The new China Design Museum lifts the curtain on a global celebration of influential German art movement.Wang Kaihao reports in Hangzhou.
The Bauhaus movement was short lived. The iconic German school of design, craft and fine arts was founded in Weimar in 1919, relocated to Dessau in 1925 and closed in Berlin in 1933. However, its spirit has lived on for generations.
With the centennial celebration of the movement approaching in 2019, a newly opened exhibition in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, pays homage to the rich legacies of the German school and has raised the curtain for a global celebration.
The China Design Museum in Hangzhou was inaugurated on the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in early April. Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away has the privilege of being its major inaugural exhibition.
The museum is designed by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, a winner of the Pritzker Prize, the world’s top architecture award.
It is described by Hang Jian, deputy director of the CAA, as“China’s first museum with a systematic collection of original Western modern design works” and “a rare example in the world of a newly built museum that is specifically dedicated to modern design”.
The museum’s opening marked the climax of a series of events honoring the 90th birthday of CAA, one of the major cradles of Chinese artists.
“Imaginista” in the exhibition’s title, a word newly coined by curators of the exhibition, mimics the Latin language to describe the imagination and illumination created by the bold academic experiments of Bauhaus.
Nevertheless, the rare display of original artifacts from not only Bauhaus but also the rest of the world tells people the exhibition is not just about playing with words. Instead, it unrolls a giant picture of how Bauhaus greatly influenced the world’s education, industry design,social aesthetics and urban planning in the long term.
There are a few exhibits reflecting such experiments in Bauhaus and its development, as recommended by Grant Watson, a curator for the exhibition. For example, the 1920s Bauhaus chairs with avant-garde designs were inspired by folk art in Africa and Asia and gradually developed into futuristic styles using modern materials. Maverick woven fabrics combining machine manufacture and traditional craftsmanship are another highlight.
“It made history for textiles,” Watson says. “The experienced weavers, who were almost exclusively women, began to write about and theorize textiles, which had never happened before.”
He emphasized the great contribution of Bauhaus in forming a systematic theory and methodology.
Another curator, Marion von Osten, picks some magazines, old films and advertisements for the exhibition to show people how Bauhaus ideas became recognized worldwide.
The publicity worked, even after a crackdown on Bauhaus by the Nazis, and its international reach is illustrated throughout the exhibit, from design education in India to urban design in the former Soviet Union, and China as well.
Some lesser known blueprints in China with typical Bauhaus characteristics are also on display, including the 1940s urban design plan of Shanghai and the Central Railway Station of Nanjing,today’s capital of Jiangsu province and once the national capital.
It’s a pity that none of these blueprints were finally realized with two exceptions —Beijing’s 798 factory, which was designed by architects in the former East Germany and is now a famed art zone, and a school in Shandong province. Both were built in the 1950s.
“This is an outstanding collaboration (through working with Chinese curators) because we learn from each other, especially about relations among the (former) Soviet Union, China and GDR (the
former East Germany),” Von Osten says.
“The modern design of GDR is often neglected in today’s Germany, and it’s amazing for us to rediscover the design of GDR through China.”
Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away will be on display in the China Design Museum until July, and three other chapters of Bauhaus Imaginista exhibitions, which were initiated by the Goethe Institute and several other German organizations, will move to Japan, Russia and Brazil before the main centennial celebration exhibition in Germany.
‘Aesthetics for daily life’
Bauhaus is the reason the China Design Museum was created in the first place. In 2011, the Hangzhou city government spent about 55 million euros ($67 million) to buy around 7,000 artifacts with modern Western designs, including about 350 original design works from Bauhaus, and temporarily house them in the CAA.
Consequently, the museum, covering 16,800 square meters, offers a place for permanent custody of these collections. Nearly 7,000 square meters are used for exhibitions.
As a result, Life World: The Collection of Western Modern Design, which displays 700 artifacts from that collection, was launched in April as a regular exhibition at the museum.
“It’s to nurture the public’s aesthetics for daily life,” says Yuan Youmin, director of the new museum.
Yuan says the 7,000 artifacts bought years ago are unable to fully reflect the change of design in the 20th century, so the museum bought more than 100 key items in the past year when designing the exhibition.
Wang Jianjun, curator of the exhibition, describes some of the displayed artifacts as milestones in the design industry and “the most highlighted treasures in the museum”.
No 14 Chair, also known as the bistro chair, was designed by Austrian cabinetmaker Michael Thonet in 1859 and is his most famous product. The design is still widely used in pubs around the world today. By 1930, 50 million such chairs had been made, and they were introduced into China in the late Qing Dynasty (16441911). An original 1859 work is set in the center of one hall of the exhibition to show its crucial status.
Another section of the exhibition features the stories of 17 influential designers of the 20th century to recall their great contributions to people’s lives today.
Red Blue Chair, a work from 1917-18 by Dutch designer Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, is inspired by his compatriot, the painter Piet Mondrian. The chair is considered to be a pioneering example of furniture that can be easily assembled, much like today’s Ikea products.
Frankfurter Kitchen, designed by the Austrian designer Margarete SchutteLihotzky in 1926, is the prototype of the integrated kitchen of modern time.
“We can find that designers in the 20th century did not consider themselves as artists and began to get rid of complicated plans,” Wang says.
“It’s difficult to set a uniformed criterion judging fine art works, but there is such a yardstick in design — that is, to make life simpler.”
In the third section, the juxtaposed Coke bottles and typewriters from different ages may also echo this principle, revealing the connection between influential brands and good designs.
According to Yuan, modern Italian menswear design and old Hollywood film posters are two other pillar collection categories in the museum.
Works by designer Massimo Osti were first shown to display how fashion gets mixed with innovation and functionality. Osti is best known as a pathfinder from the early 1970s, when he designed a Tshirt collection that used screen printing.
For the opening of the China Design Museum, 85-year-old Siza, who designed its architecture, also held a solo exhibition in the venue, in which 26 architecture models, spanning his earliest works in the 1950s to unfinished works today, were displayed.
“And, other than the architecture and the solo exhibition, you can find Siza’s designs everywhere in the museum,” Yuan says with a smile. “For example, the chairs you are sitting on (in a conference hall) are his signature works.”
A bigger role to play
According to CAA deputy director Hang, who also is in charge of the museums affiliated with the academy, artifacts in design museums are significantly different from those in art museums.
“They’re neither sublime nor highend,” Hang says. “They’re close to our daily life.”
“Through the exhibitions, we are no more teachers to deliver knowledge on design history,”he says. “We want to usher people to discover why these artifacts were used in the past and how our life got changed thanks to development of technology.”
Hang also expects the new museum to benefit the Chinese design industry and spark new ideas.
Yuan says upcoming exhibitions will also feature Chinese modern industry designs, even though the main collections are from the West.
“We need a global horizon because modern design first rose in the West,” Yuan says.
“However, we also need to frequently look back on our own traditions and value our own change from more perspectives.”
In 2015, the CAA’s Folk Crafts Museum opened on the Xiangshan Campus to display traditional Chinese craftsmanship.
Yuan says the two neighboring museums could host joint exhibitions, because some of the spirit of modern design can also be found in ancient people’s wisdom.
Shortly after its founding in 1928, the CAA launched its design school, one of the earliest among Chinese fine art academies. In 2016, the academy initiated the annual Design Intelligence Award to encourage young talent from home and abroad.
Hang, also head of the CAA based Bauhaus Institute since its inauguration in 2012, expects to establish a research center on modern design on the campus.
“Design is reinventing itself as well,” Hang says. “It will help people to better understand today when looking upon what was achieved in 1919.”