November 6, 2009  |  Behind the Scenes, Design
Bauhaus: The Graphic Design Department Goes Back to School

Rendering of the title wall for Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity

In December 1938, hordes of visitors packed the opening of MoMA’s Bauhaus retrospective in the temporary galleries at 14 West Forty-ninth Street in Rockefeller Center. Guests followed painted footprints and abstract graphics on the floor guiding them through the show’s seven hundred items, while reading titles rendered in handsome pin-mounted condensed letterforms. The Bauhaus’s own graphic design and typography legend, Herbert Bayer came to New York to design the exhibition himself. And today, over seventy years later, it was both the Bauhaus and Bayer’s legacy that kept most of MoMA’s Department of Graphic Design awake at night, as we began to design the title wall for Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity.

When creating graphic design for an exhibition we can start in a variety of places. A particular color, the wall layout, or sometimes a typeface will give us a clue to the tone of the show. For a subject as vast and as influential as the Bauhaus, we had to start everywhere at once and create a range of ideas, from vintage to contemporary. Early on, an effort was made to distance ourselves from the Bauhaus’s clichés of color (the use of primaries), type (Bayer-inspired typefaces; see Bloomingdale’s Bags) and form (circles, squares, and triangles). Only after generating hundreds of alternatives and consuming huge amounts of coffee did we begin to stumble upon an appropriate vision for the 2009 show.


Early concepts for Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity

With the expert guidance of the show’s curators, Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, we were able to reduce our ideas down to a single concept, one that brought Bayer back to help design the exhibition once again, if only through his letterforms. It was Bayer’s idea for a universal lettering, an alphabet created using a limited set of pieces and eliminating the uppercase, that inspired us. Because Bayer’s design was never turned into a metal typeface, students who were inspired by its forms were forced to redraw the letters to fit their projects. Bayer himself redrew the alphabet many times, and excellent echoes are found in the work of Joost Schmidt, resulting in a rich variety of lettering.


Herbert Bayer Design for "universal" lettering. 1925. Harvard Art Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gift of the artist

We became, if only in fantasy, students of the Bauhaus last month, when we began to draw once again the forms made famous early in the last century. Using a condensed version and exaggerating the ascenders, we created the title to fit the wall, and a layout that fit the all-important grid.


Title design for Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity

Further inspired to represent an economy of materials and celebration of form, we created wall designs that simply outline each plane with a six-inch border of color. Modern typefaces designed by Hoefler & Fere-Jones were used throughout the show, but their details were tweaked to further create a balance between the original Bauhaus work and the legacy that continues to infuse contemporary graphic design.


Letterforms from Knockout typeface designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, altered slightly for Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity


what is your inhouse design department like? How many designers/how is it structured? Great work!!!

Ditto. It’d be interesting to hear what it’s like to work for the MoMA (doing design).

MoMA, what a great blog! Informative, visual + engaging. From concepting to letterform typography, dynamic color to atmospheric tone, I’m enchanted. @alanarenfro

I’m also interested in how many designers you have working on exhibition graphics, and how it is structured. Great job, you must have an amazing team there!

Lovely final wall design, but I am more interested in the entire process. One or more of your designers was quite intrigued by some very vibrant jewel tones and I am very interested in this as a re-interpretation of Bauhaus vs. the aforementioned “cliches of color” (primaries) as well as the elasticity/tension of the forms you were trying to expand upon. I appreciate what you have done with your rectangles. I would think that disregarding capitalization was an obvious choice as well, but that is merely an opinion. In regards to the stand-alone title design (not entire wall design), you might have thrown in a period of a very light grey at the end of your “bauhaus” just to incorporate some sort of circle; see also H. Bayer’s design for i & j. Obviously, in the final wall design, you successfully anchored and balanced the “bauhaus” in other ways and such an addition would have been overkill. Anyway, the more I look at the big picture, the more I enjoy it. Lovely!

Thanks for the comments & compliments! Our Graphic Design Department is structured like any graphic design firm, except we have one big account: The Museum of Modern Art. Its a great challenge and a lot of fun because we have such a variety of “clients” in the museum’s different departments (curatorial, education, marketing etc.). We are 6 full-time designers and create graphic design for exhibitions, advertising (print & online) and lots more.

We’ll be posting regularly here on a variety of graphic design-related subjects so stay tuned.

Presentation is important but it is the content of the show that matters most. The buzzword is Rethink.

Love the idea of brainstorming and coming down to one single concept! Museums have much to share explaining processes of work. We try to do so in our museum’s blog Thank you

I love typography & graphic design.

Visited NYC in September and was very inspired by the MoMA exhibits, wish I had visited the Bauhaus galleries as well.

Subscribed to Google Reader. Definitely looking forward to reading more Inside/Out!

Nik (@nQuo)

the use of that horrid 90s in style orange and that seemingly elongated and frilly typeface weakens the strength of the bauhaus memory from the get-go. at a second glance, the side next to the elevator looks like it was sponsored by louis vuitton or a chocolate company, whose box often uses the same colors.

I appreciate your willingness to share your process and open your studio up for critique via this blog. I also work in-house for a museum and am always curious to catch a glimpse of similar design studios. Looks like a lot of work and certainly a tough standard to live up to in a re-design.

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