Prof explores the theory of design in new book on Bauhaus weaving

“Typically, weaving doesn't have theory. Weaving is crafting, just something that is done, manual, technical ... it doesn't have a venerated history.”

The discipline of painting has Leonardo Da Vinci's A Treatise on Painting, architecture refers to Roman treatises, but the craft of textile has always lacked a theoretical foundation. If the reflection on this thousand-year old craft still lacks material, artists of the German school of the Bauhaus affirmed the unique identity of weaving through a series of theoretical and practical writings.

These writings have now been reviewed and analyzed in depth in T'ai Smith's book Bauhaus Weaving Theory. From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design.

Smith, who is a UBC associate professor of art history and visual arts theory, expanded a dissertation into a full-length book about the very specific Bauhaus weaving workshop. The Staatliches Bauhaus -- from the German for “house of construction,” to be understood as “School of Building” -- was a prominent German school of arts and crafts that put practicality in the heart of their teachings.

“The whole objective was, you know, to 'build a house,' so there was interior design and exterior, architectural work,” said Smith. Of the different workshops that existed from 1919 to 1933, the weaving workshop was one of the most productive.

The Bauhaus weavers bridged a gap between art and craft and paved the way to modern design through their artistic and technical innovations.

“They were actually designing stuff through the process of making,” said Smith. “They would experiment with the use of different material, like cellophane, or various new kind of proto-plastic threads ... they were experimenting with the way that those could be woven, and the structures that they would make.”

The craftsmen and craftswomen referenced this progress, but the nature of their craft -- textile making -- is such that it has been almost entirely disregarded by art history. For Smith, talking about the theory and practice of weaving could even “force art history to reexamine its assumptions and foundations.”

“We are looking at material that might visually be very similar, but actually structurally, the materials are actually quite unique or special,” said Smith. If she stands clear from the claim of industrial weaving as being art, Smith asserts the importance, for design theory, of the discourse around it.

“The weavers were publishing in magazines and in journals, speaking to the wider public,” said Smith. “They used the language of other media, for instance architecture.... They really started to frame their practice through the language of functionalism, which was the discourse at that time of the Neues Bauen, the New Architecture.”

Smith took the example of a famous cloth made of cellophane and chenille, that was used to cover a wall in a theatre. The fabric had both a soundproof effect and light-reflecting one.

“It had sort of a dual functionality, in addition to it being a kind of tactile textile surface. It was very unique,” she said. The use of woven cloth was detailed in the weavers' writings, and in patents that the women who formed the bulk of the workshop submitted to the German authorities.

Architects of the Bauhaus articulated their discourse on the affordability of their design, a criterion of importance in the post-war national economic crisis and weavers took a similar approach. In the words of Smith, “they started to kind of frame it as a utility, as a utility fabric,” contrasting with a preconception of a wall hanging and weaving as a “feminine craft.”

As such, weavers of the Bauhaus laid a milestone in the history of design. That deserved a full-length book.