WHO IS THE AUTHOR?
Johannes Itten was born in Switzerland November 11, 1888. He was one of the original instructors at the Weimar Bauhaus. He is well known for his theories on color and his unorthodox use of spirituality in his teaching. He trained as a painter but worked as an educator and administrator most of his life. Mr. Itten was a follower of the Mazdaznan religion which aligned closely with his previously held beliefs, including spiritual openness as a path to creative expression. He was also influenced by Friedrich Frobel and his idea of learning through play.
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Design and Form was originally published in 1963. The version reviewed is the 1975 revised edition. The original ideas and theory are from 1919, so it fits the 100-year-old book review criteria. The book is 138 pages. A one-page preface written by Mr. Itten’s wife Anneliese is followed by a 6-page Introduction by the author. The remainder of the book consists of seven sections and an index. The sections are titled as follows: Chiaroscuro, The Theory of Colors, Material and Texture Studies, The Theory and Practice of Forms, Rhythm, Expressive Forms, and Subjective Forms. The book is filled with more than 100 images of student work, illustrating the exercises and techniques described by Mr. Itten. Of the 138 pages, only 20 are text.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
Note: You can find stories concerning the eccentricities of Mr. Itten’s mysticism, spirituality and religious beliefs from many sources. This text is not such a source. While some of the ideas he shares in this book may seem unconventional they are not outrageous. It is by most measurements a secular and traditional work.
I was ridiculed at the time because I did breathing and concentration exercises.
This is not really a graphic design book. It is relevant because the Bauhaus is vital to any history of graphic design. It speaks directly to the fine art tradition of most design education. Mr. Itten regards this as a true “foundation” or “basic” course, a beginning from which an artist builds their own direction. A breadth of work is expected without regard yet for specialization.
Design and Form is part historical account, Mr. Itten sharing what he did, and part manual for a teacher or a student. The introduction offers an overview of both the school and Mr. Itten’s teaching philosophy. He shares that the political and economic instability following the war had dramatic and adverse effects on the school and many of his students were “destitute.” The first year the studios were unheated and “the classrooms had no tables and chairs, the students were forced to work squatting on the floor.” Mr. Itten states that the early years were misinterpreted as a “romantic period.” He describes those formative years filled growing pains, errors and struggles for direction.
There are a couple of ideas from this part of the book that help illustrate Mr. Itten’s mindset and positions. The first example is his analogy of a teacher as motorcoach. A coach(car) takes you down a paved road, but when the road ends you must venture forth on foot and on your own. Teachers can only take students so far. The second is a quote from Lao Tse that Mr. Itten cites: “Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel. Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot. Walls with windows and doors form the house, but the empty space within it is the essence of the house. Matter represents the usefulness, non-matter the essence of things.” From these, an accurate estimation of Johannes Itten can be extrapolated.
In the introduction, he also begins to layout his theory of contrasts. He lists more than a dozen contrasts including black-white, hard-soft, continuous-intermittent, et al. His notion is that they must be studied from three approaches: “experience with their senses, objectivize them intellectually and realize them synthetically.” The binary is the beginning, the real power is in the gradation between the contrasts, it is not either binary or continuum, it is both, they define each other.
Normally I would break down the chapters individually, but the section are short and the while the areas of focus change the methods repeat, so I will provide and quick overview and highlight a few interesting tangents. The three themes repeated in each section regardless of focus are the importance of contrasts and experience over other forms of knowledge and student work illustrating his points. Almost every section has its own experiential example. For Mr. Itten, understanding a thing is instrumental in representing the thing. His classes roar like tigers before drawing tigers, swing their arms in circles before drawing circles, eat lemons before drawing lemons. and build spheres from clay before painting spheres.
He describes a unique exercise where you draw the same object, a fern, in this case, each day for a week and then on the last day, a drawing is done with the fern removed.
He says the three basic forms: circle square, triangle, correspond to the four directions in space. “The character of the square is horizontal and vertical, that of the triangle diagonal, and that of the circle circular” The importance of this proposed relationship is unclear.
The final section Subjective Forms contains some of the more unconventional ideas. He takes the notion of embodiment and connection to form-making very seriously. He posits that the physical form of person manifest itself in the forms they create. He wold say he could predict your appearance and your temperament from work. Freeing the real you was his concern. “Empty, superficial imitations should be removed like objectionable warts. Encouragement to return to the original creative condition liberates students from the constraints imposed on them by the facts they have absorbed merely from mechanical learning.” He saw his role as a teacher is to connect students with their “consistent temperaments and nature.”
I have read criticism that book is that it is “short”, but the book is what he Mr. Itten intended. He considered books a less optimal way to learn, he preferences seeing and doing over reading. Accordingly his writings would be terse. Design and Form is a literal call to action. If you want to represent a thing you need to experience the thing.
The teacher’s most difficult task is the liberation and deepening of his student’s powers of expression
IT’S A LONG BOOK WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
You should read it if you are interested in the Bauhaus. It is good fun imagining how Mr. Itten’s philosophy was received and what influence it may have had on the nascent Bauhaus. The book may be more useful for teachers than for students. Perhaps advanced students who have exhausted other more prosaic resources might find some help here. It is not recommended for beginning students working alone.
Johannes Itten was the “weird” bald teacher at the Bauhaus. This book is more for teachers than students and is sometimes eccentric. The foundation exercises described in Design and Form would not find an audience in a modern graphic design curriculum. Read it if you like design history.
QUOTATIONS TO SHARE WITH FRIENDS
“My best students were those who have, inspired by their own intuition, chosen other, new paths” (6)
“Respect for the human being is the beginning and the end of all education” (6)
In response to World War I: “This has made me realize that our outward-looking scientific research and technology must be balanced by inward-looking thinking and by our spiritual forces.” (9)
“As Life and beauty unfold in the regions between the North pole and the South Pole of our planet, so life and beauty of the world of contrast are to be found in the graduation between the poles of contrast in the light-dark contrast…”
“This leads to the recognition that subjective taste is not always enough to produce an objectively correct color judgment.” (62)
“To produce a work of art, creative imagination should have many possibilities to draw on.” (62)
“Proper distribution of accents in a composition largely decides the pictorial effect. This applies not only to the fine arts but also to ballet, music, and poetry. The points of accent set up the tension between forces in a picture and guide the viewer’s eye.” (63)