Bauhaus Movement: Art & Typography

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Though the Bauhaus is perhaps best known for its influence on areas like architecture and furniture design, artists of all kinds were associated with the school. This lesson will discuss the relationship between Bauhaus typography and fine art.

Bauhaus Font Style

If you've ever scrolled through the list of fonts available to use in programs like Microsoft Word, you've probably seen one called Bauhaus. Despite the name, it's only inspired by Bauhaus aesthetics. The real Bauhaus typography was created by designers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer. The Universal font that Bayer designed exemplifies the Bauhaus' minimalist style - it only uses lower-case letters, and their shapes are simplified.

The Universal Font by Bayer
The Universal Font by Bayer

The Bauhaus emphasized practicality, and the school popularized sans-serif typographical designs like the Universal font, which are meant to be clear, readable, and versatile. Serifs are small ornaments that stick off of letters in some fonts (think Times New Roman or Courier), while sans-serif fonts (think Arial or Helvetica) do away with these. The reduction of ornamentation and the emphasis on simplicity that these fonts feature were integral principles of the Bauhaus' approach to design. While this might not seem like a big deal today, when hundreds of fonts are available with just the click of a button, the shift to sans-serif was a radical move in the heyday of the Bauhaus.

Experiments with Layout and Composition

Bauhaus typographers also experimented with text layout, the way words are organized on a page or other surface. The school's emphasis on modern styles and innovation meant that the designers weren't satisfied just printing text traditionally, in horizontal rows. They often set text at angles or asymmetrically for a dynamic emphasis, and experimented with incorporated bars, boxes, and geometric shapes to create bold, attention-grabbing designs.

These designs show the influence of artists like Jan Tschichold and El Lissitzky. Though not officially part of the Bauhaus, they visited and worked very closely with the school's artists, so that both sides were mutually influenced. Tschichold's The New Typography, one of the most important books on the topic, was published in 1927, after the artist was first inspired by Bauhaus exhibitions. Lissitzky utilized angular, Bauhaus-like typographical designs for his Soviet posters and other graphic works, and shared his approach with his fellow artists at the school.

Poster by El Lissitzky, 1919
Poster by El Lissitky, 1919

The abstract, minimalist style exemplified by Bauhaus typography is definitely evident in fine art produced by the school's painters and sculptors as well, including Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks, and Oskar Schlemmer. Wassily Kandinsky, one of the longest-serving teachers at the school, was instrumental in the development of abstract painting. His works from the first two decades of the twentieth century typically show flowing, organic forms. While working at the Bauhaus, however, Kandinsky's paintings increasingly used stark, geometric forms and angular compositions (the way forms are arranged in an image, equivalent to textual layout). His painting On White II (1923), for instance, prominently features diagonal lines that recall those on posters by Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy.

Kandinsky, On White II
Kandinsky, On White II

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