The Bauhaus was the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century, one whose approach to teaching, and understanding art’s relationship to society and technology, had a major impact both in Europe and the United States long after it closed. It was shaped by the 19th and early-20th centuries trends such as Arts and Crafts movement, which had sought to level the distinction between fine and applied arts, and to reunite creativity and manufacturing.
This is reflected in the romantic medievalism of the school’s early years, in which it pictured itself as a kind of medieval crafts guild. But in the mid 1920s the medievalism gave way to a stress on uniting art and industrial design, and it was this which ultimately proved to be its most original and important achievement. The school is also renowned for its faculty, which included artists Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Johannes Itten, architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and designer Marcel Breuer.
- The motivations behind the creation of the Bauhaus lay in the 19th century, in anxieties about the soullessness of manufacturing and its products, and in fears about art’s loss of purpose in society. Creativity and manufacturing were drifting apart, and the Bauhaus aimed to unite them once again, rejuvenating design for everyday life.
- Although the Bauhaus abandoned much of the ethos of the old academic tradition of fine art education, it maintained a stress on intellectual and theoretical pursuits, and linked these to an emphasis on practical skills, crafts and techniques that was more reminiscent of the medieval guild system. Fine art and craft were brought together with the goal of problem solving for a modern industrial society. In so doing, the Bauhaus effectively leveled the old hierarchy of the arts, placing crafts on par with fine arts such as sculpture and painting, and paving the way for many of the ideas that have inspired artists in the late-20th century.
WHAT WAS THE BAUHAUS SCHOOL?
The Bauhaus, a German word meaning “house of building”, was a school founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The school emerged out of late-19th-century desires to reunite the applied arts and manufacturing, and to reform education. These had given birth to several new schools of art and applied art throughout Germany, and it was out of two such schools that the new Bauhaus was born.
Gropius called for the school to show a new respect for craft and technique in all artistic media, and suggested a return to attitudes to art and craft once characteristic of the medieval age, before art and manufacturing had drifted far apart. Gropius envisioned the Bauhaus encompassing the totality of all artistic media, including fine art, industrial design, graphic design, typography, interior design, and architecture.
THE CONCEPTS & STYLES
Central to the school’s operation was its original and influential curriculum. It was described by Gropius in the manner of a wheel diagram, with the outer ring representing the vorkurs, a six-month preliminary course, initiated by Johannes Itten, which concentrated on practical formal analysis, in particular on the contrasting properties of forms, colors and materials. The two middle rings represented two three-year courses, the formlehre, focused on problems related to form, and werklehre, a practical workshop instruction that emphasized technical craft skills. These classes emphasized functionalism through simplified, geometric forms that allowed new designs to be reproduced with ease. At the center of the curriculum were courses specialized in building construction that led students to seek practicality and necessity through technological reproduction, with an emphasis on craft and workmanship that was lost in technological manufacturing. And the basic pedagogical approach was to eliminate competitive tendencies and to foster individual creative potential and a sense of community and shared purpose.
The creators of this program were a fabulously talented faculty that Gropius attracted. Avant-garde painters Johannes Itten and Lyonel Feininger, and sculptor Gerhard Marcks were among his first appointments. Itten would be particularly important: he was central to the creation of the Vorkurs, and his background in Expressionism lent much of the tone to the early years of the school, including its emphasis on craft and its medievalism. Indeed, Itten’s avant-gardism and Gropius’s social concerns soon put them at odds. By the early 1920s, however, Gropius had won out; Itten left and was replaced by László Moholy-Nagy, who reformed vorkurs into a program that embraced technology and stressed its use for society. Other important appointments included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Georg Muche, and Oskar Schlemmer.
What set the Bauhaus school apart, though, wasn’t so much what they studied, but their new ideas about how to teach and learn. The essence of this philosophy is set out in a brief manifesto by Gropius in 1919:
“The art schools […] must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive ‘artist’ will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence. Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship!”
In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to the German industrial town of Dessau, initiating its most fruitful period. Gropius designed a new building for the school, which has since come to be seen as a landmark of modern, functionalist architecture. It was also here that the school finally created a department of architecture, something that had been conspicuously lacking in an institution that had been premised on the union of the arts. But by 1928 Gropius was worn down by his work, and by the increasing battles with the school’s critics, and he stood down, turning over the helm to Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. Meyer headed the architecture department, and, as an active communist, he incorporated his Marxist ideals through student organizations and classroom programs. The school continued to build in strength but criticism of Meyer’s Marxism grew, and he was dismissed as director in 1930, and after local elections brought the Nazis to power in 1932, the school in Dessau was closed.
In his 1931 “Essay on Typography”, Eric Gill echoes Gropius’ manifesto, writing about the loss of craftsmanship that he felt had resulted from industrialism. He advocated a reunion of the artist with their craft.
Some of the items created by Bauhaus students during this period have become iconic, and Bauhaus forms are often found repeated or imitated in today’s furniture and appliances. For example, here is Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s original 1923 lamp, created while he was a student at the Bauhaus, alongside a reproduction still available through retailers today.
In the same year, 1932, it moved to Berlin, under the new direction of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an advocate of functionalism. He struggled with far poorer resources, and a faculty that had lost some of its brightest stars; he also tried to remove politics from the school’s ethos, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, the school was closed indefinitely.
WHAT CAN BAUHAUS SCHOOL OFFER TODAY’S DESIGNERS?
1. GO BACK TO BASICS
One of the great insights of the Bauhaus movement is to recognise that creative education is about more than passing on and refining technical knowledge or skills. But when it comes to solving our own design problems, we need more than a how-to guide. By going back to the fundamentals of colour, form, and meaning in design, we connect with the basic elements of our craft, and free ourselves to be more inventive and to respond authentically to the design problem that we are called to solve.
2. FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Left: Josef Albers’ nesting tables (ca 1927). Right: “Kilo” nesting tables, available through UK retailer Habitat (2016)
“Form follows function” is now an article of faith for designers, but that wasn’t always the case. The Bauhaus School rejected the purely “ornamental” role that they felt the visual arts had acquired. This feeling only became more widespread during the Bauhaus period: notably, in 1936, the early critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote about how mechanical reproduction could rob art of its critical power.
Breaking with the widespread ornamentation and ornateness that characterised art, design, and architecture in the early 1900s, the Bauhaus strove for rational solutions to design problems. This meant stripping away the intricate and floral decorations of the late nineteenth century. In their place, the Bauhaus School required students to reflect and enhance an object’s function, without adding decorative elements for their own sake. We can see this simplicity and rationalism in Josef Albers’ geometrical nesting tables as above.
The Bauhaus-Archiv explains that “one of the decisive qualities that the Bauhaus possessed was an ability to see diversions or even unsuccessful experiments as potentially necessary lessons and to derive corrections in its course from them.” The Bauhaus School’s learning culture encouraged experimentation at a fundamental level. They stand to remind us that rules and conventions are there to be learned, but not always to be observed. Some design problems call for radical solutions that nobody but you believes in.
4. THINK BIG EVEN WHEN YOUR WORK IS “SMALL”
Left: Marcel Breuer’s “Bauhaus Telephone”, ca 1928. Right: Dietrich Lubs’ ET 66 Calculator for Braun, 1987.
The Bauhaus movement set out to change society, and it succeeded — by designing teapots, table lamps, and telephones. The Bauhaus-Archiv explains that, “starting in 1928, the college’s social aims intensified under Hannes Meyer; the solution was now summarized as ‘people’s necessities, not luxuries’”.
The Bauhaus anticipated a major theme of twentieth-century design — that the most serious site of design and transformation is not in grand projects (like designing an opera house), but in the stuff of everyday life. We see this in the domestic items designed by Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs for Braun from the 1950s onwards. So even when our work as designers is “small”, we should still think big, even if we’re just doing a logo design for a friend’s hot dog stand.
5. GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
The Bauhaus School wanted to reunite the artist with their craft, and encouraged students to immerse themselves in the full range of materials and techniques available. The quickest and most effective way to learn about the constraints and potential of materials like paper and ink is to get our hands dirty and work with them ourselves.
EXAMPLES OF BAUHAUS INFLUENCE IN WEB DESIGN
1. ECONOMY & HIERARCHY
On the left is Wassily Kandinsky’s “Severe in Sweet” (1928). This work highlights the relationships between dark/light, form/space, inside/outside, left/right, and small/large. Compare this to a contemporary website landing page on the right (this one is from Danish). It creates visual hierarchy with similar parameters to Kandinsky’s painting.
2. COLOR AS MEANING
Left: Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square”, 1951. Right: Color palette for Brandts.com.
Josef Albers, a Bauhaus student, went on to write a seminal book on color theory, “Interaction of Color”. Today, the best websites are designed with carefully chosen palettes that respect their constituent colors’ intrinsic properties, as well as their meanings in culture and nature.
3. RATIONAL, LEGIBLE TYPOGRAPHY
Left: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s 1925 catalogue design. Right: Apple’s new font San Francisco, which is applied across all its devices.
Building on the emergence of Akzidenz Grotesk in 1896, the Bauhaus School strove to create typography that was rational, clear, and legible. For Bauhaus members like Herbert Bayer, this meant doing away with decorative elements such as serifs, and imposing hierarchy on printed material using standalone uppercase and lowercase text.
It’s often said that web design is 95% typography. Recent innovations in web fonts show that our priorities are still those identified by the Bauhaus — that type should be functional and must primarily facilitate good communication.
4. THE GRID
Left: MoMA Bauhaus exhibition catalogue, 1938. Right: Website design, “The Grid System”
Rational organisation of a visual field was a theme in the work of many Bauhaus exponents. Websites are often designed to a grid system. This allows designers to lay pages out consistently, organise text logically, and impose careful visual hierarchy on content.
5. WEBSITES THAT RESPOND TO THE USER’S NEEDS
By asserting the primacy of function over form, the Bauhaus School laid the groundwork for user-centred design, or as web developers call it, user experience (UX) design. Responsive websites change their size, appearance and functionality depending on the device and the user.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.
AS A RESULT
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.