Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 20th-Century Design Pioneer

laszlo moholy-nagy
Heritage Images / Getty Images

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (born Laszlo Weisz; July 20, 1895 - November 24, 1946) was a Hungarian-American artist, theorist, and educator who strongly influenced the aesthetic development of industrial design. He taught at Germany's famed Bauhaus school and was a founding father of the institution that became the School of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Fast Facts: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

  • Occupation: Painter, photographer, filmmaker, industrial designer, and educator
  • Born: July 20, 1895 in Bacsborsod, Hungary
  • Died: November 24, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Spouses: Lucia Schulz (divorced 1929), Sibylle Pietzsch
  • Children: Hattula and Claudia
  • Selected Works: "Collage with Black Centre" (1922), "A 19" (1927), "Light Space Modulator" (1930)
  • Notable Quote: "Designing is not a profession but an attitude."

Early Life, Education, and Military Career

Born in Hungary as part of the Weisz Jewish family, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy grew up with his mother as a single parent when his father abandoned the family of three sons. She was a second cousin of noted classical music conductor Sir Georg Solti.

Moholy-Nagy's maternal uncle, Gusztav Nagy, supported the family, and the young Laszlo took the Nagy name as his own. He later added "Moholy" in recognition of the town Mohol, now part of Serbia, where he spent much of his early life.

The young Laszlo Moholy-Nagy originally wanted to be a poet and published some pieces in local newspapers. He also studied law, but service in the Austro-Hungarian military during World War I changed the direction of his life. Moholy-Nagy documented his service with sketches and watercolors. Upon discharge, he began attending the art school of Hungarian Fauve artist Robert Bereny.

laszlo moholy-nagy collage with black centre
"Collage with Black Centre" (1922). Heritage Images / Getty Images

German Career

German architect Walter Gropius invited Moholy-Nagy to teach at his famed Bauhaus school in 1923. He taught the foundation course with Josef Albers and also replaced Paul Klee as Head of the metal workshop. Moholy-Nagy's ascendancy marked the end of the school's association with expressionism and movement in the direction of industrial design.

While he considered himself primarily a painter, Moholy-Nagy was also a pioneer experimenting with photography and film. In the 1920s at Bauhaus, he created abstract paintings influenced by dadaism and Russian constructivism. The impact of Piet Mondrian's De Stijl work is also apparent. Some of Moholy-Nagy's collages demonstrated influences from Kurt Schwitters. In photography, he experimented with photograms, exposing photo-sensitive paper directly to light. His films explored light and shadows like much of the rest of his art.

By combining words with photography in what he called "Typophotos," Moholy-Nagy created a new way of looking at the potential of advertising in the 1920s. Commercial designers adopted his approach in ways that resonate today.

laszlo moholy-nagy light space modulator
"Light Space Modulator" (1930). Sean Gallup / Getty Images

In 1928, while under political pressure, Moholy-Nagy resigned from the Bauhaus. He established his own design studio in Berlin and separated from his wife, Lucia. One of his key works of the early 1930s was the "Light Space Modulator." It is a kinetic sculpture using reflective metal and recently invented Plexiglas. Standing almost five feet tall, the object was initially intended for use in theaters to create light effects, but it functions as an art piece on its own. He created a film called "Light Play Black-White-Grey" to show what his new machine could do. Moholy-Nagy continued to develop variations on the piece throughout his career.

American Career in Chicago

In 1937, with a recommendation from Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy left Nazi Germany for the U.S. to direct the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Unfortunately, after only a single year of operation, the New Bauhaus lost its financial backing and closed.

laszlo moholy-nagy a 19
"A 19" (1927). Sailko / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0

With support from ongoing benefactors, Moholy-Nagy opened the School of Design in Chicago in 1939. Both Walter Gropius and celebrated American education philosopher John Dewey served on the board. It later became the Institute of Design, and in 1949 became a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the first higher education institution in the U.S. to offer a Ph.D. in design.

Some of Moholy-Nagy's later career work involved creating transparent sculptures by painting, heating, and then shaping pieces of Plexiglas. The resulting pieces often appear playful and spontaneous compared with the artist's industrial-influenced work.

After receiving a leukemia diagnosis in 1945, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He continued to work and teach until his death from leukemia on November 24, 1946.

laszlo moholy-nagy aii
"A II" (1924). Sailko / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0

Legacy

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy impacted a broad array of disciplines, including industrial design, painting, photography, sculpture, and film. He helped bring modern aesthetics to the industrial world. With his combination of typography and photography in collage work, Moholy-Nagy is considered one of the founders of modern graphic design.

Source

  • Tsai, Joyce. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography. University of California Press, 2018.