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An Exploration Into 14 Bauhaus Books by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in Relation to Visual Culture Essay

When analysing ‘the 14 bauhaus books’ by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (see figure 1) in relation to it’s historical context, at least 5 components have to be considered. These are: the image itself; the movement it is part of; the artist, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, that made it; the bauhaus- the institute it was produced for and where the artist taught – and how these parts have changed or influenced modern times. My argument is that all of these separate components, the main being the movement of Modernism, made life better for the International populations that welcomed it, through the universal progression that modernism once promised. 4 Bauhaus Books is not a ‘pretty’ image.

The dirty red mixed with the hard texture of the metal type is not pleasing to the eye for any viewer. But then again it is not meant to be pleasing, the image is a brochure cover, nothing more. Although by todays standards it is crude in design, vaguely relating to the brochure that it covers, which does go into detail about some new typographical forms, it was rather advanced for 1929 as it was a Modernist piece – rejecting decoration. No longer focussing on decoration produced a new language of design that could be understood by everyone, including workers in modern industry.

Moholy-Nagy followed his own teachings on typography fully, stating that: “Letters should never be squeezed into an arbitrary shape… like a square. A new typographic language must be created combining elasticity, variety and a fresh approach to the materials of printing…. ” (Naylor, 1968, p. 127) This approach to communication through printed material can still be seen today, particularly in adverts which have a very short amount of time to impact on and communicate to an audience.

A ‘stand-out’ type coupled with a few witty lines has found itself at the centre of most printed advertisements today (see figure 2), which, it could be argued, can trace it’s heritage back to the modernists ideas of simplicity. We are all now accustomed to this, but back in the early 1900s it was met with fierce opposition and, although new aesthetics were being created, official designers and architects preferred to follow the word of Ruskin who stated: “We want no new architecture… The forms of architecture already known to us are good enough for us, and far better than any us” (Naylor, 1968, p. ) This narrow-minded approach to design held back progress and kept Europe’s standard of living the same, which, especially for the working classes, was unacceptable.

From this, modernism rejected the historical styles before it, such as the Enlightenment phase, that focussed on decoration and perceived that ‘greatness lay in the reconstruction of the past’. Instead modern designers, in the smoke of the Industrial Revolution, created a new style – the ‘International Style’. The ‘International Style’ had called for change and the change was to blur the class distinctions.

The “millions of… home-owners… painted their walls beige” (Greenhalgh, 1990, p52) in an attempt to fit in with this style. This cheap method of interior design, using hardwood for fittings and mass produced light fittings made the ‘International Style’ available and popular. Modernism created objects that functioned with little or no decoration. These objects were mass produced,widely available and more importantly cheap to purchase. For example the Tefal kettle (see figure 3) which has only the water gauge projecting out of a white block for decoration.

This simplistic approach to design was, in the eyes of the modernists, an enhancement of purity. The same could be said for ’14 books’. That it’s simplicity is it’s decoration and that the text is the ‘object’ needed for its design purpose. Something functional yet visually satisfying. Modernist designers used the technique of abstraction in their work to help convey a visual trend and to combine the three areas they believed to be true design. This was architecture, furniture and graphic design.

Abstraction meant that modernists could use ideas found in a particular building or a colour palette from a painting to create solid habitable homes or items for these homes. A well known example for this is from the painting of Mondrian – composition in red and blue (see figure 4). This was abstracted by the designer Rietveld to create a home (see figure 5) and a chair (see figure 6). Both of which the user had to engage with, as the world had gained a passive lifestyle – the chair was designed for better seated posture and the home bragged fold out compartments, tables and beds so that living was a conscious decision.

Unfortunately the chair was not mass produced and only a prototype as there was “not enough interest in it, as it was not comfortable to sit in” (retrieved on January 10, 2011, from www. contemporarypractice. wordpress. com). This abstraction was seen as a rational use of design, using one ‘useful’ item aesthetics to create another and was used by most modernist designers. The downside to this would be that everything lacked spontaneity. Supposedly a unique series of furniture could look like another, but modernists did not mind this, as they wanted everyone to be equal.

The Bauhaus, of course, was the school of modernist design in Europe. It symbolised new technologies and ideas for teaching. Even the building (see figure 7) was a modernist piece. The building had no decoration except for the glass sheets that covered it, which itself was a relatively new item, having been invented in 1832. Glass sheeting, ironically, was used in the crystal palace, which was a celebration of the aristocracies achievements, the opposite message of modernists to “… reate a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist. ” (Naylor, 1968, p. 9) This quest for the combination of form and function is, in my opinion, found in Josef Hartwig’s 1924 chess set that has, instead of the traditional figures, pieces that consist of geometric shapes (see figure 8). The design of each piece shows how it moves- for example the 2 diagonal lines that make the bishop’s cross show that it is constrained to diagonal movement.

The negative side of this simplicity was a lack of emotion in all creations, as well as an impersonal approach to design. These made the masses feel common, which did not sit well with the elite of the time, who were used to the decorative forms of the Romantics that preceded them. This was, in many ways the enemy of the Bauhaus, referred to as “that strange decorative disease”(Naylor, 1968, p. 14). Simplicity was key for the Bauhaus and 14 Bauhaus Books was no exception. Understated colours and the photograph used for the main image how this.

The type itself is clear and typical of the Bauhaus. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy taught at this revered school and stressed that “Typography must be clear communication in its most vivid form. Clarity must be especially stressed, for clarity is the essence of modern printing. ” (Naylor, 1968, p. 127)Clarity is indeed expressed in ’14 Bauhaus Books’, where no complex symbolisms or congested space occurs. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s views on teaching was as radical as his rules. He sought to rid the preliminary course he took over in 1923 of emotion.

He saw the soul as part of the body and not in control of it. This wasn’t welcomed by some of his colleagues and students, who described his arrival as “a pike in a pond full of goldfish” (Whitford, 1984, p. 128). Moholy-Nagy differed from his predecessor in every way. He wore a pair of overalls and nickel-rimmed glasses, emulating an industrial worker , whereas the former teacher, Itten, dressed more like a monk, with a perfectly shaved head – “creating an aura of spirituality and communion with the transcendal” (Whitford, 1984, p. 23) – mirroring the enlightenment movement that modernism rejected. Moholy-Nagy was to cast out everything irrational in his course. Instead he focussed on teaching techniques and a wider variety of media, stating that: “anyone who knew nothing about photography was a kind of visual illiterate, and that an artist who restricted himself to any single media should not be taken seriously. ” This can be seen in ’14 Bauhaus Books’, where a variety of media is used. The combination of photography, graphics and type give the design a very individual feel.

For although Moholy-Nagy insisted he used no emotion, one can’t help but feel a personal aspect behind this cover, a contradiction to his own rule. Moholy-Nagy’s link with industry spilled over to an infatuation with the machine. The machine to him was ‘the’ invention of the century, replacing the transcendental spiritualism of past eras. He saw it as the way to gain equality for the masses. Stating that: “Everyone is equal before the machine… There is no tradition in technology, no class-consciousness.

Everyone can be the machine’s master or its slave. ” (Whitford, 1984, p. 128) Using the machine as a figurehead, Moholy-Nagy, along with other modernists and constructivists bettered the world. The change brought about by modernism was huge. As the movement grew in popularity all classes changed their way of living. They were boxed in with hardwood fittings and lived in a functional, conscious home. These homes would later be criticised for being to small and impersonal, but at the time they were considered ‘the modern home’.

It wasn’t just the home that was improved through modernism. Factories over Europe America and Asia used more and more machinery, quickly churning out more products in a day than a craftsman, what had come before, could produce in months. This led to more jobs, fewer costs and a better standard of life for everyone. Though this also was met by criticism: that the worker had become non-human, “an appendage to the machine” (Greenhalgh, 1990, p. 54). The fact that people worked 10-12 hour shifts to maintain their lifestyle did not sit well.

Marxists stated that industrial work meant that “Man is alienated from other men. ” (Greenhalgh, 1990, p. 54) It could be argued that the limitations and ideas set in place for this simple graphic design, which is rather crude by today’s standards, has helped the international masses. The change that came about because of the movement of modernism, along with Moholy-Nagy’s approach to design and the new tuition in the Bauhaus of a generation of architects, furniture designers and graphic designers has helped to shape the world of today.

Modernist buildings fill today’s cities, from huge skyscrapers consisting of tons of glass, such as the Seagram Building, New York (see figure 9), to mass housing, that was and is cheap, yet functional. This International Style that ’14 Bauhaus Books’ boasts to belong to a collection millions of posters , magazine covers, and furniture designs. Always with its’ main aim to better daily life through technology, for “not the product the but man is the end in view” (Naylor, 1968,p. 156).


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