Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to architect Walter Gropius as Martin Gropius. This version has been corrected.
Berlin — Architect Walter Gropius and his band of communal craftsmen at the Bauhaus school put a radical stamp on architecture, design and art during Germany’s Weimar Period between the World Wars. He later taught the world about modernism as a Boston-based architect and professor at Harvard University. But he could have used a lesson in brand preservation.
Gropius said he coined the term “Bauhaus” as the moniker of the atypical school. But as he fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, he forgot one thing: Protect the name “Bauhaus.”
As a result, up to 40 companies in Germany and myriad others abroad have taken the word “Bauhaus” as part of a brand or title. Imitators include a U.S. furniture maker, a rumored bordello in Japan, a variety of chocolate that touts its form and function, a coffee shop in Seattle and the early British gothic band Bauhaus, led by singer Peter Murphy. Tel Aviv sometimes bills itself as“Bauhaus City,” even though Bauhaus experts quibble that its housing designs don’t relate to the Bauhaus school. Even an art school in Weimar, Germany, called Bauhaus University isn’t connected to the original.
The greatest squatter of the moniker is a do-it-yourself retailer based in Mannheim, Germany, which trademarked “Bauhaus” during post-war divided Germany. It happened before Gropius and others established archives and museums — in Dessau, Germany, and Weimar (in the former east) and Berlin — to explain and protect the historical Bauhaus and its legacy. Now, it’s causing confusion to the general public and frustration to Bauhaus design aficionados.
“The term ‘Bauhaus’ has become a sort of super brand,” said Philip Oswalt, an architect and director of the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau. “It is a name for a much wider set of things, modern things. It is something that has culturally developed that we have to accept. That’s okay.” But he still finds it annoying when companies “use the name and subscribe to themselves higher cultural value” than they deserve.
AG Heinz G. Baus started with a 1,900-square-foot lumber and home-improvement store in Mannheim, calling it “Bauhaus” in 1960.
Sources at the company say he picked up the retailing idea in the United States and brought it back to Germany. A reclusive owner, Baus avoids public attention and declines most interview requests, including one from The Washington Post.
His Bauhaus stores are more and more ubiquitous, spreading in Europe the way Home Depot has in North America. The Swiss-registered Bauhaus has 190 stores in 15 countries, stretching north to Scandinavia and south to Spain and Turkey. It’s planning new stores in Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Bauhaus AG has expanded from selling lumber and other building materials into the territory of Wal-Mart with some home goods. It publishes inserts for newspapers in markets near its stores, advertising goods such as plastic swimming pools, buckets of paint and electric bug zappers.
Its red logo uses block letters, echoing the graphics of Gropius’ school. Its slogan: “Wenn’s gut werden muss,” or “When it has to be good,” is repeated over loudspeakers in the company’s large, concrete stores.
On a recent day at a Bauhaus franchise in Berlin, dozens of shoppers filed through the massive store with 30-foot high ceilings and gigantic, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves holding everything from saws to screws to light bulbs. The name is “confusing,” said Sebastian Stadler, 23, an artist in Berlin, who was shopping for wood and Plexiglass supplies for an art project. “I thought they (the company) stole the name” from the school.
Robert Koehler, a spokesman with Bauhaus AG, says Gropius’ Bauhaus school has some things in common with the store franchises. “We offer products that are very helpful for your house and garden,” he says. “The story of Bauhaus in Dessau and Weimar is very similar to that. It’s very functional and for the people.”
But Annemarie Jaeggi, director of the Bauhaus Archive Museum in Berlin, disagrees. “If you look at their products,” she says, “you can see it has absolutely nothing to do with what Bauhaus wanted to do.”
Gropius started Bauhaus — a “house of construction” or “school of building” — in Weimar in 1919 as a school that combined crafts and fine arts. The school attracted and developed myriad talents and had a major influence on art, architecture, design and typography for decades to come. It helped kick off the International Style within modernism that eschewed ornament, while blending industrial technology with human craft
“Little in our lives has not been influenced by it, from what we read and wear to how we live,” wrote American art historian Elaine S. Hochman, in “Bauhaus: Crucible of Modernism.” Items from the Bauhaus are included in the collections at top museums, such as the Modern Museum of Art in New York. American novelist Tom Wolfe poked fun at modernism in his 1981 book “From Bauhaus to Our House.”
As the National Socialists rose to power in Weimar Germany, authorities grew wary of the free-natured, left-leaning and collectivist Bauhaus School, viewing it as subversive to both the Nazi aesthetic and their political goals.
The school moved to the eastern German town of Dessau in 1925 and to Berlin from 1932 to 1933 under the leadership of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Under pressure from the Gestapo, the school closed in 1933. Many famous Bauhaus alumni, such as Gropius, Marcel Breuer and painter Paul Klee, moved to Britain, France and the United States. Gropius moved to Boston to practice architecture and teach at Harvard.
An early “starchitect,” Gropius had a hand in several famous buildings, including the Met Life building in New York, the John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building in Boston and the U.S. embassy in Athens. But he perhaps remains most famous, particularly in the West, for his role in founding the Bauhaus.
“When you live in Germany, you can hardly imagine how world-famous the Bauhaus has become, especially in the United States and England,” he wrote to Fritz Hesse, the former mayor of Dessau, in 1953. “In both countries, the curriculums of the schools of art and architecture have followed the teachings of the Bauhaus.” He noted the exams for architects in the United States quiz students on the Bauhaus history. He said that despite the huge head winds the Bauhaus faced in Germany “it was all worthwhile.”
The Bauhaus Archive formed in the 1960s in Darmstadt. In 1972, it moved to Berlin, with most of its budget funded by the city. From early on, the design community was wary of imposters who attempted to take the Bauhaus name. “The director of the archives and even Walter Gropius were not that pleased there was another institution using the name,” Jaeggi said at the Gropius-designed archives in Berlin.
Letters between Gropius and Mies van der Rohe in 1967 indicate the two had noticed the name being used by other institutions. “I want it today,” Mies van der Rohe wrote to Gropius in 1967.
One of the first actions by the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin was to sue the Bauhaus company at the District Court of Mannheim over the naming rights in 1972. It asked the court to ban the company from using the moniker, to delete it from the commercial register in Mannheim and to give up the trademark at the German patent office.
Some argue DIY chain owner Baus opportunistically grabbed the “Bauhaus” name at a politically chaotic time, when Gropius and others were dispersed abroad and no one thought to protect the name. Others say the word “Bauhaus” was similar to Baus’ own name or that combining Bau and Haus — German words meaning building and house respectively — was just too common an expression to warrant any protection. They argued that anyone should be allowed to use it.
Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the company, dismissing the Bauhaus archive’s claim and ordering it to bear the costs of litigation. The term Bauhaus can “no longer be attributed to a specific person, but has become a style concept that is part of the public domain,” the judge ruled. He wrote that the Bauhaus school had closed, its name had never been protected and the idea of granting the exclusive right to it to museums years after the fact “contradicts principles of commercial law.”
It’s nose bloodied from the defeat, the Bauhaus Archive has largely avoided entanglement with the home goods company and other apparent brand infringers ever since.
“We are looking ahead rather than back,” Jaeggi said. “We just have to accept reality and continue with what we’re doing.”
“Bauhaus sells,” she says. “That’s the point.” When someone is copying you or your name in a corporate context, she says, “Then you see that you really have a brand.”
Meanwhile, the Bauhaus chain prides itself as an innovator and decries retail imitators. It “brought the do-it-yourself idea to Germany,” its Web site says, noting that shoppers used to visit many small mom-and-pop stores. “Bauhaus introduced relaxed shopping under a single roof. Eventually, this pioneering spirit asserted itself throughout Europe and has since found many imitators.”
It believes its brand is more dominant now and will be in the future than the historic art school.
“It seems a blasphemous shame if this is Home Depot with less taste calling itself Bauhaus,” said Lucy Coggle, a researcher at Jane Wentworth Associates in London, a brand consultant in the art world. “But there is nothing you can do about that now. You have to do as much as you can with the actual Bauhaus.”
Germany’s three Bauhaus museums are working together more frequently, with a joint Internet portal and an exhibit, “Bauhaus: Art As Life,” at the Barbican Art Gallery in London to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics. The Weimar organization plans to open a $28 million museum in 2015. The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin also has plans to expand its exhibition space because only 30 percent of its collection is currently on display.
But the general public still often confuses the legacy of the Bauhaus.
“For many students, it’s a recognizable name from art history,” said John Silvis, a New York and Berlin-based art adviser and professor of art at Minnesota’s Bethel University. The model of a collaborative, open-dialogue school was also new. “Before that, it was more of a master-apprentice model. The master told the apprentice what to do.”
But the average German, he says, doesn’t know so much about the school.
Arthur Cohen, a founder of New York-based brand consultant LaPlaca Cohen, says the failure to protect the name means less revenue from license fees for the museums, which receive federal and private-support as nonprofit entities. “Had there been agreements early on that are strong and enforceable, not only would there be an ability to protect and enforce what the Bauhaus legacy is,” he says, “but there also would be revenue streams.”
“It’s particularly challenging for members of the public who didn’t grow up knowing about the Bauhaus tradition and ideals to identify or understand what it is now,” Cohen says. “It has been diluted.”
The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin has 20 or so employees and another 30 contractors at the small museum and library, which has more than 100,000 visitors each year. By contrast, the Bauhaus AG has 18,000 employees now and is focusing on opening more stores.
Christine Hall, a U.S.-born artist in Berlin and faculty member of Bauhaus University in Weimar, touches on Bauhaus ideas with some of her work. She said people are interested, but confused, when she tells them she teaches at the Bauhaus University, which is housed in some of the original Bauhaus buildings but is not the actual Bauhaus. “We tread carefully around the history of the Bauhaus,” she said.
Meanwhile, many of her art students shop at the Bauhaus brand of stores to pick up lumber, paint and other art supplies.
“It’s a source of much confusion, even for us,” says Andreas Kühnlein, a spokesman for the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau. He says his office regularly receives call from people asking where to buy wood or other building materials.
He recently took a trip to Sweden and Finland. When he told people he worked for Bauhaus, “they all thought I was standing by the saws or something.”
Glader, who is based in Berlin, is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post. He is managing editor of the Web site www.wiredacademic.com, which follows education innovation.