What the hell is bauhaus typography?

Gerd Fleischmann

bauhaus stamp

DAS BAUHAUS IN DESSAU, stamp from the estate of Hubert Hoffmann, now Archive Marzona – a contradiction to kleinschreibung (exclusive use of lower case) as part of the corporate design of the bauhaus since 1925

The reason to talk about lettering, typography and visual communication at the Bauhaus (since 1925: bauhaus) is at least twofold . On the one hand, I want to point out that the early typography at the Bauhaus was influenced by Russian artists, first and formost El Lissitzky and the magazine ΒΕЩЬ  · Objet · Gegenstand, ϺЕЖДУНОЕ ОБОЗРЕНИЕ СОВРЕМЕННОГО ИСКУСТВА / Revue internationale de l’art moderne / Internationale Rundschau der Kunst der Gegenwart, published in Berlin in 1922. On the other hand I want to recall Hannes Meyer, the second director of the bauhaus for a short time, 1928–1930, and the booklet junge menschen kommt ans bauhaus! (Young people, come to the bauhaus!). In this booklet the ideas and the politics of the school are summarized for the last time before it had to close in 1933.

The result of my talk will be quite simple. There was no “bauhaus typography”, no broad agreement on a typographic style. Only a small number of artists masters and students were active typographers and graphic designers as wwe would say today. They all had their individual and uncoordinated approaches to typography and visual communication, and became influential not only at the bauhaus: László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, to mention the most important ones, further Josef Albers with his kombinationsschrift (combination font, all characters made of only three elements, squares, quadrants, and circles of equal height and width), Alfred Arndt, and Franz Ehrlich, later studio Z, together with Heinz Loew and Fritz Winter.

The term “bauhaus typography” was probably coined by Jan (at that time: Ivan) Tschichold when he planned a special issue of Typographische Mitteilungen, the member’s journal of the Bildungsverband der Deutschen Buchdrucker (association for the cultural and vocational eduction of the German printers) which finally was entitled elementare typographie (elemental typography), October 1925, and was a gorgeous success. On p. 212 he explained the change of the title: “The copy at hand originally was planned as Bauhaus Special. But the Bauhaus is only one base in the battle for the New Culture. The ideas for which the Bauhaus in Dessau (formerly Weimar) stands, are advocated by numerous artist, scientists, and technicians worldwide who are not members of the Bauhaus, mainly in Europe and America by now. Therefore it is necessary, that this special does not consider only the typographic achievements of the Bauhaus, but the work in all countries where this kind of work is created. Primarily Russia (the Soviet Union, G. F.) has to be mentioned here where El Lissitzky, paradigm of the new creator, is one of the best new typographers. The misleading and by some followers discredited term ‘constructivism’ should be avoided. All these argument led to the title Elementare Typographie (elemental typography), which matches perfectly the tenor of our work.”

On top of this text Tschichold quotes in his own words the key statement from the editorial of the trilingual magazine ΒΕЩЬ (Vešč’ [Veshch]) / Objet / Gegenstand, no 1–2, March–April 1922, without mentioning the source: “The old art created pictures to decorate rooms, where one could look at them undisturbed. These pictures represent the psychology of the savoring bourgois. The new art was forced to a quasi mechanical technique, similar to the industrial production, by the choice of its means (steel, plaster, glass, etc.). The new art does not create pictures, but items, physical objects. It results from the psychology of the working class, the proletarian”.

This promotional booklet junge menschen kommt ans bauhaus! is worth to be reprinted, even in it’s awful typography – i.e. lines with up to 150 characters, set justified in small print and with almost no line feed in an article on Walter Peterhans’ teaching of photography, a quote from his book zum gegenwärtigen stand der fotografie (Today’s Photography). In a second booklet the texts should be translated and set in modern and readable typography.

This project could be extended to the rote bauhausbrigade, bauhaus students who followed Hannes Meyer when he went to Moscow after having been fired in Dessau.