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.


  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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