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