Following the rapid European industrialization of the late 19th century, World War I became the first historical instance of a global conflict waged with advanced machinery. But when Walter Gropius, a German architect, returned to Berlin at the conclusion of the war, he dreamt of a different purpose for the machines. For Gropius, industrialization was to be reigned by humans for the benefit, rather than destruction, of humanity.
The world of the post-war Europe created an intellectual climate receptive to the ideas of Gropius. On one hand, the communist revolution in Russia ignited the populist feelings across the continent. Reflecting on the communist ideals, intellectuals like Gropius envisioned that the masses were to become the focus of the new economic and political institutions. On the other hand, the intellectual openness of the newly founded Weimar Republic came to replace the rigidity of the Imperial Germany, creating an opportunity for the new ways of thinking to flourish.
It is in this environment that Gropius founded Bauhaus, an art school that would define the design philosophy of the 20th century. While in existence only from 1919 to 1933, Bauhaus gave birth to a design methodology that inspired development of products, furniture, and architecture in the service of people.
I chose Bauhaus as an example of a highly effective organization because of the way its business and operating models aligned to ignite a new movement in the art and design.
The business model of Bauhaus stemmed from Gropius’ desire to make products that could be enjoyed by a broad range of demographics, regardless of the individuals’ socioeconomic status. Bauhaus created customer value by integrating three key elements into their products:
- Aesthetic simplicity;
- Accessible pricing.
Gropius believed that beautiful design does need to belong solely to the upper income strata of the society. On the contrary, by creating products that are simple, functional, and inexpensive, the designers at Bauhaus hoped to enable anyone to live a happier live surrounded by beautiful objects.
The operating model of Bauhaus abandoned the rigid methodologies of art education in favor of engendering an intellectual environment that sparked innovation and an open-minded intellectual examination of the physical world. The Bauhaus operating model can be defined by four characteristics:
- Constructivist (ie combination of the arts) thinking;
- Form follows function and need for mass production;
- Fundamental understanding of colors, shapes, and materials;
- Designer as both an artist and an engineer.
Not unlike IDEO today, the Bauhaus methodology of ideation at the time can be characterized as a constructivist funnel. Bauhaus attracted some of the most distinguished artists of Europe to join its faculty, comprising the fields as diverse as theater, sculpture, music, and painting. The diversity of artistic ideas exchanged at Bauhaus was then channeled into focused development of useful household and architectural products.
Moreover, the designers at Bauhaus employed the function-first approach in their thinking. The products they created were meant to be useful, practical, and mass-produced. As such, form were to follow function.
To arrive at a better understanding of the interplay between form and function, the students at Bauhaus were required develop an in-depth appreciation for the most basic building blocks of the artistic production: color, geometric shapes, and materials. Bauhaus considered these to be the language of design, mastery of which would enable the development of highly practical products.
Finally, the operating model of Bauhaus is characterized by the removal of the distinction between an artist and an engineer. Gropius believed that in order to develop an appreciation for the industrial production process, artists had to be trained to operate the machines while the machine workers had to be trained as artists. A Bauhaus student was expected to be able to handle a brush just as effectively as a piece of heavy equipment.
By carefully intervening the business and operating models of Bauhaus, Gropius was able to craft an environment where—not unlike Bauhaus designs themselves—the organization’s form followed its function. By developing an appreciation for the basic materials (like steel and leather), simple colors (like pure red or blue), as well as fundamental geometric objects (like triangles and spheres) the designers at Bauhaus could break away from the ornate and expensive products of the era. At the same time, by training the artists as engineers, the school enabled its designers think of how their products could be mass produced, thus driving down their costs.
A perfect example of a Bauhaus project is the Haus am Horn, a building created by the school’s students in 1923 to showcase their work. According to Gropius, the goal of the building was to combine “the greatest comfort with the greatest economy by the application of the best craftsmanship and the best distribution of space in form, size, and articulation.” The layout of the building was shaped as a perfect square, constructed with inexpensive steel and concrete. Each of the rooms was meant to have its own specific function (for example, kitchen and the dining area were strictly separate) and to be well illuminated with the natural light. Gropius hoped that the building would provide the government of Germany with a way to house its lower income citizens.
Building on the uniqueness of its dovetailed business and operating models, Bauhaus inspired the modernist movement of the 20th century–from an Ikea shelf to Marina City in Chicago. Bauhaus became the model of a different kind of art school, characterized by its desire to abandon tradition in order to understand the world anew at its most fundamental level in the service of humanity.