In 1920, Vladimir Lenin signed a decree that was to have a monumental effect on artists in post-revolutionary Russia. This decree set out “to prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry, and builders and managers for professional-technical education” through the formation of a new art school in Moscow: Vkhutemas (or the Higher Art and Technical Institute). Often referred to as the Soviet Bauhaus, the lesser-known Vkhutemas was to become a center for creative experimentation and debate—and the site of a groundbreaking approach to graphic design pedagogy led by none other than the artist Alexander Rodchenko.
Exercises in Rodchenko’s ‘Graphic Construction on a Plane’ course included: “Take five sheets of paper of any size, as long as their dimensions are in the proportion 2:3. Next, take three shapes of any size: a circle, a triangle and a rectangle.” Rodchenko wanted to impart his Constructivist design ideals through a new style of interactive teaching. Once his students had their circle, triangle and square to hand, he instructed them to “make five constructions with the three given shapes.” As the meticulous instructions of such tasks suggest, Rodchenko conceived of graphic design more as a 3D process of building than a 2D one of drawing.
This then-pedagogical novelty aligned with the Vkhutemas’ overarching objectives as a transformative institution that produced a generation of artists and designers who would leverage industrial production techniques to create new forms, support the economy, and contribute to the desire for social change. If before 1917, Russian art schools were primarily attended by an elite few and favored the fine arts, by the early 20s the Vkhutemas included the study of technical craft and welcomed anyone over 16, for free education—regardless of their background or training.
From 1920 until 1923, a faculty including Rodchenko and like-minded artists such as his textile designer wife Varvara Stepanova, painter Lyubov Popova, and architect Nikolai Ladovsky carefully researched their teaching methods, theorising around the school’s focus on cross-pollination between disciplines. This dedicated group of artist-professors was keen to break with tradition and make their mark in the post-revolutionary climate of artistic education reform. While the innovative, interdisciplinary focus of the school earned it titles like “laboratory of modernity,” its classrooms were much larger than their German counterparts and held in a building that previously housed the more traditional School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.
The Vkhutemas’ preliminary course initially comprised four core topics: Graphics, Color, Volume, and Space. Students then specialized in one of eight disciplines: architecture, painting, sculpture, graphics, textiles, ceramics, wood, or metalworking. “Teachers and students saw the school not just as a process of knowledge,” says Dr. Anna Bokov, a faculty member at The Cooper Union. “They saw it as a vehicle for design innovation.”
Rodchenko was “searching for the perfect algorithm” to convey design skills to his students
The Vkhutemas’ avant-garde teachers’ goal was “to replace the master with the method,” according to Bokov. Pioneering faculty members worked to develop a standardized methodology to train more than 2,000 students in a consistent, rigorous way to equip them with a fundamental set of creative guidelines in the four core curriculum areas.
Rodchenko in particular was “searching for the perfect algorithm” to convey design skills to his students, explains Bokov. Starting from a simple combination of basic shapes, he encouraged them to progressively work towards more complex, unconventional compositions. Rodchenko said that the aim of his teaching methods was to “get students of all specializations to discover the laws of ‘expediency’ that govern the construction of different forms, to develop in them analytical capacity, artistic intuition, [which he termed ‘initiative’] creative initiative, imagination and the concrete ability to put them into practice.”
Among the few designs by Vkhutemas students that have been conserved are those of Anastasia Akhtyrko, Rodchenko’s pupil whose work Bokov highlights given her impressive renditions of his graphics course assignments. However, more work survives from its teaching faculty members. These include a 1927 cover design by artist El Lissitzky for a 1,000-copy run booklet containing 25 architectural drawings by Vkhutemas students. His design combined photomontage, innovative typography, and dynamic layouts: the word “Arkitectura” sits diagonally across the page overlapping with the name of the school, giving a sense of energy and inevitably, architectural construction.
Outside of designs for the school, the Vkhutemas faculty and students produced objects for everyday life—from furniture to tableware. An important part of the school’s activity was in publishing: the school had its own printing facility which produced books, advertisements, and various posters—ranging from film to propaganda—bold popular culture artefacts that looked to disseminate the avant-garde’s ideals charged with political agenda with immediacy. Bokov points out the significance of conflating the avant-garde aesthetics with the Bolshevik ideology—the transformative process that was essential to the initial mission of Vkhutemas.
Many of these faculty-created designs were produced for state-run enterprises under Lenin’s New Economic Policy to help the state compete with private traders using posters promoting different industrial sectors, rather than for standalone factories. The aim was to create public confidence in state goods and familiarize people with the new names on the market using posters in prominent public places bearing inventive uses of typography, shape, and color combinations. Some of the most eye-catching work was created for Mosselprom (the Moscow Union of Industrial Enterprises for the Processing of Agricultural Produce), a centralized state company selling agricultural products, while other projects included included work for Rezinotrest, state producers of rubber items, and Dobrolet, the state airline.
The Vkhutemas’ mandate to train students to use industrial mediums to create their work was another way of conveying Soviet’s belief in accelerating the benefits of modern industry.
The school community benefited from the workshops inherited from the pre-revolution applied art school’s building it occupied. The wood and metalwork departments were used to create physical type; while the Vkhutemas graphic department with its printing, lithography, and letterpress facilities were at the forefront for subverting traditional book design. In 1922, Mayakovsky printed his first collection of works 13 let raboty (13 years of work) there, and artist Anton Lavinskii designed a letterpressed cover for it using thick typography of various sizes and the recurrent minimalist red and black colors common to Soviet graphics. When production wasn’t possible in the school’s workshops, students could utilize the relationships the faculty had with local factories, where students would use industrial machinery to execute their work and learn more about the production processes. The Vkhutemas’ mandate to train students to use industrial mediums to create their work was another way of conveying Soviet’s belief in accelerating the benefits of modern industry.
While the legacy of Rodchenko and his experimental colleagues’ graphic design qualities are visible throughout Soviet visual culture, the discipline was also taught by other Vkhutemas faculty members who had different artistic priorities. When Rodchenko left the painting department to become the head of the metalworking department in 1922, his core course graphics was replaced by the more conventional drawing course. Under the tenure of the second director of the school artist Vladimir Favorsky graphic design education took a new direction that favored more expressionist techniques.
After a productive decade, the Vkhutemas was abruptly shut down in 1930 by Stalin, who was adamant about eradicating all avant-garde ideals in favour of social realism and propaganda for his nascent totalitarian regime. There’s no doubt, however, that the school and its progressive pedagogical mission—while under-researched and little conserved—paved the way for much of the graphics style we associate with some of the most well-crafted and innovative pieces of Soviet early 20th century visual culture.
Thank you to Dr. Anna Bokov for sharing images for this article. Bokov’s book, Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920–1930, is out in 2020 with Park Books.