On Bauhaus

Five unique stories on Medium about the art and design school that changed the world

It is impossible to be curious about the history of architecture, design or abstract painting without developing some kind of infatuation with Bauhaus. The iconic architecture and design school, located originally in Weimar, Germany, was founded by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919. Arising out of the ashes of World War I, with a brilliant faculty (some of them classic example of eccentric genius), a radical program of free enquiry, and progressive politics.

The academy was eventually closed by the Nazis, and forced to relocate to Dessau and Berlin before the staff dispersed to other parts of the world. This was not unlike the burning of the Shaolin temple by Qing soldiers: it only caused the flame of revolution and occult knowledge to spread further afield. Bauhaus grew into a movement that inspired architects, painters, artisans, crafters, and many other creative practices and pursuits in places as far as Palestine and Calcutta.

The school is remembered particularly for the re-evaluation of the purpose of craftsmanship and design for mass production, the influence of which can be seen in the products of corporations like Ikea and Lego today.

In typography, however, Bauhaus has come to denote a specific kind of typeface family. In an overview of the debate concerning ornamentation in type design,‘The Magical Surprising History of Serifs’, I had mentioned that the Bauhaus movement unified decorative elements while rejecting serif-like ornamentation for being a relic of an older order. The Bauhaus typefaces are based upon designs created for the usage of Bauhaus’s own purposes, such as posters and publications, and reflect the school’s unique outlook, particularly the focus on primary shapes and colours: the circle, the square and the triangle; red, blue and yellow. The use of geometric shaped blocks and principles borrowed from architecture to lend drama to the shape of letter-forms is the suggestion of a distinct third-way approach to type design.

In tracing the story of Arial, a typeface with a curious history borne out of the largesse of Microsoft (developed as a Helvetica-slayer or imitation; depends on who you ask), I had mentioned how the race to dominate the digital market for word-processing software on personal computers triggered an explosive growth in the demand for typefaces. Bauhaus typefaces have certainly made a strong comeback in our age of graphic interface.

The Google logo uses a Bauhaus family typeface

While researching Bauhaus, I actually found Medium itself to be one of the best resources those interested in knowing more about the Bauhaus school, the typeface family and strange, unknown things about this epoch of design history. These are, in my opinion, five of the most interesting:

1. Bauhaus typography’s roots in architecture

Juneza Niyazi, both an architect and typographer by training, provides a wonderful analysis of how the Bauhaus typeface has evolved, its animating philosophy, the purposes to which it has been applied, and its possible inspirations from architectural drawing.

When designers at Bauhaus, such as Piet Zward, first applied their minds to creating typefaces for their in-house documents, they wanted to make functional “jobbing” typefaces which aided legibility and could be used as body text. Bauhaus’s core philosophy was that “form follows function”. However, their aim, notes Niyazi was: “Why can’t we design cheap stuff that’s nice, too?”. To achieve this, Bauhaus’s designers embraced modular design, where objects could be abstracted to simple shapes that could be manufactured in massive quantities and at minimum cost.

However, this kind of thinking, breaking things down to basic, simple forms, resulted in products that were breath-taking in their aesthetic quality. The simple typeface when thickened with line weights, could not be used as body text, but could perform acrobatics like angles and wraps that have come to define Bauhaus’s posters. Eventually, Herbert Bayer would attempt to unify these designs into a “universal font”. This is the basis for the Bauhaus typeface family.

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Joost Schmidt’s poster for Bauhaus’s 1923 exhibition.

It is unfortunate then, laments Niyazi, that since the typeface can be interpreted as “cheerful and bubbly” it is used heavily for products intended for children; both Disney and Nintendo use it extensively in their logos. The story goes on to make comparisons between the letter-forms of the Bauhaus 93 typeface and architectural features such as staircases, windows, and water channels.

Bauhaus, Juneza Niyazi’s story tells us, is a typeface that twists, turns, and flows.

2. Bauhaus in Palestine

This small excerpt throws light on a lesser known as aspect of Bauhaus: it’s woodwork and craft practice, and how its practitioners spread to all parts of the world.

Ricarda Schwerin and Heinz Schwerine migrated to Palestine in 1935. Ricarda was not Jewish. They were not even Zionists. They founded the Schwerin Wooden Toys workshop to make solid-wood toys following the design and production principles of Bauhaus. Heinz Schwerin also designed numerous pieces of furniture, several of which were collaborative works created with his former Bauhaus peer Selman Selmanagic.

Reading about Bauhaus’s wood and furniture practice, I was jolted to see that so many ‘good taste’ pieces gracing the living rooms of the wealthiest homes I have been in were designed by Bauhaus alumni. Two pieces that are particularly popular are the Model B3 “Wassily” chair (despite the name it has nothing really to do with Kandinsky) and the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair. While Bauhaus’s aspiration had always been to cater to the needs of the humble masses, the Barcelona chair was actually designed for royalty.

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp novel features some iconic Bauhaus furniture; the “Wassily” (left) and Barcelona (right)

3. Bauhaus’s impact on Alfred Hitchcock

Wassily Kandinsky easily finds a place in the pantheon of master abstract painters, such as Kazimir Malevich, Matisse, or Picasso, who innovated techniques concerning colour and form. Scott McCloud’s dialogue in The Sculptor remains etched in my mind — a manifesto for art: “there’s a difference between a Kandinsky and a coat rack!” In Gropius’s school, Kandinsky found a unique place to flower.

Joel Gunz’s series tells the story of the seduction of Alfred Hitchcock by Bauhaus’s abstract painters, and how Paul Klee’s Mask and Scythe became “one of the founding pieces of Hitchcock’s museum-quality collection of modern art”. It was one master of visual grammar recognising fellow genius.

Both Klee and Kandinsky taught classes on form theory at the Dessau Bauhaus.

4. Bauhaus’s enduring legacy: from phones to skyscrapers

In this Financial Times essay, Edwin Heathcote attempts to balance the actual beliefs and practices of its faculty from Bauhaus’s legacy. There was a lot of weirdness: whether it was Gropius’s choice of spouse, the odd Alma Mahler, (who revelled in mocking his warmth, talent and importance; creating a false caricature of him as a “humourless Germanic”) or Johannes Itten’s prescription of breathing exercises to students. As Tom Wolfe put it in From Bauhaus to Our House, Gropius’s army were described as:

“… a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus.”

What is forgotten is the radical politics that the design products were rooted in. Bauhaus’s work was driven by a passionate belief in progressive politics but in the end, all that remains is the “husk of ethereal beauty”. The real irony of Bauhaus is its fervent belief in socialism essentially provided the aesthetic idiom and grammar of capitalism, giving it both a mask and a soul. The iPhone owes its aesthetic to Dieter Rahm. So does the modern workplace, austere glass building blocks and square office cubicles, rooted in Bauhaus’s “non-bourgeois worker housing” philosophy that sought to eliminate hierarchy. Bauhaus strove to be a leveller, thinking about providing dignity and beauty to “non-bourgeois worker housing”. The experimentalist ideals of the design school became the essence of the modern age.

Bauhaus dreamed of a world in where labourers were elevated to designers. Instead, they created a world where designers became labourers. From a certain perspective, this is progress too.

5. Bauhaus Yoga

Can a designer accomplish creativity without paying attention to her body? According to Johannes Itten, “The training of the body as an instrument of the mind is of great importance to a creative person.” Breathing according to him was fundamental: “People who have achieved great success in their lives always breath quietly, slowly, and deeply. Those who are short of breath are hasty and greedy in their thoughts and actions.” This is why those who attended Itten’s classes at Bauhaus began with breathing exercises.

Nina Mehta goes on to analyse yoga and design with Kandinsky’s essay Point and Line to Plane (1926) as a fundamental text. If you’re a person for whom yoga is a fundamental part of your creative practice and up-skilling, you are going to like this essay.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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