Curio: Gropius Bow Ties

A collection of six bow ties belonging to pioneering modernist architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) are currently on display at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library.

Gropius, along with fellow modernist Le Corbusier, helped cement the bow tie as an emblem of nonconformist thinking, creativity, and architectural genius. The bow ties in the collection provide a glimpse into Gropius’ personal taste, his connection to Harvard, and his thoughts about the small accessory that makes a big statement.

This article in the Harvard Gazette provides vivid photos of the lively patterned ties, as well as some background about how the ties made the trip from closet to display case. Shortly after his death in 1969, Gropius’ widow Ise gave the six ties to Chester E. Nagel, friend, collaborator, and former student of Gropius at Harvard, where the architect began teaching in 1937. The “brilliant little butterflies,” she wrote in a letter to Nagel, “were Grope’s only vanity.”

Though bow ties were common neckwear at the time Gropius wore them, his taste was nuanced and unconventional, and the article speculates that he saw the wearing of bow ties as an expression of joi de vivre:

The ties indicate that Gropius preferred natural materials (in this case, cotton) and straight bow ties rather than varieties with ends that resemble “bat wings” or “thistles,” and that he liked ties with a dash of color. Perhaps that last illustrates the architect’s desire “to make beauty a basic requirement of life,” as Nagel wrote in an essay on Gropius, “to make of living a joy.”

The article continues to enumerate the contemporary connotations of the bow tie, some of which are contradictory, others quite alluring:

Bow ties today, in a cinematic context, denote the well-turned rake, the professor, or sometimes the skinny-necked nerd. In an earlier age, they signified the architect, the professor (again), the well-educated man with a streak of rebellion, or the well-dressed archconservative.

A small testament to a man of giant influence, the bow ties are currently on display to provide inspiration to students of architecture, fans of modernist design, and well-turned, well-educated rebels. — ZD