mass production, forging relationships with manufacturers such as Thonet (which continues to produce the designs of Breuer, Stam and Mies van der Rohe), most items were handmade – from Marianne Brandt’s metalwork to the graphic textiles of Anni Albers.

1927 steel and fabric Ludwig Mies van der Rohe MR 20 Weissenhof chair, €12,500 from Kunsthandel Kolhammer
1927 steel and fabric Ludwig Mies van der Rohe MR 20 Weissenhof chair, €12,500 from Kunsthandel Kolhammer

However, handmade pieces by big names, prewar ones in particular, are notoriously hard to source (not helped by two museums opening to celebrate the movement’s centenary in 2019). Collectors of the likes of Brandt have to wait “extended periods for the right calibre to come to the market”, says Jeremy Morrison, Christie’s European head of 20th-century decorative arts. “And given the vital position and influence of Bauhaus within the development of 20th-century design, demand for it is set to continue.”

But less obvious names also offer work “of an incredibly high standard”, says Catherine Ince, co-curator of the 2012 Barbican exhibition on the Bauhaus. One of her favourites is Wilhelm Wagenfeld, co-creator of an opaque glass globe table lamp with a chrome stem that sits in MoMA’s permanent collection; a 1920s version realised €56,200 at Christie’s in 2011, while a mass-produced 1930s glass vase by Wagenfeld can be found at Gallery L7 in Los Angeles for just $150. Ince also rates the textiles of Bauhaus teacher Gunta Stölzl; a patchwork-esque tapestry created under her supervision in the 1920s sold for £33,650 at Christie’s in 2008, over an estimate of £10,000-£15,000.

c1925 brass Marcel Breuer desk lamp, €2,280 from Aimo Room
c1925 brass Marcel Breuer desk lamp, €2,280 from Aimo Room

“In terms of the 20th century it’s hard to find another movement where such quality and creativity came together,” says Ince. Many of its themes chime with contemporary design concerns, including a return to the handmade and an interest in textiles.

For Monika Maria and Stefan Eller, a wine dealer and a manager in the energy industry, it’s the school’s fixation on creating accessible “designs for everyday life” that resonates. “The furniture is functional and timeless,” says Stefan. The couple live in Villa Harnischmacher II in Wiesbaden, the only surviving Breuer bungalow in Germany, which they have carefully restored, incorporating both original and reissued Bauhaus designs by Breuer. The Thonet cantilevered S64 dining chairs and S35 lounge chair complement the “clear and functional” architecture, adds Stefan. “They’re the perfect partner to our everyday lives.”

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