Matching the artwork with the living room couch is one of the perennial concerns of any collector. But when it comes to the Bauhaus, which was as much about designing couches as it was about artworks, finding the right furniture piece shouldn’t be a problem. Or so it seemed to us at the Education Department. During the exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, we imagined turning the reading room space in MoMA’s Cullman building into a Bauhaus Lounge, equipped with Bauhaus furniture for visitors to relax on while they watch a video of a reconstruction of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet or browse through Bauhaus literature. We thought we had enough original Bauhaus-designed chairs lying around MoMA’s buildings that it couldn’t be too hard to put such a lounge together. We do have a Wassily chair (no one remembers where it came from) that sits in the Education offices; we also snatched away a few other chairs from a conference room and two Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs from outside of Glenn Lowry’s office waiting area (his office wants them back after the show).
But as it turns out, it’s not so easy for a non-expert to do a Bauhaus period room without falling for knockoffs or historically inaccurate pieces. Bauhaus furniture was so successful in creating simple and easily-reproducible designs that it’s easy to mistake an authentic piece for an inspired but false offspring. For many of us here, every piece of furniture around MoMA seemed Bauhausian, but as we went through our list of items around the buildings and checked with Chief Curator of Architecture and Design Barry Bergdoll, he quickly deflated our hopes. That stool? That’s an Alvar Aalto. That chair? That’s a Danish piece from the 1990s—nothing to do with Bauhaus. Those tables? They were designed by our talented Director of Exhibition Design Jerry Neuner, but alas, they are not Bauhaus.
The exhibition will definitely help clarify what is Bauhaus design, and it may come as a surprise to viewers that some of the items on view don’t look at all like the commonly held idea of Bauhaus furniture. One of Barry’s favorite pieces in the show is the recently recovered “African” chair by Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stölzl, with an aesthetic far removed from from tubular furniture. That chair, however, is only for viewing.