The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in the city of Weimar by German architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969). Its core objective was a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts. Gropius explained this vision for a union of art and design in the Proclamation of the Bauhaus (1919), which described a utopian craft guild combining architecture, sculpture, and painting into a single creative expression. Gropius developed a craft-based curriculum that would turn out artisans and designers capable of creating useful and beautiful objects appropriate to this new system of living.
The Bauhaus combined elements of both fine arts and design education. The curriculum commenced with a preliminary course that immersed the students, who came from a diverse range of social and educational backgrounds, in the study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships in preparation for more specialized studies. This preliminary course was often taught by visual artists, including Paul Klee (1987.455.16), Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and Josef Albers (59.160), among others.
Following their immersion in Bauhaus theory, students entered specialized workshops, which included metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, pottery, typography, and wall painting. Although Gropius’ initial aim was a unification of the arts through craft, aspects of this approach proved financially impractical. While maintaining the emphasis on craft, he repositioned the goals of the Bauhaus in 1923, stressing the importance of designing for mass production. It was at this time that the school adopted the slogan “Art into Industry.”
In 1925, the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau, where Gropius designed a new building to house the school. This building contained many features that later became hallmarks of modernist architecture, including steel-frame construction, a glass curtain wall, and an asymmetrical, pinwheel plan, throughout which Gropius distributed studio, classroom, and administrative space for maximum efficiency and spatial logic.
The cabinetmaking workshop was one of the most popular at the Bauhaus. Under the direction of Marcel Breuer (1983.366) from 1924 to 1928, this studio reconceived the very essence of furniture, often seeking to dematerialize conventional forms such as chairs to their minimal existence. Breuer theorized that eventually chairs would become obsolete, replaced by supportive columns or air. Inspired by the extruded steel tubes of his bicycle, he experimented with metal furniture, ultimately creating lightweight, mass-producible metal chairs. Some of these chairs were deployed in the theater of the Dessau building.
The textile workshop, especially under the direction of designer and weaver Gunta Stölzl (1897–1983), created abstract textiles suitable for use in Bauhaus environments. Students studied color theory and design as well as the technical aspects of weaving. Stölzl encouraged experimentation with unorthodox materials, including cellophane, fiberglass, and metal. Fabrics from the weaving workshop were commercially successful, providing vital and much needed funds to the Bauhaus. The studio’s textiles, along with architectural wall painting, adorned the interiors of Bauhaus buildings, providing polychromatic yet abstract visual interest to these somewhat severe spaces. While the weaving studio was primarily comprised of women, this was in part due to the fact that they were discouraged from participating in other areas. The workshop trained a number of prominent textile artists, including Anni Albers (1899–1994), who continued to create and write about modernist textiles throughout her life.
Metalworking was another popular workshop at the Bauhaus and, along with the cabinetmaking studio, was the most successful in developing design prototypes for mass production. In this studio, designers such as Marianne Brandt (2000.63a–c), Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1986.412.1–16), and Christian Dell (1893–1974) created beautiful, modern items such as lighting fixtures and tableware. Occasionally, these objects were used in the Bauhaus campus itself; light fixtures designed in the metalwork shop illuminated the Bauhaus building and some faculty housing. Brandt was the first woman to attend the metalworking studio, and replaced László Moholy-Nagy (1987.1100.158) as studio director in 1928. Many of her designs became iconic expressions of the Bauhaus aesthetic. Her sculptural and geometric silver and ebony teapot (2000.63a–c), while never mass-produced, reflects both the influence of her mentor, Moholy-Nagy, and the Bauhaus emphasis on industrial forms. It was designed with careful attention to functionality and ease of use, from the nondrip spout to the heat-resistant ebony handle.
The typography workshop, while not initially a priority of the Bauhaus, became increasingly important under figures like Moholy-Nagy and the graphic designer Herbert Bayer (2001.392). At the Bauhaus, typography was conceived as both an empirical means of communication and an artistic expression, with visual clarity stressed above all. Concurrently, typography became increasingly connected to corporate identity and advertising. The promotional materials prepared for the Bauhaus at the workshop, with their use of sans serif typefaces and the incorporation of photography as a key graphic element, served as visual symbols of the avant-garde institution.
Gropius stepped down as director of the Bauhaus in 1928, succeeded by the architect Hannes Meyer (1889–1954). Meyer maintained the emphasis on mass-producible design and eliminated parts of the curriculum he felt were overly formalist in nature. Additionally, he stressed the social function of architecture and design, favoring concern for the public good rather than private luxury. Advertising and photography continued to gain prominence under his leadership.
Under pressure from an increasingly right-wing municipal government, Meyer resigned as director of the Bauhaus in 1930. He was replaced by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1980.351). Mies once again reconfigured the curriculum, with an increased emphasis on architecture. Lilly Reich (1885–1947), who collaborated with Mies on a number of his private commissions, assumed control of the new interior design department. Other departments included weaving, photography, the fine arts, and building. The increasingly unstable political situation in Germany, combined with the perilous financial condition of the Bauhaus, caused Mies to relocate the school to Berlin in 1930, where it operated on a reduced scale. He ultimately shuttered the Bauhaus in 1933.
During the turbulent and often dangerous years of World War II, many of the key figures of the Bauhaus emigrated to the United States, where their work and their teaching philosophies influenced generations of young architects and designers. Breuer and Gropius taught at Harvard. Josef and Anni Albers taught at Black Mountain College, and later Josef taught at Yale. Moholy-Nagy established the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937. Mies van der Rohe designed the campus and taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Alexandra Griffith Winton
August 2007 (originally published)
October 2016 (last revised)
It would be an understatement to say that the current state of the graphic design industry owes a lot to the Bauhaus movement. With modern design’s intrinsic nature as a combination of art and industry, we owe much to this ragtag German design school that persevered throughout a tough time of social and political upheaval to leave one of the biggest stamps on art, architecture and design in the 20th century.
The Bauhaus School (literally meaning ‘building house’ in German) was founded in 1919 by Walter Groupius in Weimar, then the capital of post WWI Germany. In this era of change and disillusionment, the movement sought to embrace 20th century machine culture in a way that allowed basic necessities like buildings, furniture, and design, to be completed in a utilitarian but affective way.
The school encouraged the embrace of modern technologies in order to succeed in a modern environment. The most basic tenet of the Bauhaus was form follows function.
While the Bauhaus school of thought believed that the building itself was the zenith of all design, they had their students focus on artistry and crafts across all mediums of design. Their school followed a regimented syllabus, which focused on the connection between theory and practice.
With their theory of form follows function, the school emphasized a strong understanding of basic design, especially the principles of composition, color theory, and craftsmanship, in a wide array of disciplines. Because of the Bauhaus belief in the oneness of the artist and the craftsman, their courses taught students to eliminate the ideas of the individual and instead focus on the productivity of design. But this was also an institution taught by masters.
These instructors were of the highest level of skill and understanding in their particular genre of artistry and craft, and each brought their unique interpretations of the underlining values of the establishment. Even though the Bauhaus movement has been defunct since 1933, by studying the lessons of some of their top teachers, you too can learn their wisdom.
One of the most famous courses in theory was taught by Paul Klee.
By the time Klee came to work at the Bauhaus, he had already gained acclaim as a founding member of the German Expressionist movement, known as Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). His courses on color theory concentrated on the movement of color and did much to change the ideas behind color in the 20th century.
Another of the most important Bauhaus exports came from the mind of Josef Albers. He was one of the co-leaders of the preliminary course, in which he focused on ‘material studies’ and ‘formal qualities.’ The course highlighted the connection between material, construction, function, production and technology.
He believed the important formal qualities of the day were: harmony or balance, free or measured rhythms, geometric or arithmetic proportion, symmetry or asymmetry and central or peripheral synthesis. Albers is perhaps most well-known for his work completed after the time of the Bauhaus, although thoroughly indebted to the school’s way of thinking. His series Homage to the Square was a collection of paintings, of the exact same proportions, with various changes in color through hue, saturation, and value/tone.
What is so critical about this series of works, and why it so thoroughly derives from the ideas of the school, is its emphasis that color and composition are inherently linked. We can see this in Homage because despite the similarity of all the square proportions, the eyes view each work differently depending on the use of color.
Wassily Kandinsky taught form theory with an emphasis on color theory. He encouraged his students to understand abstraction in his course ‘The Basics of Artistic Design,’ but it was in his color class where Kandinsky most thoroughly developed his own theories. These resulted in his written work “Point and Line to Plane,” and the idea was a new approach to teaching color using psychology and perception.
The theory was based on the analysis of individual elements such as the point, line and plane that so titled his writings. Kandinsky, like Albers, believed that true design only arose through the perceptual collaboration of composition and color, of which red, blue, and yellow were considered of highest importance.
One of the Bauhaus masters most directly associated with modern graphic design was László Moholy-Nagy. He believed that art should be all-encompassing, and any means of artistry or crafts – be it sculpture, painting, architecture or poster design, should be influenced by all of the disciplines.
His fascination with the modern age allowed him to focus on some of the more modern means of expression and creation, especially poster design and typography.
Moholy-Nagy’s similar interest in the concepts of space and time led him to focus on photography. This brought about the theory of typophoto, or the synthesis of typography and photography, which has become a central tenet of all advertising today.
Herbert Bayer was the school’s first master of typography. His participation in the movement led to his invention of a Bauhaus style font, called Universal.
It was an incomplete work that was finished in 1969 to create the font entitled “Bauhaus”. The simplicity of the font supported the ideals of the Bauhaus. It’s lack of serifs, so different from the common German Fraktur typeface, was perfectly in line with ‘form over function.’
But the school also focused on the utopian principle of excellent design that was accessible to all. This font’s defection from the difficult-to-read Fraktur font (which historically privileged the elite), made it more practical for the use of the whole of society. The font’s original title, Universal, was meant to underline this point.
This list cannot even begin to cover the artists, works, theories, practices and changes that the school set into motion in the early 20th century. While the Bauhaus movement also created major influence in the fields of architecture, furniture design, painting, weaving and more, here we can only touch upon some of the themes and lessons most applicable to graphic design.
The final lesson to take out of this is that the Bauhaus advocated for a “new guild of craftsmen,” abolishing the elitist lines between artist and designer in order to build a new future. Almost 90 years later, as we exist in that very future which the Bauhaus imagined, we can see more clearly than ever the connection between good artistry and good design.
The distinction between art and craft has indeed been blurred and, much like Gropius had hoped, from this new fusion has come what we now all see as an exciting creative present.
How has the Bauhaus movement influenced you?
Header Image: Janos Balazs (via Flickr)