the Bauhaus and the international style

WILLIAM MORRIS HAD initiated the craft approach to design in the nineteenth century, but looked backwards romantically to a pre-industrial age. The tremendous violence and chaos at the start of the new century asked for innovative solutions. Designers responded by accepting industrial technology as here to stay.

Germany, defeated in World War I, experienced a surge of artistic experimentation in the aftermath. The Bauhaus school followed Morris’s argument that form and function should be united in the service of social needs. Though apolitical, it would be closed by the Nazis as a centre of communist intellectualism, inadvertently dispersing Bauhaus ideals worldwide.

The Einstein Tower astrophysical observatory near Berlin, built after WW I by architect Erich Mendelsohn, a fine example of expressionism. ©Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam

Prior to the war, Germany was bent on competition with England, so the groundwork for modernism was already laid in that exploitation of mass production potential was a priority. Industrial designers debated practicality versus beauty, and the place of craftsmanship.

The Bauhaus was born at a time when emotional early-modern expressionism was abandoned in favour of an all-business, practical approach after the defeat on the world stage. The art school was founded by architect Walter Gropius who, along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright, is considered one of the forefathers of modern architecture.

The school’s influence on the design of the printed page can be best examined in the work of five master artists, versatile like all its teachers.

Paul Klee had an intuitive understanding of both Einstein’s concept of space and Freud’s idea of the unconscious, space unfolding from a point that moves to form a line which in turn forms a plane that moves to form a volume. He wrote, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

Insula dulcamara, 1938 by Paul Klee.

Wassily Kandinsky, whose painting developed under the influence of constructivism in Russia, brought De Stijl’s geometric approach to design in his classes at the Bauhaus from 1922 to 1932, as well the focus on primary colours. Kandinsky was a synaesthete, that is, a person who perceives (not sees) with senses combined.

Composition X, 1939 by Wassily Kandinsky.

László Moholy-Nagy from Hungary, a proficient photographer, typographer, sculptor, painter, printmaker and industrial designer, moved the curriculum away from expressionism towards design and industrial integration. He said, “Design is not a profession but an attitude.”

Photogram, circa 1923-25 by Lázsló Maholy-Nagy.

Josef Albers
Albers’ work represents a crucial transition, incorporating elements from the constructivists and the Bauhaus, and going on to greatly influence American artists of the 1950s and ’60s. Robert Rauschenberg said Albers was his greatest teacher. Most of the Bauhaus artists left Germany under Nazi pressure to close the school. Albers emigrated to the US to teach at Black Mountain College and later at Yale University. And Albers quote: “I’ve handled colour as a man should behave. You may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one.”

Soft Edge – Hard Edge, 1965 by Josef Albers.

Herbert Bayer
Like Albers, Bayer was a student at the Bauhaus before becoming a teacher there in 1925. Moholy-Nagy had extended the De Stijl approach to typography and pioneered the printing phase at the school, but it would be up to Bayer to establish Bauhaus style in typography. He is responsible for eliminating the excessive use of capital letters in both English and German to impart better articulation to the printed page. His radical approach would have eliminated capitals altogether but they’ve remained despite the logic of his argument. Some of the typefaces he designed are still available, in digital form: Bayer Universal, ITC Bauhaus and Architype Bayer.

Einladung Bauhaus Dessau, 1926 by Herbert Bayer, an invitation to the inauguration of a Bauhaus building designed by Walter Gropius.


Things to Come, 1938 by Herbert Bayer.

Among the accomplishments of the Bauhaus school was the establishment of the international style in architecture and interior design, as well as industrial design.

Graphic design, though today many Bauhaus prototypes have not reappeared in some form, owes a debt to the freedom it brought to page layout as well as logic and consistency to form and space.

We Are the Night, 2007 album by The Chemical Brothers; design by Tappin Gofton studio, London.

Some of the freedom would be lost in the years that followed, but reappeared in the 1960s when nostalgia briefly invoked art nouveau and art deco.

Fine art would respond with pop art, resurrecting dada’s anti-art insubordination. Andy Warhol, after a successful career as a commercial illustrator, became its major exponent, creating parodies of the idiom in which he’d worked (see “pop art: Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol”).

VW Bora ad, 2004 by La Communidad, an international advertising agency.
Bauhaus-Ausstellung in Weimar, 1923 by Joost Schmidt. ©Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The magazine advertising spread above is an homage to the famous poster by Joost Schmidt, another visionary typographer and graphic designer who taught at the Bauhaus and later at the College of Visual Arts, Berlin. 

He pursued a career as a designer despite Nazi resistance, but professional practise was impossible due to the affiliation with the Bauhaus.

the international style

Also known as functionalism in Europe, the international style was concerned with creating a more open, transparent society in 1932. The most prominent architect in America at the time was Frank Lloyd Wright whose philosophy pertained to harmony of humanity with its environment, but the new style purported to transcend “style” altogether, along with any regional, national or continental identity. In its attempt at freedom from ornamentation or cultural references (Le Corbusier called his designs “machines for living”), it attracted criticism as too stark, ugly, elitist, inhuman and sterile, eventually leading to the neo-eclectic postmodernism which tried to account for locality.

Barcelona Pavilion, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, represents the international style.

Today the international style still has adherents who, ironically, are considered revivalists.

~ Robert Grey