Heal’s and 100 Years of Bauhaus

2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Bauhaus, one of art and design’s most influential movements. Characterised by clean, streamlined design, it’s had a lasting and widespread impact on everything from architecture to furniture design.

Heal’s was one of the first retailers to introduce Bauhaus to the UK under the guidance to of Ambrose Heal. In this blog, we’re taking a look back at our close ties with the Bauhaus and its influence on design today.

What was the Bauhaus?

The Bauhaus was a German art school established by Walter Gropius in 1919. His vision was to bridge the gap between art and industry by combining architecture, sculpture, and painting into a single creative expression. Prior to his way of thinking, architecture and design were held in higher esteem that craftsmanship and production, but Gropius wanted to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.

Its slogan, “Art into Industry”, highlights the key concepts of Bauhaus design – functional and simple designs that have been stripped down to their basic elements making them suited to mass production. Teachers and students from the Bauhaus school designed some of the 20th century’s most iconic pieces of furniture, including the Barcelona, Wassily, and Brno chairs.

Heal’s and the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus spearheaded a wave of experimental design that swept across northern Europe throughout the following decade. Meanwhile, in the UK, many homes were stuck in the Edwardian and Victorian era with highly decorative furnishings and heavy wallpapers and colours.

However, ever the innovator, Ambrose Heal was determined to bring this new wave of international style to the UK and was one of the first retailers to do so. Through a series of exhibitions entitled ‘Modern Tendencies’, held within the stores Mansard Gallery, Ambrose Heal set about showcasing what was for many visitors their first taste of modernist furniture.

That isn’t to say this new modernist style of furniture was an instant hit with UK audiences. There was an enormous hostility in Britain to the Bauhaus. Frank Pick, the famous design director of London Transport, once said, “Let us leave the continent to pursue their own tricks and go our own way traditionally,” when discussing the design of the British Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1937.

Nevertheless, with each exhibition Heal’s spirit of innovation became more emboldened. In the midst of the Great Depression, Ambrose continued to champion the economy and efficiency of industrially styled furniture. He invested in nationwide promotional campaigns that championed ‘economy furniture’, one of which was ‘Economy with a Difference at Heal’s 1933’ which took a clear step in the Bauhaus direction. The catalogue featured chromium-plated steel furniture, including this chair designed by Mies van der Rohe which sold for £2 9s 6d.

Magnus Englund, director and co-founder of Skandium, describes how Heal was very much ahead of his time. “What was interesting with the product was to see how on trend Heal’s has been through the years. They were the place to go for Arts & Crafts but they also embraced Modernism and quite a stark modernism early on in the late 1920s and early 1930s with black gloss paint and tubular steel, which wasn’t to everyone’s taste at the time.”

The taste for modernist furniture had well and truly been established at Heal’s and, in many ways, the store became a showcase for the movement. By 1936 an exhibition entitled ‘Contemporary Furniture by Seven Architects’ featured the work of another former Bauhaus professor Marcel Breuer.

Having fled to London to escape the oppressive climate of Nazi Germany, Breuer began designing for progressive British manufacturer Isokon – whose head of design also happened to be the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius – with a number of these iconic pieces such as his Long Chair sold at Heal’s.

The Bauhaus was eventually forced to close after 14 years with the rise of the Nazi regime. Yet the movement continued to influence designers for generations to come including some of the most recognised names today – Tom Dixon, Matthew Hilton and Philippe Starck‘s work all reference elements of the distinctive Bauhaus style.

Heal’s played an important part in the introduction of the Bauhaus to Britain, cementing its place in the design movement’s history. We continue to champion new design styles to this day and take inspiration from Ambrose Heal, who saw the beauty of Bauhaus style before many others.

For a deeper dive into the history of the Bauhaus, take a look at our Bauhaus100 Timeline.