A Bauhaus Domesticated in São Paulo

Ethel Leon
publication date: 09.2019

On 10 March 1950, Pietro Maria Bardi, director of the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP, which opened in October 1947), signed letters addressed to several American educational institutions. His purpose in writing was to request the curricula of these schools as an aid to developing the first design course in Brazil—the Institute of Contemporary Art (IAC), which, slated to open the following year, was to be run as a part of the museum and would also be the country’s first design school. Despite being brief and objective, his missives did not fail to mention the “spirit of the Bauhaus,” explicitly linking the institute he hoped to found with a pedagogical lineage whose objectives and approach he aimed to share:



An Institute of Contemporary Art has been founded by this Museum especially to teach architecture and industrial design such as pottery, glass, graphic art, iron, work, weaving, photography, furniture, mosaics, plastics in general.

Artists and well known architects have been invited to teach in the School; Max Bill, Piccinato, Nervi, Ruchti and others have already accepted the invitation.

We would like very much to check our activities with yours which, since along time we highly appreciate.

We should like to accomplish something similar to what you are doing, always into the spirit of the Bauhaus. Therefore we should remain most grateful to you if you could send us some publication referring to the curriculum of your Academy of Art.

Looking forward to hearing from you we remain at your full disposition for any information and we thank you in advance.


Believe us very sincerely yours.


P. M. Bardi – director[1]



Letters were sent to the board of directors of the Cranbrook Academy of Art as well as to Black Mountain College, where Josef and Anni Albers taught. Not only was there an explicit reference to the Bauhaus, but also the intention, as noted in Bardi’s letter, to invite the artist Max Bill to teach at the school.

An Italian art critic and merchant based in Brazil since 1946, Bardi had been entrusted by the Brazilian communications magnate Francisco de Assis Chateaubriand with the task of forming an art museum in the city of São Paulo soon after his arrival. The city had modernized rapidly in the years after the Second World War and, with the foundation of the International Biennial in 1951, immediately became an international hub of the arts. Bardi was not only the director of MASP. Together with his wife, the Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, he edited Habitat, a magazine dedicated to architecture, the arts and design. The IAC opened on 1 March 1951, the same date that Max Bill, former Bäuhausler and future director of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, opened an exhibition of his work at MASP.

Bardi’s ambition to reference Bauhaus methodologies in his new school was great and sustained. The archaic Europe he had abandoned was in the process of reconstruction; the continent’ population was still healing from the wounds suffered during the Second World War. In the postwar period, South America, and Brazil in particular, had emerged as a force of renewal that, unburdened by the weight of the antiquarian past, expressed its ambitions through a period of steady industrialization, an outcome of the import substitution policies the war had made necessary.

Bardi’s task in the years after the war had been to take advantage of low prices on the world art market[2] in order to build up a collection at MASP that would rival any First World art museum.[3] At the same time, by juxtaposing works from the remote past with items from contemporary industry, MASP launched itself as an institution of an entirely new character. The Museum showed graphic design and industrial objects, such as, for example, Thonet chairs, including them within this artistic set—a concatenation reverberating, one might say, with Bauhaus teachings. Moreover, given the dearth of educated design professionals to work in São Paulo’s burgeoning industries, founding a school of industrial design was an absolute necessity. This was also a reason, as Bardi wrote in numerous texts, why the school would continue the historic mission of the Bauhaus.

However, if in the letters sent to American schools Bardi made mention of a generic Bauhaus, in other texts Bardi referred explicitly to the Dessau Bauhaus—specifically, the period directed by Walter Gropius. This reference is key to how Bardi envisioned the IAC: he never mentioned Weimar or Hannes Meyer, nor Mies van der Rohe and the short-lived Berlin Bauhaus:



The famous “Bauhaus” was born with Gropius, Breuer and others, the school of industrial design creating numerous new solutions familiar to us today like steel-tube chairs, steel furniture, etc. Then the Americans continued and developed this experience at the well-known Institute of Design in Chicago, headed by Moholy-Nagy, former Bauhaus professor … All these initiatives cannot be ignored in Brazil, especially in São Paulo, a large industrial center. Today art can no longer be seen as a specialty of a closed group. It has to meet this transformation of the face of the world made by industry and in the same proportions.[4]



Or in this excerpt from a newspaper article published in Diário de São Paulo, one of the city’s main newspapers:



The Institute has a program that has not been tried by any of our artistic organizations up to now—it repeats in proportions that must of course be kept, the didactic plan formulated by Walter Gropius and his team in the largest art school that Germany has produced in this century: the Bauhaus of Dessau.[5]



One can also read an explanation of the Bauhaus and the Institute of Design in Chicago, written by one of the most important teachers of the IAC, Swiss architect Jacob Ruchti:



The I.A.C. course in São Paulo is an adaptation to our conditions and possibilities of the famous course of the Institute of Design in Chicago, directed by the architect Serge Chermayett (sic), and founded in 1937 by Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy as a continuation of the famous Bauhaus of Dessau. … The I.A.C. therefore represents in São Paulo—in an indirect way—the main ideas of the Bauhaus, after its contact with the North American industrial organization.[6]



There is also an affinity between Pietro Maria Bardi’s choice and that of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its presentation (exhibitions, publications, etc.) on the Bauhaus Dessau and Gropius. The community of artists and artisans created in Weimar was out of the question for a school that had set out to construct a vision of design São Paulo industrialists might emulate, for whom “artisans” were upholsterers, reproducing historicist styles in their manual and decorative work for the city’s elite.

At the same time, from early on in its history some IAC teachers looked to the material and symbolic production of Brazil’s rural peasantry, urban poor and Indigenous populations, in some cases appropriating elements of the handicraft produced by these groups in the design of certain objects.

A similar concern was evinced in the thematic exhibitions of quotidian objects organized at MASP (one of the first didactic exhibitions of the museum had to do with the history of the chair), with objects consecrated by the history of art used to validate a de-hierarchization of cultural production. This conception probably derives, among other sources, from the theories of the art historian Alois Riegl, an important reference for the first Bauhaus, who inherited his influence from Henry van de Velde, founder of the school’s predecessor, the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts: for Gropius, for Pietro Maria Bardi and Lina Bo, as well as for the Italian intellectuals who gathered around MASP, Riegl remained a key thinker. The intention to flatten the hierarchy between the major and minor arts, as well as Riegl’s appreciation of the decorative arts[7] and the ornamentation practices produced in the various crafts media, are included in the concept of Kunstwollen (a term first introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the German archaeologist Heinrich Brunn to describe the characteristics and boundaries of aesthetic design in a given epoch), allowing one to see deep traces of universality in everyday objects. This line of thinking opened up a space for the symmetrical coexistence of so-called cult art and popular productions, creating affinities and overlaps between the cultured arts and practices of craftsmanship. A foundational thought for the Bauhaus in its first phase in Weimar, Kunstwollen also strongly informed the concepts of Pietro Bardi, Lina Bo as well as a number of intellectuals and teachers associated with the IAC.

This view of art reached new heights not only due to the Bauhaus but also thanks to Le Corbusier, who although harshly critical of ornamentation and the decorative arts, brought artisanal and industrial production closer to an expressive synthesis.[8] Bardi had possessed an affinity for Le Corbusier’s thinking since the time of the fourth CIAM convention, which produced the Athens Charter.[9]

The propinquity between erudite art and art closer to so-called vernacular culture appears clear on posters produced for MASP, especially those designed by Roberto Sambonet, an Italian painter and professor of drawing at the IAC, who designed graphics both for the museum and the school.[10]

The attempt to elucidate this theoretical connection through MASP exhibition strategies is also clear from the juxtaposition of technical objects, quotidian objects of the contemporary moment and utilitarian objects, such as ceramics and glassware dating from centuries past. Such was the conception of the exhibition Vitrine das Formas (literally “showcase of forms”) mounted at MASP, which included the Olivetti typewriter designed by Marcello Nizzoli and a Brazilian copy of the Vigorelli sewing machine displayed next to historical objects. The strategy was so innovative for São Paulo’s provincial environment that one of the city’s leading newspapers of the time commented that the director had “forgotten” a typewriter in the shop window.

Pietro Bardi explained the exhibition this way:[11]



They are displayed in this display case from the curious root of a tree to the last type of Olivetti typewriter, passing through vases that are Egyptian, Greek, Florentine, etc. The typewriter is a typical example of the aesthetic possibilities of an industrial product, which was properly designed by an industrial designer.[12]



It can also be unequivocally stated that the IAC was in line with the practices of the Institute of Design in Chicago, which was led until 1947 by former Bäuhausler Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. The Chicago Institute and the North American industrial mode of production itself were also important models. In several writings by Pietro Maria Bardi, it is as if the IAC and the school founded by Moholy-Nagy in North America shared the same conceptual cradle. Similarly, we can see how Lina Bo’s own practice as a designer resonated with the North American Bauhaus school—for instance in her furniture designs made from cut-out plywood. Like industrial design itself, the notion of serial reproduction was inherent in Lina Bo’s furniture design from this period.

The approximation of the IAC’s pedagogical contents with the Bauhaus, a connection well established by Adele Nelson,[13] is unequivocally evident in the workbook prepared by the aforementioned Jacob Ruchti, who taught composition at the school. It contains, among other things, the teachings of Wassily Kandinsky, based on his book, Point and Line to Plane.[14]

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the IAC was a faithful copy of the Bauhaus Dessau or the Chicago Institute of Design, for Bardi’s appreciation of the Italian Futurists instilled a degree of originality in the Brazilian school. For instance, fashion was emphasized in the IAC curriculum, expressed not only through the products of the weaving workshop and printing classes—which created designs for womenswear, fabrics produced on hand looms and printed fabric created by teachers and students—but also in parades organized by the museum, such as the celebration of haute couture demonstrated by the museum’s hosting of a parade of Christian Dior fashion.

Pietro Bardi’s admiration for the Futurists also explains his appreciation for Raymond Loewy, the French-born American designer fought by Bäuhauslers in the United States.[15] Loewy opened an office in São Paulo in 1948, taking on as an apprentice one of the IAC’s first students, Alexandre Wollner, who would later study in Ulm—an internship arranged thanks to Bardi’s intervention.

The IAC was an amalgamation of theoretical matrices, resulting in a school of great originality, and which, despite Bardi’s eclecticism, not only took its pedagogical model from the Bauhaus but also a means of cultural legitimation. Understanding the importance of this lineage, the school’s founder did everything he could to establish links between the Bauhaus and the IAC. He published a text where he erroneously stated that the painter Lasar Segall (president of the school congregation) was a Bäuhausler, when he merely visited the school and maintained a correspondence with Kandinsky.[16] Bardi also similarly claimed that IAC weaving teacher Klara Hartok had been a student of Anni Albers at the Bauhaus.[17] However, this kind of foundation myth-making does not invalidate the work done at the school, which, in fact, was in dialogue with both cultured, European forms of production at the same time as it embraced the diverse production techniques particular to Brazil—whether these were defined, as Lina Bo would term them years later, as “pre-artisanship” or as exemplary of the ornamental strategies used by Brazil’s indigenous populations.

If there was a kind of cult to industrial methods and forms—as evidenced by the museum’s permanent display furniture based on aluminum tube supports, designed by Lina Bo Bardi—the school’s curriculum also clearly departed from those used at the Bauhaus and HfG Ulm. History was taught in the IAC, while at the Bauhaus (and at Ulm) history did not matter.[18] And here, the weight of Italian education and, above all, an astonishing lack of education in the areas of art and architectural history in Brazil were strong incentives for introducing these within the IAC curriculum.

In my opinion, the IAC as a design school tried to merge some practices and concepts, but this effort was premised on mistaken information. Pietro Bardi, Lina Bo and Jacob Ruchti started from mechanical reasoning, perhaps wishing to transpose to Brazil the Italian postwar reality, in which small-scale industries successfully gained a disproportionate share of the international market through superior design.[19] They understood that São Paulo, as an industrial city where companies merely copied foreign models, needed designers and it would be up to the school to train these new professionals. But the companies of this period were not at all interested in what the young people of the Institute could offer. Simply copying European and/or North American standards was what São Paulo industrialists of the time desired.

The Bauhaus of the Törten housing complex, and of practices based on a democratizing vision of bringing intellectuals and artisans together, was far removed from what the São Paulo elite wanted. Bardi, on the other hand, upheld the banner for a certain cultural updating of the industrials themselves. At no point in his discourse about the IAC was there any reference to the utopian character of design or its democratizing role—a standard that was held aloft by the leaders of the Ulm school and affirmed by Moholy-Nagy in Chicago.

If the different iterations of the Bauhaus, despite their short duration, are still discussed to this day, with their multiple facets revisited by numerous researchers, the Bauhaus phenomenon in Brazil remains little studied. Certainly the Institute of Contemporary Art at MASP is one of these disputed historiographical sites in which certain conceptions of the Bauhaus were presented and reformulated. This has allowed for very broad readings of the appropriations of the German school in peripheral parts of the world, far from its European origin.





  1. ^ Letters dated 10 March 1950 addressed to the institutions noted above, written in English and signed by Pietro Maria Bardi. Letters with slight modifications but consistent in their referring to the Bauhaus were sent to the Chicago Institute of Design and the Akron Art Institute. Copies are kept in the MASP Archive. (Editor’s note: Despite its unorthodox syntax, we have retained the letter’s original wording.)
  2. ^ See Fernando Morais: Chatô, o rei do Brasil: A vida de Assis Chateaubriand, um dos brasileiros mais poderosos do século XX. Companhia das Letras, São Paulo 1994.
  3. ^ This is how MASP was able to build a collection of great European works of art dating from various periods.
  4. ^ “No Museu de arte. Instalação do Instituto de arte contemporanea,” Diário de São Paulo, 8 March 1950. If not stated otherwise, translations by the editors. Many of the articles, written by hand by Bardi and catalogued in the MASP library, were reproduced in the newspapers of Diários Associados, a group founded by Assis Chateaubriand, founder of MASP.
  5. ^ “Instituto de Arte Contemporanea,” Diário de São Paulo, 29 March 1950.
  6. ^ Jacob Ruchti: “Instituto de Arte Contemporânea,” Habitat No. 3, 1951, p. 62.
  7. ^ See Alois Riegl: Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1993.
  8. ^ Some of the model objects shown by Le Corbusier are exquisitely crafted, for instance in leather. The architect brought works such as the Parthenon closer to the automobiles of his time. See Le Corbusier: The Decorative Art of Today, MIT Press, Cambridge 1987.
  9. ^ Le Corbusier was given a major exhibition at MASP in 1950.
  10. ^ Only years after the IAC ended did Lina Bo Bardi begin to incorporate objects produced by craftsmen from Brazil’s urban poor and rural areas in museum exhibitions.
  11. ^ In a text published in 1986, Bardi tells us that: “It was a surprise to find ourselves in the Vitrine das Formas, inaugurated at the opening of MASP, a typewriter ‘Olivetti,’ giving rise to the rumor that the director had forgotten it there. Instead, it represented design, a significant branch of contemporary art. In front of the showcase there is a Calder mobile and in the background an exhibition of rational architecture.” BARDI, P.M. 40 anos de Masp, Crefisul, São Paulo 1986.
  12. ^ Pietro Maria Bardi quoted by Alexandre Wollner: Design visual 50 anos, Cosac & Naif, São Paulo 2003.
  13. ^ Adele Nelson: “Bauhaus in Brazil, Pedagogy and Practice,” ARTMargins, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016, pp. 27–49.
  14. ^ The reproduction of the workbook prepared by architect Jacob Ruchti for his students is reproduced in Ethel Leon: IAC Instituto de Arte Contemporânea do MASP, first studies, appendix 5, pp. 205–25.
  15. ^ The clash between Moholy-Nagy and practitioners of so-called “styling”—including Loewy—is well described by Victor Margolin: The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917–1946, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1997, pp. 245–46.
  16. ^ For more details see Ethel Leon: IAC Instituto de Arte Contemporânea do MASP and the correspondence between Segall and Kandinsky, compiled by Vera D’Horta: “Discordâncias cordiais: a correspondência entre Kandinsky e Segall (1922-1939),” in: Revista de História da Arte e arqueologia, Vol. 1, Unicamp, Campinas 1994, pp. 210–25.
  17. ^ I have written to all of the Bauhaus institutions asking them to verify the attendance of Klara (or Clara) Hartoch (or Hartok) in the school archives. The answers were uniformly negative. I could discover no clues as to the origin of this important IAC teacher, who perhaps may have studied at the Bauhaus under a different name. However, according to former IAC students interviewed by the author, Bartok never mentioned the Bauhaus. Reference to her ostensible past as a Bauhäusler always came from Bardi himself.
  18. ^ The teaching of history was neither part of the Bauhaus courses nor the courses offered by the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. This absence is consistent with attitudes that claimed either to break with the historicist past of architecture (Bauhaus) or to break with prior affiliations of industrial design with the field of art. If we understand that the Bauhaus was a kind of filter of the vanguards and that HfG Ulm claimed the recent technological development after World War II were a basis for industrial design, it is clear that the teaching of history would contradict their respective pedagogical positions. Gui Bonsiepe, a former student and professor at HfG Ulm, reviewed this position in several recent texts and was responsible, together with Silvia Fernández, for organizing the book Historia del diseño en América Latina y el Caribe, Blucher, São Paulo 2008.
  19. ^ In the immediate postwar period, with its industrial base badly damaged, Italian exhibitions featured prosaic objects whose designs were derivative of manual craftwork. It was only later, especially from 1954 onwards, that Italy would emerge as a leader in the manufacture of objects aimed at the world’s cultural and financial elite. See Penny Sparke: “The Straw Donkey. Tourist Kitsch or Proto-Design? Craft and Design in Italy 1945–1960,” Journal of Design History, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1998, pp. 59–69.

MASP’s first poster by Roberto Sambonet.

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