Bauhaus educator László Moholy-Nagy was “not given his due”

Hungarian-born Bauhaus educator László Moholy-Nagy is set to feature in a new movie, highlighting the role he played in bringing the school’s ideology to America. For our Bauhaus 100 series, the film’s producer Alysa Nahmias speaks to Dezeen.


Moholy-Nagy is often overshadowed by Bauhaus stars like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, yet he played a critical role in continuing the school’s teachings after it was shut down in 1933. The New Bauhaus aims to draw attention to his legacy.

“Moholy is not within the Bauhaus ‘all-stars’, but is instrumental in so many aspects of the Bauhaus. But somehow I think not given his due, and I hope that the film can do a major part,” Nahmias told Dezeen.

The New Bauhaus
László Moholy-Nagy is the focus of an upcoming documentary. Photo is by László Moholy-Nagy, courtesy of Moholy Nagy Foundation

Two years in production and set to release in 2019, the documentary is produced by former architect Nahmias and cinematographer Petter Ringbom, in collaboration with Erin Wright and Marquise Stillwell.

It focuses on Moholy-Nagy’s time in Chicago, where he established the New Bauhaus design school, and will explore his personal history and formative ideas.

“We should look at Moholy in the same way as Gropius or Mies”

“One of Moholy’s ideas is that the person is above the product, that as we are creating artwork, design and products, we are also creating ourselves, both on the individual level and as a collective society,” said Nahmias. “This is one of the ideas that I want to explore in this film, that makes it go way beyond being about design or art.”

Following retrospectives of Moholy-Nagy’s work at major museums like the Guggenheim in 2016, and the Art Institute of Chicago and the LACMA in 2017, the film offers a closer look and emotional journey through his life, exploring his work as an artist, designer, visionary, and teacher.

“We saw the exhibitions and thought his work was incredible. We thought, why haven’t we learned more about him,” she said.

“You get a sense that there is more there, and more people should look at him in the same way they look at Gropius or Mies, or other great 20th century artists.”

Moholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus from 1923 to 1928

Born László Weisz to a Jewish family in rural Hungary, the artist changed his surname to Moholy-Nagy, switching from his German-Jewish surname to the Magyar surname of his mother’s lawyer friend Nagy, who supported the family when László’s father left. He then added Moholy after the town of Mohol, in present-day in Serbia, where he spent his childhood.

He was an educator at the Bauhaus from 1923 until 1928, becoming head of the metal workshop. This programme marked the school’s move towards its original focus of being a design and industrial institute. Following the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy established his own design studio in Berlin before fleeing the Nazi regime in 1935.

After briefly living in London, in 1937 he was invited by the Association of Arts and Industries to become the director of the New Bauhaus school in Chicago.

The New Bauhaus
A lowercase b defines the New Bauhaus scrapbook, designed by László Moholy-Nagy. Photo is by Petter Ringbom, courtesy of Opendox

“The Association of Arts and Industries was a bunch of wealthy industrialists based in Chicago, and wanted to start a school along Bauhaus lines – that was actually on the telegram,” Nahmias said.

“They knew about Gropius, because he was already at Harvard, and he recommended they talk to his friend László.”

Moholy-Nagy opened New Bauhaus school in Chicago

In 1939, Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus school, but after a year of running, the majority of businessmen at the Association of Arts and Industries pulled their money out, causing the school to close.

“After that first year, I think the association realised that Moholy was doing something that was very much along Bauhaus lines, but wasn’t necessarily productive in their limited definition of what the school would produce in its students,” explained Nahmias.

“Moholy was taking them through a circular that was going to be very productive in terms of industry and design, but in the immediate assignments, it was like they were making photograms and wood sculptures for blind people, and they were doing all of these Bauhaus-like experimentations.”

Moholy faced a choice at that moment, where he could either let that go and look for a job somewhere. But he instead decided to keep going with his dream and vision. Industrialist Walter Pepke, chairman of the Container Corporation of America, collaborated with Moholy-Nagy to underwrite another iteration of the school, which would be called the School of Design.

“It was a very entrepreneurial act for an immigrant refugee”

“Moholy reopened the school with him, rather than it being run by the Association of Arts and Industries, it ended being his own school. It was a very entrepreneurial act for an immigrant refugee, in his second year in America,” explained Nahmias.

“It was a constant struggle for Moholy to keep it open and running. He often didn’t take a salary and often worked other gigs. It was like any other start-up, in a way. He was constantly fundraising with Walter Pepke in Chicago and beyond, to keep the school alive.”

The New Bauhaus
Moholy’s daughter, Hattula Moholy-Nagy, features in the film. Photo is by Petter Ringbom, courtesy of Opendox

This School of Design, formerly the New Bauhaus, became the Institute of Design in 1944 and part of Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949. After many iterations, the New Bauhaus is still in practice today, honouring the curriculum of the original Bauhaus school.

“The New Bauhaus definitely didn’t fail, but rather found a different way of operating,” said Nahmias.

Moholy passed away of leukaemia in 1946, and was succeeded by Russian-born British architect and industrial designer Serge Chermayeff as dean. He is father of prolific graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, who passed in December 2017.

Moholy’s legacy lives on in Chicago to this day, but Nahmias hopes the film will make his work known by a larger audience.

“We often see architecture films that are hagiographies – like a biography of a saint – and it is so worshipping that you are not getting at the heart of what this person went through, and what motivated their work,” Nahmias said. “I think for all of these artists, designers and architect, there are stories.”

Moholy’s daughter offers “unique perspective” in the film

A key feature of the documentary is an interview with Moholy’s daughter, Hattula, from his second wife Sibyl, an architectural and art historian from Germany. Hattula manages the estate of the artist with the Moholy-Nagy Foundation, which she founded in 2003. She is 85 and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“This was one of the happy discoveries, that not only was she [Hattula] willing to give us access and facilitate the project, but she was willing to be filmed and really be part of it, which I think is a unique perspective on a Bauhaus artist,” said Nahmias.

Advisors on the documentary include MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll, curator Ellen Lupton of Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, curator Elizabeth Siegel at the Art Institute of Chicago, Princeton professor Hal Foster, author Thomas Dyja, and architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee.

Dezeen guide to 100 years of Bauhaus
Dezeen’s Bauhaus 100 series explores the enduring influence of the school

The Bauhaus is the most influential art and design school in history. To mark the centenary of the school’s founding, we’ve created a series of articles exploring the school’s key figures and projects.

See the full Bauhaus 100 series ›

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