Founding an American Bauhaus

A New Bauhaus for a New World

By IIT Institute of Design

The New Bauhaus: Course Curriculum (1936/1937) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

'Along lines Bauhaus'

In 1937, Norma K. Stahle wrote to former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, asking him to open a new design school “along lines Bauhaus.” Having fled Nazi Germany, Gropius was preparing to start teaching at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He recommended fellow Bauhäusler László Moholy-Nagy for the role.

The New Bauhaus (1936/1937) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

As evidenced in the school’s first official brochure, Gropius himself bestowed the title of “The New Bauhaus” upon the new school. Gropius wrote that Moholy-Nagy—who came to be known as simply Moholy in Chicago—would “continue and extend the best Bauhaus tradition.”

According to Chicago historian Thomas Dyja, this passing of the torch was underscored by the decision to set the school’s name in Herbert Bayer’s original typeface, as seen on the façade of the Weimar Bauhaus. As Dyja writes in The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream: “The name ‘new bauhaus’ [has] always been set in all-lowercase sans serif, a direct link to the Weimar original.”

The New Bauhaus: Course Curriculum (1936/1937) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

The newly formed school (today known as the IIT Institute of Design, or ID) adopted the original Bauhaus emblem as its own visual brand, signaling that the German design school had sanctioned an American corollary.

Americans were eager to align themselves with the progressive Bauhaus, and Chicago’s industrial titans, most notably Walter Paepcke (founder and CEO of the Container Corporation of America), saw commercial opportunities in a Bauhaus-branded arts school—not to mention a talent pipeline for Chicago’s future workforce.

With just four months to open the school, Moholy did not attempt to reinvent the Bauhaus wheel, nor did he drastically deviate from the original school’s core competencies.

In this institutional brochure, he appropriated Gropius’s concentric ring-based curriculum. What was termed a “preliminary” course in Gropius’s model (Vorkurs in German) would later become the “foundation” course in Moholy’s. Foundation has remained a fixture throughout ID's 80-year history.

The New Bauhaus Marshall Field Mansion (1937/1939) by Herbert MatterIIT Institute of Design

Originally located in Marshall Field's unused 1905 South Prairie Avenue mansion, The New Bauhaus opened its doors on October 18, 1937.

The school’s debut was anything but smooth, as Moholy had difficulty securing both students and faculty.

The New Bauhaus: American School of Design (1936/1937) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

Hin Bredendieck and György Kepes, two fellow former Bauhaus teachers, eventually signed on. The prominent art curator James Johnson Sweeney pulled out at the last minute, while the preeminent midwestern architect Frank Lloyd Wright flatly declined, having recently created his Taliesin Fellowship.

American photographer Henry Holmes Smith and Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko arrived just ten days before the school’s scheduled opening.

The Institute of Design Foundation Course (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Once the school was operational, Moholy began to shape the original Bauhaus curriculum to suit his purposes. Gone were the craft-based distinctions that helped enforce gendered segregation and discrimination in the German workshops.

Under Moholy’s model, “the Institute changed the old Bauhaus tradition of segregated crafts (for metal, wood, glass, stone, fiber, etc.) and set up only three departments: architecture, product design, and light workshop (advertising arts).”

Moholy emphasized emotional freedom and technical experimentation. He intended to challenge his pupils’ creativity and imaginations.

Lecture at The New Bauhaus (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

In addition to the school’s degree-granting programs, Moholy developed extracurricular activities, including evening programming, children’s classes, and lecture series. These featured the world’s leading design talent, including Ray and Charles Eames, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Fernand Léger, and Paul Rand.

Although events were well attended, the school struggled financially. At least three professors taught pro bono. By 1938, the school was facing insolvency, with its former champion, Norma Stahle, plotting Moholy’s removal.

New Approach to Design (1937/1946) by St. Louis Post-DispatchIIT Institute of Design

But Moholy was a savvy marketer and deft salesman. “I have to be the advertisement,” Moholy told his first wife, Sibyl. Indeed, he kept the school afloat by garnering consistent press coverage—exemplified by this St. Louis Post cover story—and leaning on the right people at the right times.

Gropius would come to the rescue on more than one occasion. He featured student work from The New Bauhaus in his 1938 Bauhaus show at the Museum of Modern Art, cementing the connection between Chicago and Dessau. Moholy’s other lifeline was the enduring generosity of Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth Nitze, whose deep pockets would become the school’s most reliable bankroll.

László Moholy-Nagy Teaching at The New Bauhaus (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

In spite of stakeholder doubts about his ability to lead the school to profitability, Moholy enjoyed the unyielding support and adulation of his students, who dubbed him “Holy Moholy.”

As recounted by former student Richard Filipowski: “At the bottom of the infinite faith we had in Moholy was the fact that he never criticized the work of a student in terms of good or bad.” Instead, he evaluated work by discerning why an approach or execution did or did not work. We continue to apply this approach to critique—unique in Moholy’s time—at today's IIT Institute of Design (ID).

The New Bauhaus Studio (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

'Any person of good repute'

Widening opportunities for creative expression

Students at The New Bauhaus worked industriously in a multidisciplinary setting, emulating Bauhaus practices—including paper cutting and other material studies—all without a defined end goal.

Teacher György Kepes recalls this as characteristic of Moholy’s educational approach, stating, “The school was not really clearly defined in its targets.”

While this approach facilitated discovery, it proved a tremendous liability to Moholy as an administrator. Even Paepcke voiced his frustrations, telling Moholy, “Everyone expects you to be a leader, educator, and creative artist, not an individual doer of a thousand miscellaneous and unimportant duties.”

New Bauhaus Students Working on Paper Prototypes (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Nathan Lerner, a former student who went on to become a celebrated photographer, explains the upshot of Moholy’s perplexing teaching style:

“We were given strange exercises: picking up objects, feeling them, then drawing them; cutting and folding paper; shaping blocks of wood until we liked how they felt. This was all very mysterious and confusing until we realized that the objects and images we made were not to be judged by faculty but were meant to reveal what was happening to us, what we were absorbing, how we were growing.”

New Bauhaus Student Working on Paper Prototypes (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Despite Gropius’s claim in his Bauhaus manifesto that the original Bauhaus welcomed “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex,” women often found themselves both maligned and marginalized there.

According to design critic and historian Alice Rawsthorn, Moholy “ensured that female students were given greater freedom” and personally saw to the placement of the first woman, Marianne Brandt, in the metal workshop at Weimar. At The New Bauhaus, women were welcome and comprised a large contingent of the student population.

Two New Bauhaus Students Working on Paper Prototypes (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

African American students were also welcome at The New Bauhaus, in defiance of US segregation. It appears that Moholy understood “any person of good repute” to be inclusive of all men and women, regardless of race.

“Everyone is talented” was Moholy’s common refrain. He expounded:

“Never should a judgment be made about the student before he has had ample chance to shed depressing clichés. The school tries to free the student, by unexpected outlets.”

Wiremesh Pillow, Light Modulator (1941/1941) by Georgianna Green, IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

An experimental education

Approaching diverse media with fresh insights.

Like the city of Chicago itself, in which Moholy felt “everything seems still possible,” photography was a medium rife with possibility. This fit squarely within his experimental objectives.

“Since its working rules have not yet been frozen into unalterable dogmas,” Moholy wrote, “it has experimental potentialities. Moreover, by analogy, one may find clues, may approach other media with fresh insight.”

Light Modulator (Light on Dark) (1937/1946) by Attr. L. Cuneo, IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Moholy sought to break down photography into its composite elements in order to articulate different types of vision: abstract seeing, exact seeing, rapid seeing, slow seeing, intensified seeing, penetrative seeing, simultaneous seeing, and distorted seeing.

Building on Moholy’s approach, the school would later become one of the most respected photography programs in the country.

Minicam Magazine (Vol. 3, No. 7): Make a Light Modulator (1940/1940) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

With its clear ties to photography, no exercise occupied greater pedagogical importance for Moholy than light modulation.

According to Thomas Dyja, “László Moholy-Nagy loved light. He loved to see it move.”

Light modulation was the means by which students were able to directly manipulate, shape, and experiment with light as a “raw material”—through deflection, reflection, perforation, and other forms of intervention.

Dictionary of the Light Modulator (1946/1946) by Jean Kendall, IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Initially, Moholy encouraged students to construct light modulators out of paper. By isolating the cause and effect of design decisions, students developed foresight into the cascading consequences of strategic intervention: “Every addition, every variation will change the modulating qualities.”

In advanced workshops, students would engage other media as light modulators.

“When a sculpture is made in the modeling workshop," Moholy explained, "the same study is used in the photo studio to serve as a study for light and shape definition. [Thus] the student gains a comprehensive understanding of the single object.”

New Bauhaus Student Working on Model (20th Century) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Of the school’s three concentrations (light, architecture, and product), the product department was perhaps the least self-contained, often overlapping with the half-dozen “sub-concentrations”: weaving, photography, motion pictures, painting, and sculpture.

Such contact was by design. “The institute is a transparent organization,” Moholy would explain of the flat structure he created. “The ‘workshops’ are in constant touch with each other.”

New Bauhaus Student Working on Sculpture (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Moholy referred to The New Bauhaus as an "institute" early on. He also considered naming it “The School of Light,” emblematic of the strands of esoteric mysticism that found safe haven within the original Bauhaus.

He used the practice of photography to engage light as a malleable material and taught sculpture as a means of manipulating volume.

Student Working on Plaster Model (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Here, a student is shown developing a plaster model in pursuit of understanding modeled (hollowed-out) volumetric modulation, one of the five stages of volumetric modulation Moholy identified:

1. Blocked (solid)

2. Modeled (hollowed out)

3. Perforated (bored through)

4. Equipoised (suspended)

5. Kinetic (moving)

Moholy saw the sequential process as meaningful, with each stage representing a subsequent “freeing of material from its weight; a development from mass to motion.”

New Bauhaus Students Working on Suspended Sculpture (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Equipoised (suspended) hovering, shown here, is the fourth means of volumetric manipulation. By divorcing sculpture from its grounded base, Moholy contended, one could achieve pure “relationships of material and volume.”

New Bauhaus Student Beatrice Takeuchi Working with Compressed Air (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

In pursuit of new formal possibilities, Moholy devised contraptions to challenge students’ preconceptions.

Here, student Beatrice Takeuchi utilizes compressed air to create an equipoised sculpture untethered from the ground. She recounted the experience to archivist Catherine Bruck:

“Moholy had made a contraption: a plywood board with a cut-out hole through which he handheld a rubber hose attached to a tank of compressed air. He would direct the air hose under objects which would be suspended or dancing in the air with no visible means of support, thus a new kind of sculpture.”

László Moholy-Nagy with Hand Sculpture (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

An early expression of the human-centered design principles so important to ID’s contemporary educational approach, hand sculptures facilitated the discovery of different forms, materials, textures, and weights agreeable to the human hand.

Student Nolan Rhoades used his hand sculpture to inform a prototype of a plastic telephone he designed in 1941, which Moholy praised as exemplary of the “practical application of the hand sculpture.”

Space Articulation (1937/1946) by Barbara Jeannaire, IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

At The New Bauhaus, architectural coursework and curricula were geared toward communal and environmental space design and grounded in the study of primitive shelters, modern materials, space, and volumetric properties.

The work shown here, by student Barbara Jeannaire, exemplifies Moholy’s idiosyncratic view of architecture, which continued to narrow after he got word of Mies van der Rohe’s impending arrival.

(In 1938, Mies arrived in Chicago to design the Illinois Institute of Technology campus and helm its architecture program. The New Bauhaus became part of Illinois Tech in 1949.)

Bauhaus Building Curriculum (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Thus Moholy removed architecture from the position of central importance it occupied under Gropius and Mies, directors of the original Bauhaus.

Instead, Moholy emphasized choice elements of architectural practice that resonated with his pedagogical objectives. In his words, “all specialized students sit together in the architectural department where the basic elements of architecture, as the common denominator of all planning, are taught.”

Typographical Experiment (1937/1946) by György KepesIIT Institute of Design

György Kepes worked closely with Moholy and shared his pedagogical outlook. He refined many of his own ideas about design theory, form vis-à-vis function, and what he called the “education of vision” while he was in Chicago.

As head of the “Light and Color” department, Kepes focused on two- and three-dimensional graphics, including what was known as the “advertising arts.”

This typographical experiment is an artifact of his time at The New Bauhaus.

Buckminster Fuller (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Adjunct professor Buckminster Fuller, or “Bucky,” as he was known by students and faculty, treated his position as an extension of his multidisciplinary practice.

Calling himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” Fuller taught sprawling seminars that addressed global problems surrounding housing, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty—the kind of problems ID continues to address today.

In collaboration with students, Fuller developed two notable term projects: a water-cleansing project for the City of Chicago and mass-manufactured affordable housing.

New Bauhaus Student Working on Tetrahedron-based Structure (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Of ongoing interest to Fuller was the principle of tensegrity, in which isolated components are arranged in such a way that the compressed elements do not touch, delineating what he would call a “spatial system.”

To better understand the concept and explore its potential applications, Fuller’s students built towering structures using tetrahedral arrangements composed of rods of uniform length.

New Bauhaus Students Working in Sculpture Studio (1937/1946) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Over the years, the completed structures would become semipermanent fixtures of the school studio.

Women's Apparel Store (1942/1942) by László Moholy-Nagy & Robert Bruce TagueIIT Institute of Design

The prospect of professionalization

Finding a market for 'bewildering nameless objects.'

Though The New Bauhaus grew out of an expectation that it would train design talent to strengthen Chicago’s competitive edge, Moholy deemphasized the importance of commercial partnerships, which he felt were more suitable for graduate level work.

“From time to time,” Moholy explained, “commercial orders [...] are accepted. In the course of such work the student gains certain practical understanding. Emphasis on such tasks, however, would be undesirable to the overall teaching plan.”

Cellulose Acetate Packaging for Vita-Bild (1940/1940) by László Moholy-NagyIIT Institute of Design

Yet the school did occasionally demonstrate the commercial applications of its experiments. Models became the basis for various industrial products. And geometric sculptural arrangements informed package designs, like the vitamin package shown here, which Moholy created.

Not everyone was convinced about the viability of these offerings. After visiting the student shows, Chicago Daily News art critic Clarence Bulliet classified the work as having “no useful purpose whatsoever.” Time magazine agreed, characterizing the exhibition as featuring “bewildering nameless objects.”

Paperboard Goes To War: Container Corporation of America (1942/1942) by György KepesIIT Institute of Design

After the outbreak of World War II, supplies were rationed, and the school, like many others, realigned its objectives to support the war effort. This Kepes-designed brochure was created for the school’s perennial sponsor, the Container Corporation of America. It documented how efficient packaging helped supply US troops with much-needed goods, including munitions.

Kepes and Moholy were also conscripted into a nationwide effort to design camouflage-based solutions for the US Army. Moholy even devised plans to “conceal the vastness of Lake Michigan with simulated shore lines and floating islands,” though the design was never realized.

Institute of Design Catalogue (1947/1955) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

In 1946, Moholy died from leukemia. Rudderless without Moholy, the school once again was at risk of insolvency. Walter Paepcke, the school’s original benefactor, took the reins and tried to pivot the school into a career-focused technical institution by drumming up interest in an acquisition among neighboring universities.

With Serge Chermayeff serving as interim director, the school’s board engineered the acquisition by the Illinois Institute of Technology. The New Bauhaus was officially renamed the Institute of Design, and a six-year search for Moholy’s replacement began.

Cartoon Sketch (1947/1955) by Mike Traun, IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Students, frustrated with cultural transformation and weary at the prospect of “professionalization,” satirized the situation relentlessly. This work, by student Mike Traun, shows members of the administration hopelessly steering a sinking ship.

Photography professor Harry Callahan, Moholy’s last hire, is depicted submerged underwater and lighting the way forward with his camera, demonstrating the students’ hope that Callahan would continue to champion the artistic tradition its founding director pioneered.

Institute of Design Student Brochure (1947/1955) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Moholy’s students were the most vocal defenders of the educational culture that he had fostered. They drafted brochures, like the one seen here, defending his unconventional methods and championing freedom of creative expression.

Ink Dot Portrait of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (20th Century) by IIT Institute of DesignIIT Institute of Design

Ideals that Moholy instilled as founding director—including Foundation, his approach to critique, and his focus on experimentation—are still present at today’s IIT Institute of Design.

Art historian Elizabeth Siegel calls the school “Moholy’s overarching work of art.” Thomas Dyja frames it in terms of its contribution to Chicago: “the founding of the New Bauhaus is one of the unsung cultural watersheds in the city’s history.”

This month, Shapeshift celebrates Bauhaus in Chicago with two weeks of programming demonstrating design’s role as a catalyst for meaningful change in the city yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Credits: Story

Images courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology

All quotations attributed to László Moholy-Nagy are from Vision in Motion 1947 published by Paul Theobold, Chicago unless otherwise credited.

Written by Todd Cooke
Edited by Kristin Gecan and Rachel Fudge

© IIT Institute of Design

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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