The Bauhaus Journey in Britain

The Bauhaus school is best known for its ‘preliminary course’, a pedagogical example that provided a foreground for other foundation courses still operating in the UK. Its teaching approach emphasised the idea of working as a community of creatives and producers rather than merely focusing on the traditional pupil-teacher relationship. In this essay, I will focus on the Bauhaus’s impetus to bring art and design into everyday life highlighting how the school’s ethos for interdisciplinary practice permeated in Great Britain’s visual culture in the 1930s and between 1960s and 70s. The first part of this essay focuses on the Bauhaus émigré masters Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer while living in London. The city was their first stop before they moved to the United States of America and during their stay they participated in different collaborative projects. The second part of the essay delves into the Bauhaus influence in youth and popular culture during the swinging sixties in London, particularly the practice of the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon.

László Moholy-Nagy, The New Isokon Chair, 1936. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

London — A home for Bauhaus Designers

The arrival of Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy to London was facilitated by Jack Pritchard—founder of Isokon Furniture Company Ltd. and an adept admirer of Modernist design and architecture. Pritchard worked as sales manager for Venesta, the largest manufacturer of plywood in the world in the 1930s, and during a business trip in 1931 he visited the Bauhaus in Dessau. His fascination for the Bauhaus modernist ideas and his antifascist impetus was key in helping the émigré masters to settle in London.

The first one to arrive was Walter Gropius and his wife Ise in 1934. They were hosted by Pritchard in the newly built and modernist Lawn Road Flats—also known as the Isokon building in Hampstead—designed by architect Wells Coates. A year later, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy followed Gropius and lived too in the Isokon.1 Pritchard’s numerous connections in architecture and design helped the émigré masters to find commissioned jobs. Gropius became Controller of Design for the Isokon Furniture Company Ltd. shortly after his arrival and advised Pritchard on furniture design that followed the Bauhaus ethos. He also took part in a project for the Village College Movement, led by Henry Morris, Chief Education Officer in Cambridgeshire. This program aimed to meet educational needs of children at rural Cambridgeshire and Gropius was asked to collaborate in the design of the Impington Village school (1935) with architect Maxwell Fry. Gropius, however, was not involved in the design of the teaching program. On the contrary, he often emphasised that imparting a programme like that of the Bauhaus was not be suitable for the UK because the conditions and reception of modernism were not as that of Germany.

The Isokon Furniture Company was one of the few British companies truly devoted to Modernism and having collaborators from the Bauhaus school greatly helped to achieve the latter. As controller of design, Gropius encouraged and facilitated work opportunities for his fellow Bauhaus colleagues in order to make a living according to their creative interests. Marcel Breuer designed various models of plywood furniture for the firm, including a long chair, nesting tables, and the Isokon table. Egon Riss, a Viennese émigré and allegedly student of the Bauhaus, also designed furniture such as the iconic Penguin Donkey bookcase. All the Isokon furniture was manufactured in Britain and was commercialised as modern and functional products—‘Invention which makes life more comfortable’, according to the slogan created by Moholy-Nagy in 1937. He also designed the logo and the embossed letterheading for Isokon, as well as several promotional materials and advertisements that showcased his signature photomontages, amongst them the promotional flyer to advertise and commercialise Breuer’s Isokon long chair and the Isokon’s fitted book shelves—which came in a box with instructions and all the necessary materials so that the buyer could build them by themselves.

Moholy-Nagy’s production was not limited to graphic design and advertisement. Alexander Simpson, owner of the famous departmental store Simpson (now Waterstones) in Piccadilly, appointed Moholy-Nagy as commercial artist and to create signage, window displays and advertising for the store and which would complement the modernist architecture of Joseph Emberton.2 As commercial artist he was given the liberty to experiment and to translate his knowledge of light and colour into reality, addressing the general public rather than only gallery goers. According to Sybil Moholy-Nagy the Simpson’s window displays were no different from the settings designed for operas such as Madame Butterfly, thus in both cases, Moholy-Nagy aimed to appeal to perception and emotion in the onlooker.3

Films and special effects were another interest of Moholy-Nagy. The Lobsters (1936) was a short documentary focused on fishermen in the port of Littlehampton in Sussex, England that focused on the lobster's life cycle. He also filmed The New Architecture of the London Zoo, a film that reflected the great importance of modernist architecture and in particular the work of Berton Lubektin’s firm Tecton, which was responsible for creating the Zoo’s penguin pond and six other new animal enclosures that combined geometrical abstraction and responsive engineering.4 The film prioritised light as the fundamental engine of visual perception and as the mechanism by which one could understand material environment. He was interested in the play between light and shadows, reflections produced in the glass or water. Moholy-Nagy also created the special effects for Alexander Korda’s futuristic film Things to come (1936), written by H. G. Wells, using mirrors, glass, polished steel and string.5 The film sequence produced by Moholy-Nagy was never used in the finished film and footage was lost. However, contemporary artists Ellard and Johnstone have recently re-created a video-installation based on a series of unpublished production photographs of Moholy-Nagy’s ‘future city’ set designs (2011).6

László Moholy-Nagy, Quickly Away, Thanks To Pneumatic Doors, 1935. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

As commercial designer, Moholy-Nagy also created posters for Imperial Airways (British Airways) that highlighted the British Empire with air routes as well as a map of the frequency of each route.7 Before leaving London in 1937, he was commissioned by Frank Pick to design three posters for London Transport. These show Bauhaus-inspired letters and used a more painterly style and kinetic effect to warn passengers about the new pneumatic doors in the trains, for example.8

The Isokon building and Jack Pritchard were key in building a community of people sharing the same modernist interests. The Austrian-born Baushausler Edith Tudor-Hart (born Suschitsky), who took pictures of the Lawn Road Flats opening in 1934, is less known but equally important in contributing to Britain’s visual culture at the time. Edith arrived in London in 1929 to study the Montessori method for three months and shortly after left England for Germany, where she enrolled herself as a Bauhaus photography student in Dessau. In 1930 she returned to London and married Alexander Tudor-Hart—who also knew Jack Pritchard through his sister Beatrix. Edith also published a defence of the school’s revolutionary functionalism in the English Art Journal Commercial Art (1931).9 Edith’s early photographs show her Bauhaus influence such as an image of the Isokon building that highly resembles photos of the Bauhaus building in Dessau by T. Lux Feininger, made from a steep angle and showing laughing Bauhauslers looking down from the roof or balconies. However, Edith’s work later focused on documenting the workers demonstrations and living conditions of the poor in England.

The short but highly productive stay of the three Bauhaus masters helped to gradually transform London’s visual culture. Modernism and the Bauhaus’s aesthetic influenced the fields of commercial design, window dressing and even special effects for the film industry. London, however, was a temporary home for them. Gropius moved to the United States in 1937 after being appointed professor at Harvard University. His departure was celebrated with a farewell dinner organised by Pritchard and of course Moholy-Nagy was in charge of designing the invitation. Breuer soon followed Gropius and also undertook teaching duties in Harvard. Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago in 1937 and became the director of the New Bauhaus School.

The impetus and insatiable work of the three Bauhaus masters forged a legacy that persisted in the following decades. During the 1950s and 60s texts from Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Johannes Itten, as well as the Bauhaus Preliminary course shaped in Fine Art courses in various schools in the UK. William Johnstone—director of Camberwell College of Art—designed the first Basic Design course, giving room for experimentation. It introduced Bauhaus teaching methods and principles in post-war Britain and appointed artists like Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore as professors in the crafts and design studios.10 Pasmore and Hamilton then moved to Newcastle, influencing a younger generation of British artists like Rita Donagh and Mark Lancaster. In a similar way, Harry Tubron and Tom Hudson, established a Basic Design course in Leeds Polytechnic.11

As Basic Design courses evolved and spread in the UK, students in Fine Art and Design courses became more aware of the Bauhau principles. In addition, the touring exhibition celebrating the 50 years of the Foundation of the Bauhaus school presented at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1968, gave rise to a new interest in young designers. Mary Quant in fashion design and Terence Conran—student at the Central School of Art and Design in London—absorbed the Bauhaus aesthetic and principles. Conran then founded Habitat—a furniture company inspired by Modernism, simple forms, understanding of materials and a fresh colour palette that helped to transform the visual landscape of Great Britain’s domestic interior in the sixties. In a similar way, Mary Quant’s geometrical designs dressed a younger generation avid to embrace a modern look. The Bauhaus, again, influenced the aesthetic of the sixties and made a huge impact on popular and youth culture, including hair design.

Bauhaus and the Swinging Sixties: A Revolution in Hair Design

Fashion designer Mary Quant often mentioned that Vidal Sassoon and the pill were part responsible for revolutionising an era.12 The style he created aided and reflected the change taking place in London during the sixties, whilst influencing a long-lasting transformation in hairstyling and fashion that had its roots in modernism and the architecture of the Bauhaus.

In the late 1950s hairstyles were complex and unique creations which only the hairdresser could create by mastering a skill which he or she alone could exercise. Moreover, hairdressers looked at hair as something which needed to be tamed so that it had no "life of its own". Hair was stiffened, curled, waved, knotted, woven, kept in place with clips and robbed of its natural properties, resulting in hairstyles which required considerable care and served, primarily, as ornamentation.13

Tired of this approach and in light with the changes taking place at the time—the emergent youth culture of rock and roll, the women’s liberation movement and changes in fashion, epitomized by Mary Quant’s designs and revolutionary idea of the mini skirt—Sassoon started to design new, more efficient hairstyles. Women were entering the workforce, social barriers were shifting, and the rhythm of life was speeding up, all of which prompted a need for modern and low-maintenance hairstyles. In 1954 Sassoon opened his first salon in Bond Street, where hairstyling focused on ‘eliminating the superfluous for clean, simple lines with no frills’.14

Firebird, 1982, Hair by Tim Hartley for Vidal Sassoon, Color and Perm by John Besson, Photo by Robyn Beeche, image courtesy of SASSOON.

During a trip to the USA in 1961 Sassoon came in contact with the New Bauhaus architecture in Chicago and New York created by Mies van der Rohe. He visualised a clear analogy between the architectural design for a city and the design of a form for a face. This idea was tantamount to a revolution in hair fashion. Sassoon also once had the opportunity to talk with Marcel Breuer about shapes, bone structure and angles and how he was influenced by geometry and architecture, as is the case of the Whitney Museum.15

Sassoon’s reception of the Bauhaus needs to be regarded as a productive process. On the one hand, he was inspired by the aesthetic admiration for a specific aspect of the Bauhaus tradition. On the other hand, he was seeking answers to the questions that the era posed for the hairdressing craft. The study of rational design in terms of techniques and materials was only the first step in the development of a new and modern sense of beauty. As he mentioned, he ‘dreamt (about) hair in geometry; squares, triangles, oblongs and trapezoids’ and understood hair as an organic material in movement that needed to be treated as such.16 He took the essential quality of the material as a basis and used the inherent structure of the hair itself to create a form which would allow the hair to swing freely and still stay in form. This is to say, the structure of Sassoon’s hair designs ensured that hair regained its original style after washing, either by simply combing it or with a minimum of styling (blow-drying). If the cut was right, the customer would be able to reproduce the hairstyle at home and styling products were only used to strengthen structures already created by the cut.

Sassoon’s most creative period was between 1954 and 1963. His first master piece was Nancy Kwan’s haircut for the film The Wild Affair but probably his most iconic cut was Grace Coddington’s five-point cut. An ‘accident’, according to Sassoon, but also one of the hardest geometrical cuts to achieve. It was the culmination of all the earlier architectural shapes—cuts characterised by their geometric look, based on very sharp lines—that the team and him had created over the ten previous years.

There is also a clear Bauhaus influence in Vidal Sassoon’s training system. The techniques developed by Sassoon enabled procedures which could be learned systematically. His training program relies on a geometric method that teaches how to control the material (hair) rather than considering it as an ornamental feature, keeping in mind that the result should be a functional haircut for the wearer and easy to replicate on the following hairdressing appointment.17

The programme is split into three categories and has certain similarity to the teaching structure at the Bauhaus, where first-year students took part of a basic training (preliminary course). Afterwards and depending on the individual skills and preferences of the students they entered specialised workshops. The first stage or Classical year in Sassoon’s program introduces the trainee to the basic cutting techniques and conventional hairdressing skills. Students are taught the foundations of materials properties, composition, and colour theory. The Sassoon ABC colouring method, for example, pays special attention to Johannes Itten’s principles of colour in The Art of Colour and the colour wheel to teach trainees how colours coordinate, react, neutralise and complement each other. During the second training category or Contemporary, Sassoon trainees to start their specialisation in advanced cutting techniques or advanced colouring and perming and their interaction according to their particular interests. The third stage or Creative training allows trainees to focus on their individual creative development.18

The overall philosophy behind the Vidal Sassoon training program is ‘solid craftmanship as the basis for creativity’.19 They believe that by teaching the fundamentals students will then be able to specialise and to interpret the principles creatively, encouraging them to bring their own personality to the fore. The hairstylist, believed Sassoon, in similarity to the architect or designer, must be equipped for the modern world in various aspects—artistic, technical, social, economic and spiritual, so that he may function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.

The legacy and influence of the Bauhaus in the UK permeated Foundation Courses in Art schools across the country that led to a transformation in the arts and creative industries but also by gradually influencing popular and youth culture, as the Vidal Sassoon hair design revolution shows.

  • 1 Moholy-Nagy only lived for a short period of time in the Isokon building and then moved to Golders Green. See David Burke: The Lawn Road Flats. Spies, Writers and Artists, History of British Intelligence, Boydell Press, Suffolk 2014.
  • 2 Catherine Moriarty: "Joseph Emberton: The Architecture of Display," in: Pallant House Magazine, No. 34, 2015,
  • 3 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality. M.I.T. Press, Cambridge 1969, p. 63.
  • 4 Michael Lawrence and Karen Lury: The Zoo and Screen Media: Images of Exhibition and Encounter, Screening Spaces (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016), 234; Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli, Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925–1950, Film Europa, Berghahn Books, New York 2013.
  • 5 Dietrich Neumann, Donald Albrecht & David Winton Bell Gallery (Brown University) (eds.): Film Architecture. Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner, Prestel, Munich/New York 1999.
  • 6 Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone: Things to Come, 16mm, 2011.
  • 7 Paul Jarvis and Keith Williams: Mapping the Airways, Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2016; Paul Jarvis: British Airways. An Illustrated History, Amberley, Gloucestershire 2014.
  • 8 Oliver Green: Frank Pick’s London. Art, Design and the Modern City, Hardback edition, V&A Publishing, in association with London Transport Museum, London 2013; David Bownes, Oliver Green & Jonathan Black (eds.): London Transport Posters. A Century of Art and Design, Lund Humphries, Aldershot/Burlington/London; In association with London Transport Museum 2008.
  • 9 Burke: The Lawn Road Flats. Spies, Writers and Artists; Dirk Nishen, Edith Tudor Hart. The Eye of Consciousness, Dirk Nishen Publishing, London 1987.
  • 10 Elena Crippa: "Basic Design," Curatorial text presented during the exhibition Basic Design, Tate Britain, 25 March – 25 September 2013, 2013.
  • 11 Richard Robin Yeomans: The Foundation Course of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton 1954–1966, Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1987.
  • 12 Mary Quant: "'He Freed Us as Much as the Pill and Mini-Skirts.' Mary Quant Pays Tribute to Vidal Sassoon, Whose Scissors Made the 60s Swing," Daily Mail, 5 November 2012, Online edition,
  • 13 Johanna Agerman Ross and Kristina Rapacki: "Vidal Sassoon and the Bauhaus," in: Disegno, 12 May 2012,
  • 14 Vidal Sassoon: Vidal. The Autobiography, Macmillan, London 2010.
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Craig Teper: Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, 2010.
  • 17 Susie Mutch, Mark Hayes & Edward Darley: Vidal Sassoon, the Bauhaus and training, 26 November 2018.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Vidal Sassoon et al.: Vidal Sassoon and the Bauhaus, Cantz, Ostfildern 1994.
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