Black Mountain College and Design Education

Do you feel attracted to the minimalism and simplicity of midcentury-modern design, but don’t know why? Perhaps the times of early-season Mad Men shows seem somehow simpler, and more enthusiastic? There is a reason this period is so attractive to us. If you’re a graphic designer educated in the US, it is likely that your education is rooted in the Bauhaus principles, brought to midcentury-modern America through Black Mountain college.

Leap Before you Look | ICA Boston (through January 24, 2016)

 The entrance title treatment for the show.

The entrance title treatment for the show.

 The historical information wraps around the first room upon entering the exhibit.

The historical information wraps around the first room upon entering the exhibit.

 Wall-size photos help make me feel part of the scene, with students doing their everyday summer things. (and looking like they are about to walk into a barbed wire fence! ouch!)

Wall-size photos help make me feel part of the scene, with students doing their everyday summer things. (and looking like they are about to walk into a barbed wire fence! ouch!)

Leap before you Look is an important show for designers to see. It's a comprehensive collection that can let us revisit design fundamentals. Understanding Black Mountain also gives us the historic context for a modern academic design curriculum. We can see who, many years ago, came up with the formational design exercises we loved to complain about.

The values of collaboration, creative exploration and rigorous research through materials manifested in the collection of weavings, ceramics, paintings, collages, and photographs make me feel at home in a weird, almost nostalgic way. Here are a few highlights. I hope you’ll feel just as warmly and mysteriously at home as I did.

 John Reiss - Black and White Yarns (collage)

John Reiss - Black and White Yarns (collage)

 Josef Albers,  Leaf Study  IX    (via ICA Boston)

Josef Albers, Leaf Study IX (via ICA Boston)

Hard times foster creativity.

Students maintained the campus themselves to save money. They had limited access to studios, materials or tools. By making do with what was available, students and instructors were able to create truly original work, for example the found material necklace or a leaf collage.

Bauhaus as the source

Black Mountain College inherited a lot from Bauhaus. Josef Iten's color exercises, for example. I assume many designers, like me, struggled through neatly placing ColorAid paper on mat board to replicate a textbook illusion of transparency or color change. And hopefully - like I did - we have all come to appreciate a deep hands-on study of design fundamentals as we progress in our careers.

Cross-disciplinary approach

The school was not primarily an art school. Instead, the schedule allowed all students, regardless of discipline, to take art classes on Fridays. Most did. Collaboration across disciplines - a trait we now associate with business success and cultural breakthroughs - happened naturally in this environment.

Experimentation as a value

Experimentation was a core value at Black Mountain. And, I might add, experimentation may have been easier without financial success at stake for most students. Merce Cunningham started his world-famous experimental dance company with a group of enthusiastic students from the college.

Diversity of contribution

Unlike in large city centers, at Black Mountain, women and men seemed to collaborate and live on reasonably equal terms. What might be considered traditionally “feminine” or “domestic” arts like tapestry weaving existed, as an art form, alongside writing, painting and sculpture.

Students and instructors as collaborators

Black mountain did not follow the hierarchical academic structure where students learn from, but do not challenge authority of instructors. Here, they are collaborators both on creative projects and on the upkeep of the campus.

Maria Matveevathird-9