An article by Matthew Bourne of Christopher Farr Rugs, that appeared in the autumn 2005 issue of Modern Carpets + Textiles.
Form and Function
Despite the enduring influence of the Bauhaus, little is known about the innovative Bauhaus weaver Gunta Stölzl. Matthew Bourne of Christopher Farr Rugs explains how his company came to weave some of her ground-breaking designs and speaks to Stölzls daughter Monica Stadler about her mothers work.
The Bauhaus school established in Germany in 1919, has near legendary status in the art-and-design community as the seedbed of modernist theory on all aspects of design - from the buildings of Mies van de Rohe to the iconic furniture of Marcel Breuer. But little is known about the work of Gunta Stölzl (1897-1983), the only female 'Master', who from 1927 to 1931 directed the Bauhaus weaving workshop which was one of the most prolific and profitable of all the Bauhaus departments.
Given textiles' and rugs perennial poor-relation status in the field of applied arts, this is not surprising. The people involved in the weaving workshop were exclusively women, who had often found themselves assigned there after entering the Bauhaus as would-be artists and architects. It seems that the progressive thinking for which the Bauhaus was famed did not necessarily end to extend to the roles of women in the design community. An article from the Bauhaus journal Offset in 1926 states: weaving is primarily a womans field of work. The play with form and colour, an enhanced sensitivity to material, the capacity of adaptation, rhythmical rather than logical thinking, are frequent female traits of character stimulating women to creative activity in the fields of textiles.
But Stölzl and her colleagues took the same rational thought process that characterised the Bauhaus approach to architecture and other products, and applied it to textiles. Bauhaus designers had initially seen weavings as 'pictures made of wool, but subsequently arrived at the conclusion that a rug or other textile is determined equally by two considerations: its intended end use and factors of its production - in other words, form and function.
Having accepted that a textiles uses would always be limited by the way it was produced and the materials it was made with (a runner made of woven paper would be of scant use for the floor of a hallway, for example), other considerations came into play, the most important of which was the principle that Stölzl held dear: that a textile has to be a surface and always have the effect of a surface. This meant that the weaving workshop consciously moved away from attempting to reproduce realistic floral patterns or pictorial images - rugs pretending to be pictures - and concentrated on carpets as space-defining objects that drew interest through the use of colour, geometry and materials to enhance a room, but never dominate it. Wall-hangings and tapestries were not subject to the restrictions imposed by other elements in the room. Weavers could give full vent to artistic expression as long as they remained sympathetic to the technique used. It is interesting that this view of floor-coverings as a supporting act to the main event of what is on the walls is prevalent today. All rug dealers know how important it is for a rug not to be too obtrusive.
Whereas the hand weaving of floor-coverings was seen as a tool for developed techniques that could be adapted for use in mass production the weaving of rugs and wall-hangings was viewed as a direct method of production. The weaving workshop benefited from its proximity to the architectural department. The architects had a direct influence on the production of the weavers, with requirements for furnishing textiles for specific architectural schemes. The Prellerdecke, a bedspread designed by Stölzl, was used for all the ateliers in the Bauhaus. Weaving techniques were largely self-taught through a process of trial and error and by looking at existing tribal weavings.
Stölzl's designs have influenced a new generation of textile designers. I first became aware of her rug designs when the influential designer Jack Lenor Larsen contacted my partner Christopher Farr about the possibility of producing hand-knotted carpets in Turkey from some of her designs. Jack had known Stölzl in her later years and was keen to see some of her designs that had never been woven produced. We were delighted to have the opportunity to do so. In 1997 we produced a flatweave for display alongside original work for a retrospective exhibition in the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Encouraged by the experience and the response to this first experiment we went on to produce a small collection of hand-knotted rugs and flatweaves that were exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London in the autumn of 2000. We are now launching our second collection of limited edition Stölzl-designed carpets.
The process for realising the rugs was problematic given that the technical specification of much of the artwork was unclear and was often labelled only as 'design for a rug' or something similar. We worked closely with her daughters Monica Stadler and Yael Aloni, and spent hours poring over artwork at Victoria & Albert Museum, soliciting input from the people who knew her best. An extensive period of sampling was necessary to achieve the colour, shade and intensity the sisters thought best represented their mother's original intentions and to produce the carpets to a scale that we all thought appropriate. This would sometimes mean producing a rug in dimensions that would be considered uncommercial in today's market, such as the long narrow carpet illustrated on the last page of this article. But we embarked on the project because of our desire to create unrealized designs that had touched us on a level that went beyond more humdrum considerations like will this rug work with this year's colours?' and trusted that what was apparent to us would, in turn, be apparent to our customers and collectors.
What has been interesting, not to say ironic, given the Bauhaus ethos, is the very strong response the carpets receive from people on an artistic level. They are seen as more than designs for floor-coverings but as decorative objects that can be hung on walls but that work within a decorative scheme when placed on the floor and surrounded by furniture. Anyone who has attempted to design and market rugs will understand that this is a trick that is very hard to pull off. It is testament to Stölzls great talent that her work transcends the boundaries of time and place.