"Chicago's Bauhaus Legacy"
"Chicago's Bauhaus Legacy" Credit: Courtesy Art Paul

In 1937, László Moholy-Nagy arrived in Chicago to establish the New Bauhaus, an American version of the German art school dedicated to the principle of intelligent design. No, not that kind of intelligent design.

“At the end,” explains T. Paul Young, the executive director of the Chicago Bauhaus Committee, “the point of design was choosing the correct material and using it well.”

Over the next dozen years, the New Bauhaus would undergo seven moves and three name changes before getting absorbed into the IIT Institute of Design in 1949, a little more than two years after Moholy’s death. The school was small, never more than 30 students at a time, but its legacy was far-reaching. Now Young and his Chicago Bauhaus Committee colleagues have organized “Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy,” an exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, opening August 9, to pay tribute to the New Bauhaus by showing off the work of the artists and designers who taught and studied there between 1937 and 1955.

“We’re interested in the educational principles involved,” says Young. Perhaps most characteristic of the New Bauhaus was the assignment in one of the introductory courses in which students had to sculpt a small piece of wood into something that felt good to hold in their hand. (Several of those pieces will be on display.)

Why the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art when Moholy was Hungarian and the original Bauhaus was German? The museum did a show on Bauhaus two years ago, and Young and his colleagues kept in touch. When a slot opened in the museum’s schedule, the New Bauhaus was in. It also helped that Stanley Tigerman, a former student at the school, had designed the museum’s facade and that one of the teachers, Alexander Archipenko, was Ukrainian.

Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy will include approximately 150 works by 90 artists and designers. Not all of it is student work: some of the artists are still alive, and some of the art was created within the past year. Much of it has been hidden away in private collections and has never been on public display.

And the art itself? It’s probably the most eclectic mix you’ll find in any museum show this year, ranging from paintings, collages, sculptures, and photographs to architectural plans to furniture to the Playboy logo (the magazine’s first art director, Art Paul, was an alum) to the popular Lite Brite toy (the creation of Burt Meyer, a former product design major).

The most surprising piece may be the bar of Dove soap, designed in 1952 by three students, Donald Dimmitt, William J. LaVier, and James Logan, as part of a special project funded by Lever Brothers. Their design is still used today. (Their original wooden prototype is on display at the Chicago History Museum.)

In the future, Young hopes to find a permanent space to exhibit the full collection, currently in storage at his house in Park Forest. But for now, he’s happy that the legacy of the New Bauhaus is finally getting some attention. “It was a very well-kept secret in Chicago,” he says. “Nothing like this has ever been done before.”