Willi Baumeister. wie wohnen? Die Wohnung (How Should We Live? The Dwelling). Poster for an exhibition organized by the Deutsche Werkbund at the Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart, Germany, 1927. Lithograph. 44 3/4 × 32 3/8 in. (113.7 × 82.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Philip Johnson. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. © Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

From the Exhibition:
Jan Tschichold and the New Typography: Graphic Design Between the World Wars

This poster by German artist-designer Willi Baumeister (1889–1955) announces with an unequivocal red “X” that ornate interior decoration no longer has a place in modern life. The poster advertises Die Wohnung (The Dwelling), an exhibition of architecture organized by the German association of manufacturers and designers known as Deutscher Werkbund, and adds a cryptic question: wie wohnen? (How should we live?). Held in Stuttgart from July to September 1927, the exhibition aimed to address the city’s housing shortage and economic conditions in the wake of World War I.1 A major component of the exhibition was the Weissenhofsiedlung (Housing Estate), a showcase of thirty-three houses designed by architects Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Josef Frank, among others.2 Their buildings exemplified what would become known as the International Style and Neues Bauen (New Building) movements, which featured new technologies, industrial materials, and standardized, ornament-free forms that the Deutscher Werkbund believed could improve living conditions for the majority of German people.3 Although some critics noted that the architecture was overly expensive and unrealistic for people of average means, the poster successfully disseminated the ideals of modernism to more than half a million visitors, who may have been drawn to the exhibition in part because of Baumeister’s effective advertising.4

Born in Stuttgart, Baumeister was a fitting choice to design the graphic identity and publicity material for the exhibition. He started his career as a decorative painter for his uncle’s business and in 1907 pursued formal studies at the Stuttgart Art Academy.5 There he began to develop an abstract style, initially producing cubist representations that evolved into arrangements of simplified geometric shapes.6 These works belonged to a machine age, modernist aesthetic akin to the painting of his contemporaries Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier.7

At this time, Baumeister applied the same aesthetics to commercial graphic design and quickly became a leading figure in the field. He outlined his understanding of the so-called Neue Typographie (New Typography) for Deutscher Werkbund’s magazine Die Form in 1926, the same year as the Die Wohnung exhibition. A year later, he joined the Ring neuer Werbegestalter (Circle of New Advertising Designers), founded by designer Kurt Schwitters in an effort to connect with other designers, including Baumeister and Jan Tschichold, and to promote their shared avant-garde principles.8

The Die Wohnung lithograph poster perfectly reflects Baumeister’s sensibility for the New Typography. First, he establishes the composition with a photographic image situated asymmetrically against a stark black background. The text is then organized in relation to the image. He uses cursive lettering only in association with the past as represented in the nineteenth-century interior, and he subsequently replaces it with the red, uppercase, sans serif type of the present. Like Tschichold and many of their contemporaries, Baumeister believed in the crispness and legibility of sans serif over more decorative forms: “an exact cut results in a clarity of text that painted lettering, artistic writing, and Fraktur could never attain.”9 He then relies on the energetic positioning and sizing of this type to deliver the poster’s message concisely and emphatically.

Unlike a painting that is viewed, Baumeister understood advertising as something to be read, and “reading is a movement. Everything that has movement—that is to say, direction—is unbalanced.”10 In this case, the movement is from left to right and top to bottom; in order to direct the eye across the poster, the designer spreads the title, date, and location of the exhibition across four lines in varied sizes, gradually indented to echo the diagonal line of the “X.” These qualities successfully communicate the crux of the exhibition to viewers, and the exemplary work makes it clear why Tschichold considered Baumeister one of the key designers who “made the New Typography a reality.”11

Taryn Clary participated in Associate Professor Paul Stirton’s Fall 2018 seminar In Focus II: Jan Tschichold and Graphic Design in the 1920s and is an MA candidate at Bard Graduate Center.

1.Friedmann Gschwind, City Planning Office, State Capitol of Stuttgart, “Weissenhofsiedlung: Introduction and Intentions,” http://www.weissenhof2002.de/english/weissenhof.html.

2.Tim Benton, “Building Utopia,” in Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914–1939, ed. Christopher Wilk (London: V&A Publishing, 2006), 182.

3.Joachim Petsch, “The Deutscher Werkbund from 1907 to 1933 and the Movements for the ‘Reform of Life and Culture,’” in The Werkbund: Studies in the History and Ideology of the Deutscher Werkbund 1907–1933, ed. Lucius Burckhardt (London: The Design Council, 1980), 85.

4.Benton, “Building Utopia,” 182.

5.Brigitte Pedde, Willi Baumeister (1889–1955): Creator from the Unknown (Stuttgart: Willi Baumeister Stiftung, 2014), 15.

6.Paul Stirton, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2019), 106.

7.Christopher Green, “The Machine,” in Wilk, Modernism, 86.

8.Jeremy Aynsley, Graphic Design in Germany 1890–1945 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 160.

9.Willi Baumeister, “Neue Typographie,” Die Form 1, no. 10 (July 1926): 215–17, in Stirton, Jan Tschichold, 201.

10.Baumeister, “Neue Typographie,” 201.

11.Jan Tschichold, Die neue Typographie (Berlin: Verlag des Bildungsverbandes der deutschen Buchdrucker, 1928), 56–58, quoted in Stirton, Jan Tschichold, 13.