Gateway Drug of Dessau

From Design Observer

I've heard the statement, "Modernism was a failed experiment," for thirty years. The expressive typography of the 1960s abandoned the tenets of simplicity and function. In the 1970s and 80s design shifted again to embrace historical references, illustrative imagery, and post-modern appropriation. Even the minimalism of the 2000s incorporated self-reference and irony. For these last thirty years, I felt like a character in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), hiding my reverence for Bayer, Matter, and Moholy-Nagy. 

The typography and graphic design at the Bauhaus represent the most religious allegiance to Modernism. But, it is the photography at the Bauhaus that serves as a gateway drug. The imagery of happy art students is disarming and nostalgic now but revolutionized the way we see through the lens. Read More

 

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Most Important Thing To Know

Herbert and Irene Bayer, 1928

I love when someone stops me on the street or at a conference and tells me he or she watches my History of Graphic Design course on Lynda.com. I especially enjoy hearing that it is used in classrooms. How can anyone be a great designer in a vacuum? If I were trying to be the best writer I'd read Dickens, Twain, and Kerouac. How could not knowing about the Arts and Crafts movement, American Post-War Modernism, or Paul Rand be helpful. After the history course launched, we saw the need for deep dives into some of the subjects. Today the Foundations of Graphic Design History: The Bauhaus was released. 

You may be asking, why should I care about a college in Germany in the 1920s? What does that have to do with me? And I would tell you, the Bauhaus was the flashpoint of the beginning of what we consider modern design today. Its revolutionary concepts radically changed how we design, what we consider to be valuable aesthetically, and what the public expects from all the design fields.

The world then sounds eerily like our own, albeit it was Germany in the teens: The world has been fighting a war on many fronts for years, the economy faced its worst recession in decades, all creative fields and the way we do business changed with radical new technologies, and a charged political ideaology was beginning.

The Bauhaus was founded as a reaction to these issues. How they responded and the challenges the students and faculty faced changed all of 20th century design. There is very little in our life that isn’t influenced by its philosophy of form following function, simplicity, truth in materials, and quality. The idea that design can make life better for others is an idea from the Bauhaus.

On the selfish side, I was excited to be able to dig into this period again. Of course, in addition to the importance of theory, artifacts, technology, and economics, there were many personal stories. And how can you go wrong with avant-garde designers sunbathing nude, making new things, and shocking the local population. How can something be dull if Nazis are marching in and arresting these designers? Unfortunately, my choice of title, "Sex, Art, and Nazis," was changed to a more precise title. 

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Foresight

Last week, I filmed my latest course for Lynda.com/Linked In, Graphic Design History: The Bauhaus. I discuss all aspects at the Bauhaus from the modernist philosophy to Walter Gropius and Johannes Itten’s personal differences. But, while working on it, I kept returning to the images of life at the Bauhaus. The students and masters (“professors” in Bauhaus talk) working, eating in the canteen, sleeping on tables, and just hanging out. They all look so carefree and hopeful. They have the same vibrant and enthusiastic energy I see in design students today working, eating in the cafeteria, sleeping on tables, and hanging out.

But, we know what was to come. By 1933, the Bauhaus was closed. Many of its students and masters fled Germany to escape persecution as Jews, artists, intellectuals, homosexuals, and radical thinkers. Some were trapped and died either in the camps or as enlisted German soldiers. Others, like Marianne Brandt ended up on the wrong side after World War II, in East Germany under a Soviet-controlled government. Fortunately, some immigrated to the United States like Marguerite Wildenhain, Herbert Bayer, Josef Albers, and Mies van der Rose, bringing Bauhaus modernism to run through the American filter.

It is the nature of photography to capture a moment in time and create a personal relationship between the viewer and subject. Looking at a photograph has that small sense of voyeurism as if we are seeing the details too closely. 

The images of life at the Bauhaus are especially haunting. It is not possible to separate what we know when we see Bauhaus students enjoying a sunny afternoon on the balcony. We have the terrible truth of knowing their future. Perhaps it is difficult to look at these images without the sense of tragedy because they remind us too much of today. We question, “will someone in the future see similar photographs of today and think the same?”

These people believed in a future of good design for happy people living in peace. The photographs speak of the unexpected, sudden change, and fleeting small moments in life. 

 

 

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Time after Time

Marianne Brandt, student at the Bauhaus, 1931

When someone asks me, "With all the different technologies, which one is the most important for a designer to learn?" If I were clever I'd answer, "flash." But I'm too honest and, of course, explain that good concepts and smart thinking will always be more important than the newest tools. Every generation believes they are the hippest chosen people of all time. The old people are clueless and totally square. It's good this happens, otherwise, culture would stop evolving and we'd be trapped in 1892.


Students and Professors at the Bauhaus, 1920s and 1930s

Images of students at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s show super groovy people, strange art people, and tortured hairstyles. The same is true for Black Mountain College in the 1930s. Cool design students talking about design and hanging out. When I was at CalArts, we were certain we were so much cooler than anyone over thirty. We took artsy Polaroids and did live drawing from new wave models. Today, at ArtCenter, I can see myself through the eyes of my students, a square dude with odd plaid shirts and khakis. This may be true, but DO NOT mistake them for Dockers. They're Brooks Brothers and J. Crew., which is probably just as un-hip.


Students at Black Mountain College, 1930s and 1940s

Ray Johnson, Black Mountain College, 1945


CalArts, 1980s


ArtCenter, 2010s

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Promiscuity of Images

Ettore Sottsass, 1946

And now, to swing to the other end of the Bauhaus philosophy, I recently found this piece designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1946. Typically, when Sottsass comes up in conversation (and yes, I'm that groovy and cosmopolitan, it happens all the time) I think about the Memphis design movement or the 1969 Olivetti Valentine typewriter. Sottsass designed this portfolio soon after being released from a Yugoslavian concentration camp and moving to Milan. 

Ettore Sottsass, 1946

It's clear from this that his approach rejected the minimal and functional Bauhaus. He not only disregards a grid or sense of order, his use of imagery is promiscuous at the least. Victorian clip art, modernist photography, and hand-made forms compete with pieces of typography and magazine clippings. While it doesn't rely on melting clocks, the piece is related to the Surrealist movement, happening at the same time. The elements exist as disparate symbols in the unconscious, pieces of everyday life that combine in a dream.

I've had a special admiration for Sottsass since I learned that he took 1,780 photographs on a short trip to South America, and for years photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman. He also wanted to publish a book consisting of pictures of walls. I would buy a book of photos of walls.

SottsassCover.jpg

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Beatings at the Bauhaus

This is what I hate: I'm giving a lecture about Herbert Bayer and the Bauhaus and someone is sleeping. Not just nodding off here and there, but face down on the desk. First, if you're so tired you can't be interested in the Bauhaus, you should get medical attention. Second, I'd understand (sort of) if I were doing a lecture on the variations of black-letter typefaces, but the Bauhaus is filled with subversive behavior, radical shifts in thinking, World War I death and destruction, and Nazis marching into people's apartments and arresting them.

When someone sleeps through all of this, I'd like to (forgive the cursing here) smack the mother-fucking shit out of them. But we don't do that in polite society.

I compare this with a visit I made to the Bauhaus a couple of years ago with 12 of the most Cracker-Jack students I've known. For a designer, this was like returning to the source of all life. And these students were following an educational pedagogy based on the Bauhaus' approach. This, in extraordinarily simplified terms, the studio approach, working and making, using craft and design for industry. 

Of course, rather than ending our visit with an espresso and pastries, we honored the Bauhaus students with beer. Oddly, everyone managed to stay awake through the entire journey. 


Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The History of Joy

As some of you know, my most recent course on Lynda.com launched yesterday. This one, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History, was incredibly fun to make. I was challenged to create a course that would provide the basics of design history and make it interesting. I could have gone down the track of, "This is a poster by Jean Carlu in 1929. It has an umbrella. Next slide." But I'm interested in why Jean Carlu made this poster, what was happening culturally, and why it works.

I assume most people think about history as a horrible task, tainted by boring lectures on the War of 1812 in high school. So, how could I make this subject relevant and communicate my passion for the subject. No I don't jump up and down and get overly excited. I simply laid out the facts. The more you see, the larger your visual vocabulary adds to your design skills. It's as if writers were told to not bother reading Dickens or Twain. "Oh don't bother with those, they're old. Just read wikipedia. That's good enough for a writing education."

There's also the joy factor. We all share that same feeling of pleasure when we see something wonderful or discover a new idea. So I designed the course to explain what was happening politically and culturally and how that led to the choices made in design. Why did the Bauhaus designers reject decoration? Why did the Fillmore posters refer to Alice in Wonderland? Why did the Nazis barge into Jan Tschichold's apartment and arrest him and his wife?

Of course there is another version, the Vanity Fair course, that has all the secrets and juicy rumors. But that will need to wait until I'm older or can make up stuff and not get caught.

Stationery: spelled with an "e" for envelope

My friend, Kathy McCoy, recently asked if I had any Herbert Bayer images from his Colorado days. She checked with Lou Danziger who pointed out that we were the caretakers of his monumental slide archive of graphic design. After I pulled everything together, it was obvious that Bayer designed a lot of stationery, and I mean a lot.

The world is screaming insanely, "Print is dead, print is dead, the end is near!"  People may not be using letterhead for a casual note that can work on email, but they still use it in more formal situations. The good part of this is that clients want the best stationery with the options, not the down and dirty cheapest one. Now it really matters.

Bayer designed most of these at the Bauhaus and before he emigrated to the United States. The letterheads are all asymmetrical, use the golden section as a guide, and are designed for functionality. Since Modernism demanded that functional should be paramount, this makes sense.

When I design a letterhead I like to help the user also; add a short rule to delineate the fold, put a bullet where the date is typed, and guides that identify the margin.

Bayer takes this a little more seriously by identifying the location of every type of information. I'm certain that nobody tried to use too small of a margin or fail to line the date up with the type. I get the sense that this would have been a pretty serious infraction and all hell would break loose in the halls of the Bauhaus.

Sideways

Gan Hosaya, 1969, ad  

There are times when a project just looks bad, like dog crap. I slave over it endlessly, and then I realize all it needs is to be turned on its side or upside down. Voila, it works. That's the issue when you don't print anything out and only see it on a screen. Sure you can turn your screen upside down or turn it on its side, but that could result in dropping it. The easiest solution is to send a file to print and than flip that baby around in all directions. What was once banal and expected becomes avant-garde and unsettling.

I love work that is sideways or upside down. It gets away from the standard point of view that we have in everyday life which is straight on from about 5 or 6 feet tall. Miraculously, you can see a different view from above or below, or lying on the ground and seeing the world on its side. This is why God gave people bendable joints. Photography at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s took advantage of this ad-nauseum. It was as if everyone there was climbing up the walls and hanging from the balconies. But the images are wonderful.

Posters and ads with moving vehicles are especially adaptable to this technique. Gan Hosaya's 1969 poster for Yamaha is one of my absolute favorite pieces of design ever produced. Think how dull it might have been if he simply let the image be turned 90 degrees. So the next time you're out taking photos, climb up on a table and shoot everyone from above. You'll be asked to leave, but end up with a snappy photo that isn't the same head and shoulders of someone holding a drink.

 

Martin Munkasci, 1935

Diving at the Valley Baths, Brisbane, Queensland, 1938

Paul Rand, Apparel Arts cover

Herbert Matter, 1935

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Carl Ally Agency, ad, 1960s

Max Huber, 1957

Max Huber, 1948

Joseph Binder, Graphis magazine, 1948

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1926

On Being Plain

Every once in awhile, I get a hankerin’ to be taken seriously. I’ll see a critical theory article that deconstructs one of my friends’ work and think, “Maybe I should be doing that kind of work.” Envy is a terrible and pointless emotion. But then, I remember our mission. When we started AdamsMorioka in 1993, we wanted to go the opposite direction. There was so much desperate work then that screamed, “I’m serious! I have no sense of humor. I am only intended to be understood by a select group of intellectual theorists.” I wanted to be the Beach Boys, not Bauhaus (the band), Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Karen FinleySteven Speilberg, not Luis Buñuel. This doesn’t mean I'm anti-intellectual, or don't admire artists who push limits. I love things that are way out of the park. And I refuse to deny anyone the right to create whatever they desire. So, what does this mean?

Ed Fella said it best when he called my work American Pragmatism. It’s about being plain spoken and honest, not fancy and oblique. Maybe it’s because I'm from the West and can’t think differently. I'm interested in speaking to the broadest audience possible, making life a little better for them, and treating every other designer with respect and dignity. I'm not interested in excluding or demonizing others because they do work unlike mine. Everyone deserves to be celebrated and revered.

Now the funny part of this is that we both came out of a deeply theoretical education at CalArts. I can subvert, deconstruct, and pastiche with the best of them, but I do it with stealth. As long as the form is seductive, appealing, and aesthetic, I can pour in as much meaningor contradiction as needed. But, I'm human. When someone at a conference says, “You’re so funny. Everything you do is so cute.” This feels minimizing and I’m tempted to do that oblique and complex poster in the nude that nobody understands. Then I remember why I like plain and honest, something that has optimism and joy. So I leave you with these sentiments:

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” — Will Rogers

 “The world belongs to you as much as the next fellow. Don’t give it up.” — Rodgers and Hammerstein

 “T-shirts, cut-offs, and a pair of thongs. We've been having fun all summer long.” — Beach Boys

 “ET phone home.” —Steven Spielberg

The Shape of Air

There are not too many things in life that make me angry. I like to think I am fairly even. Those of you close to me can stop snickering. But, there are a couple of things that make me furious. I want to slug someone when I’m doing a lecture at school, and he or she is texting or working on the computer. I know they aren’t taking notes; they’re shopping or chatting with friends.  I hate people who drive with the seat so far forward that they are two inches from the steering wheel, and think 15 mph is too fast. And I really get mad when I suggest that a student takes time to look at the work of someone, and they don’t, and their project still sucks the next week.

When anyone is having trouble with shapes, I send them to look at A.M. Cassandre’s work. When I was in school, Lou Danziger did the same for me. I did take time to look and it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. A.M.Cassandre worked in Paris from the early 1920s until his death in 1968. His work took elements of Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco, and Bauhaus Modernism and molded them into a unique form. The posters look effortless and fluid, but they are held together with rigor and structure. He had a remarkable sense of scale. The small flock of birds at the waterline on the Normandie poster creates a heroic scale. His Dole Pineapple posters are as sensual as a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is his sense of shape that is genius. Liquid and solid, effortless and exact, the shapes create harmony and balance. So, if I suggest looking at Cassandre, the subtext is “Your shapes are awful.”

Images from the Louis Danziger Collection

Squirrel

This morning during an interview, I was asked, “Where do you find inspiration?” This is a common question, and I understand the curiosity, but it’s complicated. Like every other creative person, I’m inspired by a million tiny details every day. I know the correct answer is, “Well, I just can’t get enough of Alvin Lustig.” That doesn’t work for me. Not that I don’t love Lustig, but there are too many other influences daily.

My mind works much like the dog in Up. I’ll be choosing blue Pantone colors and then, “Squirrel,” I’m doing something else. Today while looking at blue PMS chips, I thought, “Blue Note,” and found myself reading the Blue Note Album Cover Art book. I’d forgotten how truly incredible every cover is. Reid Miles was the in-house designer at Blue Note and designed most of the covers. From 1955 to 1967, he combined minimal abstract forms with an intense color sensibility. While Miles is often associated with Bauhaus rigor, his covers are more closely related to Color Field and Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. I often tell people that “cool” is a terrible trap leading to desperate work and endless suffering. I admit, however, that Miles’ covers are cool—the good kind of cool.