When it came time to choose a leadoff subject for Core77's new Designing Women series, Marianne Brandt was an obvious choice. Not only was she the first woman to join the Bauhaus's metal workshop, at a time when female students were relegated to the school's weaving classrooms—but within four years she would succeed Lázló Moholy-Nagy as the head of the workshop, while at the same time producing a string of radically simple designs that became icons of the Bauhaus aesthetic. And yet her work is relatively little-known today.
Marianne Brandt, Untitled (Self Portrait with Jewelry for the Metal Party), 1929
Trained as a painter, Brandt (1893–1983) left the field to join the Bauhaus in 1923, at age 31. A year later, having proved herself an exemplary student in Moholy-Nagy's preliminary course, she was invited by the Constructivist artist to enroll in his metal workshop. But she wasn't exactly made to feel welcome by the other students. "At first I was not accepted with pleasure—there was no place for a woman in a metal workshop, they felt," Brandt recalled. "They admitted this to me later on and meanwhile expressed their displeasure by giving me all sorts of dull, dreary work. How many little hemispheres did I most patiently hammer out of brittle new silver, thinking that was the way it had to be and all beginnings are hard."
In the workshop, Brandt fully embraced the Bauhaus's move toward functionalism, as expressed by Walter Gropius's slogan "art and technology, a new unity!" Her first student design was a streamlined, geometric silver-and-ebony tea infuser, whose industrial aesthetic is belied by the tiny hammer marks that reveal the object as handmade; these would be smoothed away by Brandt in subsequent versions.
Silver tea infuser MT 49, designed in 1924—unbelievably, it was Brandt's first student design. The British Museum is believed to hold the earliest of seven known models, and the only one that shows Brandt's hammer marks.
Brandt later wrote of wanting to return to the "simplest of forms," a goal she achieved in another early design from 1924—a stunningly chic cylindrical brass ashtray with an electroplated nickel-silver cigarette holder and lid that, with slight pressure, deposits ash into the bowl.
Brass and electroplated nickel-silver ashtray, 1924 Brass and nickel-plated brass ashtrays designed by Brandt in 1924 Kandem brand logo, 1932
In 1925, the school relocated from Weimar to Dessau, and Moholy-Nagy steered the metal studio away from the Arts and Crafts movement toward a focus on industrial design and mass-produced goods. In April 1927, Brandt was awarded a paid position in the metal workshop and the title of "Mitarbeiter" (Associate), and was tasked with negotiating contracts with outside firms for the industrial production of Bauhaus products. This marked a major shift in the school's operations, and the students began designing prototypes for commercial production, a scheme that brought greater public prestige and a stream of income to the Bauhaus. Brandt designed a number of commercially successful objects—including, most famously, the Kandem bedside table lamp (with fellow student Hinrich "Hin" Bredendieck), a series of which was produced by Körtig & Matthiesen in 1928. Over the next four years, the manufacturer would sell more than 50,000 Bauhaus-designed lamps, and Brandt's Kandem lamp would become a top seller.
Kandem bedside table lamp (basic version) no. 702, manufactured by Körtig & Matthiesen, 1928–29 Collection of light fixtures designed by Brandt in 1926. From left to right: ME 105a (with Hans Przyrembel), ME 94, Ceiling Lamp, ME 104a
In 1928, Walter Gropius left the Bauhaus to return to private practice, and Moholy-Nagy departed as well, making Brandt the acting head of the metal workshop. In July 1929, she left the position to join Gropius's Berlin office, where she spent a year on furniture and interior design projects before pursuing work as an independent design consultant. She was a design head at the Ruppelwerke Metalware Factory until 1932, but the economic constraints of the Third Reich made it impossible to launch her own practice; instead, she returned to her hometown of Chemnitz, located in what would become East Germany. While her Bauhaus mentors fled Germany during World War II, Brandt stayed, receiving care packages from Gropius and his wife. After the war, stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, she was unable to find regular work as a designer and instead devoted herself to painting and sculpture—a sad fate for the design world, given how much stellar work Brandt produced in just a handful of years at the Bauhaus.