Bauhaus und die Neue Typographie

Of the distinction between craft and art, the poet James Merrill once said, ‘If this line does exist, the poet himself shouldn’t draw it; he should focus only on making the poem happen.’*

The Bauhaus school embraced this amalgamation of the creative role of the artist and the skilled production of the craftsman. Its founder, Walter Gropius, proclaimed: <<Die Schule soll allmälich in der Werkstatt aufgehen. Kunstler und Handwerker gemeinsam in Lehre und Produktion.>> (The school will gradually turn into a workshop. Artist and craftsman together in apprenticeship and production.’)

From this philosophy—and the Bauhaus can most accurately be considered a philosophy above a cohesive style, as Sandusky** commented in 1938—emerged a typography that, like its architectural and metalwork siblings, pursued originality through function. Function was considered the Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age;’ a no-nonsense ideal sharply diverging from the frivolity of the worship of beauty that had consumed past generations.

Function in typography, for the Bauhaus, addressed the crucial concern of the day: communication. While text always communicated, proponents of the Bauhaus complained of a veritable inundation of books, pamphlets, posters and ads, a visual menagerie of words vying for one’s attention. Modern life simply called for so much reading that the least we could do was make it easier on ourselves. Looking back from our modern perch, we could make the same demand twenty times over as we cringe over poorly typeset workplace documents or black-on-yellow job advertisements.

Herbert Bayer*** called for ‘an alphabet that corresponds to the demands of an age of science.’ A science of communication was thus proposed: amidst the relentless babble of printed word, the Bauhaus preached clarity over beauty. Typography ought to grasp the guts of text and allow its meaning to pour logically across the page, rather than impose conventions on it or conceal it under ornamentation. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called this ‘the inner law of expression and the optical effect.’

In 1923 various Bauhaus teachers and sympathisers (Jan Tschichold, despite his notoriety, fell into the latter camp) penned manifestos on Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography), at the same time as the school revised its workshop-based ideal. The craftsman was losing ground to the machine, which could outperform him in both precision and efficiency. Richard Sennett provides an apt summary of the rise of the machine in The Craftsman, and questions why ‘skilled operatives live with and through machines but rarely create them in modern industry,’ thus securing their own demise. The Bauhaus seems to have grasped the true threat of the machine, but, rather than shying from it and wishing it away, sought to harness the power of it and embrace all that the modern age brought. In 1923, with a bold new program, the Bauhaus school forged on with its new motto: ‘Art and technology—a new unity.’ This new emphasis on industry acknowledged that mass-production was to be accepted as part of the modern world, and that the craftsman must design his works accordingly.

Tschichold**** wrote of technology as ‘only a kind of second nature,’ not to be feared but, just like the primary nature, to guide the artist and craftsman: ‘Both nature and technology teach us that “form” is not independent, but grows out of function (purpose), out of the materials we use (organic or technical) and how they are used.’

Applied to typography, which was driven by always advancing technical materials, this meant a number of things. The spirit of the age being the advancement of function, and the function of typography being communication, clarity emerged as the driving force of Bauhaus typography. All elements derived from this root: contrast, which was to be marked but logical; organic form, rather than predetermined conventional form; logical arrangements; asymmetry, which emerged from the rhythm of the text and did not shy from white space; lack of ornament—including contrast between thick and thin stroke—thus shedding ‘an attitude of childish naïveté.’

Tschichold’s list goes on, and we may see in it a precursor to more recent ideas that have permeated information graphics, such as those pushed by Stephen Few in Information Dashboard Design. Few’s central claim is that a designer communicates subtly by enhancing data, but ought only use this power in meaningful ways. Multi-coloured bar graphs draw attention to distinctions that do not exist, while the sparing use of colour, such as one red word among many black, can indicate a figure is amiss without needing to state this in words. Few, like Tschichold, calls for only meaningful use of colour and contrast, rather than misleading decorative uses which lead the viewer to construct meaning where there is none.

















Proponents of the New Typography were somewhat stifled in their initial font choices, since printers only stocked certain type families—a small hiccup that the march of progress would correct. Nevertheless, the New Typography embraced Grotesk (sans serif) fonts as ‘the only one[s] in spiritual accordance with our time,’ conceding Paul Renner’s Futura a notable step towards the ideal. Tschichold firmly believed that the ideal font could not be generated by one person, but must be a collaborative effort, and would inevitably rely on an engineer—perhaps for structural integrity?

Paul Renner's 'Futura'

In 1925, Bayer found himself tasked with devising a typeface for all Bauhaus manifestos, commissioned by Gropius himself. Bayer’s response, Universal, was a simplified, non-case-specific, geometric typeface, all circles and arches, flowing like neon lettering waiting to be melded into one circuit. Joseph Albers devised Kombinationschrift (‘combination-lettering’) during his time at the Bauhaus, which relied on ten simple geometric shapes that he rearranged to construct each letter. The result is something like lettering one would expect to see stencilled on the side of an army tank. While clean and built of simple, almost mechanical elements, such lettering must surely tire one’s eyes as much as a dense slab of Textura—hardly living up to the Bauhaus’ original catch cry of clarity. Perhaps Technik and mass-production had truly taken over from function.

Herbert Bayer's 'Universal'

Despite the dogmatic list compiled by Tschichold (which he later tossed aside, fearing its religious and fascist overtones), the spirit of the Bauhaus’s New Typography narrows down to a simple concentration on essentials in communicating visually. The philosophy all the while acknowledges that this, too, is an historical aim: ‘All lettering…is first and foremost an expression of its own time, just as every man is a symbol of his time.’ Many typefaces have been lauded for their clarity, from sans serif to serif to blackletter—and each has probably proved of optimal readability to its own age. The Bauhaus did not claim that the New Typography was essentially superior to all other typography—simply that it responded in a very precise way to the challenges of its time.

This was particularly pertinent in a world beginning to truly globalise, wedged between two world wars that inextricably drew nations together. Not only was the world inundated with the written word (a mere glimpse of what was to come), but it was becoming more interconnected. Typefaces that emphasised a particular culture or were ‘custom built’ for any given language contradicted the dawning cosmopolitan age. Tschichold considered such national typefaces to undermine the function of text in this new, borderless setting.

While the New Typography was fresh, inclusive and customised according to the logic of a text, perhaps the Bauhaus overlooked some important functions of typography in seeking such unity across media and borders. While the New Typography would stand out amidst the old, a world full of rigidly-defined text would create some optimised faux-lifestyle that did not permit tact in funeral notices or merriment at holidays. Tschichold made the sweeping claim that ‘The best typefaces are those which can be used for all purposes, and the bad ones are those which can only be used for visiting-cards or hymn books.’ Perhaps what he really wanted to say was that aristocratic society and religion were dead, rather than that every text be rendered alike.

* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
** Sandusky, L. [1938] 2001. ‘The Bauhaus Tradition and the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
*** Bayer, Herbert. 2001. ‘On Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
**** Tschichold, Jan. [1923] 2001. ‘The Principles of the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.


Wet season

The wet has hit Brisbane, and after last year’s performance, everyone seems a little bit on edge. One of our walls–all wooden–has bulged like it’s about to give birth to more baby walls, busting the skirting boards and splitting the paint, and little rivulets of water seep through and trickle down into the floorboards.

But, such is our sub-tropical life.

And to cheer it a little, I have completed a zippy little top:

This is from a 1979 Simplicity dress pattern I found in an op-shop one time. I’ve only made the bodice, and done away with the parachute sleeves.

The bottle-brushes are drooping with raindrops. I like their creamy colour.

‘J, do a hipster pose!’


Leopard or Luck Dragon?

What makes something good art? Most people would consider all abstract art to be pretentious and useless; the sort of random act that could be achieved by a two-year old splattering paint on a canvas. Actually, at that same age, Aelita Andre was selling paintings such as “The Leopard and the Luck Dragon” for thousands of dollars. Sure, it’s pretty – but why not make one yourself?

Aelita Andre, "The Leopard or the Luck Dragon"









There are many elements to art, beyond the final product itself, and each of these has been explored to extremes at some stage in history. The most striking of these cases is abstract modern art, which usually comprises those artworks that are technically easy to make. Whereas renaissance portraiture typically required years of training to achieve the desired effect, modern art needs nothing more than a clever idea, and the execution may be carried out by anybody.

Unfortunately, this causes confusion; people mistake the final product for art, when the real art lies in its conception and not in its material construction. This is the great tragedy of modern art – the fact that its power is immaterial and therefore free, but because it is connected to some easily constructible object (for example, `found objects’) these objects sell for exorbitant prices. People try to buy the idea by buying things intrinsically connected to it through the actions and identity of the artist – but when these connections are lost, the object loses its worth. Caravaggio’s David With the Head of Goliath would still fetch a high price if nobody knew who painted it, simply because of its craftsmanship, but Duchamp’s urinal inscribed with `R. Mutt’ becomes nothing more than a urinal when its associations are lost.

Caravaggio, "David With the Head of Goliath"

Duchamp, "Fountain"







The point of exploring these extremes is not to make art meaningless, but rather to separate its different aspects. The lesson learned from modern art is that the conception and the idea is a crucial element of art, but clever ideas alone do not constitute artworks in themselves. To be fully realized, the concept must be realized through craftsmanship – without a unique physical object to represent it, the idea remains ethereal.

Keith Burt, "Scottish Builder"

Keith Burt, "Scottish Builder"



At GoMA, at the Matisse exhibit, there is a beautiful ‘drawing room’ set up where you can sketch vases, fruit, statues and models. I was promised ballerina models. I have seen no ballerina models, only models in infuriatingly limb-concealing kimonos. What is the fun in drawing models if you are essentially drawing a curtain sitting in a chair? I continue to go, in the hope of ballerinas, but continue to draw this over and over:

After a while I lose interest and draw furniture:

Next month my cousin shall be wed, and I must adorn myself in ‘summery cocktail’ attire. To this end I have commenced the cutting of some summery fabric, which I envision will look as glamorous as this sketch:


Unconventional resumes

When people make a decision to dramatically change their course in life, it is seen as both admirable and inferior. Perhaps it is admirable because it involves making oneself ‘inferior’—materially depriving oneself and taking oneself out of a linear career path. Dreams are not always enough when healthy salaries and CBD offices are on offer. Doing what you are passionate about can mean less nice clothes and less restaurant dinners. And being held in lesser esteem by people with ‘real’ jobs and mortgages.

What does it mean to make such a decision? Once you ‘work the restlessness out of [your] system,’ can you ‘settle down and get a job at a good firm somewhere’? Will Holman believed as much, and set off in search of adventures rather than accepting a standard architecture job following work placements. His essay in Design Observer is lengthy, but worth the perseverance. He details the incredible experiences he has had in ‘social design’ in place of a corporate graduate role, the endless loading of his old Corolla and criss-crossing America to take up internships and longer term positions at Arcosanti, Rural Studio and YouthBuild, followed by some freelancing and furniture-making. Though he had every opportunity to do things the sensible way, Will forged his own path, driven by a passion for getting his hands dirty and by a belief that design can respond more ethically to the needs rather than wants of the world.

His choices echo the catchcry of the First Things First manifesto, originally penned in 1964 and updated in 2000 in Adbusters, signed by ‘graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators.’* Any recent graduate might find themselves crying, ‘There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills!’ when faced with the sheer futility of the corporate job they have taken.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. … We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

Reading this declaration, the beginning of a critical, theoretical design book (a rarity amongst the pared-back descriptions of colour theory and typography), brought back a flood of memories from my first effort at design school, a time of reading dystopian zines and anarchic cookbooks and Adbusters, of sitting in the library reading Marx and critiques of consumerism. This was the first time I made a hard left: On being told by my lecturers that I was destined for advertising, I signed up for a degree in philosophy.

Caroline Fryar, whose endless sock-knitting I ploughed through bemusedly, and whose enthusiasm for spinning I sympathised with, turned a hard left from academia. Destined for postgraduate research in all manner of classics and ancient Greek and linguistics, Caroline happened upon her plan B of ditching university to be a shepherdess. Having innocently found her blog while searching ‘knitting,’ and seeing that she described herself most prominently as ‘farm manager,’ my curiosity was piqued—how did she get here? The answer is simply this: She saw an ad. She applied for the job. She got it, and, brushing off the constant questioning of ‘aren’t you wasting your education? your brilliant mind?’ accepted it.

How crazy is it to walk into class and answer your professor’s ‘So, how’s your future looking? Hear from any schools over break?’ with, ‘Um well actually I am going to go be a shepherdess instead!’ ?

‘Well, that’s a surprise! …and I did just have you all read the Eclogues over break.’

While the world at large says things like, ‘good on you for following your dreams,’ it stomps on us as it turns its back on us. Following your dreams is good because it makes you happy to do what you most want to do. Following your dreams is admirable because it’s hard. Following your dreams is hard because most people don’t, and because most people put up with something else, that something else becomes the norm which then makes it hard to stray from the standard path.

Yesterday, I quit my job. Which is to say, I gave notice, and will finish in two weeks. This means my days will soon be freed up to do all the things I most want to do—productive, creative, challenging things that are rewarding for me but not considered of equal monetary value as the screwing around I have been doing in my highly-paid job. Leaving that job is in every way unconventional, reduces my security, and makes my life thoroughly unpredictable. But for now, that hard left feels good.

Will Holman admits, ‘My unconventional resume has proven to be a liability in a competitive job market; architecture firms I’ve interviewed at are looking for people with traditional commercial experience and advanced software skills. … This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.’

I don’t know how things will work out for us unconventional types with ‘holes’ in our resumes and educations—presumably we succeed or we end up homeless, with nothing. Then again, I was homeless for several months during the past year despite my job security and respectable income, so who is to say that one path is more stable than the other? I know that I’m doing what I need to do, because with only one lifetime in which to be as rad as possible, I don’t want to disappear into the faceless piles of perfect resumes.

* Looking Closer 4 Critical Writings on Graphic Design. 2002. Eds: Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.



And now for some gratuitous crafting!

Here is a summery top-in-progress, from half an 80s dress pattern and over-the-top bird-and-flower-covered cotton:

Sketchbook drawings–the neighbours cut down the big tree between our veranda and their house, so I stared into their windows for a long time. They cut it down by organising some tree-loppers with a very large mulching truck that parked itself in our driveway at 7.20am. I have several sketches of the never-before-seen neighbours’ house:

My sister came to stay. I took her to the Lifeline Bookfest, and she was happy. My brother stays permanently. We got real internetz today:

Although I could never write to her for fear of her thinking I’m a douche bag, I have infinite respect for Kate Davies. Kate Davies made me realise that one can be a woman and participate in craft and be educated and have intellectual discussions about craft. It’s why I’m reading Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman, and though I’ll probably never study textiles history, I may yet undertake a PhD on aesthetics and the role of the craftsman and value.

I am making Kate Davies’ O w l s. I am making them in Rowan British Sheep Breeds in Dark Grey Welsh. I did consider other wools, but had an unfortunate encounter with my local wool shop, who only stock rainbow colours and are otherwise very rude.

I like to think that I might have met Kate Davies, when I lived in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. I certainly met Ysolda when I used to haunt K1 Yarns on Victoria Street longingly, and she helped me pick out some pink alpaca for my spring jumper. We might have bumped shoulders looking at all that amazing wool.