The story of how an unusual coffee and tea service made its way from Weimar, Germany, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both remarkable and emblematic of the way in which Harvard University’s extensive Bauhaus collection came into being. Founded in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius and closed just fourteen years later under pressure from the Nazis, the Bauhaus was the twentieth century’s most influential school of modern art, architecture, and design. Its pioneering pedagogy, workshop structure, and the prominent modern artists who served on its faculty drew international attention. In 1930, while the school was still in operation, Harvard presented the first Bauhaus exhibition in the United States and went on to become an unofficial center for the Bauhaus in America when Gropius joined the university’s department of architecture in 1937. After World War II, with the aid of Gropius, Harvard’s Germanic Museum (renamed Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1950) established a Bauhaus collection—today the largest of its kind outside Germany.
The products of the school’s metal workshop are represented by a range of objects including a striking coffee and tea service designed by Bauhaus student Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Already a trained silversmith when he arrived at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1923, Wagenfeld soon joined the metal workshop under the direction of constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy, whose investigation of geometric abstraction influenced the design of many objects produced there. Wagenfeld composed his coffee and tea service with circular and oval forms for the vessels, triangles for spouts, and tiny rectangles for the knobs on the lids. As he wrote in a 1924 issue of the Bauhaus publication Junge Menschen, his design was determined by the function of the object and the efficiency with which it could be manufactured. The goal was that a prototype like this would one day be mass-produced. The cylindrical forms, according to the artist, were simple to assemble while the “eccentric arrangement of the lid and knob were a functional necessity,” ensuring that the lid would stay closed while liquid was being poured.
In 1925 Wagenfeld’s design was featured in Neue Arbeiten der Bauhauswerkstätten (New work of the Bauhaus workshops). The set illustrated was made of nickel silver. The Harvard example is of the same design with ebony handles and knobs but was produced in polished brass with mercury-silvered interiors. Its first owner, Gropius’s trusted secretary, Hanna Lindemann, believed it to be one-of-a-kind. As she would later write to Busch-Reisinger Museum curator Charles Kuhn:
When I left the Bauhaus, the Masters wanted to give me a present and I had the right to choose an object which I cherished. I was not shy in doing so and I chose the best thing I knew at the time. This is a coffee-and-tea set. . . all made in brass, inside silver, hand-hammered. . . it was produced in the twenties when Moholy was the master of this “Metall-Werkstatt.” I don’t think such an object exists anywhere else.
Following her departure from the Bauhaus, Lindemann lived in Berlin and later moved to London. As the service was being packed for this move, Lindemann reported, one of the handles of the sugar bowl broke off (and has since been replaced). It nevertheless remained one of her most treasured possessions.
Meanwhile, Harvard’s Germanic Museum was in search of a postwar project that could reinvigorate the institution following its wartime closure. Establishing a collection related to the innovative Bauhaus school, which had fallen victim to the Nazi regime, and whose founding director was currently serving on Harvard’s faculty, emerged as an obvious and important initiative. With lists of addresses provided by Gropius, Kuhn began to contact former Bauhaus artists living in the United States and abroad, and donations soon began to arrive.
Lindemann was not a direct recipient of Kuhn’s appeal. She learned of it while facilitating a donation from former Bauhaus professor Ludwig Hilberseimer, who had immigrated to Chicago in 1938. In 1950 he donated a dozen documentary photographs of his architectural and urban planning work. The material now in question was a major collection of over 1,500 textile samples and other materials by his fiancée Otti Berger, which the former Bauhaus weaver had left in storage in London. Berger had hoped to join Hilberseimer in Chicago, but in 1944 was arrested in her hometown in Yugoslavia and deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was murdered. Hilberseimer donated the collection to Harvard but needed Lindemann’s assistance to organize the shipment from England.
Gropius’s wife Ise also became involved, helping to facilitate the transport and advocating for the acquisition. She wrote in a 1951 letter to Kuhn that Gropius was most anxious for this work join the collection: “hardly anybody in the Bauhaus understood so completely and carried out so successfully the working methods that my husband tried to develop during the nine years when he ran the Bauhaus.” More letters passed back and forth between Ise Gropius, Kuhn, Hilberseimer, and Lindemann until the shipment finally arrived safely at Harvard. It was received as a gift of Hilberseimer in 1952 and is the largest surviving collection of Berger’s work.
Convinced of the necessity and urgency of preserving these materials, Lindemann was inspired to make her own donation, offering Kuhn her prized coffee and tea service. “As I have no children who could cherish [the set] as an heirloom,” she wrote in late 1951, “I shall gladly give it to you as a donation.” Never put into production, the set is an exceptional object that might otherwise have disappeared if not for Lindemann’s fortuitous involvement in this initiative.
Throughout the 1950s the collection continued to grow apace through gifts like Lindemann’s and Hilberseimer’s. The varied and sometimes interconnected stories of how these objects made their way to Harvard reflect the networks and relationships that were a hallmark of the Bauhaus and that gave this short-lived experiment in art education a global afterlife that continues to spark interest in Bauhaus objects and ideas a full century after it was founded.
Laura Muir is Associate Director of Academic and Public Programs and Louis Miller Thayer Research Curator at the Harvard Art Museums.