Bauhaus’ Josef and Anni Albers return to the design forefront

The legacy of 20th-century masters Josef and Anni Albers is stronger than ever, as threads of influence assert themselves in the work of contemporary designers. Emma Crichton-Miller reports

Anni and Josef Albers in their living room in Orange, Connecticut, in the 1970s
Anni and Josef Albers in their living room in Orange, Connecticut, in the 1970s

The visitor to the main exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale is rewarded by an explosion of colour. At the far end of the long Arsenale building in Venice’s old naval dockyard, the American artist Sheila Hicks has built a wall of giant balls of intensely coloured thread – red, yellow, blue, purple, orange – at either end of which hangs a large, red, many-layered textile artwork, like a doorway to another realm. Called Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, this barrage asserts the power of colour to move and of woven fabrics to communicate with the force of paintings or sculpture. It is also a dual homage to her great mentors Josef and Anni Albers.

Neisha Crosland Tibetan wool and silk Bamboo Trellis rug, from £1,285 per sq m
Neisha Crosland Tibetan wool and silk Bamboo Trellis rug, from £1,285 per sq m

Josef Albers is best known for his series of hundreds of paintings and prints, entitled Homage to the Square, which have become icons of modernism. Anni, meanwhile, was a pioneering weaver and printmaker – the first textile artist to be given a solo exhibition at MoMA. Josef died in 1976, Anni in 1994; their shared refusal to follow fashion meant their work and influence slipped, for a time, from view, but that is now all beginning to change.

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Over the past 10 years there has been a resurgence of interest in this formidable couple, with the thrum of admiration growing steadily to a peak. In 2012, two works by Josef, from the Homage to the Square series, soared above their estimates to achieve $1,986,500 and $2,210,500 at Christie’s, New York. At TEFAF New York this spring, another large Homage was sold by David Zwirner gallery, which now represents the Albers estate, for $2m. In 2015, Michelle Obama, a long-term admirer, installed an enormous rug based on one of Anni’s designs in the Old Family Dining Room of The White House, along with two paintings by Josef.

Eleanor Pritchard wool Canasta blanket, from £270, and wool/linen Charlock blanket, £350
Eleanor Pritchard wool Canasta blanket, from £270, and wool/linen Charlock blanket, £350

This autumn, exhibitions at the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao cast light on different aspects of their work, before a major Tate retrospective for Anni in 2018, while MoMA is reissuing under licence Josef’s 1926 Nesting tables (from about $1,800). These rectangular side tables – each slightly smaller than the next, so that they can be stacked into one neat cuboid – represent a perfect balance between the geometrically precise oak frame and the joyful lacquered colours on the glass tops: bright blue, pillar-box red, a bold yellow and pale green.

Margo Selby fabric Santa Fe cushions, from £60, and wool and cotton Iceni rug, £495
Margo Selby fabric Santa Fe cushions, from £60, and wool and cotton Iceni rug, £495

Central figures in the Weimar Bauhaus, the Albers fled Nazi Germany for the US in 1933, where they became teachers as well as artists, influencing some of the most important figures in 20th-century art. Robert Rauschenberg once said of Josef: “Albers was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person… I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it.” He did admit that, years later, “I’m still learning what he taught me, because what he taught had to do with the entire visual world.” The work of myriad artists, from Mark Rothko to Ben Nicholson, reveals his profound impact, and the Alberses’ legacy is making itself felt in modern design.

From left: MoMA is reissuing Josef Albers’ 1926 ash, glass and lacquer Nesting tables, from about $1,800; and Eleanor Pritchard wool/nylon Rowridge fabric, £126 per m
From left: MoMA is reissuing Josef Albers’ 1926 ash, glass and lacquer Nesting tables, from about $1,800; and Eleanor Pritchard wool/nylon Rowridge fabric, £126 per m

Paul Smith has been inspired by both the couple’s use of colour and their working methods, paying homage to them in a 2015 autumn menswear collection and now in a collection of rugs, handwoven wall hangings and fabrics for The Rug Company. “In the studio at Paul Smith I really encourage our designers to get off their computers sometimes and use their hands to draw and paint,” he says. “What I like with using your hands is the thrill of the mistake; when you just put something on paper and you didn’t expect it, that’s such a nice thing. Josef Albers chose his colours by playing with bits of paint on little cards and chancing upon the combinations.” Smith’s rugs Split Light and Split Bright (£940 per sq m), with their jagged triangles, and the Zig Zag cushion (£495), with its multicoloured chevron pattern, are directly reminiscent of Anni’s designs.

From left: Christopher Farr wool Homage to the Square: Less and More tapestry, £9,000, in association with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation; and Paul Smith for The Rug Company wool Zig Zag cushion, £495
From left: Christopher Farr wool Homage to the Square: Less and More tapestry, £9,000, in association with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation; and Paul Smith for The Rug Company wool Zig Zag cushion, £495

The work of Neisha Crosland also bears the mark of the Alberses’ influence. “I think it would be hard not to have been influenced by Bauhaus and the Alberses,” she says, “even if it might be subconsciously.” The hand-painted Boomerang (£21.60 each) in her Haveli tile collection for De Ferranti has affinities with Anni’s lively wit and design intelligence using simple repeated elements. As she says about her Bamboo Trellis rugs (from £1,285 per sq m) for The Rug Company, “although not directly influenced by Josef or Anni, I can now see great similarities in them to their work”.

Paul Smith for The Rug Company Tibetan wool Split Bright rug, £940 per sq m
Paul Smith for The Rug Company Tibetan wool Split Bright rug, £940 per sq m

Christopher Farr says he was first inspired to work with rugs by a visit to Peru, just as the Alberses made repeated visits to Latin America out of love for its ancient art. In 2014 he produced a range of one-off and limited edition rugs, tapestries and fabrics inspired by Josef and Anni. Examples such as the beautiful red and cream Meander, with its raised labyrinth, or the Homage to the Square range are entirely faithful to the artists’ sensibilities. The range will be extended this autumn with new wallpapers and upholstery textiles (from £95 per m) based on Anni’s designs. Michal Silver, director of Christopher Farr Cloth, says of Anni’s complex but calm patterns – such as E, with its busy triangles, Intaglio, and the delicate, maze-like Triangulated – “She is an artist whose designs are satisfying at every level: aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually.” On visiting the archive at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Silver had been struck “by how precisely she worked – going back every day to adjust the patterns until she was happy”. This is reflected in Silver’s own approach to the latest reinterpretations, in subtle colourways, of Anni’s creations: “We have tried to stay true even to the quality of the ink line in her drawings.”

Woven Movie, a series of hanging textiles that Hella Jongerius created for the Breathing Colour exhibition at London’s Design Museum
Woven Movie, a series of hanging textiles that Hella Jongerius created for the Breathing Colour exhibition at London’s Design Museum

One of the latest designers to join the Christopher Farr Cloth stable is textile artist Ismini Samanidou. Invited in 2014 to take up a residency at the Foundation, she ended up restoring Anni’s looms. Her own fine-woven, densely chromatic, monochrome designs for Cloth – Game, Tide, Traverse and Zenith (from £90 per m) – marry the mathematical logic of the weaving process with the excitement of intricate pattern-making.

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Meanwhile, the renowned designer Hella Jongerius, art director for the rug company Danskina and since 2007 art director of colours and materials for Vitra, has her own take on the Albers legacy: “When I look at designers’ and colour theorists’ work from the past, including Josef and Anni Albers, I conclude that all of these interesting ideas emerged from isolated, very personal experiences.” Earlier this year she opened the exhibition Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in London, inviting members of the public to explore their own personal experiences of colour. She adds, “The Alberses’ work is a huge inspiration for me.” Patterns for fabric (price on request) like Chroma, with its tight, pixellated weave, or Colorfield, with its staggered strips of colour, directly invoke some of Anni’s, while Colorwheel is a more playful homage to Bauhaus colour theory.

For British designer Eleanor Pritchard, Anni is an unavoidable influence: “Like every aspiring weave student, I couldn’t fail to be starstruck by her towering presence over the past century. The confidence and graphic clarity of design in her woven pieces is really inspiring.” Pritchard’s Aerial upholstery collection (Rowridge, £126 per m), with its airy linear patterns and bold contrasting colours, speaks a similar language. A number of these were used last year by Isokon Plus when it relaunched the 1936 sofa (£2,966) and armchair (£2,074) of the Alberses’ Bauhaus colleague Marcel Breuer. Several of Pritchard’s blankets (Canasta, from £270, and Charlock, £350) also owe their inspiration to Bauhaus architects such as Walter Gropius or Mies Van der Rohe, while “as for the rugs, it is probably our Purlin and Spindle designs that again have the most modernist feel”.

What fascinates weaver and textile designer Margo Selby is how Josef and Anni inspired each other. She says, “There is the aspect of mathematical precision, which you get in weaving but also see in Josef’s work.” Then, “there is the exploration of colour and proportion, how things come into the foreground or background depending upon the colour”, which is evident both in Anni’s weavings and Josef’s paintings – and which you see eminently displayed in Selby’s own intricate and tightly structured fabrics, from her distinctive, many-coloured scarves (£90) to her boldly geometric, colour-contrasted Santa Fe fabric collection (cushions, from £60). She has also begun to make framed woven artworks (from £460), with bands of colour, that show a direct lineage to Josef.

The work of artist Rebecca Salter represents a different response to the Alberses’ vision. Her sensitive, searching abstract paintings and prints evoke an elusive world beyond focused vision, constructed from many tiny marks, and are as attentive to small distinctions of line and colour as those of Josef. In 2011, Salter had a major retrospective at the Yale Center for British Art: Into the Light of Things. She has also been invited for two residencies at the Foundation, based nearby in secluded woods in Connecticut. The first time she went, she had imagined she would do a homage to Homage to the Square. In fact, she abandoned her square templates: “Josef Albers was about looking and drawing. So that is what I did.” Next year, as part of the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary celebrations, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is hosting an exhibition with the working title of Emergence, showing her pieces alongside those of Josef.

Nicholas Fox Weber, friend of the Alberses and director of the Foundation, tells me, “I have my own very personal sense of why their work is of such interest now. The Alberses created their art in response to a world gone crazy.” He suggests that in such turbulent times, we turn to “enduring sources of beauty”, adding, “If I am talking about the impact of a red on a yellow, or the interwoven threads in an Albers textile, these are universal values.” Alongside their embrace of these values ran an exhilaration in freedom and creativity. As design practice We Not I – which recently filled choreographer Wayne McGregor’s London studio with details inspired by the Alberses – puts it, “Despite appearances, Josef and Anni’s life work is less concerned with abstract perfection or formulaic finitude than with implication, possibility and chance.”

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