Herbert Bayer was among the most recognized and celebrated exemplars of the Bauhaus in the United States. A student at the Weimar Bauhaus from 1921–1925, he had studied in the preliminary course with Johannes Itten, then attended the wall painting department under Wassily Kandinsky. In 1925, he passed the journeyman’s examination of the painters’ guild in Weimar. He was an art director at Dorland advertising agency in Berlin before emigrating to the United States, where he worked on advertising and design for major corporations before turning almost exclusively to painting.
The recently published Herbert Bayer: Inspiration and Process in Design by Ellen Lupton joins the Moleskine/Princeton Architectural Press series of vest pocket books to provide unique views of design creativity. The volumes, like the artists and designers they cover, are filled with much underexposed work, supplemented by brief texts and interviews. Lupton's contribution combines Bayer's iconic and less-known work in a concise history/timeline that is perfect for the modern design student. I asked her about the role that Bayer's work plays in history and today's practice.
The mantle of "influential graphic designer" is associated with many practitioners. What makes Bayer worthy of the role?
Herbert Bayer played a key role in the Bauhaus, itself one of the most influential institutions in modern design. He arrived there as a student Weimar in 1921, where he studied in Wassily Kandinsky’s mural-painting workshop. There was no graphic design program in the early years of the Bauhaus, yet Bayer became interested in visual communication. Director Walter Gropius encouraged Bayer to explore graphic design on his own.
As a young student, Bayer created some of the school’s most iconic graphics, such as the catalog cover for the 1923 exhibition Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar 1919–1923 (State Bauhaus in Weimar 1919–1923). Also as a student, he created hand-rendered proposals for environmental graphics, including advertising kiosks and a multisensory cinema.
After taking a year off from the Bauhaus, Bayer returned to the school’s new facility in Dessau, where he took on the mantle of “young master,” responsible for setting up and running a full-fledged commercial print shop. Bayer belonged to the inner circle at the Bauhaus, together with Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, and others who stood out as leaders of the school.
The Bauhaus became even more influential after it closed, and Bayer tied his own success to the school’s increasing fame. Bayer moved to the U.S. in the late '30s and played a prominent role in the Modernist scene in America. By organizing exhibitions, publishing books and speaking about the Bauhaus, Bayer, Gropius and others pumped up the Bauhaus myth across the breadth of their careers.
Your book, Herbert Bayer: Inspiration and Process (Moleskine/PAP) is part of an ongoing series (full disclosure—I've written text for three of the volumes) that look into the designers' rare or rarely addressed work. What are the unique rarities in your volume?
Our book includes rare maquettes (hand-painted designs) created when Bayer was a student. These tremendous works were collected by Merrill C. Berman, and some are now in the collection of MoMA. Our book also features advertisements designed in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, from the collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. These later works are not as well known as the Bauhaus classics, and they reveal Bayer’s remarkable range and creativity. For example, his advertising montages mixed photography, painting and drawing to create seamless full-color realities that contrast with stark photomontages of the Bauhaus period.
What did you learn about Bayer that solidifies his position in the design pantheon?
Bayer was a pioneer in the field of exhibition design, an area that was just coming into prominence in the late 1920s. I was excited to see that Bayer’s interest arose in his early years as a student, when he created, for example, a mural design at Weimar based on Kandinsky’s theory of the yellow triangle, the red square and the blue circle. Exhibition design continued to be an essential part of Bayer’s career. He designed exhibitions about the Bauhaus (which spread Bauhaus ideas to new audiences) as well as commercial displays and propaganda exhibitions. Exhibitions were an environmental extension of advertising, with the power to direct public thought in a highly focused way.
What does Bayer have to teach designers today?
Our book includes a facsimile reprint of a series of essays Bayer published in PM magazine in New York in 1939. These texts about advertising, typography and exhibition design show Bayer’s strength as a design theorist. One of the reasons the Bauhaus was influential is that designers and artists at the school shared their ideas through writing and print. This continues to be a powerful way for designers to contribute to the bigger discourse of our field.
There has been controversy that the Bauhaus is the center of the Eurocentric school and, in turn, Modernists that have followed its teachings have received too much attention. How do you respond to that as author, historian and curator?
Every generation can seek to discover—and destroy—the Bauhaus for themselves. The school was embattled in its own time, always fighting against critics who thought it was too radical or too socialist or too bohemian—or not radical enough. When Moholy-Nagy left the school in 1928, he complained that the program had become too commercial. Many people taught and studied at the Bauhaus who are less well-known. Elizabeth Otto’s recent book Haunted Bauhaus explores the roles of women, occult philosophies, and queer identities at the Bauhaus. New scholarship helps us see diversity and conflict at the Bauhaus rather than a monolithic theory. When studying and teaching the Bauhaus, we can look at the role that elemental geometry plays in many cultures. The Bauhaus fought against symmetry, capital letters, and historical ornament in search of something universal. Those universals can be found everywhere, produced in different cultural circumstances.
What appeals to me is that Bayer was so varied in his approaches. Some of his collage work is quite surprising (and does not conform to our images of the Bauhaus). How do you view this wide range of styles and methods?
Bayer was a practical guy. He was not a theoretical thinker at the same level as Moholy-Nagy. He allowed his work to change with the times. Moholy-Nagy was a more visionary thinker. Bayer appears to have learned a lot from Moholy, who was five years older and came to the school as faculty. Moholy-Nagy led the way in developing the “new typography” and mixing photography with type. In the 1930s, Bayer’s advertising work showed the influence of surrealism, an art movement whose techniques nourished the narrative impulse of commercial art. In the '60s, simplified corporate identities crept into Bayer’s portfolio. He was a man of his time, a man of the 20th century.