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.