Contemplations: A Matter of Material

Exploring the history of woodcraft and material understanding at the Bauhaus & Black Mountain College

We are told that Diogenes of Sinope cast aside his wooden bowl upon seeing a boy sip water from his own cupped hand. The philosopher, known for his asceticism, was in that moment reminded of an even more unassuming means of drinking—and he sought to employ it. Few people seem to have followed his example. In the wake of industrialization—and somewhat ironically given its commonplace origin—the once humble wooden bowl has become a rarified design object often associated with a tradition of skill and handcraft. Kalon’s wooden tableware collection however, belongs to a little-known—and quintessentially modernist—genealogy of wood turning as it was practiced at the Bauhaus.

Among the more obscure objects made at the Bauhaus in Weimar are a series of wooden bowls, boxes, serving trays, and cups manufactured in the short-lived Wood-Turning Workshop. The Wood-Carving Workshop was an instructional unit of the Bauhaus in which student members engaged in practical work under the tutelage of Georg Muche, Oskar Schlemmer, and others. The Wood-Turning Workshop, by contrast, was an independent entity consisting of but one member—Eberhard Schrammen. A former Bauhaus student who managed a private wood-turning studio in Weimar, Schrammen was invited to move his operation to a workspace at the Bauhaus, where it remained from 1923 until the school moved to Dessau in 1925. In exchange for this space and the use of a newly motorized lathe, the objects Schrammen produced at the school would be owned, marketed, and sold by the Bauhaus, as were his wares at the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition. 

In keeping with the recently adopted Bauhaus credo “art and technology: a new unity,” Schrammen produced household items with simplified forms that, in principle, were suited for mass production. Many of the more evidently manufacturable objects made by members of the Wood-Carving Workshop—like Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s kleines schiffbauspiel (1923), a set of twenty-one painted building blocks for children that could be arranged in the shape of a ship, and Josef Hartwig’s bauhaus-schachspiel (1923) or chess set—were manufactured, marketed, and remain in production. Yet the outputs of the Wood-Turning Workshop were not fabricated in large numbers; we know of them largely through a series of photographs taken by Lucia Moholy. 

Upon the school’s move to Dessau, the Bauhaus curriculum became less craft oriented (the Wood-Turning, Ceramics, and Bookbinding Workshops were disbanded) and increasingly directed toward its ambition of forming partnerships with industry. Toward this end, László Moholy-Nagy had been hired to teach at the school in 1923; that same year, Bauhaus student Josef Albers was promoted to the teaching staff. These artists shared responsibility for teaching the school’s re-envisioned Preliminary Course, a gateway course in which students investigated an array of materials (including wood) with an attentiveness to their potential usefulness in design—an organic approach to design by way of material understanding shared by Kalon. 

Moholy-Nagy and Albers emigrated to the United States in the 1930s, with Moholy-Nagy serving as the founding director of The New Bauhaus in Chicago (later known as the School of Design) and Albers joining the faculty of Black Mountain College. At the School of Design, James Prestini, who came to wood-turning as a hobbyist, taught courses in basic design and product design. In 1939, he designed his own set of wood-turned dishes, straight-forward pieces described as “having eternal shapes devoid of individual whimsey” in Moholy-Nagy’s text Vision in Motion. Prestini devoted several sessions of his Basic Design course to making wooden hand sculptures. Crafting hand sculptures as part of a course in basic design was an exercise introduced to the school by former Bauhaus student Hin Bredendieck. It was meant to encourage students to use their hands (and hand tools) to “feel, catch, press, weigh, move, and twist” wood into shapes that felt comfortable in the hand. As had been the case at the Bauhaus, School of Design students were encouraged to design objects that might serve as prototypes for industry; the tactile sensitivity that resulted from making a hand sculpture might inform the design of a hammer’s grip, for example. But the primary goal of the exercise was to model for students the inextricable relationship between material and form; that an object’s form could be intimately informed by the unique properties of the chosen raw material, as employed by the designer. 

Those familiar with the Bauhaus today will recognize this concept. A material way of thinking was central to Albers’s pedagogical approach at Black Mountain College and is perhaps the most lasting legacy of the program, influencing art and design schools and designers to this day. It was central to his color instruction, the most widely known of Albers’s teachings. By observing the result of placing pieces of variously colored paper in repeated juxtaposition, he taught students that color perception was subjective and, importantly, how this could be manipulated by the artist toward aesthetic ends. Students employed a similarly comparative method in exercises known as matière, in which the the surfaces of different objects were placed in juxtaposition visually in a way that elided their physical difference—how crumpled paper could be made to exhibit the visual weight of  a gnarled piece of wood, for instance. Through these investigations of material, students discovered how the inherent properties of a material could be employed in design and learned that art-making was a dynamic process involving material and artist. 

Although a liberal arts college, the woodworking shop at Black Mountain, managed first by Robert Bliss, then by Molly Gregory (who also was an instructor in woodworking,) and later by Harry Weitzer, was especially busy. It furnished several campus buildings and was open to students for various independent projects. In 1946, Mim Sihvonen arrived at Black Mountain after completing her service as nurse during World War II. She studied general education and, in her free time, made furniture and turned plates in the woodworking shop. Students and faculty at Black Mountain dined on ceramic dishes, and Sihvonen would return to nursing, yet, nearly seventy-five years later, her work has inspired Kalon’s wooden tableware collection, which extends a distinctive tradition of modernist woodturning—and an aspiration to marry fine craftsmanship manufacture—into the present.