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Features / Printed Pages

When Work Becomes Play: What We Can Learn from the Bauhaus 100 Years On

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Sascha Lobe

This feature is taken from the AW18 issue of Printed Pages. For the issue’s cover story, we explore the enduring legacy of one of the most famous art and design schools in the world to understand what we can learn from it. We also sit down with Pentagram partner Sascha Lobe to find out about his work designing the identity for the Bauhaus archive. To get yourself a copy for £10, head to Company of Parrots.

As it turns out, a lot can happen in 14 years. One school, its student body and its esteemed faculty, for example, can change the world forever. Founded in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus did exactly that. Opening in post-World War One Germany – a landscape of new parliamentary democracy following the upheaval of its monarchy – it later moved to Dessau in 1925 and finally to Berlin in 1932, where it eventually met its dramatic closure under pressure from the Nazis in 1933.

In this short time, the Bauhaus pioneered a spirit which today, 100 years after its doors first opened, still rings true. While its modernist influences on the worlds of art and design are plain to see, the school’s legacy largely lies in the principles it instilled in a generation of makers and thinkers. These are principles that see creativity promoted as a means to conquer borders (of countries and disciplines), and as a fundamental right for all to learn about and come into contact with. But what is it about this institution that continues to shape how we both think about and approach art and design? What can be learned and applied to today’s tumultuous socio-political landscape, from an ethos conceived a century ago? And how can designers adapt its legacy for contemporary purposes to ensure these principles live on?

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An Inherently International Venture

The Bauhaus was an institution with indelible internationalist values. It was forced to relocate due to political pressures no fewer than three times – a fact directly linked to its cosmopolitan spirit in both art and life. No matter the location of the school, it gathered together those from across the globe in one space, with the singular aim of forging a better future.

The climate in which the Bauhaus came into being was a turbulent one. Germany and much of Europe was recovering from “the war to end all wars”; it was a nation traumatised by the horrors of four years of trench warfare and extreme poverty. In reaction to this, the Bauhaus opened with the intention of overcoming nationalism and creating an interconnected world. Half of its “masters” originated from outside of Germany: Herbert Bayer from Austria, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Hannes Meyer from Switzerland and Wassily Kandinsky from Russia. A third of its student body also came from abroad – a figure which, at the time, placed it ahead of other German art schools, and meant prominent creatives such as Max Bill (Switzerland), Bertrand Golberg (USA) and Iwao Yamawaki (Japan) are now included in its list of notable alumni.

In fostering a gathering of diverse individuals, the Bauhaus understood the importance of such convergences. It saw the value of individuals coming together to form visionary ideas for a world in which art and life become one. In turn, the school represented a spirit many would come to cling on to in the subsequent years of extreme right-wing politics and nationalism, which followed its closure.

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A Socially Aspirational Institution

“Any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex, whose previous education is deemed adequate by the Council of Masters, will be admitted, as far as space permits,” wrote Gropius in his Programme of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, a manifesto of sorts outlining the guiding principles of the school in 1919. This inclusive acceptance policy also extended to nationality, religion, ideology and social origin. For those unable to afford tuition fees, or simply unable to meet the needs of everyday life, meals, clothing and support were provided to ensure equal access to a programme of education Gropius saw as fundamental to human existence. In 1962, Gropius wrote My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea, a reflective piece where he solidified this notion: “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilised society”.

While inclusivity in the Bauhaus left a lot to be desired – women were only permitted to enter the bookmaking and weaving workshops, the former of which closed soon after the school opened leaving weaving as their only option (ironic, as it was this workshop that produced the material which kept the Bauhaus financially secure) – its principles in regards to admission placed it ahead of its contemporaries. It’s also important to note that while 1919 marked the beginning of the Weimar Republic, whose new constitution granted women the freedom to choose their place of study, German society’s attitude to women as “craftsmen” was still far from accepting. Although idealistic in his approach to gender equality, the reduction of women to weavers and bookmakers marked a reaction by Gropius to the reality of the times.

Despite the prevalence of societal gender stereotypes, when the Bauhaus first opened, it received more applications from women than it did from men, resulting in a one-third female student body; where these women were once tutored at home, the Bauhaus allowed them to study alongside men. Regardless of how it may now be perceived, at the time Gropius’ educational vision was pioneering and marked a significant step in the right direction.

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A Bastion of Creativity

Above all, the Bauhaus believed in the importance of creativity. Its very foundation was built upon the idealistic concept that art, design and technology could change and improve the lives of everyone, not just the privileged few. As a result, the school became the very embodiment of this belief; within its walls, artists and designers (whether students or masters) lived and worked side by side, in a manifested creative utopia.

The school taught myriad subjects ranging from architecture and sculpture to graphic design, art, photography, interior design, typography, metalworking and pottery. Students were granted the freedom to creatively explore across these disciplines, free from titles like “printmaker” or “ceramicist”. It provided equal status to artist and craftsman, fuelled by the idea that the artist can bring about change by shaping their living environment. “The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative efforts into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art…” wrote Gropius in his manifesto, “…as inseparable components of a new architecture”.

In its approach to education, the Bauhaus was both incredibly experimental and playful – an often-overlooked fact in light of its modernist reputation. Upon opening, the school’s founding tenets were largely-inspired by the 19th Century arts and crafts movement but in the following years, its curriculum was restructured to prioritise industrial mass production. From 1920, all students undertook a mandatory preliminary course, headed up by Johannes Itten, who taught visual analysis, material study and colour theory. This course would come to represent one of the Bauhaus’ most well-known legacies.

Although the school’s pedagogical approach, of course, formed the backbone of Bauhauslers’ experiences, the regular parties and gatherings were just as important. Held to foster relationships between masters and students, these events also provided a creative outlet while upholding Itten’s maxim: “Play becomes party – party becomes work – work becomes play”. Gropius stated from the beginning that the Bauhaus’ goals included the “cultivation of friendly contacts between masters and students outside of work”; not only did he want to found a school but a community and social experiment with impact in the real world.

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An Enduring Impact

100 years later, these principles are upheld and housed in the Bauhaus archive: the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum für Gestaltung in Berlin. Established in 1960 by the German art historian Hans Maria Wingler, the archive “studies and presents the history and influence of the Bauhaus”. Until 2014, however, the building – which was designed by Gropius himself – did not have any form of corporate identity. This monumental job was handed to German graphic designer Sascha Lobe and his team at his then Stuttgart-based studio L2M3 Communication Design.

“It’s like,” begins Lobe – who is now a partner at Pentagram’s London office – on the pressure of undertaking such a task, “if you train a football club that’s one thing. But if you train the national team, it’s something different because everybody knows how to do it better. It’s the same with the Bauhaus – everybody has an opinion.”

L2M3 was invited to pitch for the identity as the archive’s board of directors remembered the studio’s work from a previous pitch. When it came to proposing a concept for this project, however, Lobe and his team opted for approach and process, rather than a visual outcome. “The reason we won the pitch is because we were the only studio who did not design a new Bauhaus, we just put in some ideas,” he tells It’s Nice That. The studio’s concept saw it taking the functionality of the archive and using that as a basis to produce new material: “The main thing was not a strong visual idea, it was more about ‘Hey, why don’t we work like someone who works in an archive?’”

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Beginning with the archive itself, Lobe analysed a wealth of material in order to produce a new font for the visual identity. “It was a kind of ‘floating process’”, he recalls. “We were looking at exhibitions and a lot of books; picking from here and there”. Although working relatively fast, this part of the process spanned weeks, allowing the studio to fully understand the Bauhaus. “We took heritage and adapted it to today without losing the history,” Lobe explains, “and I think [the Bauhaus-Archiv] just loved the idea of exploring things and then really exploring things. We started four years ago and it’s still ongoing, it doesn’t stop.”

Lobe himself came to graphic design in a somewhat-convoluted manner: “I was always torn between something more technical and graphic design, and it was just by accident that I chose the more technical route in the beginning,” he says, explaining that he initially studied electrical engineering. On a trip to New York aged 19, he started taking photographs, prompting a shift in focus. “I was more or less a tourist, but I realised that I loved taking pictures and that I really like clean and rational art and design.” On returning to Europe, he toyed with the idea of switching to architecture but was ultimately put off by the length of the projects. “I wanted to do something fast and if it wasn’t OK I wanted to do it again and again, and that’s the reason I went into graphic design. There is so much to do and discover in the medium,” Lobe muses. His multidisciplinary creative career and propensity for experimentation are ultimately what allowed him to connect to the work of the Bauhaus so well: “For me, [design] always feels like something bigger than just paper or something two dimensional, and that’s something that I loved about the Bauhaus. The cliché is ‘less is more’ but actually, I think there was a lot of romanticism – its artists and designers were dreaming of something holistic.”

It was in designing the identity’s font – and mainstay – that Lobe and his team’s experimentation is most evident. During their research, the group stumbled upon the work of Herbert Bayer who designed the font Universal in 1925. This typeface, which reduced each letter to its essential features, was later used for lifestyle and fashion publication Die Neue Linie. Nearly 50 years later, in 1968, an exhibition was held in Stuttgart celebrating half a century of the Bauhaus, and Bayer was invited to design the logo. This very logo would then become the unofficial emblem of the archive right up until Lobe’s team took on the challenge. “So it began in the 1920s and finished in the 1970s,” Lobe adds. “When we realised that there was something which had been developed over years and years, we thought that could be something interesting to explore.”

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Titled Bayer Next, the font the studio developed is a direct response to Universal. The result of months of tweaking and in tune with Universal, Bayer Next elevates the original font to something which wholly embodies the spirit of the Bauhaus. “Even today when we are designing a poster, we are often still tweaking it or realising that something looks better when we do it like this or that, and then we have one more letter form again,” Lobe explains. As a result, the studio designed a total of 555 glyphs (a number which continues to rise), which represent a deep-dive into the school’s history.

By working in this way, Lobe and his designers created an identity that captures the essence of the Bauhaus, rather than the aesthetics. By utilising the raw material of the institution and expanding upon it, the studio has allowed history to be present in the design itself. It evokes an emotional response based on attachment to concepts and ideas, instead of visuals. It embodies the spirit of the Bauhaus in its very process.

It’s this spirit that makes the Bauhaus more relevant than ever. The school’s attitudes towards internationalism, inclusivity and creativity are pivotal values in turbulent times. The Bauhaus represents substantive political and social change in both its opening as part of the Weimar Republic and its closure under the pressure of extreme right-wing politics. As contemporary societies continue to face uncertainty and political changes that threaten these very values, we need to foster spaces like the Bauhaus.

We need to be international, we need to be inclusive, and we need to be creative. 100 years on, it’s in these ideas that the Bauhaus can continue to leave its mark.