The Bauhaus Legacies of Max Bill and Herbert Bayer

This year marks a century since the founding of the Bauhaus, and among the art school’s key figures were Herbert Bayer and Max Bill

Words: Stephen Hitchins

All Images: Angela Thomas Schmid / 2019 Prolitteris, Zurich / Courtesy The Max Bill Georges Vantongerloo Stiftung and Hauser & Wirth


A lot of malicious comment has been written about Walter Gropius, the clever, visionary and highly successful German architect who founded the Bauhaus School, which was based in Weimar in Germany until 1925, Dessau through to 1932, and Berlin in its final months in 1933. Certainly, he did not have a degree and could not draw – he wrote to his mother in 1907 of his ‘absolute inability to bring even the most simple things to paper’. But his genius lay both in coming up with ideas and creating a context in which they could flourish, and building teams of people to work together (as well as getting students to do his drawings for him – after he had appropriated a few ideas from elsewhere).

Among the roster of luminaries he appointed and promoted were Switzerland’s Max Bill and the Austrian Herbert Bayer. Both were students, artists, designers, teachers, builders and polymaths, although to that list Bayer added Nazi sympathiser and lover to Gropius’s wife, Ise – Walter’s uncredited collaborator, who was known to family and friends as ‘Mrs Bauhaus’. Born at a time when women were expected to stand behind their men – ‘championing their causes, typing their manuscripts, and making their dinners’ – Ise Gropius did that and more.

Having studied to be an architect in Linz, Austria, and later in Darmstadt in Germany, Bayer moved to the Bauhaus in Weimar, enrolling in the preliminary course with the Swiss painter Johannes Itten. After two years he chose to study mural painting, and joined Wassily Kandinsky’s workshop after the Russian painter joined the faculty in 1922. When the school moved to Dessau, Gropius made Bayer director of the newly founded printing and advertising workshop. Bayer was many things, but one thing he was not was a trained typographer; however, he created the Bauhaus signature, its brand and its typographic identity – with no capital letters and no serifs, it was called Universal and was as idealistic as the school itself.

The David H Koch building in Aspen was designed by Bayer and features his ‘Sgraffito Mural’The David H Koch building in Aspen was designed by Bayer and features his ‘Sgraffito Mural’

Meanwhile, Bauhaus GmbH had been founded to sell products and books designed by students and staff, including Bayer. While this included Jucker-Wagenfeld’s lamp, Marcel Breuer’s chairs, Marianne Brandt’s teapot and Anni Albers’ weavings, with the exception of the wallpaper designs of Hinnerk Scheper it was not a commercial success. A century later these, its most famous objects, can be found in museum gift shops, harmless examples of what was once a radical vision.

Five years after the affair with Ise Gropius, Bayer left the school, and his own wife left him and took their daughter. In most summaries of his life he then disappears for a decade, but in reality he moved to Berlin, worked freelance for the international advertising agency Dorland, and for 10 years ran his own agency working for the Nazis. How did that happen? Naive? Maybe. Short of work? For sure – he needed the money. Intimidated? Doubtless. But for so many years?

Far from being persecuted like some Bauhaus alumni, Bayer produced paeans to Hitler Youth along with posters, brochures and promotional material on behalf of the central office of Nazi advertising, the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, established and run by Joseph Goebbels. Famous, handsome, and internationally recognised, Bayer was called ‘the star of the propaganda minister’. He was considered the best-known, most influential, top-earning German advertising designer at the time, and even after one of his paintings was included in the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) he was allowed to continue designing. Because he was not commissioned directly by the Nazi Party but by an official government agency, the Büro Terramare, Bayer apologists cling to the fig leaf that he did not work directly for the Nazis. However, Bayer worked on a number of temporary expositions, including large industrial shows such as Deutsches Volk – Deutsche Arbeit (German People, German Work) in 1934 that, it is worth noting, was designed by Mies van der Rohe, with Walter Gropius and Bauhaus teacher Joost Schmidt creating the most spectacular attraction: a tower made of nonferrous metals in the Hall of Energy and Technology. Bayer then worked on Das Wunder des Lebens (The Wonder of Life) in 1935, and Deutschland in 1936. His contribution to Nazi propaganda cannot be denied.

The Aspen Meadows resort was designed by Bayer in the Bauhaus styleThe Aspen Meadows resort was designed by Bayer in the Bauhaus style

The ideological potential of form was not lost on the Third Reich. From its point of view, Bauhaus modernism under National Socialism allowed it to make a token display of open-mindedness and cultural tolerance. The Nazi Party was clearly willing to use modern design when it was deemed expedient, while considering the Bauhaus, along with atonal music and Expressionist painting, another specimen of the globe-spanning 'Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy' it sought to eliminate.

While, perhaps, Bayer simply ignored the content and concentrated on the form, he nevertheless became a political instrument. Later, he would airbrush his past, ‘deprogramming’ his association with the regime, changing the storyline, concealing details, altering dates, and creating a myth that everyone accepted. He had three lives: public, private and secret. He hid that secret one very well. Redolent of Nazi doublespeak, with distortions of language and euphemisms to obscure the reality of what was happening and make horrors palatable, he wrote three memoirs. Looking back on his time in Berlin, however, Bayer later admitted to being ‘appalled how blind’ he had been, and spoke of his ‘advertising purgatory’. His experience raises age-old questions, that are not easy to answer, about a designer’s responsibility and how the political context impacts their work.

And yet when faced with a similar challenge, German graphic designer Will Burtin sought a way out. Approached by Goebbels to be the propaganda ministry’s director of design, he first claimed a backlog of work prevented him from taking up the position and then, after being summoned personally by Hitler, claimed he first needed a vacation due to exhaustion through work, so went home, collected his wife and a suitcase, and left for the New York World’s Fair in 1939 never to return.

Bayer left Germany a year before after he was offered a teaching position at the New Bauhaus in Chicago (today it is the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology), which was founded in 1937 by Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy, and Gropius had asked him to organise and install the Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Together with Ise Gropius he curated the show that for decades would dominate the image of the design school in North America. His career flourished in New York until he had a call to move west, to Aspen, Colorado, a remote mountain resort and the most surprising place to find the Bauhaus celebrated both this year and next. He lived there from 1946 until 1975 and left a lasting mark. In fact, such was his impact Aspen would become to all intents and purposes an outpost of the Bauhaus.

When the town’s silver-mining economy went bust in 1893 the population dwindled to around 700 and the place became a ghost town. The key to its revival was Walter Paepcke, the man who created the Container Corporation of America by acquiring various manufacturers and packaging companies and who aimed to pull the place out of its economic slump. Several years earlier he had become the patron of Moholy-Nagy when he financed the New Bauhaus.

With his wife, Elizabeth, Paepcke organised a bicentennial celebration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1949, which brought hundreds of visitors to the town, such as the American writer Thornton Wilder. The event’s success led to the establishment of the Aspen Music Festival and two years later the International Design Conference (IDCA). The call Bayer received to move west had come from Paepcke, who hired him to promote Aspen. Five years later Paepcke also made Bayer director of the design department at the Container Corporation of America. Bayer had gone from being on the wrong side of history to the other side of the Atlantic, far enough away to be appreciated.

Max Bill’s konstruktion auf der formel a² + b² = c² (construction from formula a² + b² = c²). Image credit: Angela Thomas Schmid / 2019 Prolitteris, Zurich / Courtesy The Max Bill Georges Vantongerloo Stiftung and Hauser & Wirth.Max Bill’s konstruktion auf der formel a² + b² = c² (construction from formula a² + b² = c²). Image credit: Angela Thomas Schmid / 2019 Prolitteris, Zurich / Courtesy The Max Bill Georges Vantongerloo Stiftung and Hauser & Wirth.

The IDCA would provide a forum for connecting culture with commerce, a place for open discussion involving businessmen and industrialists, manufacturers, architects and designers, and filmmakers and writers. It was held every year until 2004 and drew all the great names, including Josef Albers, Ivan Chermayeff, Louis Khan, Paul Rand, Paul Rudolph, Wim Wenders, Bill Viola and Massimo Vignelli. Also present were the presidents of CBS, Johnson Wax, Nieman Marcus, Mercedes-Benz and Bulthaup, and great patrons of the arts such as Burton Tremaine of the Miller Company, and Charles Zadok of Gimbels department store. You could hear them speak, and meet them all. The atmosphere was intoxicating. One visitor was Robert Anderson, chairman of the Atlantic Richfield oil company, who was so taken by Aspen he later hired Bayer as art and design consultant for the firm, responsible for architecture, office design, graphics and corporate art acquisition.

Through culture Paepcke had achieved his goal for Aspen – he managed to attract business to the area and create jobs. But it was Bayer who designed the town’s rebirth. With a campaign of visual advertising that was far ahead of its time he branded Aspen as a glamorous ski destination and was a driving force behind the establishment of the location as a design destination. He was a hyper-engaged citizen, designing buildings, helping set local policies, advising on historic preservation, and chairing the planning and zoning commission for five years. He created posters, designed the annual programmes for the Aspen Music Festival, and helped found the local historical society. He was responsible for renovating some of the town’s best-known public buildings, such as the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome. He designed the Aspen Mountain resort’s original restaurant, the Sun Deck, some of the most captivating private homes, the Aspen Institute’s distinctive campus complex, and Anderson Park. Ahead of his time, the summit lodge on Aspen Mountain had a concave roof over the fireplace that caught snow, which then melted into a water source.

To coincide with the Bauhaus centenary, Hauser & Wirth presented an exhibition called Max Bill Bauhaus Constellations in Zurich earlier this yearTo coincide with the Bauhaus centenary, Hauser & Wirth presented an exhibition called Max Bill Bauhaus Constellations in Zurich earlier this year

The history of the Bauhaus is also a history of schools with which it was contemporary and to which it gave birth. For example, the poet Rabindranath Tagore organised an exhibition in Calcutta in 1922 featuring artists from the Bauhaus, and founded Visva-Bharati University in rural West Bengal. There was Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where Josef and Anni Albers taught, and Max Bill co-founded the Ulm School of Design in Germany in 1953 with Otl Aicher and Inge Scholl.

While he was training as a silversmith in Zurich, the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp chose two of Bill’s pieces to exhibit in the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925. Having been expelled from the Zurich School of Applied Arts in 1927 for being late, he used the money he had won in a poster competition for Suchard chocolate to travel to Dessau where he became a ‘Bauhausler’ and studied under the likes of Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Moholy-Nagy, and Oskar Schlemmer. In 1929 he returned to Switzerland and worked as an architect, painter, sculptor, product designer and publicist. In 1938 he joined CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) whose members included individuals such as Gropius and Corbusier. In 1941 he founded the Allianz publishing house, and for two years he taught theory of form at the school that had expelled him.

It is difficult to think of a 20th-century figure who exerted as much influence over as many fields of creative activity as Max Bill, yet with so little recognition. He became a oneman Bauhaus. And whereas Bayer worked for the Nazis, Bill worked on anti-Nazi publications.

Max Bill’s Rot und grün aus blau und gelb (Red and green from blue and yellow)Max Bill’s Rot und grün aus blau und gelb (Red and green from blue and yellow)

Bill became the driving force behind the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, its architect and the first rector. Funded by the Marshall Plan after the Second World War it remained one of Germany’s leading educational centres for design until its closure in 1968. In the early days, Bill brought in Itten and Helene Nonné-Schmidt among other Bauhauslers to teach at the school. A pure functionalist guided by logic and mathematics rather than feeling or expression, he became an invisible man. Later in life, however, his ideas did change, a little: ‘It has become clear to us that beauty can no longer be developed out of function alone; instead, the demand for beauty has to be set on the same level as a functional demand, since it is a function too.’

He carried his concept of modern design, which had been fundamentally shaped by his studies at the Bauhaus, out into the world. He held the chair of environmental design at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg (HFBK) and was chairman of the Bauhaus-Archiv. One year before his death in 1994, Bill was honoured in Tokyo for his tireless work and his widespread impact with the so-called Nobel Prize in Art, the Praemium Imperiale. 

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