“While the Bauhaus is so often thought of as a story of politics triumphing over design, it is really a story of design triumphing over politics… While the fighting and politics have come and gone, the objects will remain. They are classics.”
—Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of The New York Times
“[T]he greatest responsibility of the planner and architect, I believe, is the protection and development of our habitat. Man has evolved a mutual relationship with nature on earth, but his power to change its surface has grown so tremendously that this may become a curse instead of a blessing.”
— Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus
This Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich Barcelona chair looks different from the images you may have seen captured a century ago, before we colonized our first neighbor-planet.
Knoll doesn’t exist anymore and, of course, neither does its patent on what was once one of its most expensive products. Mies did say the chair was “fit for a king.” Though he meant it quite literally, it was easy to conflate his comment with the chair’s exorbitant price tag.
Did someone give you the impression that the Bauhaus was a socialist utopia, in which the proletariat fought for the rights of common humans? You could say that the Bauhaus was fighting for the consumption power of the common human — better goods for everyone, and more of them. For a minute, when Bauhaus mystics and hippies were picking through trash for supplies, it was a bit socialist.
Politics come and go, though, only objects remain.
And now, they live forever.
Bauhaus designers found hidden value in trash, as do I. But trash isn’t what it used to be.
Everything made is required to be remade, repurposed, reused, reborn. I remade this Barcelona chair, followed its streamlines and curves (which were designed to hide in plain sight).
My new version will be shared by everyone, will last lifetimes with maintenance, and will change with your tastes. You see what you want to see in our augmented reality, but I know what I made. Its minimal materiality makes it an acceptable use of resources, according to contemporary dictates.
Using steel would be out of the question; that’s reserved for high rises and farm equipment. Instead, bamboo was grown at the edges of our shared property for five years. After harvesting, I let it dry for a week, and flattened it. I shaped it into the curved frame of the Barcelona, careful to pull pieces just the right size because nothing is waste. The chair’s straps are made of sealed polyesters, recycled and treated to ensure not a single fiber will escape into the air, water, or earth. Finally, a syntrophic mixed culture of bacteria and yeast creates the simu-leather covered cushions, which are made of natural latex. It feels like a Barcelona, but it looks like what might have been called a knock-off — almost right, but not the same.
It’s a tribute that some would argue is an improvement on the original, but I am not the designer, just a designer. The designer is long gone and not far behind was the form of consumerism that almost destroyed our home.
But you imagine your world and I just stage it. Behind the layers of reality, I experiment with materials and processes in an attempt to reverse the effects of the Anthropocene era.
The frameworks that guide what I do are based on what’s best for the environment, with a modicum of consideration for what’s best for you. (You did find the Barcelona and took a seat, didn’t you?) Lead times are long, and prototyping for unintended consequences is key to moving a project forward. I measured the environmental impact of cutting back the bamboo, treating the polyesters, and growing the bacteria and yeast before making this one classic thing a reality.
Today, creating something new is rare.
Today’s designer is usually a resetter — we repair and replace, ensuring a closed loop. Most of what we make aren’t things at all. Usually, they are anti-things — ways of cutting out what someone else created that is breaking apart the world around us.
Once upon a time, the consequences of every little thing were sneaky, out there in the open, so inconspicuous. Now, every little thing is transparent — objects and consequences alike.
In 2019, we at Illinois Tech celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, together with institutions worldwide. In the spirit of this celebration and IIT Institute of Design’s (ID’s) heritage as the New Bauhaus, student group mediaID produced a Bauhaus newsletter. A collection written, photographed, designed, and curated by students at ID and Illinois Tech, in the newsletter students reflect on the influence of the Bauhaus, examining its relevance and impact today while also looking toward the future.
This project was sponsored by Chicago’s Goethe-Institut. ID students also collaborated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where students created a companion newsletter.