Coming Home to Modern
By Joseph Litts, WPAMC Class of 2020
The Gropius house sits unassumingly at the top of a green, woody knoll in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Built in 1938, Walter Gropius designed this home for his family as an inherently New England structure, admittedly seen through the lens of international modernism. Gropius and his wife, Ise, had been instrumental figures in Weimar, Germany’s, Bauhaus school of design. The school emphasized function over form, stripping forms of superfluous ornament. Good design did not have to be expensive, and well-functioning objects could be both beautiful and improve the lives of their owners. Chrome, leather, plywood and other industrial components were popular materials. The rise of National Socialism (Nazism) forced Walter and Ise to leave Germany, first for England and then the US.
Walter and Ise arrived in the States in 1937, renting a Colonial Revival house—filled with their Bauhaus and international modern furniture. They began designing and constructing their now-standing house the next year. Intended as a showcase of their aesthetic, the house utilizes many design innovations, including industrial fittings and the latest materials (such as Formica or acoustic plaster). New England traditions, such as clapboard siding or central staircase-halls are re-configured by orienting the boards vertically and by opening the metal balusters. Americana seen through the lens of a different aesthetic vocabulary. Tradition supposedly made accessible and welcoming.
As our guide glibly put it, the Gropius house is a site of pilgrimage, with many visitors from around the world taking the commuter train out to Lincoln and then hiking through the woods to reach the suburban site. It’s definitely worthwhile. But while touring the house, I couldn’t help but think of an exhibition (intervention?) at the Pinakothek der Moderne, München.
Design theorist Friedrich von Borries interacted with their incredible collection of 20th century design, covering objects with posters asking us to question how design colonizes, sexualizes, ostracizes, and politicizes. How does design intended to advance the public good (as the Bauhaus was) end up a more or less empty and expensive signifier of good taste? Neither he nor I have an answer.
The Gropiuses filled their homes with the sort of furniture and objects that von Borries singles out. Their choices were in part aesthetically motivated, but their home was also an accumulation of prototypes of their designs, furniture collected from their travels (before such pieces became icons of stores like Design Within Reach), and objects made by their friends, such as the corner of the living room below. The tables were designed by their neighbor Marcel Breuer and the chair by their friend Eero Saarinen.
All of which lead me to think, when and how does the transition from just good design, just interior decoration (for making someone’s life better) to lauded museum piece happen? It’s not instantaneous or even necessarily a permanent transition. The art market and museums transform objects, de- and re-contextualizing them. But this doesn’t happen overnight. Seeing these icons of good design in person, installed as their makers intended (and the Gropius house is incredibly well documented), is a reminder of the power of context. Seeing and interacting with, well, stuff leads to an embodied viewing and a better understanding of how designers intended their objects to function—a way to recuperate more readings of design beyond simply good taste.
The English website for Friedrich von Borries’s exhibition may be found here: https://www.pinakothek-der-moderne.de/en/exhibitions/friedrich-von-borries-politics-of-design-design-of-politics/