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A his­to­ry of mod­ern design — from Bauhaus to Dieter Rams


Alex Mac­Don­ald

The Bauhaus was an idea. Only an idea has the pow­er to dis­sem­i­nate itself so wide­ly.

— Mies van der Rohe, Third and Last Direc­tor of the Bauhaus

We’re called Umlaut. It’s a Ger­man word. More specif­i­cal­ly, it’s a Ger­man typo­graph­ic word. Even more specif­i­cal­ly, it’s those two dots that go above cer­tain vow­els. That was­n’t by acci­dent. We have big love for the Ger­man design­ers who basi­cal­ly invent­ed our craft and how their work and ideas still shape design today.

Bauhaus design’s impact on today’s graph­ics is hard to over­es­ti­mate. Asso­ci­at­ed with pri­ma­ry colours, thick straight lines slash­ing across white space, and that emphat­i­cal­ly mod­ern tril­o­gy of the cir­cle, tri­an­gle and square, the movement’s lega­cy is not lost on us here at Umlaut.

Bauhaus as a school of thought

The Bauhaus was not just a phys­i­cal col­lege, it man­i­fest­ed into a school of thought that was syn­ony­mous with the free-spir­it­ed, the avant-garde. Women at Bauhaus wore cropped hair and were per­mit­ted into met­al work­shops. Peo­ple wrote in low caps. 

There was a sense of play in every­thing they did at the Bauhaus – which is very clear in the pho­tographs of the Bauhaus par­ties, which became so pop­u­lar that they were even writ­ten about in the press active­ly. There was light­ness amongst the teach­ers and stu­dents. All sym­bol­is­ing a depar­ture from tra­di­tion­al views of man­ner and eti­quette as well. 

We should point out that there were objec­tive­ly some fair­ly hard left under­pin­nings at the school. Its broad out­look was that the work­ing class­es would chan­nel crafts­man­ship, art and archi­tec­ture to col­lec­tive­ly improve their environment. 

Bauhaus was about design for every­one, which didn’t sit bril­liant­ly with the Nazis, who con­sid­ered it to be degen­er­ate” and root­ed in Bol­she­vism”. Ulti­mate­ly, though, there was a real non-elit­ist phi­los­o­phy of inclu­sion and cre­ative free­dom, two things we val­ue immense­ly at Umlaut.

Bauhaus, with its inno­v­a­tive beliefs and lib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy, soon became a vic­tim of its suc­cess. By the 1930s, the art school had cap­tured the atten­tion of the Nazis and was shut­tered. Its founders, fear­ing ret­ri­bu­tion, fled first to the UK, and then on to the US.

Despite this, Bauhaus — and its prin­ci­ples — lived on and has shaped the approach of artists, man­u­fac­tur­ers (and even singers), such as Dieter Rams (we’ll get onto him lat­er), Frank Lloyd-Wright, Jon­ny Ive, and yes, even Kanye West.

Bauhaus every week…day

The Bauhaus has influ­enced every­thing, from graph­ic design to fur­ni­ture. With its empha­sis on func­tion over form, Bauhaus, the pio­neers of the min­i­mal­ism move­ment, which remains one of the most promi­nent styles to this day, assist­ed the design com­mu­ni­ty in mov­ing away from the elab­o­rate cre­ations of the ear­ly 20th century.

We can also see Bauhaus influ­ences in oth­er pop­u­lar forms, such as Scan­di­na­vian, indus­tri­al, and mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ern, show­ing how wide­ly the school’s ideas have been adopt­ed. This influ­ence has per­me­at­ed the design world so thor­ough­ly that designs that were pre­vi­ous­ly unique and spec­tac­u­lar are now so com­mon­place that we might miss them if we don’t stop and take a clos­er look.

Every type of mod­ern design that we use today — min­i­mal­ism, indus­tri­al design, Scan­di, max­i­mal­ism, bru­tal­ism — all descend­ed from the Bauhaus move­ment, much like every type of elec­tron­ic music evolved from disco.

The Bauhaus school gave rise to what is now known as the clas­sic mod­ern aes­thet­ic, which has since entered every field of the arts, includ­ing tex­tiles, fash­ion, inte­ri­or design, and graph­ic design. One of the main tenets of the school was that the con­nec­tion between the teacher and the stu­dent was a col­lab­o­ra­tive one and that at the end of the day, it was all about achiev­ing a shared objective.

Ich bin ein Berliner

From indus­tri­al to graph­ic design, Ger­many’s diverse cre­ative cul­ture is both for­ward-think­ing and mind­ful of the nation’s rich her­itage. Per­haps the mul­ti­fac­eted lega­cy of Bauhaus best cap­tures the diver­si­ty of design in Germany.

You must either inte­grate it into your work as a design­er or cope with it. There is no get­ting around the fact that you need to have a mind­set when it comes to the Bauhaus. You are taught to design hon­est­ly and to con­cen­trate on the essen­tials from the very beginning.

The cap­i­tal of Berlin remains to this day, a shin­ing bea­con of bohemi­an free­dom and lib­er­al­ism (indi­vid­ual rights, equal­i­ty etc.). This trans­lates beau­ti­ful­ly through its indus­tri­al design – the country’s most famous export. Ger­many also has a strong his­to­ry of graph­ic design, with a pro­lif­er­a­tion after the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion in the 18th century. 

It’s a his­to­ry that has inevitably dark­er stretch­es — dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion, graph­ic design, under the hate­ful eye of Joseph Goebbels as Reichsmin­is­ter of Pub­lic Enlight­en­ment (if you say so…) and Pro­pa­gan­da, was used as a pro­pa­gan­da tool and some of the country’s design­ers pro­duced work for the state. Lud­wig Hohlwein, for exam­ple, worked for auto­mo­bile com­pa­nies like Audi before col­lab­o­rat­ing with Goebbels on Nazi propaganda. 

The ADGB Trade Union School, a zigzag­ging com­plex of brick, steel, and glass sur­round­ed by wood­lands and the auto­bahn, is just one exam­ple of the abun­dance of Bauhaus archi­tec­ture in Berlin. You can take a tour of Berlin’s most well-known Bauhaus struc­tures to observe how they impact­ed the city’s over­all design.

How did Bauhaus fos­ter Graph­ic Design?

The min­i­mal­ist design aes­thet­ic of the Bauhaus helped lay the ground­work for con­tem­po­rary graph­ic design since the artists there were so recep­tive to new media and meth­ods of cre­at­ing art. Mod­ern graph­ic design ideas, colour the­o­ry, and the usage of type­face design were all impact­ed by Bauhaus.

Dig­i­talised Bauhaus Typefaces

The devel­op­ment of new type­faces with addi­tion­al adorn­ment that make them usable and acces­si­ble for usage in a vari­ety of print media and sig­nage was great­ly influ­enced by the Bauhaus move­ment. Some of these fonts were mere­ly pro­to­types that were nev­er released. Many graph­ic design­ers have dig­i­talised these fonts in the mod­ern era. For instance, Flavia Zim­bar­di redesigned the Josch­mi type­face after being influ­enced by Bauhaus typog­ra­ph­er Joost Schmidt.

Geo­met­ric Shapes

Because of their empha­sis on geom­e­try and shape psy­chol­o­gy, we can clear­ly under­stand the usage of geo­met­ric forms in some Bauhaus poster designs. This atten­tion to the study of shapes has inspired con­tem­po­rary graph­ic design and encour­aged a more min­i­mal­ist aes­thet­ic that places a greater empha­sis on shapes and their under­ly­ing sym­bol­ic mean­ings, result­ing in more aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing design lay­outs. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary meth­ods used by the Bauhaus artists and their empha­sis on the pur­pose of graph­ic ele­ments made them way beyond their time.

Total Design

You may have heard of the total foot­ball’ of the Nether­lands, but what about the total design’ of Ger­many? Bauhaus teach­ings were con­cerned with giv­ing prac­ti­cal craft skills such as inte­ri­or design, archi­tec­ture, tex­tiles, and wood­work the same sort of sta­tus as fine art. It also saw tech­nol­o­gy as a great enabler.

A fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of the core cur­ricu­lum and a place for stu­dents to start was design and colour the­o­ry, mate­ri­als, and method. In the con­cept of total” art or design, the Bauhaus design prin­ci­ples were eas­i­ly applied to any sort of design with­in the school, often in uni­son. We also embrace this har­mo­nious mar­riage of tech and human cre­ativ­i­ty, using them to com­ple­ment and enhance each oth­er, rather than detract. 

The OGs of Graph­ic Design

While Wal­ter Gropius might have been the guy who pio­neered the Bauhaus, Joost Schmidt pro­duced what is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most recog­nised Bauhaus image for a Bauhaus exhi­bi­tion in 1923 when still a stu­dent. It incor­po­rat­ed the Bauhaus logo cre­at­ed by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922 and dis­played func­tion­al hall­marks but was also high­ly exper­i­men­tal and eye-catching. 

Source: MOMA

Schlemmer’s logo depicts a fig­ure, or a face, which is delib­er­ate­ly ubiq­ui­tous, impas­sive and gener­ic. His work fre­quent­ly fea­tured fig­ures that com­bined a geo­met­ri­cal and human qual­i­ty. Bal­let, opera, and the­atre were among the things that inter­est­ed Schlem­mer. This meant that he engaged in three-dimen­sion­al (3D) design work and teach­ing. His Tri­adis­ches Bal­lett, in which Schlem­mer designed all the ele­ments — includ­ing the posters, cos­tumes, music, and light­ing — famous­ly cap­tured these disciplines.

Enter Dieter Rams in 1955, today regard­ed as the god­fa­ther of design, who joined Braun, one of the first Ger­man con­sumer goods cor­po­ra­tions. He trans­formed the field of indus­tri­al design. His inno­va­tions were rev­o­lu­tion­ary at the time and changed our per­cep­tions of what things should look like and how they should func­tion. All of them still feel mod­ern now.

Even though they were cre­at­ed ages ago, they are still regard­ed as con­tem­po­rary works of indus­tri­al design. Take a look at the typo­graph­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar and time­less logos of Braun and the Bauhaus. Con­sid­er the ear­ly Braun Ate­lier 1 radio made of white met­al and wood, as well as the TG1000 reel-to-reel tape recorder, both of which were cre­at­ed by Dieter Rams.

Each of these qual­i­ties orig­i­nat­ed in the Bauhaus and was repur­posed for a new era using geo­met­ric shapes, a lack of excess, and an obvi­ous­ness of use that was so min­i­mal as to hard­ly be designed at all. The use of geo­met­ric and sim­ple shapes in design remains extreme­ly pop­u­lar today. Rams’ famous max­im, less, but bet­ter” could not ring truer as a mantra for the design team at Umlaut.

From the Braun table­top radio to the Oral‑B tooth­brush, Rams’ designs are still in use today not just in Ger­many but also all over the world. His lega­cy of sim­ple, time­less design has long been regard­ed as the gold stan­dard in design. For instance, the Rams-designed LE Braun speak­er was updat­ed and rein­tro­duced just a few years ago.

The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Push for­ward again to the next decade and we reach Jon­ny Ive, the ex-Chief Design Offi­cer at Apple. After strik­ing up a rela­tion­ship with CEO Steve Jobs, he set to work rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing what com­put­ers looked like and how they worked.

This led to the inven­tion of the smart­phone. Its cur­rent form — that but­ton­less sheet of glass — is a mod­ern rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Dieter Rams’s work at Braun (the click-wheel, the cal­cu­la­tor app, and the very shape of the iPhone itself, all take influ­ence from Rams’s work).

Steve Jobs had many endur­ing quotes, but one, Design isn’t just how some­thing looks, it’s how it works,” is Form fol­lows func­tion” for a new era.

There’s a direct line between the the­o­rists of the Bauhaus in 1920 and Apple — a com­pa­ny many con­sid­er the epit­o­me of good design — more than 100 years later.

Why we live and breathe Bauhaus 

The influ­ence of Bauhaus was pro­found. They had an impact on every­thing, from the tallest build­ings in Amer­i­ca to fonts to black, white, and grey colour schemes with a sin­gle red or yel­low wall. How would any Amer­i­can metrop­o­lis feel with­out its impos­ing steel and glass sky­scrap­ers? Can you even envi­sion a house entire­ly made up of antiques?

From design stu­dios to tech start-ups, the dis­rup­tors of the cor­poc­ra­cies of today, are the chil­dren of the pro­to­typ­i­cal Bauhaus school. At Umlaut, we are first and fore­most artists, and at the same time, if inno­va­tion comes along, we use it. The two aren’t mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, in fact, quite the opposite.

On the one hand, it’s shock­ing that despite our best efforts to rein­vent our­selves, we’ve nev­er been able to come up with a fresh vision of what new looks like or how it func­tions. Bauhaus still pre­vails with its eter­nal phi­los­o­phy and set of prin­ci­ples for design, and for life.

You could say that design in its cur­rent form con­tin­ues because it is sim­ply how things ought to be, giv­en that Bauhaus ideals have per­sist­ed for so long prac­ti­cal­ly unchanged — much like math­e­mat­ics or sci­ence. Why fix it if it isn’t bro­ken – and if Bauhaus is one thing, it cer­tain­ly isn’t broken.

Our mod­ern lives are changed by the objects we have around us whether by choice or by chance, by design or deter­min­ism. Because of what our shiny pre­cious totems can do for us and how they influ­ence our lives, we believe that we are dif­fer­ent from the gen­er­a­tions that came before us.

And yet, with­out the Bauhaus move­ment, none of what we have now would be imag­in­able. Every­thing we have today is thanks to the idea that, with enough thought, any­thing can be both beau­ti­ful and use­ful. So yeah, that’s why we called our­selves Umlaut…

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