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.