Many of today's "must have" modern furniture classics originated on the drawing boards of Bauhaus staff and students. Even the archetypal modern home — with its flat roof and walls of glass — saw its first incarnation at the German art school, whose existence lasted a meagre, if turbulent, 14 years. The Bauhaus has influenced the whole nature of modern visual culture around the world, from its art to its architecture, by way of design.
A driving force behind what became known as modernism was the aftermath of the First World War. At the Bauhaus, the challenge wasn't simply to design things, but to change society, to find a new way of living.
Surprisingly, there has been no major British exhibition on this most influential of design movements since the Royal Academy held a show in 1968. For this reason, Bauhaus: Art as Life, at the Barbican, is long overdue.
With more than 400 works, the exhibition features architecture, furniture, product design, textiles, ceramics, painting, sculpture, film, photography, graphics and theatre.
The Bauhaus school, founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, called for greater synthesis between the arts and technology, with fine artists, craftspeople and architects working together to create a universal design language.
The teaching was workshop based. Students weren't taught theoretically, they learned on the job by designing and making real products, though at the beginning links with industry were few and faltering. The school needed manufacturing partnerships to escape from state financial — and therefore political —control, so the Bauhaus became its own best customer. Masters and students commissioned items for their own homes, such as the Wassily chair designed by Marcel Breuer for Wassily Kandinsky, a teacher.
The school itself also placed significant orders with students — the Bauhaus's canteen had crockery designed and made in its pottery workshop. Products were designed for mass production but only a few were actually made in large numbers. Most were one-off handmade items, some crudely executed. Ironically, the Bauhaus is often accused of being a slave to the machine with an unsympathetic use of materials.
It had a few middle-class private clients, such as Adolf Sommerfeld, whose house was designed by Gropius in 1922. Sommerfeld owned a sawmill and his home and its contents featured wood and joinery, rather than the glass and steel of later Bauhaus buildings. Objects from the house are on show at the Barbican, as are pieces from the school's first showcase exhibition in 1923.
Then came the Haus am Horn, a new ideal house furnished by the school — the first practical example of new living in Germany. In 1925, after the school was closed by its local funders, it moved to a custom-built campus in Dessau.
This included accommodation for staff and students all designed by Gropius, with furniture and fittings by Breuer and his students. The excitement of experiment and process came through as students played with materials, forms, colours and techniques.
The Bauhaus aesthetic is often seen as rather sterile and masculine, but there was considerable investigation of pattern and form, especially by the female students. Women were channelled by Gropius into the textile workshop — they should not do heavy lifting, he said. The textiles by designers such as Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers remain electrifying, and some of the most exciting metalware, which is still in production, was designed by Marianne Brandt.
When Gropius left, architect Hannes Meyer took over as director, but was eventually forced out for his alleged Bolshevik sympathies and replaced by the rather autocratic and austere Mies van der Rohe, a proponent of the most refined glass-and-steel architecture and creator of the now ubiquitous Barcelona chair. He turned a movement concerned with all aspects of design and making into a school of architecture with workshops attached.
More general production activities were abandoned. The Bauhaus no longer acted as manufacturer or contractor and discarded its former interest in social issues. It moved to Berlin, but was forced to close in 1933 when the authorities refused to allow the employment of Jews.
In its 14 years the school had a prolific output. Its influence was, ironically, in part due to the National Socialist Party, which hated the Bauhaus and its Jews and Socialists. The Bauhaus diaspora it created ensured the dissemination of the school's views and ethos around the globe. The influence on today's designers will be clear in an associated exhibition, Bauhaus Live, at the Aram Gallery (see below).
Show details - Bauhaus: Art as Life at the Barbican Art Gallery
Daily 11am to 8pm (Wednesday until 6pm, Thursday until 10pm) until August 12
The show is produced in co-operation with Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/Museum für Gestaltung, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau and Klassik Stiftung Weimar.
Tickets are £10 online/£12 on the door; concessions £7 online/£8 on the door. Under-12s free. Call 0845 120 7550 or visit www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery
Bauhaus Live: Aram Gallery, 110 Drury Lane, WC2
From May 18 to July 15, open Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm (Thursday until 7pm)
The Aram show brings together projects by leading architects and designers which show the influence the Bauhaus has had on their approach. In some cases the Bauhaus ethos dominates an entire project and in others it's more subtle through use of colour or proportion.
The show includes work by Eva Jiricna, Eric Parry, David Chipperfield, Stanton Williams, Jasper Morrison, Sebastian Bergne, Martino Gamper and Pia Wustenberg. Call 020 7557 7526 or visit www.thearamgallery.org
Get the Bauhaus look
* The Barbican Shop: has a selection of furniture and prints, plus specially commissioned Bauhaus-inspired jewellery by students from Central St Martins College of Art.
* The Aram Store: also at 110 Drury Lane (020 7557 7557; www.aram.co.uk), stocks a wide range of original Bauhaus designs by Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe as well as contemporary pieces with a Bauhaus feel.
* Aram: is offering 25 per cent discount on a number of Bauhaus classics from May 3 to August 15. There will be a one-off draw for the prize of a Wagenfeld MT8 lamp open to all members of the Aram mailing list.
* Rocket: Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, E1 (020 7729 7594; rocketgallery.com) offers Dutch designs by Friso Kramer, Martin Visser and Wim Rietveld, all of whom were influenced by the Bauhaus spirit of simplified forms, function and mass production.
* Alessi Flagship Store: 22 Brook Street, W1 (020 7518 9090; alessi.com) has metal pieces by leading Bauhaus designers, plus Marianne Brandt's tea and coffee service (above) which must be ordered specially.
* Dark Room: Lamb's Conduit Street, WC1 (020 7831 7244; www.darkroomlondon.com) has Bauhaus-inspired hand-painted plates and cushions.
* Ptolemy Mann Textiles: (020 7357 7101/07976 289848; www.ptolemymann.com) has Bauhaus-influenced rugs and furnishing textiles.
* Christopher Farr: 6 Burnsall Street, SW3 (020 349 0888; www.christopherfarr.com) has rugs designed by Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl.