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Bauhaus Typography Is More Complicated Than You Think

The Letterform Archive's new exhibition shows another side of the famously minimalist school

Geometry, clarity, functionality, and a deliberate lack of ornamentation. These are the ideas typically associated with Bauhaus typography. 

Famously, students and teachers at the Bauhaus school embraced simplified sans-serifs typefaces, believing that stripped-back forms would be more appealing, useful, and accessible than the ornate blackletter adorning most printed matter in Germany during the early 1920s. “Modernist typefaces were egalitarian in spirit,” says Henry Cole Smith, co-curator of The Letterform Archive’s much-anticipated Bauhaus Typography at 100 exhibition. “The idea was that if a typeface was more legible and readable, then reading could become more widespread and class distinctions could be dissolved.”

This is a story that has become all too familiar, especially after 2019’s many centennial celebrations. Above all, what the comprehensive exhibition at San Francisco’s Letterform Archive reveals is that the story of Bauhaus letterforms—and Bauhaus aesthetics more generally—is far more complicated. In the archive’s newly installed, permanent gallery—and throughout the pages of its exciting online platform—wild, dense, and joyful writing sits alongside the cool, austere typography that has become synonymous with the infamous institution. 

“Before the Bauhaus embraced new technology in 1923, its founder Walter Gropius had the ambition to unite art and craft. And as a result, early Bauhaus lettering appeared in woodcut, lithography, etching, collage, and a variety of other hand-made media,” says Rob Saunders, exhibition co-curater and founder of The Letterform Archive. It was in 1923 that the flavor of Bauhaus lettering turned a corner most sharply, when the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy took over the school’s print workshop, which had previously been run by Swiss painter Johannes Itten. Moholy-Nagy emphasized clarity, technology, and universality in all of his teaching—whereas Itten had been a proponent of mysticism and whimsical expressionism. 

Looking at the Bauhaus’s letterforms across its short yet prolific fourteen year trajectory—and tracking how its lessons traveled abroad with the emigration of its professors and students—ultimately offers an intimate portrait of the school. Unlike exhibitions that chart the Bauhaus’s approach to architecture or product design, singling out letterforms takes us to the heart of the school’s everyday reality. Just like contemporary art schools, you can tell a lot about the culture of the place through its hand-scrawled artworks, personalized birthday cards, and student-designed party posters. “Tracing the typographic lineage provides  a glimpse into the principles of the school, and its life more generally,” adds Smith. “It reveals how the Bauhaus communicated about itself to others.”

For our latest installment of Poster Picks, we spoke to Saunders and Smith about lesser-known and surprising letterforms that emerged from the Bauhaus, offering, in turn, a glimpse into its lesser-known histories.

1
Utopia: Documents of Reality, 1921

Johannes Itten (lettering artist/author), Margit Téry-Adler (cover designer), Friedl Dicker (typesetter)

“In Utopia, the head of the Bauhaus’s preliminary print course, Johannes Itten, analyzed old paintings and compositions. And some of his analyses appear as very expressive, scratchy, and rough typographic compositions.

Utopia spread by Johannes Itten

 

“In our opinion, hand-lettering like it is just waiting to be recuperated as an element of the Bauhaus aesthetic, and it got left behind as the rationalist, modernist, geometric aesthetic became so institutionalized. And lettering like Itten’s—whether it’s a direct reference or not—resurfaces decades later in punk and grunge, as well as early digital maximalist design that you find in something like Emigre or Fuse

 

Utopia cover by Margit Tery-Adler.

 

“Excitingly, Utopia also includes two contributions by women who studied at the Bauhaus with Itten. First, there’s the Oxford blue, geometric cover by Margit Téry-Adler, and then there’s an introduction by Itten, typeset by his student Friedl Dicker and featuring incredible improvisational typography. Her contribution is a technical tour de force, with its puzzle of typefaces, curved words, and overprinting. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating typographic adaptation of Itten’s hand-lettering—combining decorative black letters with regular serif typefaces and the occasional bold san serif.”  

2
Crucifixion: Performance Score VII, 1920

Lothar Schreyer (designer/author), Max Olderock, and Max Billert (woodcutters)

“Lothar Schreyer was an early theater teacher at the Bauhaus (a class eventually taken over by Oskar Schlemmer). This publication of his is a play script, cut in wood block so that each page is one block of wood engraved with letters and illustrations. The colors have been painted in by hand. 

“At the top of the chart visible on this particular page, the zig-zagging, colorful graphics express tone, volume, and delivery of words. Then underneath, symbols represent an actor’s different movements.

“The lettering is particularly interesting. It’s san serif, but it doesn’t have stress and it’s clearly woodcut. It’s quite modern for it’s time. And it’s very different from the German expressionist woodcut of the period, which tended to be dense, wild, and almost illegible. This lettering, on the other hand, is very clean looking.”

3
Postcard 11, Weimar State Bauhaus Exhibition, 1923

Herbert Bayer

“In 1923, the state government required the Bauhaus to mount an exhibition to justify its funding. To announce the event, the school produced a series of lithograph postcards designed by teachers and students. Gropius gave them the exhibition title, the date, the size of the postcard, and the medium (stone lithography)—then the rest was up to the designers. All the lettering was done by hand, in reverse, on stone. 

“Herbert Bayer produced this card when he was still a student (Bayer later became director of print and advertising at the school). His design is open and geometric, and it uses a san serif—a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily know that it was hand lettered. This was two years before the Bauhaus had a typographic workshop—but you can already see the beginning of what was to become the institution’s well-known style. 

“In contrast, Bauhaus master Lyonel Feininger’s postcard is totally expressive and represents the school’s craft-based roots. He uses distinctive, wild slashes for his letterforms.”

Lyonel Feininger’s postcard

4
Original lettering for Universal Type, 1925

Herbert Bayer

“This is pretty special. This is one of three original boards that Herbert Bayer made for his Universal Alphabet idea, where he proposed principles for a new typography that would reduce letters to their essentials. The simplified, geometric, unicase sans-serif existed only as a design and was never actually cast into real type. Ours is one of the weirder of the three boards in existence—the other two are at Harvard with the Gropius collection. 

“At the Letterform Archive, we try hard to collect process material, and here you can really see Bayer’s process. He’s used whiteout to cut down stems that are too long. You can see his ideas for an alternate a, as well as for a wacky a, k, and very strange s. The Universal Alphabet is a more familiar, quintessential example of Bauhaus typography: It’s rare to see this unique board, which has some familiar elements alongside less familiar quirks.”

5
Course catalog for the School of Design in Chicago, circa 1943

László Moholy-Nagy (designer/editor)

“In some ways, the Bauhaus was cursed: It landed in three cities and then was were shut down by the Nazis all in the span of 13 years. After leaving Germany in the 30s, László Moholy-Nagy ended up in Chicago, where he received funding to open up a school called The New Bauhaus. But after just over a year, the funding was pulled. Eventually, he was able to get more money to open the School of Design in Chicago, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

Course catalog for the School of Design in Chicago, circa 1943. László Moholy-Nagy (designer/editor)

 

“Moholy-Nagy designed this brochure for the recently opened school. The photo and layout is classic Moholy, but then he uses a loopy script and big slab serifs. It’s not typical of the Bauhaus typographically and it’s interesting to speculate whether he was updating his style for the US context, or if he was just changing his own aesthetic tastes and principles. 

“We love this page in the catalog, which features a comparison between the shapes of the alphabet and modern chairs. With the likes of Moholy-Nagy and Bayer fleeing to the United States, and other professors and students moving abroad, Bauhaus ideas traveled around the world and into new contexts.”

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