Director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was one of the most prominent Bauhaus émigrés to come to the United States and he attempted to bring the experimental Bauhaus tradition of architecture and design education across the Atlantic. A native of Hungary, he came to Germany in 1920 and, during the 1920s, became a noted teacher and artist at the Bauhaus school. Much of his work focused on typography, industrial design, and especially photography. His interest in light effects also led him to work in stage design for theater and film. For political reasons and because of his Jewish background, Moholy-Nagy left Germany in 1933. After stays in the Netherlands and London, Laszlo and his wife Sybil Moholy-Nagy (who eventually would go on to teach at the Pratt Institute in New York) emigrated to the United States in 1937.
Moholy-Nagy followed the invitation of a group of Chicago business leaders who were interested in setting up a school for industrial design in the city. After Walter Gropius declined to act as director, they settled on Moholy-Nagy who proposed to recreate the curriculum of the Bauhaus with its workshops and holistic vision in the U.S. The Chicago School of Design, dubbed the “New Bauhaus,” opened its doors in the fall of 1937. From the start, Moholy-Nagy drew on several émigrés affiliated with the former Bauhaus to fill the ranks of the faculty, including Gyorgy Kepes and Marli Ehrman. Xanti Schawinski and Herbert Bayer were invited to teach as well, but their appointment fell through due to financial difficulties. The school continually struggled with financial issues and insufficient enrollment and survived only with the aid from grants of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations as well as from donations from numerous Chicago businesses. After it was renamed the Institute of Design in 1944 it was finally merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 1949.
Moholy-Nagy’s European vision of design education and theory frequently clashed with the more pragmatic demands of American corporations. His consulting work with the mail-order company Spiegel Inc. ended with mutual frustration and several of the “New Bauhaus’” corporate clients complained of a lack of immediate applicability with regard to the methods of the faculty. Nonetheless, Moholy-Nagy’s school – aided by Walter Paepcke of the Container Corporation of America, a well-connected philanthropist with an interest in modern design – maintained close ties to corporations such as the Marshall Field’s department store, United Airlines, and Kraft foods. Dozens of companies sent their employees to take evening classes in advertising or interior design.
Moholy-Nagy remained the driving force behind the New Bauhaus until his early death due to leukemia in 1946. Following his death the school lacked clear leadership, but even after the merger with the IIT it remained a small, but significant presence of European design modernism in the United States. Artists such as graphic designer Fernand Leger exhibited their work in Chicago and the faculty remained reserved vis-à-vis what it perceived as crass commercialism in the American industrial design profession of the 1950s.