How Bauhaus built the house of experimental type design
This is the third part of a series on modernism and typography. Read the first part here.
“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”
-Walter Gropius 1919
Walter Gropius announced the opening of his art school with the above words, drawn from his Bauhaus Manifesto. The Bauhaus Manifesto was a statement, announcing the role of design in war-traumatized Europe. On one hand, Bauhaus marked a resumption of business as usual for German industry, no longer diverted towards war production. On the other hand, it suggested something truly new. In all, it signalled that Weimar Germany was fertile ground for new ideas to take root. This meant big things for letters.
Walter Gropius, manifesting Bauhaus
What was the Bauhaus Manifesto?
To summarize the Bauhaus Manifesto, the ultimate goal of all visual arts was the creation and decoration of buildings. Artists, however, had isolated their work from buildings. In so doing, they’d isolated their work from the one common end of all art, and subsequently isolated artistic disciplines from each other. This created a context in which art was impossible to teach. Crafts, on the other had, remained dedicated towards the act of building. Crafts, therefore, were the door through which arts could reenter the house of building.
Gropius’s argument is similar to William Morris’s—the artist and craftsman are the same; art is a product of craft. But Gropius’s argument contains a fundamental difference from Morris’s Arts and Crafts: it was modernist!
Gropius embraced industry and modernity. His focus on the building revealed the difference between Bauhaus and Arts and Crafts—a legendary craftsman could build a house, but could he build a house with a hundred homes? Of course not—that would take a team of specialized craftsmen working together. Art, then, connected to craft, unified with other arts in the act of building, had to be a collaborative endeavour.
What was Bauhaus?
These principles in mind, Gropius founded the Bauhaus school in Weimar through the fusion of two institutions: a trades school and the academy of fine arts where Gropius was already the director. The result was a multi-disciplinary school where students learned from fine artists and master craftsmen alike.
A few years later, Bauhaus attracted two art teachers whose modernist thought would heavily influence Bauhaus’s direction. The first, we know from our previous issue: Theo van Doesburg, the ambassador of Piet Mondrian’s neoplasticism. He took a similar approach to Mondrian in abstract painting, but moved on from the strictest precepts of De Stijl—van Doesburg used diagonal lines.
The other teacher was Wassily Kandisnksy, the Russian abstract painter. Kandinsky’s philosophical approach to art was similar to Mondrian’s, but Kandinsky explicitly understood the abstraction-experience relationship—there was no problem of objective abstraction alienating the subject from inferred experience because his art contained no object. He compared his paintings to music, the finest form of abstract art. Music does not attempt an objective depiction of the world—it would be ridiculous to expect it to—yet it is powerfully evocative.
Visual music: Wassily Kandinsky's Stars.
Visually, Kandinsky’s art was different from Mondrian’s—he made enthusiastic use of curves. But this is still consistent with Mondrian-esque neo-Platonism: there is no way to reduce a circle to a straight line. Arguably, the circle is not just a curve but the curve—the essence of all curves.
Kandinsky, teaching painting and design classes at Bauhaus, had a talented student named Herbert Bayer. Immediately after he graduated, Gropius hired Bayer as Bauhaus’s director of printing and advertising.
Herbert Bayer, Bauhaus type designer
Bayer favoured clean Sans Serifs, all in lowercase. This type featured in Bauhaus’s printed material, but, as would only be appropriate at Bauhaus, type was also prominent on iconic Bauhaus buildings. Letters have nearly always adorned buildings. Writing and printing may have isolated the art of typography from the unifying object—the building—but long before Gropius wrote his manifesto, branding and signage had seamlessly reunited typography and buildings.
Bauhaus’s buildings needed both a brand and signs. Here, Bayer did his finest work, employing a neoplasticist zeal for reduction. The result was great looking letters. Paired with the iconic Bauhas architectural style, Bayer’s type demonstrated Gropius’s unified theory of design—it’s hard to imagine a better fit of letter to building, building to letter.
Herbert Bayer's lettering on Bauhaus Dessau.
This act of branding was so complete that the name ‘Bauhaus’ has stuck to Bayer-inspired fonts as firmly as to anything the school produced.
This is thanks, in particular, to Bayer’s work on an experimental Universal alphabet—all lowercase, each letter composed only of straight lines and circular curves. It was a glyphic Piet Mondrian painting—Bauhaus logic in letterform. Since, it’s been repeatedly imitated by type designers who’ve drawn inspiration not only from the look, but from the Bauhaus name, giving us fonts like ITC Bauhaus and Bauhaus 93.
Note that in this sample Bayer considers the 'g' and 'k' to be incomplete—the 'g' clearly deviates from the ideal, it's not clear what's wrong with 'k'.
According to a Type Tasting survey, today’s readers find Bauhaus’s essentialist curves more silly than signs of serious design. We can attribute that to its use in goofy, futuristic anachronisms like video store logos and arcade cabinets. We know that Bayer was a serious designer, but it’s worth asking: is Bayer’s Universal good?
What are letters?
Type is art. There’s nothing wrong with applying artistic principles—any artistic principles—to type design. But is reduction to minimal forms appropriate? For example, Bayer reduced the letter ‘b’ to a circle and straight line. This is perfectly neoplasticist, but as an act of abstraction does it better capture b-ness?
What is ‘b’, anyway?
‘b’ is not merely a circle and a straight line. Nor is it some rough-hewn, naturally variable instance of what could be a mere circle and straight line. It’s not supposed to evoke wishy-washy feelings when subjects contemplate it.
‘b’ designates something precise—what exactly depends on the context in which we find it, but it shouldn’t evoke, say, yearning so much as a voiced bilabial stop phone (/b/, in phonetic terms), useful in speech. But even when ‘b’ designates /b/, it’s still not that. Nor is it a picture of /b/—that’s a sound, it has no visual we can recreate.
Unlike the relationship between the ideal dog and our dog, the relationship between ‘b’ and /b/ is not one of an idea and a particular. ‘b’ is a letter, part of a phonetic alphabet; it’s a symbol that refers to a sound. Making ‘b’ more ideal doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t idealize anything.
In another context, some letters can refer to a musical note, in a roundabout way. Kandinsky’s thoughts on music as abstract art provide some guidance here. Musical notes are simply what they are—each note is not an idealized bird call or something. Music is always abstract art, yet the referential relationship between letters and music notes remains. And, like music notes, we can put letters to myriad fantastic, evocative ends, without connecting an idea to an object.
In either case, music or speech, the referential relationship is mechanical—something like the correlation between pressing a key on a piano and hearing a corresponding sound. In this sense, the alphabet is like an instrument. And applying artistic principles to letter design makes as little sense as applying those principles to designing a piano.
Will the principles of good sculpting produce a better piano? Maybe. A sculptor might produce a great looking piano. But if, in the process, the sculptor hampers the piano’s ability to produce in-tune notes, the sculptor has made a worse piano. We could say the same of the type designer who makes letters that don't successfully refer—they’ve designed a worse alphabet.
If a letter never arrives, was it ever written at all?
Bayer wasn't the only member of Bauhaus to try his hands at abstract type design and come up with unsatisfactory results. Joseph Albers, a stained-glass maker and teacher of design and general handicraft, developed an experimental stencil font using the same reductive minimalism as Bayer’s Universal. Albers cut each stencil aperture as either a rectangle, triangle, or circle. He intended this stencil be used for sign and poster making, but thanks to poor legibility, his experimental forms weren’t appropriate for either.
In the end, Bayer’s Universal and Albers' stencil type were only experimental. Bauhaus was a school that encouraged experimentation, but it was still a school of craft. Its products had to function. Both types, however, remain interesting examples of following an idea through to its logical conclusion.
Bauhaus exerted a strong orbit. Theo van Doesburg was able to find a typographically fruitful collaboration just outside of Bauhaus's cloister, with German artist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters worked with what he called Merz—a sort of collage of a broken world. Merz manifested as a disjointed aesthetic, characteristically 1920s German, evident in works such as Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.
Schwitters had recently collaborated with Russian painter El Lissitzky, another enormously influential modernist. But when he worked on Schwitters’s magazine, also called Merz, Lissitzky was all typographer. Lissitzky held a deep understanding of the history of printing, and had prophetic opinions on the future of information. He saw, for instance, that the invention of the radio eased the burden of ever-increasing correspondence. His corollary reads like an abstraction of modern society, clearly presaging our present reality: “...we are dematerializing, cumbersome masses of material are being supplanted by released energies.”
A sample from El Lissitzky's book About 2 Squares.
Lissitzky was also an experienced children’s book illustrator, having produced the famous About 2 Squares—a simply illustrated story that used dynamically set type to tell a story of two squares breaking and rebuilding the world.
When Schwitters started working with van Doesburg, they too adopted experimental type-setting to tell a story: The Scarecrow; a satirical fairy tale in which every character is illustrated by letters. The farmer, for example, is illustrated as a blue ‘B’—a Bauer with a big belly.
A sample from Theo van Doesburg's and Kurt Schwitter's book The Scarecrow
Back to the futurism
This sort of illustrative type setting originated in prewar Italy. There, the Futurists had printed books, eschewing text and even words in favour of onomatopoeia set in angled lines and spirals. Futurism was moderately influential in western Europe—notably in the development of Art Deco—but it found a home in Russia, where Lissitzky would have encountered it.
Lissitzky, though, took a hard departure from Futurism on ideals. Lissitzky was an avowed communist—many of his most famous works, including 2 Squares, were communist propaganda. The futurists, on the other hand, celebrated technology for its power and capacity for violence. They became involved in a nascent Italian political movement that was about to bring destruction back to Europe and sweep modernists—and modernist letters with them—to its margins.
Download BLKBK's take on a Bauhaus-esque geometric sans serif font here: