Moholy-Nagy’s Machine

by Alice Rawsthorn

Most design nuts have a favorite Bauhaüsler. Rationalists tend to go for Marcel Breuer, aesthetes for Josef Albers, neo-hippies for Johannes Itten, and thesps for Oskar Schlemmer, but my choice is László Moholy-Nagy.

Fearless, idealistic, visionary, and uncompromising—what’s not to love about the charismatic Hungarian Constructivist who donned factory overalls to symbolize his faith in technology? Even by Bauhaus standards, Moholy-Nagy was unusually prolific, experimenting with new art forms and designing everything from movie sets to a brochure telling nervous Londoners how to use their newfangled subway escalators; but if I had to choose one project that epitomizes him, it would be a strange mechanical contraption named the Lichtrequisit, which translates from German to “light prop.”

Moholy-Nagy devoted years of trial and error to designing the Lichtrequisit during the 1920s and continued to tinker with it until his death in 1946. Conceived as an experimental device with which he could study the movement of light, it emerged as a colossal, rather forbidding structure of glass plates, metal grilles, rods, and wires that moved around to project constantly changing patterns of light and shadow. Whenever Moholy-Nagy could afford to, he paid the Berlin fabricator he had charged with building the machine to do more work on it. 

When he was wooing a young actress, Sibyl Pietzsch, in the early 1930s, Moholy-Nagy took her to what she described as “a dingy office” in a grungy industrial area where a “wispy little man” ushered them into a workshop containing something that appeared to be “half sculpture and half machine.” “As it turned slowly, invisible lights flared up and turned off, producing gigantic shadows on the walls and the ceiling,” she recalled years later. 

Moholy-Nagy was then in his thirties, and an influential figure in the European avant-garde. Born to an aristocratic but impoverished family (his father disappeared after gambling away his fortune), he had served in the Hungarian army during World War I and studied in Budapest before moving to Vienna and then Berlin, arriving there in 1921. Two years later, Moholy-Nagy joined the teaching staff of the Bauhaus, and there instilled his Constructivist ideal of deploying art and technology to build a better world.

He was also devoted to challenging traditional definitions of art and design, whether in 1922’s so-called Telephone Paintings, which he ordered to be made by phoning instructions to a commercial sign painter, or the various incarnations of the Lichtrequisit. Moholy-Nagy treated the machine as an epic work in progress, and insisted on taking it with him when he moved from country to country during the mid-1930s to escape Nazi repression with Sibyl (whom he married in 1933) and their two daughters. Explaining what the enormous structure was to the customs officials they encountered as they went from Germany to the Netherlands, Britain, and finally the United States proved so tricky that they resorted to describing it as a “robot, a “fountain,” and “hairdressing equipment.”

After his arrival in the United States in 1937, Moholy-Nagy’s experiments with the Lichtrequisit inspired his work in film and photography, as well as the research into the construction and effects of visual imagery he conducted with his long-serving assistant György Kepes. Their theories were disseminated to a mass audience by their students, including Saul Bass and Robert Brownjohn, who applied them to their title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock’s films and the early James Bond movies, respectively. 

Following Moholy-Nagy’s death, Kepes joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he shared their thinking with his colleagues and students, who then did the same with their networks. By doing so, he and Moholy-Nagy influenced many of the pioneers of software design, from Muriel Cooper through John Maeda to Ben Fry, ensuring that the digital images now racing across our computer and phone screens owe something to those 1920s experiments with that bizarre contraption in a shabby Berlin workshop. 

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.

Image: © 2014 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.