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Artist Text

Open Your Eyes

Breathing New Life into Bauhaus Papercuts

Eric Gjerde, “Reverse-engineered circular arcs from Bauhaus preliminary course”.

My path to becoming an artist has been that of an autodidact, so it was daunting to be asked to reproduce Bauhaus-inspired objects for an esteemed group of scholars and academics. After all, what other bits of cut and folded paper have been subjected to such close historical scrutiny for such an extended duration? Yet I leapt at the opportunity, as this particular subject has been my main focus of the last few years. And the invitation also provided a great opportunity to do some further sleuthing into the Bauhaus’s hidden past.

My work constructing three-dimensional art using folded paper objects naturally led me to Josef Albers and his own obsession with paper’s potential as a medium of instruction. In Albers’ preliminary course at the Bauhaus, students worked primarily with scissors and paper. By cutting and folding, they explored concepts of material qualities, surface transformation, structural constructs, and efficiency of use.1 Students were given sheets of paper and an objective, after which Albers would leave the room. Returning some hours later, he would analyze and critique the constructs the students had made, giving the most credit and praise to work that best used the inherent qualities of paper in their solution. He felt these exercises taught many things, in particular the value of ‘learning by doing’: “The best education is one’s own experience. Experimenting surpasses studying. To start out by ‘playing’ develops courage, leads in a natural manner to an inventive way of building and furthers the pedagogically equally important facility of discovery…”2

As part of my research into paper structures at the Bauhaus, I visited the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, just outside of New Haven, where Albers last taught at Yale University. Examining many samples from Josef’s personal collection of paper structures and constructs from his entire teaching career, it was evident to me that paper was one of his key tools used when working with students; along with his own forms used for teaching, he had retained many pieces done by students, interesting to him for one reason or another. This spoke to me about his connection to paper and his legacy of using it for instruction.

Since 2014 I have been teaching classes on paper construction, drawing specifically on the work of Albers and his preliminary course. One of the byproducts of teaching a technique is the necessity of perfecting it, repeating the same set of operations many times. Thus, I have folded and cut an innumerable number of paper sheets in the process of developing my facility with Albers’ exercises. Additionally, over the last two years I have been attempting to systematically reverse-engineer many of the Bauhaus papercut objects, and this has given me a lot of practical insight into Albers' method for constructing for these items.

“This old book also contained instructional text and example photos, which helped to match up diagrams with the objects Luca was looking to recreate.”

My prior research and experimentation proved to be very useful on this project. Luca Frei also helpfully shared with me some images scanned from a Japanese book published in the 1930s; images that were fundamental to understanding the pieces I needed to recreate. While the scholar in me became enormously excited after seeing these photographs, they were not of the best quality, being grainy and fuzzy—not the easiest images on which to base a reconstruction.

Thankfully, the small selection of scanned pages Luca shared included several pages reproducing instructional documents. These are the only images depicting how to create some of these paper objects I have ever seen that date from the Bauhaus-era itself. These images were an amazing find, and further, they also corroborated many of my past suspicions about how the objects depicted within the photographs were constructed.

Eric Gjerde: "Unique instructional diagrams for creation of Bauhaus paper exercises, from 1930s Japan. These were key for confirming specific construction techniques that may have been used for this work."

Over the years I have managed to accumulate a wide selection of books on the Bauhaus. And in this time I have pored through most of them in search of other examples of the papercut objects that preoccupy me. Of these, perhaps the two references which have yielded the most answers to my questions about these objects are Josef Albers: To Open Eyes by Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz, and the epic tome The Bauhaus by Hans Wingler. My copy of both are extremely dog-eared, full of bookmarks and abundantly annotated with marginalia.

Of the objects I have reconstructed, the most difficult was what appeared to be a long vertical tower. The source photographs I had at my disposal were old and of poor quality, and it was challenging to reproduce the details of this work. However, as I worked on it, I had the sense I might have seen it somewhere else before. In various photographs I found several examples of a similar exercise from Albers' preliminary course. These not only provided the structural concept, they also reinforced the likelihood of at least one having been reproduced in Japan as a "representative" object from the Bauhaus.

Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final maquette of the tower reproduction. The folded angles give this piece surprising rigidity, which demonstrates anew its value as a teaching exercise."

After spending days reconstructing this tower-object, obsessing over details, proportions and measurements, I found myself staring vacantly at a souvenir magnet on my refrigerator, something I had picked up at the Bauhaus Dessau museum gift shop. On its face was a photograph of the balcony terraces of the student dormitory. I suddenly noticed these balconies at Dessau are remarkably similar in their measurements and proportions to this tower exercise. Perhaps the similarity is coincidental, but the image on the magnet rendered important clues on how to proceed, at a time when I was at a loss as to how to continue.

Another of the structures I have tried to reproduce is an ethereal, dome-like shape, which fascinated me from the first moment I saw it. Previously I had made a few objects similar in form, but nothing so large or complex. I was curious how they managed to create it back in 1931. The basic answer came from another page in Luca’s copy of the Japanese Bauhaus exhibition catalogue depicting very simple instructions for how to construct these dome shapes. I then found a slightly different example in the Bauhaus literature, which provided further insight.

Eric Gjerde: "Time lapse video of the dome model being laser cut in my studio."

However, this process was not as easy as it at first appearance. I quickly learned that small variations in the width of the circles, the size of the cuts, and the overall number of circular layers altered the shape of the final object considerably. My studio, home and office were very soon littered with my failed attempts to reproduce this model. Ultimately, I settled on a proportion that approximated the dome in the photographs, using a three per cent reduction in diameter applied to every successive layer. (I can attest to the fact that whoever first created this object was a person of unusual talent and dexterity: he or she had to cut all its components by hand, while I relied on a 45W CO2 laser to achieve the precision cutting building the dome required.)

Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final dome model reconstruction. This was my best approximation of the original piece, and I believe it does it justice in the reproduction."

Another object, a long, circular tower suspended from a string was equally challenging. None of the historical documentation showed its details to my satisfaction. They merely gave a slight hint as to what the object was and how it might have been constructed. I combed through other historical references without luck. Many circular objects had been made at the Bauhaus, demonstrating the creative use of compass and razor blades. But there were no photographs depicting this particular circular tower. As it so happens, I had created a similarly hanging object the year before based on the square. In the end I adapted this object’s design as best I could to fit the circular form. While pleased with the final result, I will never really know to what extent my reconstruction departs from the original.

Eric Gjerde: "Several photos of the final maquette of the tower reproduction. The folded angles give this piece surprising rigidity, which demonstrates anew its value as a teaching exercise."

The last object I wish to present is seemingly the simplest, but in fact it’s the most complicated. This object is a type of deformed latticework. While it is not of an unusual nature, being commonplace in our modern-day, parametrically-driven world of 3D design, it was also equally familiar to Bauhaus students of the 1920s and 1930s. Albers would routinely take his preliminary course students to visit factories and workshops; the process of making these lattice-works out of steel was at the time a common process. For the piece photographed in the original Japanese exhibition, we see a student faithfully reproducing that expansion effect out of paper. However, as with the dome shape, every small change in proportions produces a radical difference in outcome. Of each of the versions of this piece I constructed in my attempts to match the original, no two objects have the same appearance. Trying to match an object depicted in a tiny blurred photograph from 1931 took much trial and error before I was satisfied with my work. Over the year I have made quite a few of these, and even as I write this I am staring at one example that hangs from the ceiling of my studio. The beauty of the form and seductive quality of the negative space this object displays belies its simplicity of construction. Some artists, like Haresh Lalvani and Matt Shlian, have formed entire bodies of work around the possibilities inherent in this simple shape.

Eric Gjerde: “Latticework reconstruction. No two glimpses of this object reveal the same view; the negative space here is what we are tasked to regard, and it gives the object surprising complexity.”

The experience of recreating these historical objects for the centennial of the Bauhaus—thus breathing new life into them—has truly been a joy for me. Albers always wanted his students to "open their eyes" and see things anew. In the course of my efforts to recreate these different papercut objects I have had to set aside many preconceived notions and instead look with my eyes and simply "see."

More information on Eric Gjerde’s work can be found on his website at ericgjerde.com and on his blog origamitessellations.com.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Hans M. Wingler: The Bauhaus. Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, The MIT Press, London 1969, p. 430.
  • 2 Josef Albers: "Werklicher Formunterricht, " in: bauhaus, Vol. 2, No. 2/3, 1928.
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