Bauhaus: a style?

Another column from Blueprint magazine. I think it appeared in the november issue.



For more than 40 years my letterhead has consisted of a red bar at the top of the page, with my name reversed out of it. Some of my educated friends still feel they have to make remarks about that device, especially now that the Bauhaus celebrates its 90th birthday and Berlin is covered in posters emulating what is obviously perceived as a specific style.

Perhaps we Germans should be glad that we have created at least one world-famous and perhaps even popular style, but, know-alls that we are, we have to point out that the Bauhaus was much more than a simple style. Having been invented in Germany (if not entirely by Germans), it had to have a theory as well as a serious message to mankind.

Herbert Bayer paraphrased the Bauhaus proposition as ‘combining the areas of utilitarian design, after researching their constituent elements, under the purpose of “Bau” (German for building or construction)’. ‘Researching their elements’ meant discussing economical, social, formal and ethical topics to form a theoretical, scientific basis for design, in order to move away from personal, purely artistic attitudes. ‘Bau’ meant every artefact, not just buildings made from stone or steel.

One of the main problems with most of what we know about the Bauhaus (and other periods or styles, for that matter) is that we have only seen these artefacts filtered through some intervening technology: photographs of buildings; scans of book pages, more often than not reproductions of reproductions and hardly ever at the original size. This process tends to be kind to the printed pieces from the Bauhaus workshops. What was actually fairly crude typesetting from a very limited choice of fonts and plain letterpress printing on bad paper, today appeals to us as lovingly handmade, put together by charming, bespectacled gentlemen, sporting interesting facial hair-styles, under enameled lampshades in cosy mid-European ateliers. I bet the poor compositors who had to work to detailed sketches from designers such as El Lissitzky hated every minute of it. They would have much rather set straightforward columns of plain type instead of having to compose impossible illustrations from metal rules and 12-pica full points. At the same time it must have been frustrating for Lissitzky and his colleagues to have their imagination constrained by the tight limits of a mechanical craft that was more rule-based than the most Teutonic of engineers could have wished.

Crude as it was, this new way of constructing pages, rather than simply setting them from the top down and centred, soon created a demand. In 1928, Bayer observed that more than 50 per cent of the orders taken by printers in Frankfurt were specified to be set in the ‘Bauhaus Style’. By that time this had been reduced to big dots and heavy bars or, worse still, ornaments and imitations of nature by means of typographic materials. The original concept of being true to the material had come full circle.

If the Bauhaus concept had already been reduced to a mere style as early as 1928, while it was still going – perhaps even as strong as in the beginning – how can we be surprised that today a red bar is enough to evoke it? What would it mean today to be ‘true to the material’ when the material consists of invisible noughts and ones? How would we define ‘utilitarian design’ when we are supposed to invent experiences and virtual worlds for the consumer to get sucked into?

What’s left? Discussing economical, social, formal and ethical topics may well be desirable again when we design not just artefacts but processes, politics and, in fact, our future. Connecting these issues under the topos of design is what the Bauhaus invented. Creating networks, thinking across disciplines. What we call networks but tend to only get in the shape of cables is the way out for designers. The way out of their isolation, caught between clients asking for free pitches and competitors ready to do the same work for half the fee. The way out of the alienation and isolation caused by unlimited technology, which, by definition, is irresponsible.

If the red bar on my letterhead reminds me of this premise, I can live with the fact that, for most people, the Bauhaus is just another style.

3 comments

  1. Fascinating insights, and I laughed at your description of Bauhaus as bespectacled gentlemen with interesting facial hair styles! That does seem to typify so many of the lecturers, and probably the attending scholars.

    A superb point made too about the way we receive the Bauhaus output through intervening media. I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London on the work of Moholy-Nagy and Albers, and having previously only seen images of their work on screen or in glossy books, I was struck by how rough much of it seemed. Not just from age either, but it was clear by staring closely at their graphic, product, furniture and typeface design that it was all handmade with crude tools, and not polished, refined and machine-honed as I might have been led to expect from the reproductions I’d seen to that point.

  2. The question for me is why does we need to identify with style. It feels so “McDonalds” to me to have some refer to “Bauhaus Style” as if it were a menu for what they want to eat from. The thoughts, process, and collaboration was the real value of Bauhaus. The resulting work was and will always be admirable but, I don’t think the product adhered to a set of the same parameters. Who knows what would have developed had they been allowed to continue.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts

  3. There is some incredible printers available nowadays and im still stuck on an old HP designjet

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