Musings on Bauhaus

On my recent trip to Berlin I couldn’t resist visiting the Bauhaus museum. I’d recently read The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher in which the art school features heavily and I’ve always been intrigued by it.

There was also a little bit of sadistic pleasure to be had from making my wife come with me. She’s not a fan of modernism in any shape or form. Our visit to Tate Modern inspired the following statements:

When arriving - ‘It looks like it needs a clean.’
When looking at Rothko - ‘Was that done by a child with crayons?’
When looking over the large display area on the ground floor - ‘What a waste of space, you could put a carpark in there.’

So I was hoping not only for some classic designs, but some classic comments as well. I got half of what I was asking for.

For something that was so influential the Bauhaus only existed for 14 years between 1919 and 1933. Translated literally it means ‘construction house’, but a more accurate definition would be home of building. 

The Bauhaus taught a breed of architecture, design and art where function was as important as its visual appeal. Because of the status history afforded it it’s very easy to forget that the Bauhaus was actually a school, where students were taught according to a strict manifesto (see cover image below right) which promoted a change, not just in the way we designed our lives, but also through the design of our environments would create a new improved society. 

It sounds overly ambitious now, but the sheer breadth of the items that were produced by the school really demonstrates how design touches every part of our modern lives. From cupboard handles, to chairs (most notably the Barcelona chair), to teapots, to graphic design, to buildings, the Bauhaus ethos could be applied to anything that there was some sort of design or product development involved in.

Even more astonishing was the roll call of tutors who taught in the school; Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Clee, Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy are just four of them.

Such lofty ideals and high profile tutors at a turbulent time in the history of Germany were destined to bring the school to the attention of the authorities and it was forced to move three times in its short life before finally being shut by the Nazi party in 1933. What is incredible about the Bauhaus is the way in which it has infiltrated our collective cultural memory despite its suppression. The font is instantly recognisable, many of the objects have become design classics and the style of architecture has been copied so much as to be instantly recognisable even if you don’t know the source. Mies van der Rohe, one of the Directors of the Bauhaus went some way to summing it up by saying, ‘only an idea has the power to spread so widely.’

The Bauhaus-Archive is a fascinating place. It shows you the history of the school and displays some of the classic pieces, as well as original artwork by it’s famous tutors. It is as understated and well formed as the school it depicts.

The disappointment came from my wife’s reaction. She went around the museum with a big smile on her face and as we went to leave she pronounced loudly while gesticulating around at the display, ‘why doesn’t everyone do things like this? Practical and beautiful, that’s how everything should be designed.’

She’s right of course. That’s the essence of good design, it just took the Bauhaus to make it official.

A step back into 1960's advertising in the UK

A couple of years ago I found myself stumbling through a second hand shop in the West Country and in the process ended up buying a job-lot of about thirty editions of ‘The Illustrated Carpenter & Builder’ for about £3.50.

Of course, as a designer, I didn’t buy a whole bunch of these to gain an understanding of what the building trade was like in the 60s but for an insight into what the design and advertising industry looked like. The snapshot in time is fascinating so I’ll share with you a few of the gems that this find unearthed.

In the days before Homebase and Travis Perkins and B&Q, industry suppliers used to advertise their individual product offerings direct to tradesmen through these pages, and leafing through the pages you can spot some brilliant vintage ads, and some peculiar strategies too. Evo-Stick for example advertises it’s flooring adhesive by using the headline “...who says little girls can’t go on the tiles?”. Obviously children slipping on unsafe tiles was a problem in the 60s, but looking back from relative comfort in 2015, this headline just sounds plain weird!

Long before the days of ubiquitous full colour printing in magazines, C&P was confined to black and white throughout. Advertisers had the added option of using an extra colour: Red. It goes without saying that all logos at the time had to operate in a single colour but I’ve always wondered what happened when a brand’s secondary colour wasn’t red? Interestingly Black & Decker stuck to black and white, possibly because their trademark orange wasn’t available, but Marley (who are still going strong under the name Marley Eternit) use black and red as their corporate colours, so were fine to print both. 

In terms of headline typography it’s largely a battle between the classic fonts of the era such as Clarendon, Helvetica, and Franklin Gothic. All make good use of the strength of their heavier weights with the economy of their condensed variants to fill the available space with high impact. A font choice of note is Hope’s Windows’ use of the Albertus typeface. Used on many a road sign in London, it’s highly distinctive due to it’s sharp minor-serif edges and straight ascenders. Deriving from the type of letters seen carved into metal or wood in the early Twentieth Century, it stands out for it’s uniqueness and elegance amongst the crowd of condensed fonts. 

My favourite ad in the whole set is one for Marleyglaze. Marley emphasises the clear transparency of its vinyl sheeting by coupling the headline ‘“I see” said the pigeon as he settled on Marleyglaze’ with an image of a pigeon sitting on the sheeting. A leftfield concept choice for sure but it really stands out amongst the crowd of conventional advertising. 

Of course, since the 60s the technology we now use for design has developed immeasurably but, in many ways, so too has our tastes. Tretobond Building Adhesives’s use of a scantily clad female model, coupled with the headline ‘Smart men appreciate economic coverage… in any shape or form’ is indicative of a lot of the sexist undertones found in the advertising work of the era, and certainly wouldn’t pass the taste-test of today. 

Next time you find yourself passing the RKH offices with some time to kill, do pop in and have a browse through them as the collection now reside in our in-house.