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With the Barbican about to host the biggest Bauhaus exhibition in the UK for years, Katie Bowman examines why such a brief moment in design has had such a lasting legacy

A 1929 drawing by Eugen Batz, who was taught by artist Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus school in Dessau

They swam in the nude. They slept outdoors. They wore their hair long and followed a curriculum that included breathing exercises and vegetarianism. They were the students of the Bauhaus, Germany's anti-academic "unified art school" that existed for just 14 years, between 1919 and 1933.

The term "Bauhaus" means so many things to so many people – it might be the curve of a balcony or the font on a music poster. In an attempt to celebrate, and perhaps clarify, these diverse perceptions, the Barbican is about to host the largest exhibition in the UK for more than 40 years on the art school that thrives as much on legend as it does on real life. Bauhaus: Art as Life runs from 3 May to 12 August.

There couldn't be a more relevant London neighbourhood in which to hold such a retrospective than Clerkenwell. Bauhaus was created by Walter Gropius, an innovative and successful architect who believed "art must change life". His acclaimed Fagus Factory in Germany was the first industrial building to flaunt corner windows and wraparound glass, so that it became a light, bright, encouraging place to work. Glass corners are a dynamic feature of the 1957 Golden Lane Estate, while former mid-century factories all over EC1 now make outstanding sunlit apartments. Similarly, the Finsbury Health Centre (Berthold Lubetkin, 1938) was intended to change people's health through "the sunny and airy effect" of its glass-brick façade.

Another Bauhaus concept that's crucial to Clerkenwell's architectural personality is that of social housing. Gropius' successor, Hannes Meyer, worked on the politically conscious Törten Housing Estate in Dessau with the assistance of Bauhaus students – it was a mix of one-storey cottages for the "petit bourgeoisie" and balcony-access housing blocks for the "proletariat". It is this exact concept that shaped the Barbican: a democratic estate built to house everybody from the postroom boy to his bank manager, while discreetly ensuring that they need never cross each other's path.

But bricks and mortar represent merely a fragment of the Bauhaus story. Classes in everything from advertising, weaving, town planning, photography, sculpture and painting were on offer. Even more impressive than the artistic diversity, however, is the roll call of Bauhaus Masters, the lead teachers. They included the artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and, later, the designers Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers. The school's final Principal- Master, from 1930-1933, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Under their tutelage, Bauhaus students produced the utilitarian yet elegant Kandem table lamp, the Marianne Brandt teapot and, of course, variations on Marcel Breuer's tubular chair – all design icons to this day. Though we might think initially of sweeping white concrete structures when we hear the word "Bauhaus", it was actually the school's range of wallpaper that found the most commercial success during its time.

So, how to own your own piece of Bauhaus in 2012? You'll need to save up. The estimate on a Marianne Brandt teapot that was sold at Sotheby's five years ago started above £200,000. That said, Alessi does a very good inspiredby version for a little less...

Katie Bowman, features editor of "The Sunday Times Travel Magazine", writes about design in her own time. Find her blog at katiebowman.wordpress.com.

For more about the Barbican's Bauhaus show, visit www.barbican.org.uk

 

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