One of twentieth century’s most influential architects and design educators, Gropius studied architecture in Munich from 1903 and moved to Berlin in 1905, working in the office of the architect and designer Peter Behrens from 1908. In 1910, he became a member of the Deutscher Werkbund and in the same year set up a practice with Adolf Meyer. In 1911, they planned a new factory for the shoe-last company Fagus-Werk, in Alfeld an der Leine, Germany, which became an icon of modernism with its rectangular shape, large windows, and glazed corners. For the Deutscher Werkbund 1914 exhibition, the partners designed a model factory that was also a precursor of modernist architecture. Gropius also designed wallpapers, automobile bodies, a railway locomotive, and cars, along with furniture and interiors for individual clients.
He was active in artistic political circles. After the First World War, he joined the Novembergruppe and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst. He also contributed to Bruno Taut’s Gläserne Kette (Glass Chain) that called for fundamental changes in the arts. In 1919, Gropius succeeded Henry van de Velde as the director of the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule (Grand Ducal Saxonian School of Arts and Crafts) in Weimar, soon renamed the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar. Gropius established a curriculum that stressed the crafts-based nature of creativity, which was first made manifest in the Vorkurs or preliminary course, then continued in the specialized workshops, and reached its final goal in the creation of the building. His architectural practice continued with the building of the wooden-framed Sommerfeld House in Berlin, designed with Meyer, in 1921–2.
Gropius’s idea of “fundamental research” underpinned all his thoughts on teaching. Although still using a master and apprentice relationship, he encouraged his students to experiment with materials, techniques, and applications so as to develop new ideas and ways of making things. Gropius’s pedagogical ideas were further developed in the exhibition Kunst und Technik—Eine Neue Einheit (Art and Technology—a New Unity), which began to embrace industrial methods of production. This new approach was linked to the Bauhaus’s move to the industrial city of Dessau in 1925. Here, Gropius designed the Bauhaus Building (1926) and showed a great interest in the production of housing and the development of housing estates. In 1928, he resigned from the Bauhaus and passed the directorship to the Swiss designer Hannes Meyer. Gropius remained active as a product designer, working with the Adler motor car company designing vehicles (not put into serial production) and their company logo; and also with the Feder store group of Berlin, for which he designed simple modular furniture called Anbau Möbel.
With political upheaval in Germany and the regime’s hostility to modernist design, he moved to England in 1934 where he lived in Wells Coates’ Lawn Road Flats, Hampstead. In England, he worked with the MARS group, and architect Maxwell Fry, designing a number of individual commissions, including the modernist Impington School Cambridge. He also acted as a consultant designer and director of the Isokon Company, especially with regard to furniture products. In 1937, he moved to the United States and became principal of the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University. Among his most well-known product designs were the elegant porcelain tea service he created in 1969 for the ceramics company Rosenthal. He also designed factory buildings for this company.
In an essay, published in 1937, Gropius wrote: “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society” (Gropius, 1956, p. 24)—a sentiment that suggests far more than a simple formulaic approach to designing, and one that still rings true in the twenty-first century. His plans for a Bauhaus Archive building were realized in Berlin in 1979 after his death, so his legacy continues.
Nerdinger, Winfried (Ed.). The Walter Gropius Archive: An Illustrated Catalogue of the Drawings, Prints, and Photographs in the Walter Gropius Archive at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University . New York and London: Garland Publications/Harvard University Art Museums, 1991.
See also Bauhaus; Herbert Bayer; Peter Behrens; Marcel Breuer; Wells Coates; Design Education; Deutscher Werkbund; Form (West Germany); German Design; Gesamtkunstwerk; Isokon; Johannes Itten; Ernst Keller; Hannes Meyer; Modernism; Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA); Nieuwe Zakelijkheid; Rosenthal; Social Housing; Bruno Taut; Typeforms; Henri Van der Velde.