Bauhaus Weaving Theory (U Minnesota Press)

Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (University of Minnesota Press: 2014)

The Bauhaus often finds itself name checked in education circles – in my experience evoked with an air of knowing vagueness when referring to the founding model of the art school, while bemoaning the challenges facing post-merger art education within British Universities today. In fairness the history of the Bauhaus – which opened in the German city of Weimar in 1919, before moving to Dessau and later Berlin before closing its doors under Nazi party pressure in 1933 – offers us a lot of lessons. And we are badly in need of few good ideas in arts education these days.

The Bauhaus ideal to integrate art, design and theoretical teaching is a tantalising challenge that continues to face curriculum development today. But Smith, an assistant professor of art history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, doesn’t stray into this well trodden territory. Instead she examines – at times forensically – the writings produced by a number of weavers associated with the Bauhaus. Acknowledging all that has already been written about the Bauhaus, she explains, “Little to none of the current scholarship, however, has critically analysed how the weavers shaped their craft through text, or how their textual pursuits significantly engaged with thought on craft and media more generally.” Rather than dwell on the physical output of the weave studio she focuses on the “value and significance in the work they [the Bauhaus weavers] did as writers.”

Smith acknowledges that the book began life as a doctoral dissertation. Typically the shift from dissertation to publication involves a phase of rewriting – taking hard won research and excising the academic density to instead create something that a broader audience can stomach. While there is clear evidence of painstaking archival research underpinning her writing, Smith avoids leading the reader through the tortuous jargon of academia. Instead, four chapters establish distinct points of focus: Pictures Made of Wool: weaving labor in the workshop; Towards a Modernist Theory of Weaving: the use of textiles in architectural space; The Haptics of Optics: weaving and photography; Weaving as Invention: patenting authorship.

Throughout, her message seems to be that the writing of the weavers is important to textiles today but, perhaps more crucially, important beyond these disciplinary boundaries. Albers herself pointed to “those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems.” Textile problems: brilliant! What isn’t a textile problem? This is largely Smith’s point. We should pay attention, not so much because of an overriding fascination between the relationship of text and textile (valid though this reading is), but because of the broader implications of relationships between concept and material so fundamental to current debates in art, craft and design.

While Smith writes from the perspective of a historian it is clear that she understands the very stuff of weaving. Her one slip may be a reference to the drafting of woven structures, which she explains capably, but as “esoteric”. Esoteric to the general public perhaps, but even in today’s digital age, the drafting of woven structures is their initial record or plan. The book also labours under an awkward title that seems to play to the stereotypes her writing so adroitly quashes. This is a shame because otherwise the book’s structure is as elegant as the simple, but arresting weavings Albers was so celebrated for creating. Truth be told, writers wield curiously little control over the titles of books’ the bear their names and I wonder if something along these lines is at work here as well. Authorship and agency again – themes in fact that form the very backbone of this compelling research.

Jessica Hemmings

Crafts Magazine (March/April 2015: 64)