László Moholy-Nagy: Pioneer of graphic design

Alex Bigman

Between 1914, when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight in World War I, and his death in 1946, László Moholy-Nagy moved around a lot. Indeed, in this time he moved from Berlin, to Amsterdam, to London, to Chicago—sometimes seeking new opportunities as a designer, sometimes escaping fascism, sometimes both.

Likewise, his design career never stood still. He was a pioneering figure in photography, typography, sculpture, industrial design and printmaking—not to mention his forays into film, set design, exhibition design, book design and advertising. Most of his friends, however, were architects whom he worked with at the Bauhaus.

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Today, when hyper-specialization is rampant in the design world (“what are you? Print designer? Logotype? Typography?”), László Moholy-Nagy’s breadth of expertise and constant experimentation in various media are especially inspiring—not to mention the fact that he did it all while constantly having to negotiate environments hostile to his jewish background.

There are a million places you could jump into Moholy-Nagy’s work, but we’ve chosen three: his photography (and its more experimental brethren, the photogram and the photomontage), his painting and sculpture, and his work in typography, book layout design and advertising.

Experimental photography

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The photo you see above, which Moholy-Nagy took on a Swiss lake in 1930, is interestingly composed, but still basically normal. As such, it is unrepresentative for the artist.

For almost a decade, Moholy-Nagy had been experimenting, alongside surrealist artists like Man Ray, with more unconventional types of photography such as the photogram—an approach that involves laying objects directly on light sensitive paper, then exposing it to light to capture the object’s silhouette as a negative shadow. Layering objects or exposing the paper for different amounts of time can produce amazing effects, as you can see in some of the works below.

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Moholy-Nagy was equally interested in the practice of photomontage—a favorite method of Dada artists like Hanna Hoch—which involves cutting out pieces of photographs and recombining them in novel ways, sometimes with the addition of drawn or printed components. As you can probably glean from the works below, photomontage was an avant-garde precursor to the advertising image, and of course, Photoshop.

L·szlÛ Moholy-Nagy - The Art of Light (Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, 29 January 2011 - 1 May 2011)
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Painting and sculpture

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Laszlo Moholy Nagy.Kompozicija Z VIII.1924

Moholy-Nagy first trained to be a lawyer, but his fate changed when he sustained a serious injury during World War I and, while convalescent, took up drawing and painting. As he pursued his career as an artist, he drew much inspiration from the schools of soviet Constructivism and Suprematism.

The paintings shown above resemble the work of Kazimir Malevich, while his famous “Light-Space Modulator” sculpture (below) was likely inspired by the contraptions of Vladimir Tatlin.

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Typography

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Moholy-Nagy quickly developed a reputation for his use of strong typography and striking images, as you can see in the above advertisement for a tire company from 1923. That same year, the designer joined the faculty of the Bauhaus, just as the school was shifting its emphasis from handcraft to the union of technology and design for which it is now known.

Perhaps Moholy-Nagy’s most famous contributions to the German school (which would be disbanded by the Nazis in 1932) were his designs for a series of books on Bauhaus principles, seen below.

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In 1937, former faculty of the German Bauhaus formed a “New Bauhaus” in Chicago. Fittingly enough, for their director they chose the none other than the Renaissance man of inter-war graphic design: László Moholy-Nagy.

What aspects of László Moholy-Nagy’s work do you think are relevant for the present? Share in the comments!

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