“Women’s work.” It’s a phrase that’s often applied to tasks viewed as simple, routine, and “soft.” It’s a point of view made plain, surprisingly, at an avant gárde training ground for architects, artists, and designers: the Bauhaus.
From 1919 to 1933, this influential school in Germany combined fine arts and design with a craft-based curriculum that included metalworking, cabinetmaking, pottery, and typography. The result was a kind of utopian guild where artists and craftspeople together created functional and beautiful objects. Well-known architects and painters including Mies van der Rohe, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky were among the faculty members who taught at the school.
Those who led workshops at Bauhaus were called masters, and part of Bauhaus philosophy was an easy-going relationship between masters and students. But for all its modernist thinking and many female students, there was only one female master: Gunta Stölzel. In 1927, after significant complaints about the male weaving master, Stölzel was given the title of young master and entrusted with the leadership of the weaving workshop precisely because it was considered “women’s work.” She had been a Bauhaus student for six years.
The workshop thrived under Stölzel’s oversight: she studied and taught dye techniques, had an excellent grasp of the technical aspects of complicated weaving, and embraced the lessons in abstract design that were hallmarks of Bauhaus training. The all-female weaving students’ meticulously crafted textiles affirmed the Bauhaus philosophy of “serving the room” as part of an overall design. It became the most financially successful workshop at the Bauhaus, providing much-needed funds to support the entire organization.
During the rise of the Third Reich, Bauhaus art and architecture was declared degenerate. Though the school eventually closed, its influence was sustained as Bauhaus proponents emigrated throughout the world; in Tel Aviv’s White City, for example, there are more than 4,000 Bauhaus buildings. Stölzel moved to Switzerland where she continued to design and weave, producing works throughout her life. Her textiles extended the vocabulary of weaving from traditional figurative motifs to abstract designs, and her work continues to influence weavers today. Recent exhibitions of her work include a 1990 show at New York’s MoMA, and 1987 and 1997 exhibitions at museums throughout Germany. Design Within Reach reproduced three of her designs in 2007.
Stölzel took the lessons of Bauhaus and applied them to “women’s work,” creating textiles that were not mere floor coverings, but an integral part of a room’s ambience. That these designs feel as modern and fresh as they did nearly a century ago is significant. Contemporary rug designer Matthew Bourne writes, “It is a testament to Stölzel’s great talent is that her work transcends the boundaries of time and place.”
In the year before taking over workshop leadership, Stölzel herself wrote: “Weaving is primarily a woman’s 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 field of textiles.”
What do you think? Have attitudes have changed significantly since the days of the Bauhaus? Do gendered crafts still exist?
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.