Der Unzulänglichkeit Menschlichen Strebens

I have a complicated relationship with Herbert Bayer. He was a remarkable designer who shaped Modernism, the Bauhaus, and modern design. And he worked for the National Socialist party. It is difficult to talk about Bayer without addressing his complicity with the Nazis. Here is the issue: we can look at Bayer’s other work, such as Das Wunder Des Lebens and find a remarkable sense of scale, montage, three dimensional space, and typography. But, like the filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who claimed she didn’t realize she was making Nazi propaganda, Bayer’s complicity shadows the work. Another booklet by Bayer, Deutschland Ausstellung was created for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The client was the National Socialist Party. This piece deserves a post to itself, but I cannot discuss Bayer and whitewash the context.

Bayer raises questions that are not easy to answer. Who do we work for? Are they good? What are the levels of wrongdoing we will tolerate if we are lauded and rewarded for our work? In a 1940s black and white movie, these answers would be clear and simple. The hero decides to bypass fame and fortune for the good of family, or society. But, unfortunately, we are complex and contradictory.

I was judging a competition several years ago, and one of the entries was for a client that used hate-based propaganda. I didn’t vote for it, but one of the other judges felt I should ignore the content and base my choice on design and communication alone. If we are responsible as communicators, then the content of the work we do is the heart of every project. I’ve used the hypothetical situation of judging an incredible piece for the Nazis as an example. Is it in, or out?

images from the Louis Danziger Collection