Bauhaus design is everywhere, but its roots are political

Helvetica or Arial? Cambria or Calibri? With hundreds and hundreds of fonts at our fingertips today, selecting one can feel pretty arbitrary, but there was a time when
choosing a particular typeface was considered a bold political act. This was especially true in a short
lived German school that, a century ago, shaped everything we now think of as
modern design. I’m Michael Tabb. This is Quartz. Please subscribe to our channel. This is the Bauhaus. This building was briefly home to one of the 20th
century’s most influential centers for design. The ideas born in these classrooms
have spread across the world, influencing everything from the design
of home furniture to buildings to cities. The story of the Bauhaus is a lesson in how easily the political can be co-opted by the commercial. But even on its hundredth anniversary, Bauhaus still has more to teach us, because it was never just about the curvy forms
and cool colors. Its creators wanted to show how
design can serve people. The school wanted really to push in the way
they educated the students that design and art is meaningful for societies. That, you know, with the things you make, you might bring also the capacity to transform a society. More specifically, they wanted to transform German society after World War I left the country in ruins. Nationalist groups aligned to form
what would become the Nazi Party. Their right-wing ideology called for a return to traditional German values. And their messaging carried a typeface. Fraktur: the true German font, based on gothic script that had become synonymous
with the German national identity for 800 years. Fraktur became a recognizable part of Nazi branding,
at least for a while. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, avant-garde artists and designers saw the chaos as a chance to rethink their role completely. Fresh from the horrors of the war,
they wanted to turn over a new leaf, to start with the basics. They came home being surrounded by
millions of handicapped and wounded people. And by the experience that every knowledge that they had before war started is now devalued. So these artists came together and had the conviction
that, “We have to start from scratch.” With a utopian vision, the architect Walter Gropius created a new school in Weimar called the Bauhaus. Here, students were encouraged to experiment across disciplines: Painting, carpentry, weaving,
printmaking, dance, lettering. They created a radical new kind of typography. But the Bauhaus didn’t last long. The Nazis believed that the Bauhaus’ rejection of tradition was fundamentally un-German. They hated their modern products,
including the new typography. The Bauhaus’ play with typography is not simply innocent wordplay. It is politically charged. The Germans are probably the only users of the Roman alphabet who had given typescript a nationalist sense. To refuse it and redesign the alphabet
completely in the opposite direction is to free it of these national associations. The Nazis closed the Dessau school
for its degenerate art in 1932, then shut their Berlin outpost a year later. Bauhausers fled Germany and spread
their ideas around the world. This was brought from Dessau to Berlin
and then ultimately was shipped over here. Founder Walter Gropius ended up in
Massachusetts at Harvard University. As chair of the architecture department, he brought the legacy of Bauhaus to mythic status. He was kind of reforming architectural education, but really his role was almost as a cultural ambassador, promoting international modernist architecture in the United States but also the legacy of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus dogma took hold in schools
across the world. Students and scholars loved it,
but something else started to happen. Corporations loved it too. As democracy and capitalism went global following World War II, so did Bauhaus design. As corporations began to sell across borders, the advertising in the new typography was as effective in Switzerland as it was in California as
it was in South Africa. The new typographers of the 20s were aiming to make their graphic design international to lead to a kind of universal socialism,
the irony being that what became international was capitalism. A hundred years later, you can spot the Bauhaus influence in advertisements everywhere. And thanks to many Bauhaus exhibitions and books and now the internet, designs from the school itself keep finding new life, including their experiments in lettering. They’ve had half a million downloads so far. They come from anywhere, so suddenly somebody takes us into a different environment. Erik Spiekermann is a Berlin-based designer who’s worked with students to revive Bauhaus type experiments. They produced fonts based on century-old drawings that are now licensed by Adobe. We are encouraging people to take liberties, I say, “Look, these weren’t typefaces, they were sketches,
they were very crude at times.” More often than not, I get a lot of joy out of people using my typefaces in a way I would have never done. For Spiekermann and many others,
this is the genius of the Bauhaus. It’s meant to be interpreted and reinterpreted. And that’s because Bauhaus was not born as a style. It was a revolutionary idea. When the public began to talk about Bauhaus style, people at the Bauhaus were extremely upset, because they like to think that what they were creating was almost the necessity of modernity and was not at all anything so frivolous as style, which for them meant fashion. On the school’s hundredth anniversary, Bauhaus champions are trying to exhume its true legacy. It’s not the products or even the fonts, but the philosophy that good design
can be a source of renewal and hope.

Maurice Vega

8 Responses

  1. The school was actually founded in Weimar and moved to Dessau later. It then moved to Berlin before being closed down when the Nazis got into power.

  2. i like the focus on design
    the evolution of modern design is pretty interesting to me
    even if that means i have to learn about its political value
    so thanks for that one o/

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