The Battle for Bauhaus: How A Movement Failed to Protect Its Name

By Paul Glader in Berlin

Germany's famous Bauhaus school from 1919 to 1933 forged new boundaries in the art and design world and remains highly influential today. But its brand and legacy has been under threat for five decades from a large German-Swiss home goods retailer that took the title and trademark "Bauhaus" in 1960 and now has 190 stores around Europe.

Photo Gallery: A Tale of Two Bauhauses Photos
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Architect Walter Gropius and his group of communal craftsmen put a radical stamp on architecture, design and art education during Germany's Weimar Period between the two world wars. He even claims he coined the term "Bauhaus" as the name for his atypical art school.

Along the way, though, he forgot an important thing: to protect the name.

As a result, up to 40 companies in Germany and myriad others abroad have taken the word "Bauhaus" as a brand or title. The imitators include a furniture label in the United States, a rumored bordello in Japan, a chocolate variety that touts its form and function, a real estate company and the early British gothic band led by Peter Murphy.

"Bauhaus sells," says Dr. Annemarie Jaeggi, director of the Bauhaus Archive Museum in Berlin. "That's the point." When someone is copying you or your name in a corporate context, she says, "then you see that you really have a brand."

But the greatest squatter of the moniker is a do-it-yourself retailer based in Mannheim, which trademarked the Bauhaus during postwar divided Germany. It happened before Gropius and others moved to established archives and museums -- in Dessau and Weimar (in the former east) and Berlin -- to explain and protect the historical Bauhaus and its legacy. Now, it's causing confusion to the general public and frustration to Bauhaus design aficionados.

The Bauhaus Archive vs. Bauhaus AG

Heinz G. Baus started with a 600-square-meter lumber and home improvement store in Mannheim, calling it "Bauhaus" in 1960. Sources at the company say he picked up the retailing idea in the US and brought it back to Germany. A reclusive owner, Mr. Baus avoids public attention and declines most interview requests, including one from SPIEGEL ONLINE.

His Bauhaus stores are becoming more and more ubiquitous around Europe. The Swiss-registered Bauhaus AG now has 190 stores in 15 countries around Europe, expanding as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Spain and Turkey. It's planning new stores in Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

Bauhaus AG has expanded from selling lumber and other building materials, like America's Home Depot, and into the territory of Walmart with some home goods. Its brand logo uses the color red and block letters to spell Bauhaus, echoing the black and red graphics ubiquitous in the historical design movement. The store brand's slogan: "Wenn's gut werden muss," or "When it has to be good," is repeated over loud speakers in the company's large, concrete store spaces.

On a recent day at a Bauhaus franchise in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood, dozens of shoppers file through the massive store space with 30-foot high ceilings and massive, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves holding everything from saws to screws to light bulbs. "I don't think this has something to do with Gropius," says Harmut Niemke, 59, who was buying coal for his home stove. "I hadn't thought about it."

Robert Köhler, a spokesman with Bauhaus AG, says Gropius' Bauhaus school has some things in common with the store franchises. "We offer products that are very helpful for your house and garden," he says. "The story of Bauhaus in Dessau and Weimar is very similar to that. It's very functional and for the people."

But Bauhaus Archive's Jaeggi offers an altogether different take. "If you look at their products," she says, "you can see it has absolutely nothing to do with what (the original) Bauhaus wanted to do."

Disbanded & Dispersed

Gropius started the original Bauhaus -- a "house of construction" or "school of building" -- in Weimar in 1919 as a school that combined crafts and fine arts. The school attracted and developed myriad talents and would have a major influence on art, architecture, design and typography for decades to come.

"Little in our lives has not been influenced by it, from what we read and wear to how we live," wrote American art historian Elaine S. Hochman in her 1997 book"Bauhaus: Crucible of Modernism." Items from the Bauhaus are included in the collections of some of the world's leading museums, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

As the National Socialists rose to power in Weimar Germany, authorities grew wary of the free-natured, left-leaning and collectivist Bauhaus School, viewing it as subversive to both the Nazi aesthetic and their political goals.

The school moved to the eastern German town of Dessau in 1925, but it moved to Berlin in 1932 under the leadership of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But it closed a year later due to pressure from the Gestapo. Many famous Bauhaus faculty and alumni, such as Gropius, Marcel Breuer and painter Paul Klee, moved to new posts in the United Kingdom, France and the US.

Meanwhile, the Bauhaus Archive formed in the 1960s, first in Darmstadt. In 1972, it moved to Berlin, with most of its budget funded by the city's government. From very early on, the design community was wary of impostors who attempted to take the Bauhaus name.

"The director of the archives and even Walter Gropius were not that pleased that there was another institution using the name," Jaeggi says during an interview.

Letters between Gropius and architect Mies van der Rohe in 1967 indicate the two had noticed the name being used by other institutions. "I want it today," Mies van der Rohe wrote to Gropius in 1967.

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