Max Bill

“I am of the opinion that it is possible to develop an art largely on the basis of mathematical thinking”

Max Bill in an interview I retrieved from “Geometry of design” by Kimberly Elam

This artist was one of the most influential of his time producing an amazing number of splendid piece of work with its particular signature. He didn’t just limit himself to graphic design but he also crossed over to fine art, architecture as well as of course typography. In his work you can easily recognize the deeply rooted modernist vein with great proportion and strategical positioning of white spaces, type and forms but you can also see a step further to that in some of his latest work in which  he include many different colour with sometimes very striking images. He studied at the well known and ever unique Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany with artist teaching such as Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers.

This poster was designed for an exhibition of South African prehistoric painting, reading from “Geometry of design”:

“The fierce simplicity and geometry of this poster have roots in the development of the Art Concrete ideal of the 1930s. This visual elements require arithmetical construction of pure visual elements. Bill embraced this ideal as  a universal visual language of absolute clarity”.

Still about this piece of work I’m copying from a book called “Josef Muller-Brockmann  Pioneer of swiss graphic design” written by Lars Muller:

“His 1931 poster for an exhibition of prehistoric rock  paintings became the incunabulum of concrete poster design. He designed the typeface still used today by the progressive furnishing company wohnbedarf in the same year”.

“Many young graphic designer also explored the artistic potential of constructive forms in painting and sculpture. Max Bill was involved with the Paris “abstraction/creation” group from 1932 onward. Swiss museums provided valuable assistance in disseminating and discussing the new approaches. But in the 30s the movement remained elitist and relatively isolated.”

“Max Bill formulated the principle of concrete design in the catalogue of 1936 exhibition , Zeitprobleme in der Schweizer Malerei und Plastik,: conrete design is design that emerge from its own resources and rules, without having to derive or borrow these from external natural phenomena. Visual design is thus based on color, form, spaces, light and movement. Although all creative design is stimulated by inspiration, it cannot be perfected without clear and precise formulation. Design gives the ensuing works concrete form, they are translated into fact from their purely intellectual existence, they become object, visual and intellectual object for everyday use….Just as clear, clean musical forms are pleasant to the listener, and give joy to the knowledgeable in their structure, so clear pure form and color should give visual pleasure to the viewer.”

“Commercial graphic design learned from art. Max Bill was a keen commuter across artistic boarder. he built concrete three-dimensional object into the design for the Swiss pavilion at the 1936 Milan Triennale, skillfully mediating between avant-garde art and product of daily life.”

“In 1945 a shared outlook gradually evolved among the activist of the prewar period. Familiar names set new direction. In Zurich the magazine “abstrakt-konkrete” was formed, including Max Bill, Camille Greaser, Verena Lowensberg and Richard Lohse. Their effort led to the constructive design that took hold in the 50s.”

“Max Bill continued to commute between the disciplines and was one of the few who also addressed the theoretical issues behind the new design. In 1946 he published impassioned response to a statement by Tschihold that he considered to be untenable and reactionary. In a lecture to a member of the Association Of Graphic Designer in Zurich, Tschihold had asserted that the new typography with its asymmetrical and organically oriented layout was outmoded. Traditional typography based on central axis was clearly preferable. Bill fulminated against this “back-to-the-old-layout-disease” and reiterated the arguments in favor of the “elementary typography” developed by Tschihold himself in 1925. Bill reinforced its statement with a selection of ten of his own typographical works. Tschihold in return accused Bill of twisting his words and distorting the meaning of his statements; he insisted that his thesis applied only to book design. This polemic attracted a lot of attention; it livened up discussion and sharpened awareness of graphic designers’ typographical concern. There was scarcely any support for Tschihold, but theoretical discussion of design question was a rarity.”

“In 1949 it was again Max Bill who stimulated discussion on design with its exhibition “Die gute Form” (Good Design), which examined the fundamentals of industrial design. Bill argued that an object used “..daily and all the time, from a pin to interior decor [should be designed] in the spirit of a beauty developed from function, and that it fulfills a function of its own.”

“Max Bill, with its interdisciplinary achievements and theoretical expertise, was ideal for the role of the architect and first dean of the newly established Institute of Design in Ulm, Germany. The intention was to found a school that would carry on the tradition of the Bauhaus. Ulm was a center of the new design in the 50s, with many Swiss connection.”

Short Synopsis

«It is the rebels that will change the world» (André Gide)

Max Bill (1908-1994) was arguably the most important Swiss artist of the 20th century. His background was the blue collar town of Winterthur near Zürich. During his lifetime he was a rebel – today he lives ever present on the upper spheres of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His name stands for a whole avant-garde life-work, which is firmly focussed on the future, which bears a social responsibility and which intrinsically contains an engaged political message. What mattered for Max Bill was the creation of our environment and a green consciousness, which is currently of incredible imminence.

For all those who want to understand Bill’s oeuvre in relation to his biography, Erich Schmid has directed documentary film «bill – the master’s vision». For six years he has been working at this 35mm documentary feature film, in order to open up eyes and minds for many unknown facts about Max Bill for the big screen. That much can already be said: It’s a highly potent mix of arts, aesthetics and politics. Max Bill – the master’s vision will be released in cinemas in Switzerland from 11th September 2008. (Please keep checking this website for more information).

Synopsis (medium version)

Max Bill (1908-94) was internationally one of the most famous Swiss artists. He experienced nearly a hundred years of tension between art and politics and used this in his work. He kept to the basic principles of design and social responsibility he had learned as a former student at Bauhaus. Even before the Nazis seized power Max Bill was an ardent anti-fascist. For many anti-fascist publications he created the graphic design. After World War II he continued with the Bauhaus ideals as architect and rector of the legendary Academy of Design in Ulm.
The film shows a life of failure and success. Each time Bill crossed fate he took it as a challenge. He was one of the first people to talk about «environmental awareness». Later he entered politics as a member of parliament for this reason.

Exhibiting in Paris at 17
The earliest recognition Max Bill received was in 1925 as a 17-year-old. He could show the work he had done at the College of Arts and Crafts in Zurich at the renowned «Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs» in Paris. World famous designers such as Le Corbusier and Melnikow were also represented at the same exhibition. Following a slight offence, he was expelled from the College of Arts and Crafts. He then went to the Bauhaus in Dessau.

The most important Bauhaus students
Bill’s Bauhaus masters were Kandinsky, Klee and Moholy-Nagy. Today Max Bill is considered the most outstanding student to come out of the Bauhaus.
1933, in Paris again, Max Bill was accepted for the «abstraction création» and exhibited with Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Sohie Taeuber Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Vantongerloo and Le Corbusier. Max Bill was 25 years old.

The Academy of Design in Ulm (HfG)
In connection with the Marshall plan following the end of World War II, Max Bill was in a key position (both material and spiritual) for the rebuilding of Germany. As architect he built the new Academy of Design in Ulm, the HfG, and was its first rector. The HfG was financed by the Scholl foundation. Inge Scholl, whose brother and sister were murdered in 1944, was the president.

«Nobel prize for the Arts»
One year before his death he was the first Swiss to receive the so-called Nobel Prize for the Arts, the Praemium Imperiale, in Tokyo; worldwide the most prestigious prize for the arts. On 9 December 1994, on his last mission as president of the Bauhaus archive, he collapsed and died at Berlin airport.

Overcoming setbacks
Max Bill’s life was full of setbacks and successes. As a young boy his parents sent him to a reform school because he had stolen a penny romance book from a kiosk, but he had learnt to stand up for himself at an early age. His uncle Ernst Geiger, who was a well-known artist, gave him his first paint box. His very first pictures were painted at the reformatory. He made up for being expelled from the College of Arts and Crafts in Zurich by winning a generous prize in a poster competition. He was able to pay for his studies at the Bauhaus with the prize money. It was also at the Bauhaus that he lost half a tooth in collision with a trapeze artist. The picture he called «Siamese twin acrobats» was his creative interpretation of this act of fate. In 1977 he had to have an eye removed due to a tumour. The day after the operation he was already designing the graphic series «seven twins» in hospital.

Facing a lack of understanding
Looking back on the story of his success may give the impression things came easy to Max Bill. That is not true. He had a hard time and had to keep on fighting for acceptance and his hard-earned laurels. It was thanks to his early unrewarding anti-fascist efforts that the Allies gave him the mandate for rebuilding in Germany. His sculptures in public places met with such opposition that the first version of the most famous statue «continuity» was destroyed by right-wing fanatics in 1948. Nearly 40 years later he was commissioned by the German bank in Frankfurt, possibly as a goodwill gesture, to rebuild the sculpture in granite. The work took three years. The authorities, businesses and some narrow-minded people were up in arms about the «pavilion» sculpture on the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse. However, he got his reward: the «pavilion» sculpture is now so popular there would be an outcry if anyone wanted to remove it

Political no man’s land
Bill never told very much about his life. Many people found him mysterious. When he has elected to the National Council in 1967, some of the 68-protesters saw him as a representative of the Establishment, although he was politically independent. They belittled him. For a time there was a real Bill-bashing campaign. They accused him of being naïve, without realizing he had represented the most important demands of the 68-protesters before the student movement existed. They did not know that he was a dedicated anti-fascist who had hidden refugees and helped Italian partisans. They did not realize he condemned exaggerated consumption and a society producing unnecessary goods. They were not aware that in 1965 Max Bill, Sartre, Silone, Max Ernst and Simone de Beauvoir, among others, signed the first European artists’ protest against the Vietnam War that appeared in the New York Times. Bill was against nuclear power in the 50s and argued in favour of environmental protection, although at that time there was still talk of environmental design. Viewed objectively, it was impossible to know, because it only came out after the Cold War, that Max Bill was watched by the Swiss National Security for over 50 years. In an emergency during World War II he would have been interred as a «left-wing extremist».
The Bill-Bashing went on after Max Bill was the first to sign the «Zurich Manifesto». The paper was against police intervention during the 68-riots and a protest about the authorities who did not take disciplinary action; whereas the demonstrators were severely punished by the law. A bashing is always popular. Usually people do not reflect they just see their prejudices confirmed. As Max Bill’s determination to stand up for his convictions also annoyed the non-socialist parties, he landed in a political no man’s land. A popular left-wing politician accused him of being a right-wing conformist. The influential conservatives saw him as an unwelcome left-wing politician. This attitude towards Max Bill has not changed much to this day.

Exploring the mystery of Max Bill
As a film maker I thought that if in spite of his good qualities strong prejudices still exist (even if they are based on ignorance) there must be more to discover about him. I had to concentrate on the unknown Bill in order to present new facts and maybe achieve a turn-around for the public.
This is a challenge for a film maker. I asked myself if it would be possible in this biographic film to show his life in such a way that his deepest convictions would be understandable. He lived on the threshold to modern living constantly fighting for a better and fairer world. Aesthetics and design were the weapons he used.

A perfect eye was the secret
After I had collected all the available film material from Swiss and foreign archives and included my own shooting, there were about 185 hours of picture and soundtrack material. We had to limit the montage to 90 minutes for the big screen, therefore only the footage that had a deeper meaning, often simultaneously on different levels, has been linked. It was in this way that a latticework of symbolic images was superimposed, propelling the film onwards rather like a cogwheel drive. The overriding theme is based on Einstein’s theory of infinity and the political claim that beauty lies in reducing design to the simplest possible form.
The secret of Max Bill’s success was not only that the future proved him right in his concerns but he also possessed something that very few people have: a perfect eye, which is comparable to a perfect musical ear.”

Information taken from:

The painting ‘verdichtung zu caput mortuum’ (distillation to caput mortuum) is one of a series of variations, with different expressive qualities deriving from the combination of colours used in each. The series was started in 1964. All the pictures are placed on the diagonal – Bill sometimes called them “pointed pictures”.

This unusual external format feature alone expresses instability and tension, compelling the eye to move around. In ‘verdichtung zu caput mortuum’ the area in the centre is coloured a dull reddish-brown, or caput mortuum – the term applied to a residue after distillation or sublimation in alchemy. Here it acquires a special quality from the external isosceles triangles and bands of colour, and becomes a surface against which the yellow-red and bluish-purple colour chords can resonate as they interact with the reddish-brown.

The “unambiguous concision” of the colour forms gives them an inner depth and stability that contrast with the instability of the pictorial form. The dead, square nucleus in the earth-colour caput mortuum gains a life of its own

This info have been taken from

(1908-4)Swiss-born Max Bill worked in a number of design fields including architecture, typography, graphics, product, stage, exhibition, furniture, as well as sculpture and journalism. He was also involved in design education, most notably the rectorship of the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) at Ulm. His rather austere, rational aesthetic is closely associated with the ideals of the Swiss Style (also known as the International Typographic Style). After three years as a silversmith student at the Zurich School of Applied Arts, Bill studied at the Dessau Bauhaus between 1927 and 1929, an experience that was influential in shaping the creative outlook that dominated most of his subsequent career. He then returned to Zurich to work as an artist, graphic designer, and architect. As well as playing a key role in the development of concrete art, together with a group of Swiss Constructivist designers Bill produced a number of posters commissioned by the Zurich Museum of Applied Arts in the 1920s and 1930s. He also designed the Swiss Pavilion for the 1936 Milan Triennale. A member of the CIAM ( Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and the UAM ( Union des Artistes Modernes), during the 1940s Bill became increasingly involved with industrial design and organized a Gute Form (‘Good Form’) exhibition for the Swiss Werkbund, commencing a touring itinerary in Basle in 1949. This interest in what was essentially a Modernist aesthetic led to his involvement in the foundation of the HfG, taking up the inaugural rectorship from its launch in 1953. Bill’s own commitment to Bauhaus principles can be seen in early appointments made to the HfG, including Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, and Mies Van Der Rohe. Bill was also commissioned to design new buildings, furniture, and fittings for the school that were officially opened by Walter Gropius in 1955. However, within a short period, younger members of staff at Ulm increasingly questioned the relevance of a curriculum closely linked to what they saw as outmoded, individually centred ideas of creativity associated with the Bauhaus approach of the 1920s, rather than a more scientific, interdisciplinary approach appropriate to the 1950s. This led to Bill’s resignation from the rectorship in 1956 and from the school in 1957. In the same year he designed his widely known stainless steel and aluminium clock, with its crisply articulated, minimalist face. This was one of a number of clock and watch designs Bill executed in the 1950s and 1960s for Junghans (established 1861), a company with close links to the HfG. From then until his death Bill concentrated increasingly on his fine art interests. Bill was a member of many design and professional organizations including the Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle in Paris, the Deutscher Werkbund, and the American Institute of Architects. 

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