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iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design

iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design

by Nicholas Fox Weber


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A rich, wide-ranging meditation on the iPhone as direct descendant of the 1930s Bauhaus, one of the twentieth century's most influential schools of art and design (summed up in Mies van der Rohe's dictum, "less is more") whose principle aim was to connect art and industry. From one of the leading authorities on the Bauhaus and modernism.

Nicholas Fox Weber, in this deft, entertaining, and brilliant rumination on art and technology, writes of the iPhone as the essence of the Bauhaus principles of form following function—of honesty of design and materials that reflect the true nature of objects and buildings, favoring linear and geometrical forms; adhering to line, shape, and colors; synthesizing art to modern times; the fusion in design of art and technology.
Weber, an authority and celebrant of twentieth-century modernism, ranging from the paintings of Balthus to the architecture of Le Corbusier, was a close associate of Anni and Josef Albers, the last living giants of the Bauhaus, and absorbed firsthand its truest beliefs. The Alberses emphasized their passion for "good design over bad art." Anni, a groundbreaking textile artist and printmaker, and Josef, a painter and color theorist and influential art teacher, stuck to "what was taught at the Bauhaus: the right use of materials, good technique, a purpose that serves all." Weber writes that the Bauhaus was not a style but an attitude: clear design and visual acuity as the embodiment of morality and honesty. And in iBauhaus, Weber explores how the iPhone, with its effective design and its versatility, honors these deepest beliefs, as well as the values that the Bauhaus sought to give to the world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525657286
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/25/2020
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,179,439
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

NICHOLAS FOX WEBER has been the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation for four decades. He is a graduate of Columbia College and received his MA from Yale University. He is the author of many articles, essays, and widely acclaimed books including Balthus: A Biography and Patron Saints.

Read an Excerpt


“So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive, and create the new building of the future that will . . . rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”

This was the goal for which Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, a groundbreaking school and laboratory for modernism. The year was 1919. The Bauhaus would soon have workshops to develop new textiles, chairs, tables, flatware, lamps, children’s toys, and a range of other everyday objects that would revolutionize the way human beings lived all over the world. Prototypes would be made for objects that could be manufactured on a large scale, all of them designed to ameliorate daily existence. While performing needed tasks, they would add charm through their aesthetic grace. The stuff of life was to be absent ornament. Honest, clean, easily maintained, and visually appealing; it would create a new emotional ease.

Worldwide, humankind was to have materials of impeccable construction. They would be compact, sleek, and able to achieve multiple functions. These revolutionary objects would facilitate unprecedented possibilities for everyday existence. And they would be playful as well as useful. The sense of fun alongside the candid “This is what I am and this is what I do” was to transform the human spirit. Design—capable of miracles, truthful and alluring—was the new religion.

The Bauhaus started in a former arts-and-crafts school in the small, historic German city of Weimar. In 1925, it moved to ample new headquarters that Gropius designed for it in Dessau, a rather isolated industrial city. The building epitomized the handsome, streamlined style the school advocated for design of every sort. After the new right-wing government forced its closure in 1932, it had one last desultory year in a disused telephone factory in Berlin. All in all, it would last only fourteen years. Like all brilliant experiments in new approaches to living, it was both a utopia and a place that struggled to survive.

Much of what is greatest in human existence—the amazing engines that are our bodies, the earth itself—makes possible and enhances our lives without our necessarily being conscious of the details. The Bauhaus school does not rival the miracles of nature, but it was a determined effort to transform the way things look and give birth to objects that make daily existence infinitely easier. It succeeded. The school’s impact greatly exceeds its recognition. Most of the world does not know the name “Bauhaus,” but the manifestations of its approach to design are everywhere. The achievements of this institution—where like- minded people, of dramatically different backgrounds but a shared utopian spirit, gathered together and invented the new— pervade our world.

In 1983, Steven Paul Jobs, the cofounder of Apple Computer, gave a speech at the Aspen Institute. The institute and its annual summer conference were the brainchildren of Walter Paepcke, a successful Chicago-based businessman who, with his wife, Elizabeth, had developed a profound admiration for the Bauhaus.

In 1939, Elizabeth Paepcke—nicknamed “Pussy”—had discovered Aspen, a former mining town now nearly abandoned, when the pipes froze at her country house south of Denver and she needed a place to take her guests skiing. In 1945, she got her husband there. Walter Paepcke invited Walter Gropius to come redesign the Victorian town, where he acquired property mostly by paying overdue taxes. After Gropius said no, but proffered the advice not just to restore the old but also build modern, Paepcke got the Bauhaus-trained architect Herbert Bayer to come.

Together, Walter Paepcke and Herbert Bayer planned an international celebration of the two hundredth birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the philosopher, novelist, color theorist, and poet. Goethe’s pantheism had been embraced at the Bauhaus. Goethe was a longtime resident of Weimar, which was among the reasons the small city was so apt for the design school.

Two thousand people attended the events held in Aspen in 1949 in honor of Goethe’s creative genius. Among them were the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, the novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, and the humanitarian doctor Albert Schweitzer. Only four years after the horrors of World War II had come to an end, the celebrants were making the point that nationality did not matter as much as the capacity, whatever a person’s parentage was, to contribute beautifully to human progress.

Herbert Bayer had gone to the Weimar Bauhaus as a student in 1921. Two years later, his streamlined lettering and sparkling graphics had helped establish the identity of the great international Bauhaus exhibition that took place in Weimar in 1923. Bayer’s bold signage marked the entrance of the show with panache. His posters for the show have a freshness and rhythmic asymmetry that prepared you for the flair of the paintings by Kandinsky and Klee presented inside. Bayer’s cover for the exhibition catalogue is dashing. The sans serif typeface he invented for it animates each letter so that the S’s and B’s and A’s and the rest march with triumphant energy. The words “STAATLICHES BAUHAUS IN WEIMAR 1919–1923” cover the surface of the perfectly square page, printed so that the syllables alternate between red and blue, the cheerful colors syncopating in front of a matte black background. This is graphic design that energizes you.

Steve Jobs gave his speech at Aspen forty-five years after Bayer had immigrated to the United States. It was the third summer that he had gone to one of these annual conferences that had begun with the celebration of Goethe. The international roster of visionaries who attended gave new life to the Bauhaus ethos. Jobs well knew the work of Aspen’s founder and admired other pioneering Bauhaus designs.

Jobs thrilled to the idea of speaking in the handsome white building Bayer had designed for the Aspen Institute. The sparkling surfaces and crisp lines declare the happy marriage of its machine-made modernism and the natural splendor of the mountain setting. No other educational institution excited Jobs as much as the Bauhaus did. He was in his element at this conference exploring new ways of improving human existence.

The exhibition in Weimar for which Bayer’s graphics pulsed like neon had been organized posthaste. Gropius had not felt ready for this show. He had consented to it under duress, and put it together far too quickly according to his standards and agenda. He had no choice other than to hurry.

The wish to perpetuate the new is often both hampered and advanced by compromises begotten by necessity, and this was the case here. Gropius had been informed by the authorities that he urgently needed to validate his educational experiment in order to retain the government funding that was its lifeline. It was essential, right away, to show visitors from afar not only the art by the most advanced of the painters teaching at the school, but also the new designs coming out of the Bauhaus workshops. Its supporters would keep financing the Bauhaus only if there was proof that it was realizing a vision sufficient to inspire the rebirth of civilization they deemed essential after the disasters of the First World War. Were the new designs, brazen and audacious in their break from tradition, applicable for widespread use?

Steve Jobs had already known many such moments and would experience more of them: those times when his baby, Apple Computers, threatened to crumble, or the competition was taking the lead, or the bank balance was plummeting toward zero. He was used to challenges and urgency. The Bauhaus’s struggle simply to exist, the desperate grasping for a stronghold, resonated with him. For Jobs, the most effective means of surmounting difficulties and emerging triumphant over desperate situations was the same solution that it had been at the Bauhaus: beautiful and effective design enjoyed by a large public.

The Aspen Institute gave Steve Jobs an audience that would respect his courage and inventiveness. He hoped they would help fulfill his urgent needs, which he would lay out candidly. The rare opportunity to address so many imaginative design professionals inspired him. All the attendees wanted to advance the issues of how objects look and function, to progress beyond old approaches and ameliorate everyday life.

This assemblage of creative people in a remote location in the Rocky Mountains had first had to get themselves to Denver and then to make a long journey by car. Today there are small planes that render the shuttling to the mountain village quick and easy. But none of the original Aspen Institute attendees, except for Walter Paepcke himself, had that sort of money. The difficult trip was worth it. These people of similar goals relished the synergy that emerged when they addressed their mutual passion.

They were a new generation of the Bauhaus family: the spiritual descendants of the highly principled designers and artisans who had produced one innovative and useful object after another in the 1920s. Steve Jobs, already a highly successful and sought-after leader in the burgeoning field of high-tech communication, was equally content to have Aspen on his annual travel schedule. It put him with other people designing for society at large who happily took risks, possibly losing money and sacrificing job security in order to try the unprecedented.

Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke’s daughter was among a group of supporters of the Harvard University Art Museums who in 2016 came to visit the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. For over forty years, I have directed that foundation, created by two of the few remaining Bauhaus masters still alive in the 1970s. (Herbert Bayer and Marcel Breuer were among the others.) Antonia Paepcke DuBrul said that at the Albers Foundation she could feel the spirit that had been dear to both of her parents. With crusty opinions about what she did not like in today’s trendy art world, and gusto about the values embraced by her mother and father, DuBrul said that both her parents had sought to establish a lively and diverse community in Aspen. Restaurant busboys and corporate executives, philosophers and bricklayers, could discuss ideas from a point of view of shared interests rather than differences.

In Aspen, they could hike to mountain peaks or attend wonderful concerts when they were not engaged in boundary-breaking conversations. Elizabeth Paepcke, came from a family of distinguished intellectuals—her brother was the diplomat Paul Nitze. DuBrul’s father, Walter Paepcke, was one of those rare highly successful businessmen with profound aesthetic convictions that permeated every aspect of their business activities. The Aspen Institute was their utopia.

Antonia DuBrul loathed the way that Aspen has become a watering hole for billionaires, now no different in many ways from other chic habitats of the megarich. She said that the Albers Foundation, built at low cost in a Connecticut forest as both a haven for intellectual exchange and a means of preserving the art and ideas of Anni and Josef, had the authenticity her parents had wanted in Aspen. DuBrul observed that the best of the extraordinary values of the Bauhaus, vital to her father and mother in their own organization, was in the air of the Albers Foundation.

When I reminded her of the importance of Aspen to Steve Jobs, Antonia DuBrul simply said, “Well, yes, of course! Guts! Simplicity! The willingness to listen to what people say they need, and to sense what they want even if they don’t know it themselves. The importance of design where every millimeter counts—that’s what we are talking about, not this self-infatuated nonsense that parades itself as art today!”

In Albers territory, Antonia DuBrul felt as if she were with family. Herbert Bayer’s connection with Josef and Anni dated back to the early 1920s. When Steve Jobs made his summer pilgrimages to Aspen, the institute still had had Bayer at the helm.

Bayer had come to America five years after the Third Reich forced the closing of the Bauhaus. Hitler’s minions had deemed the Bauhaus too “non-German” in both spirit and population, and the Gestapo had padlocked the doors of the Bauhaus’s last stronghold. When Bayer and Paepcke created their haven near a Colorado mining town down at its heels, they intended it to perpetuate the values the Nazis had tried to destroy.

Aspen back then was an unusual getaway in its halcyon natural setting. The designers who had assembled there shunned fads and shock value. They preferred the timelessness and simplicity of nature: the miracles manifest in apples and eggs and other compact packages that, seemingly minimal, encase great complexity. Bayer and Paepcke had created a place, away from the diversions and pressures of cosmopolitan living, where new ideals, true to the Bauhaus dream, might take root.

Bayer kept the Bauhaus mentality alive not just at the Aspen Institute but in his own widely disseminated graphic design. Born in 1900 in Haag, Austria, he had gone to the Bauhaus in 1921, two years after the school was created, one year after Josef Albers arrived there, and one year before Anni started. All these individuals coming from a myriad of disciplines and locations were united by their wish to give humankind new functional designs. Bayer, like Josef Albers, was one of the gifted individuals who started as a student and became a master at the Dessau Bauhaus.

What Bayer was up to between 1928 and 1938 gets white-washed, however. He left the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin of his own volition in 1928. Most sources maintain the story that he eventually fled German repressiveness, which became intolerable to him after the Third Reich began in 1933. By the time he was the god of Aspen, deified as the perpetuator of Bauhaus design standards in postwar America, Bayer had managed to dispel rumors to the contrary. It is almost certain that the admiring Steve Jobs considered the guru of the new aesthetics to have been nothing but a victim of totalitarianism and a champion of liberty for all.

The years between the closing of the Bauhaus in 1933 and Bayer’s flight from Germany five years later were never discussed.

In the United States, Bayer had further refined the streamlined vision he had developed with his new sans serif typeface and his geometric graphic layouts based on a grid but rendered playful and joyous. Bayer’s lively graphics, devoid of historical reference and marvelously fresh, became part of the bread and butter of American life in the magazines Fortune and Life and in his logos and layouts for large American corporations whose products were everywhere in the country. His major clients included General Electric and the Container Corporation of America. Walter Paepcke was CEO of the latter—known simply as CCA—which is why Paepcke got Bayer to Aspen and selected him as architect of the building that housed the institute and also as its main graphic designer.

In 1938, Bayer had been invited to the United States by Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, to design and install a Bauhaus exhibition there. In helping select and then install this show at the Modern (in the days before it was ever called MoMA), he was among the first people to make the Bauhaus aesthetics integral to American life. His Aspen Institute further perpetuated the Bauhaus spirit. And that haven in Colorado gave Steve Jobs direct exposure to a legacy he already admired.

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