Bauhaus design’s impact on today’s graphics is hard to overestimate. Associated with primary colors, thick straight lines slashing across white space, and that emphatically modern trilogy of circle, triangle and square, the movement’s legacy has now become easier to trace due to an online tool via Harvard Art Museums. Thanks to the digital archive, exceptional and marginal objects from the period are more accessible, and so today we look at 5 examples of graphic design from the collection that might be of surprise or buck the cliché.
The museum is home to one of the largest collections devoted to the Bauhaus, and more than 32,000 Bauhaus-related objects of a variety of media are now searchable by keyword, title, artist, medium, and date. You can browse through the paintings and photographs of Lyonel Feininger, admire typographic experiments and stark magazine spreads by László Moholy-Nagy, or simply stumble across unexpected objects like this three-tier Bauhaus Dessau building cake made for the 80th birthday of the movement’s founder, Walter Gropius. There’s artworks, sketches, and prints by the masters of the school (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe, etc.), and also extensive examples of student output that allows you to engage with lesser-known elements from the period.
For those not familiar with the school’s history, a number of essays and a timeline with visual aids give a solid overview of the Bauhaus’ approach and developments, starting with its founding in 1919 to its dissolution in 1933. The online collection also traces the legacy of the school and its close ties with Harvard and Cambridge, MA, where Gropius settled in 1937 to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Herbert Bayer, a key designer and typographer from the period, is known for developing the typeface Universal that was commissioned by Gropius in 1925. Its simplicity supported the ideals of functionalism and accessibility that the school famously championed, and its name underlined the idea of design as something that should be accessible to all. With the Harvard Art Museums archive, that spirit of accessibility lives on, as it engages new audiences with work that otherwise would be difficult to access.
The resource has emerged as part of the efforts of Robert Wiesenberger, the museum’s 2014-16 Stefan Engelhorn curatorial fellow and a specialist in graphic design from the period. We asked Wiesenberger to select five examples from the collection, some that might surprise and complicate what people normally imagine of when they think of Bauhaus. These picks strikingly exemplify the movement’s approach to typography, graphics, and poster design.
1. Last Dance invitation by Herbert Bayer, 1925
“This invitation by Herbert Bayer for the Bauhaus’s last dance in Weimar, before its move to Gropius’s iconic building in Dessau, is also an ironic last gasp for Dadaistic disorder. With the move, the Austrian student graduated to the role of Bauhaus master, and the school rebranded along stricter, rationalist lines and a greater emphasis on typographic sobriety.
“For the invitation, Bayer threw dingbats, Fraktur, and decorated script together, along with sans serif lettering that anticipates his signage on the Dessau building. The invitation promises fireworks, music from the Bauhaus band, and lottery prizes by masters Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, ‘and others.’”
2. Pamphlet for City of Dessau by Joost Schmidt, 1930
“This back cover of Schmidt’s brochure makes the industrial city of Dessau look like the center of the world, or at least Germany. Schmidt indicates travel distances to other cities via car, train, and—in a modern sign of the times—plane, with concentric circles radiating outward. (The front cover features a photomontage of local highlights floating over an aerial view of the city).
“Like Bayer, Schmidt studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar before becoming a master, in sculpture and in printing and advertising. As the inscription shows, this brochure belonged to Josef Albers, who gave it to Harvard in the founding years of its Bauhaus collection.”
3. Research in Development of Universal Type by Herbert Bayer, 1927
“You can see the working process in Bayer’s large (almost 15 x 24”) specimen of Universal, his famous single-case, geometrically derived typeface: there’s the indent of the compass used to construct the letterforms, the broad strokes in gouache, and the collaged corrections to the ‘g’ and ‘k’ (his handwritten legend indicates that these are ‘not yet finished’).
“The oversize red ‘d,’ a readymade logo on its own, is called out for its ‘precise optical effects.’ Yet formal purity did not always produce legibility, as is clear from some of the more awkward letters. Bayer iterated on Universal for five years, though it was never put into a production.”
4. Analysis of Rotogravure Page by Bertrand Goldberg, 1932-33.
“This text is illegible, even up close. What look like letters are just marks, made to mimic a page of newsprint. Artist and master Josef Albers assigned students in his preliminary course to analyze what he called ‘typofacture,’ or the surface treatment of ink on paper and the letter and word spacing, and overall composition, of a printed page. The assignment is consistent with Albers’s strategy of de-familiarization to help see the world anew. The student, Chicago-born Bertrand Goldberg who designed the page studied at Harvard before attending the Bauhaus in its final two years, under Mies van der Rohe, and he later led a successful architectural office in America (his work includes Chicago’s Marina City towers, nicknamed ‘the corncobs’.)”
5. Design for Adler Automobile Showroom by Andor Weininger, 1933
“Though not well known, the Hungarian-born Andor Weininger was a model student of the early Bauhaus, active in architecture, painting, and stage design, and a fixture of the school’s jazz band. Andor and his wife Eva later collaborated on the design of a showroom for Adler automobiles (the commission came through Gropius, who designed cars for Adler, and tapped Bayer to create a prospectus). Here Weininger stages an intersection of exquisitely rendered cars in an abstract, perspectival space, the flooring picked out by incised lines. The Adler name reads forward and backward, though faint markings show that Weininger had considered a different orientation.”