Know Your Design History: The Bauhaus Movement

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.

Bauhaus building in Dessau
The Bauhaus building in Dessau, where the school was located from 1925-1933 (via ArchitecturePics.org)

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.

Bauhaus syllabus
Syllabus of the Weimar Bauhaus, 1923 (via Rune Madsen)

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 over 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.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee
Imagery from Klee’s color course, which emphasized how changing the values and saturation of a color can change the feeling it imparts.

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.

Josef Albers

Josef Albers
Homage to the Square, 1951 (via Brain Pickings)

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

Wassily Kandinsky
‘Black Relationship’ 1924 by Wassily Kandinsky

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.

László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy Nagy
‘Foto Qualität’ 1931 by László Moholy Nagy (via museumpublicity.com)

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

Universal Typeface
Universal Typeface, 1925 (via ffonts.net)

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.

Conclusion

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)

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