When Walter Gropius created his renowned school of design and arts in 1919, he devised it as a place open to "any person of good reputation, regardless of age or sex," a space where there would be "no differences between the fairer sex and the stronger sex." His idea occurred in a period when women still had to ask permission to enter fields that were once off-limits. If women received an artistic education, it was imparted within the intimacy of their home. But at the Bauhaus and the Gropius school, they were welcome and their registration was accepted. Gropius' idea was so well-received that more women applied than men.
However, Gropius' declaration of gender equality never realized in the way he initially professed. Architecture, painting, and sculpture were reserved for the "stronger sex," while the "fairer sex" was offered other disciplines that were not, in the founder's opinion, so physical.
Why? According to Walter Gropius, women were not physically and genetically qualified for certain arts because they thought in two dimensions, compared to their male partners, who could think in three.
Thus, it was the men of the Bauhaus who have gone down in history, figures like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, while their colleagues have been forgotten or, in the best of cases, are recognized as "the wives of."
This masculinization of the Bauhaus became more evident in the early 1930s during Mies van der Rohe's period as director. His teachings were oriented mainly towards architecture and metal works, a field women had previously been barred from.
But Lilly Reich turned a deaf ear. The German designer and architect was a close collaborator and partner of Mies van der Rohe for more than 12 years. Reich never studied architecture, but she practiced it along with other artistic disciplines, such as design. It was that field, industrial and fashion design, that began Reich's career.
She and Mies van der Rohe worked together on various projects including the apartment building for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition, the "Velvet and Silk Cafe" exhibition in Berlin, and the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. She also participated in two paramount works of Bauhaus architecture: the Tugendhat house and the Lange house.
When Mies van der Rohe was appointed director of the Bauhaus, he invited Reich to give a workshop at Dessau. He also named her director of the interior and fabric design workshop, a position she held simultaneously at both the Bauhaus in Dessau, and in Berlin. Reich thus became one of the few educators to teach at both schools.
Their partnership ended when he emigrated to the US in 1937. She took over the architect's studio, business, and family responsibilities. Their last collaboration was in 1939 when Reich moved to the US and participated with her former partner in the ITT project in Chicago. Reich wanted to stay, but Mies van der Rohe was not fond of the idea, so she returned to Germany in the middle of World War II.
They never saw each other again, although maintained an epistolary relationship until his death. At the end of the war, she taught interior design and building theory at the University of Berlin. In Berlin, she reopened her design and architecture studio where she worked until her death in 1947.
According to Albert Pfeiffer, the vice president of design and management at Knoll and a researcher of Lilly Reich, the success of the famous architect is closely correlated with the period of his relationship with Reich.
"It is becoming more than a coincidence that Mies' involvement and success in exhibition design begin at the same time as his personal relationship with Reich. It is interesting to note that Mies has not developed any modern furniture successfully before or after his collaboration with Reich." Furthermore, two of the most famous chairs in the world was designed by the pair: the Barcelona and Brno.
She was not the only female teacher at the male-dominated institution. Gunta Stölzl, Anni Albers, Otti Berger, Marianne Brandt, and Karla Grosch all worked at the Bauhaus. But unlike Reich, all were former students.
Gunta Stölz was the only female teacher listed above who has worked in every position at the Bauhaus: a student, workshop teacher, and director of the textile workshop. As the other disciplines such as architecture, sculpture, and industrial design were reserved for men, ceramics and the art of weaving were exclusively for women. This was Gropius' strategy to stop the avalanche of female matriculants. Without knowing it, he was supplying the workshop with great female artists, that in the end, acquired great strength and acclaim.
Stölz was a woman of character who showed that the "fairer sex," as defined by Gropius, could also make a career at the Bauhaus. Among other projects, she designed furniture upholstery for Marcel Breuer at the school in Dessau. However, after being harassed by several, radical right students (at a time when Nazism was growing) for marrying a Jewish architect, Stölz left her post and the Bauhaus and moved to Switzerland. There she continued her career as a textile designer and established her studio.
But if anyone elevated the art of loom and textile design, it was Anni Albers. Like many others, Albers entered the Bauhaus with the intention of training in painting, but the school's policy only allowed her to enter the textile workshop. Although the instruction given to the students was very practical, Albers finished the course demonstrating her ability to weave and innovate. For her senior thesis, she created a soundproof, reflective, and washable fabric made of cotton and cellophane tailored for a musical audience.
The school's policy didn't stop her from including painting in her textile works. If she was not allowed to show her art on a canvas, she turned her fabrics and tapestries (which she called hangings) into paintings. Her works are known for their picturesque fabrics, where abstraction takes prominence, just as it did in many of the great figures of the Bauhaus, such as Kandinsky and her future husband, Josef Albers.
But above all, she was influenced by the paintings of Paul Klee, her teacher, whose style she wanted to reflect on her canvases. "I watched what he did with a line, a point or a stroke of the brush, and I tried to some extent to find my own direction through my own material and artistic discipline," the artist explained in a 1968 interview.
Anni Albers described the philosophy of the Bauhaus: "What was most exciting about Bauhaus was that there was no teaching system yet in place. And you felt as if it depended only on you. You had to find your way of working in some way. That freedom is probably something essential that every student should experience."
When the Nazi party closed the school in 1933, Albers and her husband left the country to travel through Europe. Later that same year they traveled to the US, accepting an invitation of Philip Johnson, an architect and the curator of MoMA in New York. They were appointed to teach at the newly inaugurated experimental school Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It is in America where Albers found her space to experimenting freely, and where she started designing fabrics for companies like Knoll and Rosenthal.
Already established in the United States, the couple continued traveling through Mexico and South America. The result of these trips is the influence of the pre-Columbian motifs that are shown in some of their tapestries and fabrics. She became so immersed in the techniques and drawings of these cultures that she ended up publishing her research in the 1965 book entitled, "On Weaving."
Albers continued working on her designs and printing techniques until her death in 1994. She was the first woman textile artist to have a solo exhibition at the MoMA in New York.
Just as Lilly Reich managed to work in architecture despite being a woman, Marianne Brandt broke the glass ceiling in another discipline reserved for men: metal. Brandt was many things: a painter, sculptor, industrial designer, and at the end of her life, a photographer. She began her studies in painting and sculpture at the Weimar School of Fine Arts, but the most impactful decision of her life was to enter the Bauhaus. Initially, after being denied access to painting workshops, Brandt participated in the textile workshop under Gunta Stölz. But she did not stop until she received a position in the metal workshop run by the Hungarian photographer and painter László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy was impressed by Brandt's work and did not hesitate to accept her into his workshop, despite the reluctance of many. She later replaced him as the director of the studio in 1928.
Her passage through the Bauhaus was not easy. The fact that a woman was producing works at a high level and directing the factory did not sit well with her male counterparts. Unfortunately, after only a year she left her post and the Bauhaus.
By that time, Marianne Brandt had already designed some of the most recognizable, everyday objects. In all her designs, the stylistic footprint of the Bauhaus is evident, such as her use of free forms. Brandt opted for the triangle, cylinder, and sphere which can be seen in her famous coffee set MT50-55a (1924), ashtrays, mythical teapot MT49, and the well-known Kandem 702 lamp.
Brandt then began to work at the Walter Gropius studio. After the Second World War, the designer devoted herself to teaching at the faculty of arts in Dresden. In the 1970s, Marianne Brandt took up photography. She is remembered as a pioneer of experimental still life and self-portraits.
These women are just three great examples of the many outstanding roles women played at the Bauhaus. Other great artists include Otti Berger, a textile designer and founder of the famed Berlin shop Atelier for Textiles; the potter Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain, who achieved fame in the US thanks to her pottery Pond Hall; and the toy designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher.
They had the audacity to prove their worth during a time when women were relegated to the home and family. If a woman wanted to pursue an artistic career, she was only allowed to study “feminine” forms of art such as weaving, regardless of the many talents she had shown in painting or sculpture. It was believed that if women were allowed to weave, they could placate their artistic sensibilities and return to the path that society marked for them. However, these women became pioneers of hand-crafted design, an art form that is much more appreciated today. By mastering their craft, they were able to express themselves and therefore transform home objects and materials into modern masterpieces.
As Gunta Stölz said, "we wanted to create living things with contemporary relevance, appropriate to a new lifestyle. Before us, there was an enormous potential for experimentation. It was essential to define our imaginary world, to shape our experiences through material, rhythm, proportion, color, and form." And they succeeded, although their story is often untold.