Brian's History of Communication Design Blog

Weekly exposition on recent learnings.


Bauhaus Thoughts

We reviewed the Bauhaus last week, moving, as we are, in reverse chronological order through the history of design schools.

Although it was not touched upon in class, it was clear how the Bauhaus was the genesis of the streamlined school of design that eventually led to product design such as Braun and Olivetti, and thenceforth to Apple, under the direction of Sir Jonathan Ive.

The other thing that struck me, as we reviewed Bauhaus architecture, was how there were echoes in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs both preceded and followed the Bauhaus movement.

One particularly striking moment was when we looked at the work of the De Stijl architect, Rietveld.

The Rietveld Schroedhuis

For me this 1924 work very much prefigures Wright’s Fallingwater house, which was built much later in 1937.


To compare apples to apples, we can look at what Wright did in 1923, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo:

The Imperial Hotel

This is much more reminiscent of Rennie Mackintosh than Rietveld, so I think that the Bauhaus/De Stijl impact on Wright occurred only after Wright started developing his Mature Organic Style in the late 1920s and early 1930s.


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Swiss Modernism

There are only a few things I can immediately and personally relate to Swiss Modernism, although I know the impact of the movement is huge.

The first would have to be the design choices for the New York subway system which rely on the Helvetica typeface, the signature typeface of the Swiss Modernism movement. I specifically remember using the subway back in 1983 and 1984, during the last year of high school, on Saturday mornings, when I a few other classmates were taking advanced science classes at Columbia University. We would take the bus from Rockland County down to the Port Authority Terminal at 175th Street and then switch to the the subway, take the 1 to 116th Street. Sometimes, once class was done, we would ride the subway all the way down to Greenwich Village to go shopping on Broadway in Soho for cool accessories that were definitely not available in Rockland.

The other experience I have with Swiss Modernism is the museum literature I remember from my time in Japan. Since exhibit portfolios were always designed with in at least Japanese and English, if not more languages, the layout of the portfolios were always, unbeknownst to me at the time, set in the Swiss Modernist format, with multiple columns, based on grids, with photos of the exhibit pieces prominent.

I think I unwittingly copied that style, if perhaps only faintly, when I was laying out documents for my first design job in Japan. We needed to have Japanese on one page and English on the next, so we had tight columns of text to make it economical and legible. This was before I had any design training whatsoever, so I was simply imitating what I saw and liked.

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Post-modernism Fallout

Although I was never a student in any of the post-modern history classes, they were decidedly present in my late 1980s college. Gay history. Feminist history. Black history.

And as a gay man, I made an effort to read books that re-emphasized the role of gay men and women throughout history. Especially on our history. Books that dealt with Stonewall and the gay liberation movement.

But the overall result of this is a fractured history. People need to have a comprehensive view of history that encompasses all of the minority viewpoints. There should be no need for separate hyphenated histories. All of our histories should be told as one.

Yes, that would make textbooks and class content much denser, but it would also make them much richer, and would offer everyone the chance to see themselves reflected within history’s pages without the need to break apart into dedicated courses at the university level.

I know there is some effort to do this, but I also know it is met with resistance. It is hard to change the normative approach.

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Sir Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive began working for Apple and designed the Newton’s MessagePad110. His breakthrough assignment was when he was tasked to design the first generation of iMacs. He has subsequently designed the iPod, the iPhone and more. He is now chief designer at Apple.

He is heavily influenced by Braun’s Dieter Rams, and in particular by Rams’ ten principles of good design.

According to Rams, good design:

  • is innovative
  • makes a product useful
  • is aesthetic
  • makes a product understandable
  • is unobtrusive
  • is honest
  • is long-lasting
  • is thorough down to the last detail
  • is environmentally friendly
  • is as little design as possible


Although I have no citation to back this up, Rams, and therefore Ive, may have have been influenced by the Bauhaus movement in their approach to design. The clarity and simplicity and modernism directly stems from the Bauhaus approach. (Thanks to Chris for pointing me in that direction.)

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The Age of Fingers

Digital refers to fingers, after all, as well as it does to numbers, and I suppose this deepens our connection to counting on our digits.

In a way, it is odd that there is a fetish for pixellation when the resolution of both monitors and printers is such, now, that a photographer like myself has long been able to produce images that are indistinct from their analog form, and, in fact, some photographers, working in digital media, fel the need to add in film grain to roughen the incredible smoothness of the digital image.

I can see how the fetish harkens back to earlier resolutions. Although I was not much of a gamer, I did do some elementary programming on the Atari and Apple II in the early 1980s and those computers had screens with low resolutions and low color yields or even, for the Apple, monochrome yields. So I admit to the nostalgia.

And although I may not understand it very much, nostalgia has often been a driving force in art and design.