Posts tagged Modern Design

This season, to consider abstraction of form in my designs, I took a look at Wassily Kandinsky.

Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian-born artist who lived in Germany during the 1920s where he taught with the Bauhaus school. Kandinsky is primarily famous for being one of the first 'purely' abstract painters, departing from impressionism to pioneer abstract expressionism in the early 1900s; though I think his most notable work was made during his tenure with Bauhaus. 

At Bauhaus, Kandinsky developed theories on color, lines, points and shapes. Analyzing various art forms, he reduced each to their simplest form in effort reveal their structures. In 1926, mid-way through the lifespan of Bauhaus, Kandinsky published two works concerning his theories on form: Dance Curves and Point and Line to Plane.

Dance Curves is an essay accompanied by abstract drawings referencing four images of German performer, Gret Palucca, who was an early pioneer of modern dance. All four images referenced were by photographed by Charlotte Rudolph, a prominent German dance photographer during that time.

Being an inter-disciplinary school, Bauhaus often collaborated with, and studied modern dancers. In Dance Curves, Kandinsky wrote that his drawings illustrate the "simplicity of the whole form" in Palucca's movements as well as the "construction of the large form” where the structure of Palucca's movements are based on the simplistic forms in his reductive drawings.

Concerned with minimizing subject matter, Bauhaus emphasized compositions of pure lines, blocks of color, and geometric shapes. Kandinsky's personal application of this approach explored shape, form, and structure. From this school of thought, Kandinsky also developed his own color theory, which tied in to his elemental theories of design.

In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky analyzed the geometrical elements that make up all art forms, which he argues are points, lines and planes. In a comprehensive examination, Kandinsky reduces music, architecture, movement, and painting to demonstrate his theories. 

In perfect Bauhaus fashion, Kandinsky's work is nearly exhaustive, covering an impressive range of subjects across the above mentioned art forms.

Check the Index in the back of the embedded copy of 'Point and Line to Plane" below to see just how much he covered. I also highly recommend a good look at the diagrams and the appendix now, and then clicking on the link to read through this book in full-screen later. It's so good!

Aside from breaking down drawing and painting to their more intuitive geometric elements, and creating the simplistic forms from the body structure of dance movement, Kandinsky applied his graphic symbolism to music in a way that I've become obsessed with. In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky wrote that, "the graphic musical representation in common use today–musical notation–is nothing other than various combinations of point and line." 

I don't fully understand how to apply his theories to my own drawings yet, but I do know that in order to create his renderings of music, he used color to correspond with angles and shapes, as well as points whose sizes varied according to the pitch and volume of a given sound in terms of intensity or duration. 

The result is stunning:

A student's graphic analysis of music according to Kandinsky’s theories on graphic representation of music made during coursework at the Bauhaus. Bauhaus Archive, Berlin, 1930

As a result of WWII, Bauhaus disassembled in 1933. Kandinsky eventually relocated to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life. Applying his theories on form and color, Kandinsky created his own color pallets that appear as dissonant as unusual time signatures sound in music; but because they are governed by a theoretical foundation in both color and form, somehow they work.

Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2016


I'm always thinking about shapes. In jewelry design, most shapes I work with are flat, but even with clothing, how something looks basically comes down to how it is shaped. The next part is what material the shape is made of, and then comes color.

As I begin to finalize my Fall 16 collection, I thought I'd look at the work of Josef Albers, a prolific artist who worked with a variety of mediums at the school of Bauhaus. What I love about Bauhaus in general is that their work was so well-rounded. The students studied color, crafts, textiles, performance, design... the list goes on. And since I work with so many types of materials, I study Bauhaus artists and their theories regularly. 

Bauhaus School Curriculum

Bauhaus artist Josef Albers was born in Germany in 1888. His career began as a stained glass artist, though his work is very distinct in comparison to standard stained glass works. Most stained glass is either traditional (think churches), or crafty (think the 60s). But Albers' work encompasses shape, material and color: the most essential elements of design, in my book.

After studying at the Bauhuas School under Johannes Itten, the color theory master of Bauhaus, Albers became a teacher in color theory at the Bauhaus school himself. With Bauhaus, color theory was a main course in their curriculum, and all of their work in color theory is still used today.

Through the exploration of color, Albers developed a theory that color is seen relative to its surroundings. In various studies that he called Exercises of Color, Albers took solid colored papers, cut them into shapes, and placed them next to, and on top of other colors to demonstrate. What resulted from the same color strip being placed next to, or on top of two other colors, was that the 'same color' appeared as two different shades. This phenomenon is what Albers referred to as Color Relativity.

The small rectangles on the left are the 'same color' but appear as two different shades given their interaction with the neighboring colors. The concentric lines on the right are also the 'same color' but appear to be different shades because of their interaction with the surrounding colors.

These exercises, according to Albers, demonstrate that color is absolute, but that it interacts with other colors, and is thus experienced differently, depending on which colors are interacting with one another.

With this as a foundation, Albers furthered his inquiry by playing with transparency of colors. In this work, Albers showed that with color, what appears to be a form of transparency, is actually a new color all together.  What appears to be the transparent part(s) are in fact another color with various levels of the neighboring colors combined.


Much of what Albers did with his Exercises of Color shaped color theory, which continues to govern the worlds of design and art today. Though Albers developed his theories on color in the late 1920s through the 1930s, it wasn't until 1963 that he published his book, Interaction of Color, through Yale University Press, finally canonizing his ideas for the art world at large.

Applying the simplicity of his findings to his own work, beginning in the mid 1920s, Albers began a series of untitled works that continued throughout his life, resulting in geometric, mostly line based art, using very few colors.

Because Bauhaus focused on interdisciplinary arts, they encouraged the exploration of various mediums. So during his tenure as instructor at Bauhaus, Albers also was the head of the carpentry department. Applying Bauhaus' principle that form follows function, and combining that with his understanding of shape and color, Albers designed furniture that continues to be sought after today. 

Albers also taught a course at Bauhaus on drawing and lettering where he developed a set of fonts.

But sadly, during WWII, Bauhaus dispersed. In 1933 Albers came to the US with his wife, Anni Albers, a Bauhaus trained textile designer and former student of Albers. 

In the US, Albers spent his first two decades teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, before taking the head of design position at Yale in 1950.

While at Yale, Albers began a series of work called Structural Constellations, where he combined his understanding of color and line, while placing very strict parameters on himself to produce "the maximum affect through minimum means."  During this time, and up through the 1960s, Albers created a series called, An Homage to Squares, applying similar principles as the Structural Constellations, but adding the element of color.

After retiring from Yale in 1958, Albers was given a grant to do exhibitions and lectures on his work. Through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a global tour of his work was shown between the years of 1965 - 1967. Finally, in 1976, four years before his death at the age of 88, Albers was the first living artist to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Having lived such a prolific life as an artist, Albers continues to influence design from furniture to type faces, and from color, to line and form today. Though many people seem to be referencing his work in their own contemporarily (especially in fashion), I'm not sure that they are directly aware of its origins. But what makes Albers such an effective artist beyond his impressive ability to work with such a wide array of media, is that his work is so distinctly minimal, that it has become part of the fabric of our collective subconscious. 

Today his legacy lives on in the form of an app put out by Yale called, Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Yes, that's right, a dude born in 1888 has an app... With this app, one can learn Albers' theories on color while creating study 'sketches' (if you can call a digital thing a sketch). By putting shapes together and applying color, a basic geometric design is made. Each color used in the artwork is broken out for reference at the bottom of the image, so they can then be translated to CMYK, RGB, HEX, Pantone, etc.  I actually recommend using the app for anyone interested in color theory, or for anyone who'd like a tool for creating cohesive color stories for their designs. 

Pretty cool, especially since these ideas were first developed over 100 years ago.

Courtney Cady © Bagtazo, 2015