What is Bauhaus?
The Staatliches Bauhaus was a German art and design school founded by German architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. The school has had a significant influence on design philosophy and has affected multiple arts, design, and crafts disciplines.
Gropius himself was an architect, and "Bau" translates to "build" or "architecture" in German. The architecture school was central to the curriculum of the design school and influenced its approach to design, creating a style that was concerned with form, structure, and functionality.
The school itself ignited an entire movement that would change design history. Modern furniture designers, graphic designers, architects, and painters still often work with principles developed at The Bauhaus.
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The Bauhaus movement affected so many disciplines due to Gropius' grand vision of bringing all arts and crafts together under one roof. It was founded upon the intention to unite art forms and create a Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a “comprehensive artwork.”
The Bauhaus School of design taught design fundamentals, color theory, fine art, and of course, the famed architecture program. There was a wide array of workshops available from painting to weaving, interior design, industrial design, and beyond. The school nurtured many famous furniture designers and artists.
To this day, Bauhaus remains one of the most influential design movements of all time, having married functional design with aesthetic pleasure to create a modern art form that could bring beauty to everyday objects and beyond.
It was a revolutionary time for graphic design. Typography, layouts, and use of shape and color were being reimagined in a way that has had a significant impact on graphic design well into the 21st century.
A brief history of the Bauhaus movement
The Bauhaus school itself only had a lifespan of 14 years, but its legacy in design is everlasting. From modern architecture to graphic design, the far-reaching influence of the Bauhaus movement has a rich and intricate history, far too much to go into complete detail, but here's a brief timeline below.
A timeline of key events
1919- Staatliche's Bauhaus school of design founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany. The School was developed under Gropius' leadership.
1925- The Art school moves to Dessau, Germany. Gropius designed the building for the new Bauhaus Dessau himself and oversaw the move of the art school.
1928- Swiss architect Hannes Meyer becomes the director of the school as Gropius leaves the Bauhaus.
1930- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe becomes the director of the school.
1932- The school moves to Berlin.
1933- Bauhaus school closes due to Nazi pressure. However, the ideas continue to be spread by staff and artists.
Masters of the movement
Gropius intended to bring together the best artists and artisans to teach and be nurtured at the school to establish a standard of excellence and offer the best design education possible.
Walter Gropius- German architect who founded the Bauhaus.
Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe- German-born American architect who made a massive impact in modernist architecture, with his minimalist approach to architectural style. He was a furniture designer as well as an architect and is known for the famous Barcelona chair. He is also known for the aphorisms "less is more" and "God is in the details." Mies Van Der Rohe was the last director of the Berlin Bauhaus.
Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona chair
Wassily Kandinsky- Famous abstract painter who taught the psychology of form at the Bauhaus. He was one of the pioneers of abstract art, creating vibrant, expressive paintings made up of various shapes and colors working together in carefully considered synergy.
Paul Klee- Swiss-born German artist who taught a painting workshop alongside Wassily Kandinsky.
Experimentation with color from Paul Klee’s notebook
Josef Albers- German artist and famous teacher at the Bauhaus. He was interested in color psychology and composition. He held impactful workshops on glass and furniture design.
Anni Albers- A master weaver who developed her style at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.
Gunta Stölzl- A master of weaving and head of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus in Dessau.
Herbert Bayer- The first typography designer from the Bauhaus school, helped create the "Universal font.”
Johannes Itten- Part of the core faculty at the Weimar Bauhaus alongside Walter Gropius, Gerhard Marcks, and Lyonel Feininger. Johannes Itten was a painter, designer, and theorist, as well as a mystic, who taught breathing and meditation to aid the creative process.
Marianne Brandt- A German painter, photographer, sculptor, and metalsmith who studied in the metal workshop at the Bauhaus. She designed lighting fixtures for the Bauhaus in Dessau, and her teapot is a famous design element that emerged from the movement.
Lyonel Feininger - Expressionist painter and one of the original masters at the Bauhaus in Weimar. This German-American painter's famous woodcut "cathedral" was on the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto.
László Moholy-Nagy- Hungarian Designer and photography editor at International Revue magazine. He co-taught the foundation course at the Bauhaus school and took over as head of the metal workshop from Paul Klee.
Oskar Schlemmer- German painter, sculptor, and head of the theatre workshop, Schlemmer's philosophies regarding the creative process were key in guiding students towards innovation, originality, and creative productivity.
Lilly Reich- Mies Van Der Rohe's close collaborator, Lilly Reich, was a multidisciplinary designer, having taught interior design and furniture design at the Bauhaus.
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Bauhaus movement and graphic design
The Bauhaus movement and its modernist style significantly influenced graphic design, with the experimentation and ideological shifts of the time impacting how we design to this day. There are four key graphic design areas where Bauhaus artists had an impact.
Bauhaus movement typography
This was a period of reimagining typography. Fonts were taken seriously as an essential part of practical and beautiful visual communication.
There was an emphasis on typography in poster and brochure design that emerged from the time, which aligned with the principle of functionality that pervaded the movement.
Herbert Bayer's famous Universal font defined a new approach to the typeface. It was called the universal type because Gropius had commissioned Bayer to create one font that could be used for all communication, emphasizing the urge for simplicity and functionality. It originally consisted of only lowercase letters.
Experimentation with “Universal Font”
In the spirit of innovation and experimentation, a new approach was taken to layout. Designers played with placing objects in new ways, experimenting with angles and white space, and using typography as the hero of a design layout.
The new approach to layout during this time created a renewed sense of freedom that would affect the future of graphic design for decades to come.
A famous example of an innovation that came from layout experimentation is designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's "Typophoto," which combined typography and photography, forming a new approach to the way each was perceived and expressed.
The use of simple geometric shapes was essential in Bauhaus design philosophy, contributing to its themes of functionality and simplicity. As technology and mechanization were significant pieces in the movement, classic geometric shapes visually resembled the technological thinking that pervaded the era.
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky was particularly interested in the connection between shapes and colors. His experimentation with creating these connections showed designers just how many layers of meaning exist in visual communication and how consciously we can choose the relationship between shape and color to convey a message or feeling.
Primary colors and color theory
Red, yellow, blue, black, and white dominate design from this period. This again comes back to the foundation of simplicity while still creating a lot of aesthetic value through vibrant colors and contrasting bold colors.
While work from the Bauhaus period is not limited to primary colors only, they were dominant, particularly in poster work.
An essential part of the curriculum at the Bauhaus was Swiss painter Johannes Itten's course in color theory, which taught the seven different methods of color contrast, and deeply analyzed the use of color. Itten was the first person to refer to colors as "warm" or "cool." He would also associate specific colors with musical tones.
Graphic designers to this day are taught about color theory and understand the importance of combining and contrasting colors for visual impact and effective communication.
Johannes Itten’s color Sphere
Bauhaus philosophy and design principles
Where art, industry, technology, and aesthetics collide, the Bauhaus movement came from a desire to marry functionality and aesthetics. It was not only a design movement but a cultural movement. Ideas and theory were essential parts of the movement and set the tone for the designs that followed these ideas.
From the creative process itself to defining how art and design fit in with the increasingly industrial and "soulless" atmosphere of German modernism, Bauhaus philosophy and design principles are still applicable in many ways.
Structure and precision
There is a certain sense of structure that defined this design movement. From the school's curriculum structure itself to the shapes and lines, precision and organization were vital in all the principles and ideas that led the movement.
You've probably heard the saying "less is more." This saying comes from architect Mies Van Der Rohe, who was the last director at the Berlin Bauhaus, and an influential teacher at the time.
Simplicity was a significant value in many Bauhaus creations. From typography to poster design and beyond, the aim of many designers was for their work to be accessible. Simplicity was the path to creating accessibility, remaining functional, and staying true to aesthetic value.
By incorporating white space, simple yet striking shapes, and primary colors, beauty was built into the simplicity of Bauhaus design, and simplicity remains valuable in art and graphic design. Focusing on the essentials creates visual strength. This strength was fundamental to the era.
Artist and artisan unified
Gropius's grand idea was to disseminate the barrier between “craftsmen” and artists. His intention was to group creativity together under one undivided umbrella, creating what he called a "guild of craftsmen."
The textile, weaving, metal, typography, and cabinetmaking workshops were all highly valued and influential parts of the school and were on equal footing with fine art and theory.
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Industry and technology
During the times of modernism, Bauhaus mirrored society. The world at the time was transforming, as the rise of industry and “the machine” reshaped every aspect of one’s being. The artists who called themselves part of the movement reflected society’s changes in their creations, including how they looked, worked, and even how they created these works of art.
Artists from this period were thinking economically and were interested in using resources wisely. They were questioning, retaliating against, and accommodating mass production all at the same time.
Industry and mechanization were reflected in the aesthetics that are definitive of the movement.
We see the same thing happening in design today, where technological innovations inspire how we design, and the two work together in unison. This is particularly evident in UX design, app design, and web design. Graphic designers are required to create for technology.
"Form follows function" was an essential motto in the movement. This meant that the functionality of any design was first and foremost. The form of an object should support its purpose or function, essentially.
A famous example that depicts functionality well is Breuer's cantilever chair, which was lightweight and efficient for mass production. The chair’s design supports its function to be economical while remaining aesthetically pleasing in its simple design.
Bauhaus was geared towards the creation of new solutions and new ways of thinking. Artists and designers of the period were geared towards the new - new ways of using materials, new ways of creating, and contemporary art forms such as graphic design.
They urged for new technologies to contribute to how we see and interpret the world.
Innovation is an important principle that still applies to design today. Creativity and innovation go hand in hand. Design should be in a constant state of innovation if we're going to develop original ideas and improved solutions.
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Play and combining "work" and living
The Head of the theatre department at the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer, taught an exciting approach to creativity and the creative process many creatives today will still resonate with.
Graphic design inspiration from the Bauhaus movement
The original Bauhaus logo
The angular approach and use of geometry in the logo are definitive of the Bauhaus style.
Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition
This poster by Joost Schmidt for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar is an excellent example of experimentation with layout and the innovative use of geometric shapes.
Herbert Bayer's proposal for "Universal Type".
An experiment with Typophoto
Moholy-Nagy's typophotographic experiments set a new bar for what was possible with graphic design.
The Bauhaus curriculum
The design of the Bauhaus curriculum revolutionized art education. By starting with an understanding of form, and having the opportunity to play with many materials and disciplines, students were able to naturally gravitate towards where their interests and talents were most suited.
Bauhaus exhibition poster
Below, a Herbert Bayer design for a Bauhaus exhibition poster exemplifies experimentation with white space and primary colors coming together to create a minimalist yet vibrant aesthetic.
Wassily Kandinsky painting
Yellow-Red-Blue is a famous painting by Wassily Kandinsky that depicts experimentation with shape and color that was definitive of the movement.
Oskar Schlemmer costume designs
Schlemmer’s costume designs mirrored the same experimentation with shape and color. They transformed actors into machine-like forms that resemble the cultural concern with industry during the movement.
Collage by Grete Reinhardt
The term “Collage” was popularized during this time and is still a beloved style in graphic design and art today.
Google logo in the Bauhaus style
This one's just for fun!
László Moholy-Nagy, City Lights ( Die Lichter der Stadt )
A 1928 collage by László Moholy-Nagy.
Apply Bauhaus to your graphic design
If you’re a graphic designer, you might want to bring the Bauhaus look to one of your designs or apply some of the Bauhaus principles of design to your work. By playing with geometry, color theory, minimalism, and functionality, you might discover a whole new approach to your design work and creative process.
Linearity Curve (formerly Vectornator) is a fantastic tool for experimenting with geometric design possibilities, as vector design tools are created to design through building shapes. Check it out if you haven't already!
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Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.