Text by Alison Fisher, curator of the exhibition Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition opened on November 23, 2019 and will be extended until fall 2020 after the museum’s reopening. [The Art Institute of Chicago is currently closed in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)]
In 1933 the Nazi regime closed the German Bauhaus, threatening to end the renowned school’s innovative synthesis of art, craft, and technology. Yet, the ensuing dispersal of Bauhaus instructors and students to the United States, England, Israel, the Netherlands, and beyond, led to a new chapter of design education around the world. Chicago became one such stronghold in the late 1930s, when two prominent Bauhaus educators, László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were called upon to lead programs at the New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design, or ID), and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).
Presented at the Art Institute as part of the global celebration of the 2019 Bauhaus centenary, Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City explores the vision and careers of many former ID and IIT instructors and students who emerged from these programs at midcentury. This intensely interconnected community of makers—some well-established and others virtually unknown—carried the avant-garde ideals of the Bauhaus to industries, markets, and neighborhoods in Chicago and beyond.
The exhibition’s four themes draw connections between Bauhaus-inspired courses or workshops—light, materials, shelter, and urbanism—and the resulting student and professional work. Many pieces easily fit in more than one category, a testament to Moholy-Nagy’s desire to produce not artists but integrators: designers who could address the great complexity of modern life and technology. Defying easy classification as industrial design or fine art, the diverse design practices emerging from the ID and IIT attest to the enduring values of the Bauhaus approach and its embrace of new voices, places, and cultural ideals.
Experimentation with materials formed the core of the German Bauhaus preliminary course, which all students took in their first year of study. Using wire, wood, sheet metal, string, paper, glass, and later plastics to make new objects and images, the preliminary course exercises were designed to liberate creativity and instill the ability to produce modern spatial compositions. This radical exploration of materials was at the heart of the Bauhaus’s goal to replace artistic training with rigorous yet unfettered examination of the conditions, culture, and ethics of design.
In Chicago this focus evolved to include a number of new exercises: hand sculptures, which offered an intimate encounter with wood and tools, and the prolific use of found objects reimagined as abstract compositions. Often mediated by photography, this repurposing of discarded goods as art objects was born of necessity, given the scarcity of many materials in the 1940s, but also represented students’ creative response to the dynamic city around them.
Featured artist: Dori (Hahn) Altschuler
Produced for a preliminary course at the ID, Dori Altschuler’s dramatic, flexible wire structures were featured in an article in Arts & Architecture in 1952. Instead of using industrially produced wire, Altschuler created this series with collected metal handles from shopping bags of the era, thus transforming a simple material exercise into a kind of ready-made sculpture inspired by everyday life in the city.
One of Moholy-Nagy’s most distinctive contributions to the New Bauhaus curriculum was the development of the Light Workshop. First headed by Hungarian-born artist György Kepes, this program was oriented toward advanced technology and included a pioneering focus on photography and film. While the school considered light a medium in and of itself, the workshop engaged with many other program areas as a vehicle for visual education, including sculpture, advertising, and experimentation with new materials like Plexiglas and wire mesh.
This blurring of boundaries among media was also an important part of Moholy’s own work, epitomized by his many “modulators,” or sculptural objects created to interact with light and space in new ways. More expansively considered, architectural projects at the ID and IIT also addressed light as an integral part of the environment, often including research on solar heating and the impact of natural light and illumination in urban development.
Featured artist: Margaret De Patta
California designer Margaret De Patta studied at the ID to develop her jewelry practice in an avant-garde direction after hearing Moholy-Nagy speak in California in 1939. Her jewelry pieces evolved into dynamic modern sculptures that employed translucent materials including prismatic crystals and metal mesh as well as kinetic elements, like wearable versions of her mentor’s “Space Modulators.” She and her husband and business partner Eugene Bielawski often used abstract photographs and photograms to study the qualities of light and transparency in De Patta’s rings and brooches, including repeated exposures to convey a sense of the body in motion.
Architecture was an important part of Bauhaus-inspired education in Chicago. IIT’s well-known architecture school was led by director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who created a rigorous program based on the progressive mastery of materials, functions, and form. At the ID, architecture was understood as part of a larger network of design problems related to the study of structure, human behavior, climate, new materials, and product design. Developed by George Fred Keck and Serge Chermayoff as the Shelter Workshop, the architecture program began with an exercise to create a minimal shelter and graduated to the scale and complexity of the contemporary urban community, including infrastructure and mass housing.
Featured artist: Tetsuo Takayanagi
Architect Tetsuo Takayanagi’s student work at the ID shows the range of concerns addressed through the ID’s Shelter Workshop. Some work evinced distinctively avant-garde origins, like his design for a bus shelter from 1948, a dynamic frame structure with corrugated steel panels. Other projects expand on the idea of shelter as a facet of a larger ecosystem, as seen in Takayanagi’s exquisitely drawn plans and drawings for a mixed-height residential development of modern pavilions nestled in an arrestingly lush, even fantastic natural landscape.
PRODUCTION / COMMUNITY
With the support of major backer Walter Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America, the ID fostered a unique entrepreneurial energy for design in midcentury Chicago. Drawing on the collective talents of their colleagues working in photography, graphic design, and technical expertise, former students went on to launch their own galleries, furniture and textile lines, and building systems, forming another kind of network in the then-underdeveloped local market for modern furniture and design objects.
These ventures often fused production, retail, and social environments, much like that of the original Bauhaus, blocks from the ID’s location on Dearborn Street. In the 1940s and 1950s alone, these businesses included Designers in Production, a furniture and housewares firm; a print shop run by ID professor Frank Barr; 750 Studio, a gallery and workshop organized by ID students Mary Jo Slick, Olive Oliver, and Merry Renk; the New Design Center, an informal cooperative formed by textile designer Angelo Testa, architects and designers Bartolucci and Waldheim and Beatrice Takeuchi, and photographer Yuichi (Gene) Idaka; and the design store Baldwin Kingrey.
Featured artists: Davis Pratt and Harold Cohen
After their student years at the ID, Davis Pratt and Harold Cohen created the company Designers in Production in 1950 to create, market, and sell their innovative modern furniture and housewares. This integrated production model allowed them to explore new materials like flexible nylon mesh for a line of chairs and laminated plywood nesting tables. The company followed on the success of Pratt’s innovative Air Chair, a prize-winning entry to the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design furniture competition, which featured a foldable metal frame, inflatable rubber cushion, and textile cover.
Curator: Alison Fisher
Curatorial Fellow: Hanne Graversen
Exhibition design: Richard Ferrer
Graphic design: Susanna Kim Vitayaudom
Organized by: The Art Institute of Chicago
Major lender: The Bauhaus Chicago Foundation
Dates: November 23, 2019–April 26, 2020 (Extended until fall 2020)
Alison Fisher is an associate curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her writing and curatorial projects focus on alternative modern architectures, housing, urbanism, and design history. Past exhibitions include Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention, The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980, Georg Jensen: Scandinavian Design for Living, and Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City.