The Bauhaus Chess Set Where the Form of the Pieces Artfully Show Their Function (1922)

Learn­ing to play chess first neces­si­tates learn­ing how each piece moves. This is hard­ly the labor of Her­cules, to be sure, though it does come down to pure mem­o­riza­tion, unaid­ed by any ver­bal or visu­al cues. Does the name “pawn,” after all, sound par­tic­u­lar­ly like some­thing that can only step for­ward? And what about the shape of the knight sug­gests the shape of the knight’s move? The form of a chess piece, in oth­er words, does­n’t fol­low its func­tion — and under cer­tain sets of aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples, there could be few greater crimes. Leave it to a mem­ber of the Bauhaus, the art school and move­ment that aimed to uni­fy not just form and func­tion but art, craft, and design — to bring them all into line.

Brought into the Bauhaus in 1921 by its founder Wal­ter Gropius, the sculp­tor Josef Hartwig began work on his redesigned chess set the fol­low­ing year. In all its iter­a­tions, the pieces takes on forms made of sim­ple shapes: “The sphere, dou­ble cube, and three sizes of block, singly or com­bined, yield pieces that, despite their high­ly geo­met­ric styl­iza­tion, are strong­ly sug­ges­tive of their rank or pow­er,” says the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, own­er of one of one of Hartwig’s orig­i­nal sets.

“The bish­ops are clear­ly implied by the cross out­line, and the rooks by the sim­ple sta­bil­i­ty of a cube. Most inge­nious of all are the knights, formed of three dou­ble cubes joined in such a fash­ion that each face of the result­ing form shows two cubes one above the oth­er and a third on the side, an embod­i­ment of the knight’s move.”

Like many Bauhaus works, Hartwig’s chess set found a dual exis­tence as both a piece of art and a con­sumer good. The artist him­self also “made a poster to talk about his prod­uct” and “a box to pack­age it,” says cua­tor Anne Monier in the video above, “so we real­ly are in a total cre­ation around a game of chess.” In addi­tion to mak­ing the game’s move­ments eas­i­er to learn, it also con­sti­tutes a visu­al demon­stra­tion of what it means for form to fol­low func­tion. The idea, says Monier, is “to spread the ideas of the Bauhaus in peo­ple’s every­day life, to be able in fact to change the liv­ing envi­ron­ment, to take part in cre­at­ing a new soci­ety.” The video comes from Bauhaus Move­ment, an online shop where you can invite the spread into your home by order­ing a repli­ca Hartwig chess set. It’ll set you back €495, but ideals, now as in the hey­day of the Bauhaus, don’t come cheap.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­vard Puts Online a Huge Col­lec­tion of Bauhaus Art Objects

Man Ray Cre­ates a “Sur­re­al­ist Chess­board,” Fea­tur­ing Por­traits of Sur­re­al­ist Icons: Dalí, Bre­ton, Picas­so, Magritte, Miró & Oth­ers (1934)

The Pol­i­tics & Phi­los­o­phy of the Bauhaus Design Move­ment: A Short Intro­duc­tion

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Watch Bauhaus World, a Free Doc­u­men­tary That Cel­e­brates the 100th Anniver­sary of Germany’s Leg­endary Art, Archi­tec­ture & Design School

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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