What Makes A Watch Bauhaus?
How an overarching, progressive, modern design movement originating in Europe now touches our lives, and our wrists, all around the globe.
In 1919 German architect Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus School in Weimar, a city in central Germany. Gropius expressed his product design philosophy this way: “A thing is determined by its essence. In order to make it work properly – a vessel, a chair, a house – its essence must first be explored; for it must serve its purpose perfectly, i.e., fulfill its function practically, be durable, inexpensive and ‘beautiful’.”
The curriculum of the school combined the study of fine art and craft. Painters learned from carpenters, industrial designers studied with bookbinders, architects signed up for courses in metal work, and sculptors took lessons from textile workers.
The Pillars of Bauhaus
Crucial to the Bauhaus philosophy was an understanding of a kind of egalitarian production so that the output of the creators became available to everyone, not just the elite.
Bauhaus favored basic shapes: the rectangle, square, triangle and circle and primary colors, like red, blue and yellow along with black, white and green.
Gropius himself designed the school’s buildings; each one an amalgam of rectangles and squares with flat roofs, and big windows. Inside, large classrooms featured excellent acoustics, making hearing the teachers easy, while straight hallways and wide staircases facilitated finding your way around. These buildings perfectly served their pedagogical purpose.
Spreading the Design
On a smaller scale, in 1922 Gropius devised a door handle consisting of a lever attached to a rectangular plate: revolutionary at the time, but commonplace today.
In 1933 the Nazis forced the closure of the school. Many faculty and students emigrated to the United States. Gropius acquired a position at Harvard. Others taught at the influential Black Mountain art school in North Carolina.
When Bauhaus’ guiding lights departed Germany, it ceased to be a school and became an international movement influencing art, architecture, and design.
From Bauhaus to Your House...
When you ask the question “What makes a watch Bauhaus?”, you might as well ask the larger question of “What makes the modern world Bauhaus?”. We are surrounded by the influences of the design movement in architecture, decor and even gadgets, oftentimes without really recognizing those details. Today, much of what’s on offer at IKEA and Muji has roots in Bauhaus as do many Apple products.
As for watches…even some pedestrian research and legwork points to Bauhaus-aligned timepieces like: Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Collection, Omega’s Speedmaster, the Junghans Max Bill Collection and just about everything from watchmakers Ochs und Junior.
...And to Your Wrist
There is a general consensus out there that the first Bauhaus watch was the Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 96 of 1932. The watch features a circular yellow gold case with a flat bezel, and a dial with angular Dauphine hands, trapezoidal hour markers, and a subtle seconds dial at six o’clock.
The Calatrava Ref. 96 shows that the Bauhaus movement, like the earlier Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles, penetrated the inner sanctum of Swiss watchmaking early on.
Two of the most important exponents of Bauhaus design for the wrist are French architect/watchmaker Alain Silberstein and the German brand NOMOS Glashütte.
Historically, toys, such as spinning tops and building blocks, were among the first and most recognizable Bauhaus products. Silberstein’s work taps into this playful side of the design movement.
On his Bauhaus Krono timepiece, the crown is a red triangle, the chronograph start pusher is yellow circle, and the reset pusher is a blue square. The hands are red, blue and yellow with white accents. Most striking is the hour hand: a red triangle with three white dots.
This is a serious watch with a Valjoux 7751 movement and additional complications: a day/night indicator, a calendar, day and date display, moon phases and a 24-hour dial. But like those early Bauhaus toys, the watch just screams fun.
To consider the connections between watchmaker NOMOS Glashütte and Bauhaus, let’s return to Gropius: “A thing is determined by its essence”. The essence of time is movement. That’s one of the reasons we use phrases like time flies or time waits for no one.
The essence of a watch is timekeeping. The essence of timekeeping is movement. Put another way, a watch keeps track of time – a moving phenomenon - by moving. The movement moves (okay that’s a tautology) as do the hands.
Gropius also said a Bauhaus object “must serve its purpose perfectly, i.e., fulfil its function practically, be durable, inexpensive and ‘beautiful’.”
A NOMOS watch (like many watches) meets the test of practicality and durability. The twenty-six watches of the current NOMOS Tangente Collection are less than $5,000, and many are under $2,000. Inexpensive by today’s standards.
Much commentary on Bauhaus watches invokes the ideas of simplicity or minimalism. Yet, Gropius mentions neither. He calls for “beautiful.”
A look at any NOMOS Tangente reveals an unadorned case and a thin bezel bracketed by unobtrusive angular lugs that emphasize the circularity of the watch and provide visual unity. Color choices for the numerals, markers, hands and dial afford legibility by enhancing contrast—a practical and beautiful outcome.
The numerals and markers also form a pattern, a repeated arrangement of similar shapes and lines. Your eyes want to follow them around the dial. The rhythm of the design leading your eyes around the dial is just another form of the movement so central to time’s essential properties.
On the dial and case, every element is of the right proportion. No element is too big or too small. The hands relate to the numerals and markers; the crown relates to the case in precisely the right size.
The Tangente is a harmonious visual whole. And that’s only the dial.
From the Inside, Out
The design of NOMOS movements follows the same principles. The manual-wind Alpha movement displays visual harmony, not just mechanical efficiency. The sense of visual harmony is most pronounced on the following DUW 1001 and the DUW 2002 movements with their three-quarter plates and radiating Glashütte stripes.
There are many other Bauhaus touches in the NOMOS collections; color and movement on the power reserve indicator for the Metro Date Power Reserve and color and movement on the calendar on the Metro Neomatic Update.
Perhaps the best conclusion to reach about the NOMOS/Bauhaus relationship is that the connection proves that not everything in the watch world revolves around brand ambassadors wearing a watch at the Oscars. The wider world does effect watchmaking, and for the better.
(Photography by Watchonista, other sources mentioned)