Art

Minimalism: Not as straightforward as it seems

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

It’s 100 years since the Bauhaus art and design school first opened in Weimar, Germany, and the new Muji flagship store in Tokyo’s Ginza district is as good a venue as any to hold an anniversary exhibition celebrating the values of simple, affordable modernist design.

Though sadly not a major retrospective, the exhibition comprises a modest number of archive photographs by artist and designer Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), three of her iconic ashtray designs and other examples of household items by Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1900-90), Marcel Breuer (1902-81), Wolfgang Tumpel (1903-78) and Theodor Bogler (1897-1968).

This is combined with another small exhibition on the evolution of the mass-produced chair, which features the Thonet No. 14 design, also known as the “bistro chair” and originally created by Michael Thonet in 1859. A contemporary variant of Thonet’s steam-bent curved wood design sells in Muji shops today. Several other instantly familiar chairs make an appearance, such as Breuer’s low chair made from tubular steel, sometimes called the “Wassily” after the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), and Danish designer Verner Panton’s curvy S Chair, the first chair design to use molded plastic.

Muji directly promotes a connection between its design aesthetic and the Bauhaus by exhibiting some of its own products besides those of Bauhaus alumni. A Muji brushed aluminium pen case, clothes hanger and calculator, all characteristically minimalist, appear in the same display case as a set of ceramic kitchen storage jars designed by Bogler, who studied at the Weimar Bauhaus when it opened in 1919, before going on to study philosophy and theology, and becoming a monk. In the same case there is also a very elegant pair of small nestled tables by Breuer.

Sure, it’s cheeky for Muji to display its own merchandise with archive Bauhaus objects, but though Bauhaus and Muji products both pursue the idea that form should follow function, it’s clear to see, when shown side by side, that Muji goods in the 21st century serve a different purpose than early Bauhaus designs.

One of the main, radical, tenets of the Bauhaus was that different creative disciplines — fine art, architecture, craft and design should unite, “free of the divisive class pretensions,” as the first director Walter Gropius wrote in the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto. The goal was a kind of worker’s utopia, with the nurturing of creativity being key to human development and social change. When this proved to be financially unsustainable, the focus of the school turned more to design for mass-production.

The photographs by Brandt in the exhibition are a reminder that while the Bauhaus was a source of clean functional modernist design, it was also a space of avant-garde expression. The fish-eye lens distortion in several Brandt self-portraits attests to photography being used to radically change the way the world was viewed. Other images of theater workshops are a reminder that performance and festivity were also an important part of the Bauhaus.

Compared to this reverence of creative expression, Muji’s objectives are, at some level, less ambitious. They aim to make things that are “good enough,” rather than try to create objects that people actively desire. But when Muji invokes Buddhist-inspired ideas about emptiness, essentialist discourse about what is “natural” and “Japanese,” the justification for this business model sounds as ostentatious as when the Bauhaus implored us to “rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen.”

Seeing an exhibition on the Bauhaus in the midst of the austere aesthetic of the Muji universe is revealing about what has, and has not, changed in our relationship with everyday objects. Read in context, this small birthday bash is greater than the sum of its parts. Definitely worth a visit..

“Archives: Bauhaus” at Atelier Muji Ginza Gallery 2 runs until Sept. 23, “Surviving Long Into the Future: 50 Chairs Passing Down Their DNA” runs until Nov. 24; free. For more information, visit www.muji.com/jp/ateliermuji.

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