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The Scale of the Bauhaus

Eliot Frick
in aesthetics,design

Is Bauhaus—like so much of what informed 20th century ideas about design—fundamentally a condescension? Why do Ikea chairs seem an acceptable pithy beauty, and yet rows of concrete apartments seem an abomination? This post will not answer those questions, and what it does manage to state clearly will be self-contradictory.

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The Bauhaus.

Just today I had the good fortune to discover Matthew Milliner and his blog, millinerd.com. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton. He’s also a graduate of Princeton’s Theological Seminary. Don’t let the visual aesthetic of his blog lead to you the conclusion that it is without beauty. A tendentious antipathy to Christianity would perhaps make it difficult to get at the beauty there, so, y’know, YMMV.

His recent post, The Largest Show on Earth, is what brought me to him. I’ve been trying to reconstruct how I found it but, sadly, I cannot. It’s a simple and clever little post about Bauhaus and MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibit. Part of what struck me about the post was a quote from Michael J. Lewis (whom I assume to be THIS Dr. Lewis).

“The same Cartesian coordinates that are so stimulating when applied to textiles or chess sets take on a rather different aspect when the grid grows larger than the individual, who shrinks into a speck.”

There is a disturbing egoism which, in part, animates modernism (and its progeny, or deconstructions, or whatever). We are creative. Add humility and you have a moving aspiration. Add ego and you have the will to power. I remember riding a tour bus through Moscow in 1990 and looking at austere apartment building after austere apartment building and feeling a profound sense of loss. Milliner also notes in his post, that in the early 20th century, “They knew it as … Volkswohnung (people’s apartments) that would mercifully provide affordable design for the masses. We know it as Ikea.” This overweening drive to bestow beauty on the hoi polloi is merely annoying but acceptable when applied to teapots, but becomes inhuman when the scale is grand.

It is fitting that Mr. Milliner should have occasioned these thoughts for me, given his putative Christianity. I say that because I’ve often thought that what was meant by the suggestion that we were created in God’s image is that we, too, are creative. When the wu wei of the creativity forms its impetus, I think we’re most authentically realizing this divine origin. When the impetus is framed by the notion that you have the answers the world needs, I think the result is something less dignified.