by Alice Connew and Katie Kerr
When Walter Gropius opened the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, he announced that the school would be open to “any person of good reputation, regardless of age or sex”. Women, who had previously been refined to art education at home with tutors, applied en masse, far outnumbering the applications of their male counterparts.
Unfortunately, the utopian expectations of female emancipation were never fully realised. However seemingly progressive the vision of equal education was, it wasn’t enough to disrupt the deeply-entrenched bias around ‘women’s work’ that was the temperament of the times. Perhaps Gropius gave away that underlying prejudice when, in the same announcement, he — without a touch of irony — said that there will be “no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex”. These biases became more apparent when the ambitious new female students arrived at the school and were quickly ushered into the weaving and ceramics workshops, while ‘the stronger sex’ were pointed towards painting, industrial design, and, later, architecture. Gropius believed that women’s brains could only grapple with two dimensions, while men were able to understand three. A theory which, even for the least logical minds, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny — but was never contested.
Although confined to the weaving workshop — dutifully making modern fabrics for fashion houses and industrial production — the talented and determined women of the Bauhaus created radical and distinctive designs, and actively engaged in the school of thought that the Bauhaus became famous for. As Gunta Stölzl (1897–1983), head of the department and the only female master of the school, put it, “We wanted to create living things with contemporary relevance, suitable for a new style of life. Huge potential for experimentation lay before us. It was essential to define our imaginary world, to shape our experiences through material, rhythm, proportion, colour and form.” Experimental work from the likes of Anni Albers, Benita Koch-Otte and Otti Berger laid the groundwork for modern textile design in the decades to come.
Things improved for the female Bauhauslers when, in 1923, radical Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy joined the faculty. He opened up the disciplines for women such as Marianne Brandt, whose metalwork lamps became some of the most recognisable designs of the school, toy designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, and industrial designer and architect Lilly Reich.
The fact remains though, that we would know very little about these trailblazing women if it wasn’t for recent exhibitions at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin which highlighted some of the women’s seminal work. Before this, most of these women were unknown, or remembered only as the wives and friends of their male counterparts — many of whom would go on to be given godlike status in their ‘weighter’ industries. Lilly Reich, for example, is still considered “the women behind Mies” in her own biography on the Bauhaus Archive, rather than an artist in her own right.
After graduating, some women died in the war — the talented Otti Berger died at Auschwitz in 1945. Those who survived also vanished from history, victims of a deeply misogynist society where they were unable to thrive. The legacies of these women aren’t well-known because they came up against a range of obstacles that stopped them from achieving the fame bestowed upon their male peers. These obstacles range from working within a discipline that wasn’t considered prestigious, to having less opportunities for positions of leadership, to the continual struggle to have their voice heard.
On the train from Berlin to Dessau, as we pass graffiti-ed brick stations and sweet-smelling pine forests, we reflect on the women of the Bauhaus. As the school approaches it’s centenary celebration, and the women’s movement rises once more, we wonder — what has changed for women in design over the last 100 years?
We — Alice Connew and Katie Kerr, New Zealanders — met in our first year of art school at the University of Canterbury, School of Fine Arts, young and ambitious. Alice, having been encouraged not to pursue photography by older male mentors found herself in the design department by default. Our small year group was made up of women only, taught by men. Of our class of ten, just three continued to pursue graphic design careers. This ratio was fairly typical of arts graduates at the time, regardless of gender. We were rattled out of the ivory tower by the Christchurch earthquake and found ourselves at the tail-end of the Global Financial Crisis. Both events were blamed for the lack of jobs. Some of our peers re-studied, to become — among other pursuits — coders, marketing managers and doctors.
For the three of us who decided to push on with graphic design, it seemed inevitable that we’d leave the country and develop our careers overseas. Each of us did so in our own way, following different routes in an attempt (and still attempting!) to understand what it is that we want to get from and give back to this industry.
Nine years later, we reflect on the beginnings of our careers with critical hindsight. Along the way, we were helped and hindered by both men and women, but it’s become starkly obvious that a common theme in each of our ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ stories is one of gender politics. We aren’t alone — ask any female designer and she will have a story about handling, dodging, cushioning or coming up against sexism; whether it’s navigating the egos of male art directors, incredulously comparing pay cheques with male colleagues, or something more subtle, but equally damaging, in nature.
Although it’s been 85 years since the Bauhaus closed, it’s undeniable that there still is a remarkable difference between the number of women graduating successfully in design classes and the number of women winning awards and in positions of leadership in both industry and academia. The question is, after all the progress we’ve made, why is this still happening?
All we know is that the answer isn’t simple. Like the women of the Bauhaus, we each have our unique experiences, and ways of navigating the particular context surrounding each of our distinctive practices.
Over the last few years, the Bauhaus Archive has attempted to make the complex legacies (which don’t read as fairytales of success) of the Bauhaus women known. When we arrive at the Bauhaus museum in Dessau, we see how the curators have consciously shown a representation of both men and women graduates in the exhibition. If you didn’t know the context surrounding Marianne Brandt’s lamps or Benita Koch-Otte’s carpets, you could be led to thinking that they were treated as equals.
Like most women designers today, you may admire their work, see their confidence which has been honed over the years, and conclude that their journeys were similar to their male graduates — but the reality is, their battles are most often hidden from public view. Society may have come a long way since the closing of the Bauhaus, but the stories of inequality, ending in both success and failure, continue. These stories play an important part in understanding the current context of the design industry, and should be acknowledged.
We hope now, that by having these conversations openly, this will encourage those in positions of influence to simply ask women designers — whether colleagues, employees, employers, friends or partners — about their experiences in the industry. And then to actively listen to what they have to say without trivialising their story. Acknowledgement is the first step towards making true change to our industry — and after 100 years since women were promised equality, it’s about time we did it properly.