On its 100th birthday, the Bauhaus, and its brand, may be stronger than ever. A synonym for streamlined and an arguably overused reference for modernity, the German art and design school, founded in 1919, has come to symbolize the forward-thinking strains of 20th-century modernism in a way its founding members could only dream of.
In the United States, one of the more fervent embraces of the Bauhaus transpired in Chicago in the 1930s, when a cadre of local industrialists believed that opening their own version of the iconic institution would turn the Windy City into an incubator for new industrial products.
The story of the New Bauhaus, as the short-lived Chicago school would be called upon opening in 1937, underscores the value of innovation in modern business, a familiar message in today’s age of Jony Ive, Yves Béhar, and James Dyson. However, the institution’s tumultuous first decade, which involved multiple changes in names, locations, and leadership, also highlighted the clash between design for the sake of creative exploration and the relentless demand for the next great consumer product.
Why Chicago’s business elite wanted their own Bauhaus
Chicago’s own chapter in the Bauhaus diaspora started with a business club, not creative visionaries. As Maggie Taft writes in Chicago Made Modern, the Chicago Association of Arts and Industries, founded in 1922 to promote the relationship between visual arts and commerce, sought a catalyst for change. While the midcentury boom in industrial design and consumer brands was still to come, these Midwest manufacturing leaders already knew that creating the next big trends in their respective industries required innovators and workers conversant in those ideas. From the start, the organization wanted to open a school to create a talent pipeline that would boost local commerce and industry.
By 1936, the association was about to realize its vision. After the roundtable decided to focus on teaching new designers woodworking and other trade craft, thoughts turned to the Third Annual Exposition of Contemporary Industrial Art, a 1931 exhibition that included work from the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Bauhaus talent seemed the best bet for success.
Executive director Norma Stahle drafted a letter to Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus founder and teacher who was about to begin teaching at Harvard, inviting him to come to Chicago and be part of the creation of a new center for learning modeled after the “best Industrial Art Schools in Europe.” Already ensconced in Cambridge, Gropius politely declined, but responded with another potential leader in mind. He told Stahle to seek out László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian émigré, then living in London, who was recognized as a pioneer in film, photography, and multimedia design, as well as one of the original teachers at the Bauhaus.
Stahle soon wrote Moholy-Nagy: “Plan design school on Bauhaus lines to open in fall. Marshall Field offers family Mansion Prairie Avenue. Stables to be converted into workshops. Doctor Gropious suggests your name as director. Are you interested?”
László Moholy-Nagy, an eccentric design visionary
László Moholy-Nagy was a “modernist so far ahead of his time he’s almost out of sight,” according to a 1943 Chicago Tribune article, which also described him as a man of average height, “dressed like a successful banker with an accent that’s hard to decipher.” When Moholy-Nagy received Stahle’s invitation, which he accepted, he was also a man without a home.
The Bauhaus alum had emigrated voluntarily from Germany in 1934, first to Amsterdam, and then London, to escape the threat posed by the Nazi regime, which shut down the school the year before. Moholy-Nagy would tell his wife, Sybil, that when he saw former Bauhaus students sporting Nazi uniforms during a 1936 return trip to Berlin, he felt that “everyone…was suddenly two persons. They had all split into an ethical and political self.”
Despite the trauma of fleeing, Moholy-Nagy was above all an idealist and a wildly creative designer and artist. One of the first to advocate for the use of photographic equipment in art, he was skilled in photography, print-making, sculpting, and industrial design, and was a firm believer in progress and new mediums. He thought anybody ignorant of photography was “illiterate in a changing world.”
He was also an engaging, entertaining, and occasionally eccentric teacher. “He never gave you a set of rules, or anything like that, he said just try something, get this machine, and see what you could do with that,” said Millie Goldsholl, a filmmaker and a former student of Moholy-Nagy’s, in a 2007 interview conducted by Chicago Film Archives. “It was an opportunity to spread your wings and see what happens.”
Moholy-Nagy loved Chicago, or at least liked it more than New York City. New York lacked “greeness,” he felt, and was both faddish and encroaching, with skyscrapers that were too castle-like. “There’s something incomplete about the city [of Chicago] and its people that fascinates me,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to urge one on to completion. Everything still seems possible.”
The Chicago Association of Arts and Industries promptly hired Moholy-Nagy and set him and the rest of the New Bauhaus up inside a mansion designed for retail kingpin Marshall Field, located on the city’s tony Prairie Avenue. The classic building was given a modernist addition, a concrete-and-steel cube that extended out of the building’s original living space.
It appeared to be a perfect metaphor for what the backers wanted to accomplish: grafting modernist ideas and innovations onto traditional businesses. But what it actually ended up being a symbol of is the mismatched pairing between an eccentric visionary and hidebound, traditional business interests.
A new vision for a new Bauhaus
The new design school opened on October 19, 1937, with classes taking place in Field’s “Victorian castle.” According to the book Chicago Makes Modern, Moholy-Nagy’s project for modernism can be best understood as “a method by which to approach both design work and daily living.”
As the teacher would outline in his posthumously published book Vision in Motion—which spoke of the “ruthless competitive system of capitalism” while hinting at advantages of a broad, cooperative system—this school supported experimentation and teaching the whole student, a spiritual descendant of the original Bauhaus’s “total work of art” concept. The cost was just $150 a semester.
“The old Bauhaus, an art university, established the principle that mass production of goods and modern architecture needed not only engineers but also artists with fresh mentality and exact information about old and new materials,” Moholy-Nagy wrote.
It was a philosophy of creative freedom, which translated into a very atypical educational experience. The initial teaching staff—which included painter and photographer György Kepes, Bauhaus alum Hin Bredendieck, as well as two University of Chicago professors, one of whom, Charles Morris, helped broaden the curriculum—didn’t assign grades.
Students took five semesters of workshop courses for a bachelor’s degree, with the first two courses focused strictly on exploring materials and shapes to make students “volume and space conscious.” During a speech at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in September of 1937, before the New Bauhaus’s opening, Moholy-Nagy hinted at a focus on new materials and processes.
It was possible to see how this workshop method, which ostensibly gave students exposure to cutting-edge materials and mindsets, offered a grounding for future product designers.
But the initial results were perhaps more bewildering than backers expected.
Vision in Motion featured extensive photos of student projects, corkscrewing pieces of wood and metals, fractal-shaped artwork, all looking extremely modern while showing little easily discernible industrial functionality. The first-year student exhibition was filled with abstract creations, including a scent machine that could combine six odors at will. Clarence Bulliet, a Chicago Daily News art critic, said the gadgets had “no useful purpose whatsoever,” and Time concurred, calling it an “exhibition of bewildering nameless objects.”
Reprimand, then rebirth as the School of Design
Critics and the public accepted the oddness, believing it to be part of the hyped Bauhaus process. The Chicago Association of Arts and Industries, however, did not, and promptly cut off Moholy-Nagy’s funding.
For Moholy-Nagy, who would take the association to court for back pay, the shutdown proved a temporary setback. After the initial closure, Walter Paepcke, an immigrant himself and owner of the Container Corporation of America, would step in and provide the school with funds to open up in a new location, with a new name, across town.
Head of a company that printed cardboard boxes for Procter & Gamble, Sears Roebuck, and General Electric, Paepcke had a job description that seemed antithetical to his passion for powerful, and practical, design. In an era before “design thinking” was a buzzword, Paepcke saw this approach as a key differentiator for industry, and became one of the most progressive CEOs in the country when it came to courting and engaging with modernist ideas and the avant-garde (he would later found the Aspen Ideas Festival). His company’s “Great Ideas of Western Man” ad campaign, a pairing of famous quotes and bold images, has become a textbook example of using bold graphic design to sell a bland product.
Paepcke would be a key ally and supporter of Moholy-Nagy’s educational project, becoming the main sponsor and soliciting donations from other members of the upper crust.
By the fall of 1939, the School of Design, with many of the same students and staff from the first iteration, opened at a new location at 247 E. Ontario Street, on the second floor of a former bakery. In addition to a second chance, Moholy-Nagy and his students were gaining wider recognition.
Designs from the New Bauhaus were included in the famed 1938 Bauhaus exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, including a “tactile chart” filled with strips of wood and tactile shapes, described as a “scenic railway for the senses.” The Chicago Bauhaus work was left out on an open table—not behind glass—like experiments begging to be touched. In contrast, when the Weimar Bauhaus students held their first exhibition, everything was polished, practical, and for sale.
Design goes to war
The School of Design in Chicago had enough support to keep afloat, but barely. To make ends meet, Moholy-Nagy forgoed a salary and worked on side projects during lunch breaks. Lerner, one of his prize photo students, recalls scouring pawn shops to locate used cameras to purchase for class.
Just as the School of Design was given time and space to find its rhythm, World War II, and the war effort, upset any sense of balance. Like many schools, the rush to enlist drained away students (and their tuition payments) as well as staff. Perhaps even more challenging for an industrial design school, key materials, especially metal, became expensive and rationed. Funders told Moholy-Nagy the school may not be viable in such an environment.
His solution to the crisis embraced the war effort, in his own creative fashion. The School of Design launched a three-point plan to utilize design to fight fascism on the home front. First, the school would develop wooden springs, creating an alternative to metal springs to conserve a key war material. Second, students would focus on large-scale camouflage, using design to help hide cities and strategic sites from enemy bombers. Finally, they would create a rehabilitation program for returning soldiers, using a series of sensory experiences to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress re-enter civilian life.
While clever, the plan never took hold, or really created any useful application. Students did create wooden “Victory Springs,” but at 40 cents a piece, they were nearly double the price of metal ones. The camouflage plans did gain a measure of support, as Moholy-Nagy was appointed to the mayor’s citywide team in charge of such activities. But the design professor overpromised and underdelivered. Plans to “conceal the vastness of Lake Michigan with simulated shore lines and floating islands” and hide the city’s colossal Merchandise Mart with “just a few dabs of paint” that would make it look like a forest from the air were never realized. A 1942 show of student work, “War Art,” featured simple pattern experiments and projects with zebra striping, work of limited utility in the Midwest city. A state report on the rehab plans expressed fascination at the methodology, stating that it “can be linked to psychoanalysis in that it reaches down into the subconscious,” but the projects were never attempted at scale.
The legacy of a Bauhaus experiment
Moholy-Nagy’s pivot couldn’t hide the fact that the school, while a hotbed for creativity, wasn’t strictly focused on creating viable, salable, commercial designs.
He tried to adapt to capitalism and commercialism, but to no avail. After he died of leukemia in 1946, his wife, Sibyl, a designer in her own right, gathered up student work, and found no saleable products.
Moholy-Nagy’s grand experiment in holistic education would continue without him, though altered and eventually renamed. Paepcke pushed to make the curriculum more career-focused and specialized. In 1949, the school was absorbed by the Illinois Institute of Technology, then the home of Mies van der Rohe, after years of effort by Paepcke to get other Chicago schools to take interest. It would become the first school in the country to offer a doctorate in design.
It would be easy to call Moholy-Nagy’s tenure an interesting failure; he certainly wasn’t able to meet the expectations of Midwestern businessmen looking for the next top seller. The professor’s view on education was much the same as the way he felt about design; he encouraged freedom and exploration, as opposed to fixed rules and following fads. He hated the idea of streamlining, which he likened to “the brown gravy at cheap restaurants,” something that was poured over everything.
While unorthodox, Moholy-Nagy’s unique personality and passion left an important legacy. Alumni of the school would later start major photo programs across the nation. A generation of artists and designers in Chicago would cherish the Hungarian’s full-hearted embrace of experimentation and creativity, like Morton and Millie Goldsholl, famous filmmakers and marketing experts who designed logos for Motorola and Vienna Beef; Nathan Lerner, a world-famous photographer who discovered the work of self-taught artist Henry Darger; and Charles Niedringhaus, who developed a process for making bent-plywood chairs in the ‘40s.
After Moholy-Nagy’s death, the teaching staff welcomed many famous thinkers who would make their mark on Chicago and the world, including modernist architect George Keck, an expert in passive solar design; sustainability pioneer and grandfather of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller (Chicago students helped him create prototypes in the late ’40s); and designer Serge Chermayeff, father of famed branding expert Ivan Chermayeff.
In the end, Moholy-Nagy didn’t focus on creating physical products; he focused on a philosophy, a way of thinking and approaching design problems. He envisioned a school that would educate the contemporary creator as an “integrator, the new designer able to re-evaluate human needs warped by machine civilization.” In a world of specialists and sellouts, Moholy-Nagy, and the short-lived New Bauhaus, wanted to help men and women become artists and designers who realized their creative potential. In that sense, a strong thread ran between Chicago and the vision of the original Bauhaus.