From Dresser to Bauhaus

There's an interesting link between one of the first British industrial designers Christopher Dresser and Walter Gropius' Bauhaus Manifesto. Dresser (1834-1904) published Principles of Decorative Design (1870) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969) published the Bauhaus Manifesto in 1919, only fifteen years after Dresser's death. Both texts focus on unity of the arts and an approach to design characterized by utility and purpose of design, design innovation, and individual creativity freed from the shackles of prescriptive that occured in tandem with the design patterns books. Curiously, the link can also be seen in two illustrations from both publications.


Design pattern books were highly influential for those involved in applied design and design for the built environment from the mid-eighteenth through the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

During this period, design pattern books proliferated providing inspiration for some, while others simply copied designs found within these books. Early examples included Langley’s The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs (1741) and Cruden’s Convenient and Ornamental Architecture (1797). Pattern books, featuring multiple designs illustrated in black and white, were widely used during this period. 

Subsequent design pattern books featured color and key examples include Hulme’s Principles of Ornamental Art (1875) plus The Grammar of Ornament (1856) by British architect Owen Jones, who aimed to develop a new visual language for color and design. Jones’ design involvement with the Great Exhibition saw him become one of the most influential designers in Britain.  He created illustrations for The Grammar of Ornament using pen, ink, and gouache which were reproduced as lithographs for the text. During the nineteenth century, traditional color theory developed and spread considerably due to the influence of Owen Jones.

Jones’ protégé Christopher Dresser was one of the first independent industrial designers. He published The Art of Decorative Design (1862) and Principles of Decorative Design (1873). In these texts, he focused on design patterns and also discussed traditional color theory, providing multiple suggestions for color in design. During this era, design pattern books also proliferated across Europe including Polychromatic Ornament (1877) by Auguste Racinet (French cultural historian, painter) and Handbook of Ornament (1892) by Franz Sales Meyer, Professor at the School of Applied Art in Karlsruhe. Design patterns books also emerged in design education such as Day’s Pattern Design: A Book for Students (1915), and these often featured a prescriptive approach to color and design. 

Of the design pattern books, perhaps the most influential was Dresser's Principles of Decorative Design. In this book, he heralded a new approach to design and color application that was less prescriptive and more exploratory. This approach was also evident in key texts of the twentieth century including those of Josef Albers and Johannes Itten, as well as the curriculum and pedagogy of the Bauhaus. This exploratory approach to design and color better suited the needs of designers and architects during the early twentieth century, who required more than prescriptive, one-size-fits-all design and color options for their wide range of differing design projects. It also enabled architects and designers to explore brave new directions in design and color, and forge new paths forward that were characterized by innovation and individual creativity. 

During the mid-nineteenth century and especially the early twentieth century (before the advent of computer-assisted design), design ideation and conceptualization by architects and designers entailed creating visual imagery by hand. To this end, design maquettes and renderings featured pencil, pen, ink, and watercolor or bodycolor paint, the latter substituted eventually by gouache. These methods were used to actualize intended designs for building, manufacturing, or printing.

In this context, gouache provided a highly useful medium due to its capacity to dry quickly, provide opaque color coverage plus large flat areas of color with hard borders between colors to enable clarity of design definition, plus it had the capacity to provide an immeasurable range of color nuances from a limited palette. Architects and designers used gouache to quickly create full-color renderings and explore different design and color options. In using this methodology, they were able to evaluate different design options and determine whether they were fit-for-purpose and effective in terms of the intended aims of each project. 

Exploring the link between Christopher Dresser and the Bauhaus needs a quick recap of the origins of this highly influential design school. The history of the Bauhaus dates back to the Deutscher Werkbund, which was an association of artists, designers, architects and industrialists founded in 1907 in Munich. Among the twleve that established the Werkbund were Peter Behrens, Henry van de Velde, and Josef Hoffmann.6 

Established to create a partnership to promote competitiveness in German design and manufacturing, a key member was the highly influential architect and designer Peter Behrens who employed Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius in his design consultancy. Gropius went on to found the Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. The Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925 and Berlin in 1932; and Van Der Rohe was director of the Bauhaus from 1930 until the school was closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Gropius explained his ideas behind the Bauhaus in the founding Manisfesto. In this text, Gropius did not demand a new style or form of art but a fundamental reform of the entirety of artistic work. Gropuis' aim was to unify all forms of art and design, including painting, craftwork, through to industrial and architectural design.

The cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto features an image with strong patterns of similarity to Dresser's sketch, both visually and philosophically.  The Bauhaus Manifesto served as a promotional tool during the establishment of the Bauhaus in 1919 amd its cover featured a woodcut (1919) by Lyonel Feininger. In this woodcut, Feininger aimed to embody the hopes of the Bauhaus. The artwork features angular, diagonal lines with a cathedral-type building projecting purposefully from the centre of the woodcut. The image is dynamic and conveys a sense of the energy and optimism that characterized the founding of the Bauhaus. In addition, the woodcut technology and the graphic imagery of the artwork also provides a visual link to an almost medieval aesthetic while also hinting at the mass production techniques that became prevalent in the twentieth century and which underpinned design at the Bauhaus. 

Gropius was keen to unify the arts and bring them together in a school that encouraged architects, painters and designers to learn “a new way of seeing and understanding the composite of the building, both as a totality and in terms of its parts. Their work will then re-imbue itself with the spirit of architecture, which it lost in salon art” (Gropius, Bauhaus Manifesto, 1919). The cathedral served as a “symbol of a new belief to come" ( Gropius, 1919, Bauhaus Manifesto). This belief became paramount for Gropius in tandem with his desire to unify the arts and engender positive change in the future.   

Dresser's sketch, The Principles of Decorative Design (1870) and Feininger's woodcut, Bauhaus Manifesto (1919). 

The cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto features an image with strong patterns of similarity to Dresser's sketch; similarities that are both visual and symbolic.  

In reference to his sketch (Figure 12, The Principles of Decorative Design, 1870), Dresser notes,  “I have given in this chapter an original sketch (Fig. 12), in which I have sought to embody chiefly the one idea of power, energy, force, or vigour; and in order to this, I have employed such lines as we see in the bursting buds of spring, when the energy of growth is at its maximum, and especially such as to be seen in the spring growth of a luxuriant tropical vegetation; I have also availed myself of those forms to be seen in certain bones of birds which are associated with the organs of flight, and which give us an impression of great strength, as well as those observable in the powerful propelling fins of certain species of fish” (Dresser, 1870, p17). 

For Dresser, the vigour, energy, power and force found in nature are paramount. He sees nature as a key source of inspiration for design (as opposed to design pattern books) and wanted to embody the key traits of nature across all aspects of the production and application of design. However, he also sets his sights most definitely on utility of design and in fact, this is the first of the principles of design that he discusses in The Principles of Decorative Design. While Dresser echoes Keats' dictum, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, he notes the importance of ‘economy of materials’, ‘truth, beauty and power’, ‘fitness of purpose’, and ‘utility’, noting “the first aim of the designer of any article must be to render the object which he produces useful” (Dresser, 1870, p17). Dresser also intermingles design in respect to ornament and architecture, and like Gropius, he aimed to unify the the arts, providing principles that had relevance across applied design and architectural design. 

It is interesting to note that Dresser's sketch is the only expressive illustration in The Principles of Decorative Design; all other illustrations are of a practical nature and intended as inspiration for design. It is also interesting to note that Feininger's rough woodcut illustration did not reflect the clean lines and smooth shapes that were evident across the design ouput of the Bauhaus. 


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Woodcut (1919) by Lyonel Feininger which featured on the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto. Accessed from

About the author - Dr Zena O’Connor established Design Research Associates in 2006 and has focussed on evidence-based color strategies, insight, and recommendations for applied design and the built environment. Zena has completed numerous color design projects across commercial, residential and the healthcare and aged care sectors. A designer by training, Zena’s PhD research (Faculty of Architecture, Design & Planning, University of Sydney) investigated color in the built environment. She has developed and taught courses at university (Sydney University and the University of NSW) and published 70+ peer-reviewed academic articles on color in applied design and the built environment.

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