West dean bauhaus

Friday 18 October 2019
West Dean College of Arts and Conservation


A 17th Century English manor house is about as unlikely a setting as could be imagined for a conference on Bauhaus – the radical and extremely influential modern design school and ethos that was founded in Germany in 1919. Or perhaps not? The day-long conference held at West Dean College in October 2019 generated reflection on how Bauhaus innovations are relevant for contemporary art and craft education, as well as how Bauhaus itself recreated forms of working that that can be identified with a longer tradition of communal forms of making. Throughout the day the audience of around 60 visitors was encouraged to reflect on the forms of idealisation that Bauhaus embodied and the ways that they recur in different contexts.

The setting brought the unexpected manifestations of Bauhaus activity to the fore. West Dean College is a unique organization, founded in 1971 to provide education for a range of traditional craft practice such as tapestry or ceramics. Now an important centre for training in Conservation, the College offers a variety of courses in the plush setting of an English country house furnished as the family left it: delicate portraits of Victorian mothers, stuffed hunting trophies, worn sofas, sculptural displays of armaments in the dining Hall, but also Edward James’s footprint stair carpet, turtle patterned wallpaper, and a lobster telephone. The eclectic setting of West Dean provided a hospitable environment in which to reflect on the social and formal elements of Bauhaus and its legacy.

Presentations by Professors Jeremy Aynsley – a specialist in German graphic design – and Gavin Butt encouraged us to reflect on the relation between idealism and art education in two different contexts: the Bauhaus as it existed in Germany in the early 1920s and the art schools of Leeds where punk music and style thrived in the 1970s and 1980s. The two presentations riffed on completely different source material but remarkably similar preoccupations, that is the extent to which both historical episodes invoke reflection on the role of order, rules and structures in the formation of the utopian environments with which art and design education is frequently associated.

The dialectic of structure and freedom that organizes the teaching of art and design was further explored in two presentations which explored the role of space in Bauhaus narratives. Francine Norris explored the architecture of spaces for communal living which is a framework that unites both Bauhaus, defined by its famous built retreat for teachers and students, with West Dean College. The nature of the space that enables collective working was also the theme of Sarah Kate Wilson’s presentation, which reported on a programme of work undertaken by students of Camberwell College at the invitation of the new Bauhaus Museum at Dessau. Her presentation explored the process of developing a response to the history of the Bauhaus, and the quality of the work that was fostered by the architecture of the reconstructed Bauhaus building and the new museum which has been built alongside it.

The final session of the day was given over to artists who have made work in response to Bauhaus practices and presentations at the De La Warr Pavilion in 2019. Renee So, who won a commission from the De La Warr Pavilion and a residency at the College as part of an anniversary celebration of Bauhaus, spoke in a dialogue with Curator Rosie Cooper about the potential of craft practices and their role in her work. Lauren Godfrey, who created the exhibition Group Hat  in the summer of 2019 working in partnership with members of the community in the De La Warr Pavilion’s home town of Bexhill on Sea. Both presenters were unflinching in their embrace of practices that are nominally denominated as craft and design, as the core of their artistic practice.

And, as chair Joseph Jones enthusiastically reminded us, there was lunch! Not to mention an inspiring setting in the beautiful and welcoming grounds of West Dean College. The autumn wind, together with the thoughtful presentations convened by Sarah Hughes, certainly blew the cobwebs from some overlooked corners of Bauhaus narratives.

Dr Lara Perry