For eight years, the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, in partnership with the University of North Carolina Asheville, has held annual conferences celebrating Black Mountain College (BMC) history. Each year, the conference has scheduled one or two panels of papers on topics tangential to the history of BMC and to the Bauhaus. In September 2016, Professor Karen Bearor gave a paper at this conference that was selected by means of this connection.
BMC, as many readers might know, was founded in 1933 by four former faculty members from Florida’s Rollins College, but the many famous names among the school’s roster of faculty and students far overshadow the efforts of these founders. Significantly, the BMC faculty included former Bauhaus teachers Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, and Xanti Schawinsky.
Titled “The Design Laboratory, the FAECT, and the 1930s Housing Movement,” Bearor’s paper covered the transition of the first Bauhaus-inspired school of industrial design in the U.S., pink-slipped by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in June 1937, to its new home, the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. This was, of course, the same year that Bauhaus leaders Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe emigrated to the U.S., and a year before the famous Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
While many of the Design Laboratory faculty remained with the school during this transition, and much of the curriculum stayed the same, the school’s character shifted as a result of being parented by a left-leaning union deeply embroiled in the housing debates of that year. Indeed, architect Milton Lowenthal, the director of the union’s Federation Technical School, of which the Design Laboratory became a part, had already become a significant figure in the housing movement and in the federal Resettlement Administration’s greenbelt town movement. In discussing his hopes for the school, he visualized transitioning its goals from designing home furnishings worthy of the most discriminating patron to designing “the home” itself—with sensitivity to class and the income levels of its inhabitants—and its environment. This principle found expression in the school’s handbook, wherein the student “must necessarily deny his own individual preferences, and bear in mind the preferences of great masses for whom he is designing. These preferences and desires are based upon psychological reactions to the physical phenomena with which the human being is surrounded in his daily life.”
In a shift toward a curriculum informed by sociological needs rather than the teaching of “good design,” the Design Laboratory, though short-lived, fulfilled Gropius’s 1926 call for “housing . . . considered in its full sociological, economic, technological, and formal framework.” This paper, derived from extensive archival research for Professor Bearor’s current book project, is the first discussion anywhere of the Design Laboratory and its curriculum in light of the housing movement of the 1930s in New York.