The pioneering, simple designs for children’s furniture and toys by Siedhoff-Buscher were undervalued by the Bauhaus, but proved popular with the public then and now
Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (1899–1944) belongs to the first generation of Bauhaus-educated product designers. Judging from her work of the 1920s, she should have been among its most successful students: she was one of the first to design interiors exclusively for children, and her progressive, minimalist aesthetics received great public acclaim.
Having completed several years of arts and crafts training before enrolling at the State Bauhaus in Weimar, in April 1922 Alma Buscher (her maiden name) started the foundation course as a mature student, when it was still taught by its creator, Johannes Itten. She had an affinity with the cult of Mazdaznan, spanning religions and philosophies, which infiltrated the early Bauhaus under Itten. Having converted to Mazdaznan himself, the abstract painter wanted his students to develop their intuition, and brought in meditation and breathing exercises as part of his course. He also attempted to convince the canteen to serve only vegetarian food.
But the year Siedhoff-Buscher arrived at the Bauhaus, the Dutch founder of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg, moved to Weimar and brought his influence to bear on the school. These spiritual ideas proved too far removed from De Stijl’s Rationalism and the Bauhaus’s growing affinity with industry. Itten left the school in March 1923. Siedhoff-Buscher appropriated De Stijl’s basic forms and primary colours, but despite her aesthetic language, she did not receive much support at the Bauhaus, and seems to have always been a reluctant Modernist.
When founder Walter Gropius called for a ‘new unity’ between art and technology that year, Siedhoff-Buscher felt hopeful that her ideals aligned with the school’s direction. This feeling was confirmed when her designs were displayed prominently in the newly built Haus am Horn that summer. While the exhibition was organised by the school to justify the public funds it received, a wide public attended and her multifunctional nursery, designed in 1923, was particularly praised. It remains her most well-known furniture, consisting of a wardrobe, a changing table, a chest, a cot, a linen cupboard, play cupboards with play blocks, a chair on castors and a bench.
The exhibition as a whole was heavily criticised: shapes, colours and products proved too unusual for contemporary taste. ‘Three days in Weimar and one can never look at a square again for the rest of one’s life’, wrote critic Paul Westheim. To the surprise of many, the weaving class (where women were relegated to and considered the school’s lowest status workshop) was spared from the attacks. People were used to abstract motifs in fabrics and the exhibition’s woven pieces received excellent reviews. These same patterns were much less understood or appreciated in paintings by Bauhaus masters Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky or Oskar Schlemmer.
Siedhoff-Buscher’s work stood out because it was a new idea to create furniture for children, and her pieces were modern, multifunctional and aesthetically innovative. Her nappy-changing table, for example, can turn into a writing desk, and with its cut-out window, the dresser’s cabinet becomes a puppet theatre. ‘Children should, if at all possible, have a space where they can be what they want. Everything in it belongs to them – their imagination shapes it’, she wrote of her children’s room at Haus am Horn, ‘they are not bothered by external inhibition … everything suits them, the shape corresponds to their size, practical purpose does not hinder the play possibilities.’
She was heavily influenced by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss pedagogue from the 18th and 19th century, and Italian physician Maria Montessori, who was her contemporary. They initiated an early years’ education movement that supported learning by doing, focusing on the development of social skills and enabling a personalised style of learning. These ideas were seen by many as incompatible with the Bauhaus’s strong love for glass, steel and concrete, but Siedhoff-Buscher never saw a contradiction between the cool design of primary colours and basic forms in combination with Mazdaznan, life reform and pioneering ideas of progressive pedagogy. In the style of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) inspired by De Stjil, Siedhoff-Buscher’s pieces were later displayed in exhibitions across the country. She also had the honour of being featured in the well-known Uhu magazine in an issue featuring Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer – the only woman from the Bauhaus to have been published in such prominent company.
Even as Siedhoff-Buscher was making a reputation for herself outside the school, the Bauhaus was far from applauding her success. After the exhibition, Walter Gropius critiqued the carpentry workshop that had produced her items: ‘What has been done there is little’. The director and his team were concerned that the Bauhaus would be categorised as a mere arts and crafts school, which would have implied a feminisation of the institution, lowering its status in their eyes. They flipped the criticism on its head, and claimed the vast majority of the products on display were rejected by the public because they were too avant-garde. If the women’s works were so popular, they argued, it must be due to the fact that they were not avant-garde enough. Textiles were not made of new or progressive materials, nor was children’s furniture something the Bauhaus wanted to be identified with. Rather than resulting in further recognition and support of her work, the public’s praise turned into a questionable affair.
While the public acclaim for Siedhoff-Buscher was exceptional, she made little of it. She remained dependent on the Bauhaus to manufacture her products, but the carpentry workshop was not adequately prepared for the rising demand. She was an exception because she never joined and stuck to a particular workshop to complete her apprenticeship. As a woman, she would have had to join the weaving workshop, which she refused. Her ideas opened the doors to the carpentry workshop when preparing the Haus am Horn exhibition in 1923 – she was the only woman to be granted access to this space otherwise reserved for men. From 1924, the doors closed again.
Another school rule was that design and execution should be done single-handedly: that the person creating a design should also be the one to execute it. Since she did not have the required training to fabricate her toys and pieces of furniture, she relied on a male apprentice to build what she had drawn on paper. The school’s rules, set with male students in mind, bluntly disregarded the needs of female students.
While it had been socially acceptable to be a follower of the Mazdaznan cult in Weimar, the profile of the Bauhaus shifted once it moved to Dessau in 1925. Attempting to strengthen its reputation and raise its stature, the importance of science and architecture in the curriculum was emphasised, although architecture itself was not taught until 1927.
In 1926, she married the actor Werner Siedhoff (whose name she took, becoming Alma Siedhoff-Buscher) and gave birth to their first child that year. In 1928 their second child was born. It is not surprising that she did not present a lot of new work during that time, although she remained enrolled at the school. Dissatisfied with her situation, she wrote to Gropius in September 1927: ‘I cannot spare the Bauhaus the accusation that it has been doing me more harm than good lately.’ In her letter, she highlighted the ‘response of numerous magazines’ that were featuring her work and pointed out that the school had not acknowledged this, and remained unwilling to ramp up production of her pieces. ‘Will not every serious buyer who is dealt an evasive answer several times be put off my work?’, she asked rhetorically. ‘Doesn’t that undermine my entire reputation?’ A month later, the Bauhaus council of masters decided to officially advertise and sell her furniture. It was a decision taken because the school urgently needed money and it didn’t change the fact that customers had to wait a long time for their furniture to arrive. One of the lucky clients was Nikolaus Pevsner, who bought a Ti24 cabinet – one of the components of the Haus am Horn’s nursery.
Siedhoff-Buscher also designed toys, among them Wurfpuppen, light, soft but durable woven dolls that could be tossed around or thrown in the air before landing gracefully, and Bützelspiel, simple building blocks for creating complex structures. Most popular was the Schiffbauspiel, still being sold today, consisting of solid wooden blocks assembled into a sailing boat. She published two books with cut-out patterns to make a sail boat and a crane, in 1927 and 1930 respectively. Siedhoff-Buscher understood toys as ‘not something finished – as offered by those luxury stores’, but instead as tools with and through which ‘the child develops, in fact it pursues – it searches’.
Before deciding to leave the Bauhaus, she made one last attempt to improve her situation and bluntly asked Gropius if he thought her work was useless. Her worries were confirmed. The director spoke of the ‘fate of her activity’ and explained that he saw her at the margins of the school, even though others saw her work as embodying the school’s spirit. László Moholy-Nagy, for instance, himself a great mentor to Marianne Brandt in the metal workshop, pointed out that her ‘toys and play cabinet express the educational principles of the Bauhaus very clearly’. She was deeply affected by Gropius’s judgement of her work and, in the autumn of 1927, withdrew from the Bauhaus and from the Modern Movement as a whole, her nationwide reputation unfortunately not enough to sustain her inside the school. Ironically, she contributed to building Gropius’s reputation. After he emigrated to the US (with the National Socialist party’s blessing), he did not hesitate to make use of her designs and included her nursery in his Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938.
Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s career and life were cut short. After leaving the Bauhaus, she suffered from depression and was only 44 when she died in a bomb attack during the Second World War. Her work drifted into obscurity and there was nothing to suggest that, 80 years later, we would still be buying her products. A 1995 exhibition on children’s furniture, in Velbert, Germany, curated by Cornelia Will, contributed to her ‘rediscovery’. Today, her toys and pieces of furniture are re-edited and popular; they help convey a progressive image of the Bauhaus. With the growing interest for Montessori principles of education, her designs resonate strongly with the public all over the world. Siedhoff-Buscher understood better than anybody else at the Bauhaus how children’s needs should be thought about and designed for. Her work may not have changed the world but she did change the world of children.