The new year did not start well. Having wrestled with financial crises and political conflicts in six years of struggling to establish a new design school in Chicago, László Moholy-Nagy found himself at loggerheads with the board again at the beginning of 1945: this time over the dearth of students. He also faced the challenge of finding new premises when the lease on the school’s building expired that spring. The first school that Moholy-Nagy opened in Chicago had closed after little more than a year, and the second was now threatened by the same fate. Eventually, he won over the board and the school survived, but the battle to save it took a brutal toll on Moholy-Nagy himself.
He had hoped that 1945, when he would turn fifty, would be the year when he could devote more time to writing the book on visual theory he had begun two years before. But the school’s problems proved so pernicious that Moholy-Nagy’s days were filled with teaching and administration and his evenings were swamped by the commercial design projects with which he supported his family financially, leaving him with a few snatched hours at weekends to work on the book. To make matters worse, Moholy-Nagy fell seriously ill during the autumn of 1945, and was diagnosed with leukemia. Even after being admitted to hospital, he urged his wife Sibyl to bring portfolios of photographs, drawings and notes on her visits so he could work on layouts between blood transfusions, injections and X-rays.
Moholy-Nagy was discharged just before Christmas, and resumed his duties at the school the following month. He seized every free moment during the spring and summer to finish the book, but his condition deteriorated, and he died on 24 November 1946. His book, Vision in Motion , was published the following year. No one reading it then, or now, would be likely to guess what a dreadful ordeal its author had experienced while writing it. As a manifesto of Moholy-Nagy’s vision of design, art, technology, creative education and their roles in society, it distills the ideas and observations of a remarkably gifted and dynamic individual, who had experienced the birth of constructivism in his native Hungary after World War I, the heyday of the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany, and the emergence of modernism during the 1930s, first in Britain and then in the United States. Even though Moholy-Nagy was gravely ill while writing Vision in Motion , the book resounds with his energy and optimism, especially with regard to his belief in design’s power to build a better world.
This eclectic and empowering vision of design, and the passionate conviction that society could benefit from adopting a more open-minded and progressive approach to it is summed up in Chapter Two of Vision in Motion with the words: Designing is not a profession but an attitude. I have always loved that phrase, quaint though the reference to designingsounds today. The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community,” Moholy-Nagy wrote. Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’. In a healthy society, this design for life will encourage every profession and vocation to play its part since the degree of relatedness to all their work gives to any civilization its quality.”
Liberating design from the constraints of the professional role it had occupied since the Industrial Revolution by redefining it as an improvisational medium rooted in instinct, ingenuity and resourcefulness, and open to everyone, was typical of Moholy-Nagy. Intrepid, generous, subversive and irrepressibly curious, he is one of my favorite characters in design history. Who could resist the émigré artist and intellectual, who wore a factory worker’s boiler suit to signify his zest for technology while teaching at the Bauhaus, where he allowed women to study whatever they wished, including subjects previously reserved for men? And who wouldn’t admire Moholy-Nagy’s courage after his arrival in the US? His new daily uniform was a business suit, yet he remained as radical as ever in his politics, notably by welcoming African-Americans to his Chicago design school in an era when the city’s education system was largely segregated. Wherever he was and regardless of his personal circumstances, Moholy-Nagy sustained his zest for experimentation: from pioneering the then-new media of film and photography; to investigating their impact on visual culture and every other aspect of daily life.
Moholy-Nagy’s concept of design as an attitude was rooted in his youthful commitment to the constructivist movement, which he encountered as a young artist in Budapest immediately after Word War I. Design played a pivotal role in the work of the original constructivists, the group of avant garde Russian artists, writers and intellectuals, who met to exchange ideas and plan social change in the final years of the war, and included Aleksandr Rodchenko, his wife Varvara Stepanova, and their friends, Aleksei Gan, El Lissitzky and Lyubov Popova. Their belief that artists, designers and scientists should work in collaboration with industry to build a better, fairer society, by creating new things for the new life as Popova put it, was shared by the constructivist sympathisers who Moholy-Nagy encountered while living in Vienna and Berlin during the early 1920s.