Max Bill

1927–1928 Bauhaus student

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © unknown / © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017
Portrait of Max Bill, photo: Willy Maywald, 1969

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Max Bill was born on 22 December 1908 in Winterthur (Switzerland). From 1924 to 1927 he trained as a silversmith at the Zurich School of Applied Arts. When he was just 17 years old, Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibited two of his student works in the legendary “Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs” in Paris. Bill was expelled from the School of Applied Arts in 1927, before he could complete his apprenticeship, ostensibly because he had shown up late for class while still wearing Carnival make-up. With the prize money that he had recently won for his poster design for the chocolate manufacturer Suchard, he went off to the Bauhaus in Dessau. There he studied for two years with Albers, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Schlemmer – a formative and pioneering time for the young Bill.

In 1929 Bill returned to Switzerland and settled in Zurich, where the versatile artist worked as an architect, painter, sculptor, publicist and product designer. In all fields, Bill left behind theoretical treatises and conveyed his doctrine in lectures both at home and abroad. In 1930 he joined the Swiss Werkbund (SWB). The former Bauhausler made his first sculptures in 1933 and was accepted into the Paris artist group “Abstraction-Création”. Bill was just 25 years old. His membership enabled him to exhibit side by side with such great artists as Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Georges Vantongerloo. In 1938, Bill joined CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), whose members also included other well-known architects such as Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier. In 1941 Bill founded the Allianz publishing house. From 1944 to 1945, Bill was entrusted with teaching the theory of form at the Zurich School of Applied Arts. In 1947 he founded the Institute for Progressive Culture (IPC).

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
'Me', author: Max Bill, 1927

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Max Bill was best known, however, as a driving force in the founding and planning of the Ulm School of Design (HfG Ulm) and as the architect and first rector of the school (1950–1956). From 1952 on, Bill also headed the Department of Architecture and Product Form. For the initial instruction, Bill brought acquaintances from his time at the Bauhaus to the school: Josef Albers, Walter Peter Hans, Johannes Itten and Helene Nonné-Schmidt taught the first 21 students in makeshift facilities. At the same time, construction of the school’s campus began according to the plans of Max Bill. It was meant as a place for students and lecturers to live and work together – a concept that Gropius had already put into effect at the Bauhaus and that was, for example, also a living reality at Black Mountain College. The facility was officially inaugurated in 1955. The profession of designer as we know it today was decisively influenced by the teaching at HfG Ulm and by Max Bill’s publications and lectures on design. Some of Max Bill’s most famous design pieces are still being manufactured today as re-editions, including the Ulm stool, designed in collaboration with the Dutch architect and designer Hans Gugelot at HfG Ulm, and the formally simple dials of Junghans wristwatches and clocks for living rooms and kitchens. The allure of the HfG reached far abroad. In 1956 Bill resigned his post as rector of HfG Ulm but taught there for another year before reopening his Zurich studio.

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Ulm Stool, design: Max Bill (designed and produced for the HfG Ulm), 1954, re-edition 1990s

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In 1967, Bill was appointed to a professorship at the State University of Fine Arts in Hamburg (HFBK), where he held the chair of environmental design (1967-1974). In 1985 the former Bauhausler became chairman of the Bauhaus-Archiv e.V. in Berlin. During his long creative career as an architect, sculptor, painter and publicist, Bill received numerous awards for his works and was a member of many artistic societies and juries. Max Bill was a restless creative mind who sought to implement his ideas through international projects. He carried his concept of modern design, which had been fundamentally shaped by his studies at the Bauhaus, out into the world. One year before his death, Max Bill was honoured in Tokyo for his tireless work and his widespread impact with the so-called Nobel Prize in Art, the “Praemium Imperiale”.

On 9 December 1994, Max Bill died at Berlin Tegel Airport. He was on the way back from a presentation of his building design for the annex to the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin.

[AG 2016; Translation: DK]

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Clock for Junghans Uhren, design: Max Bill / Production: Junghans Uhren GmbH, Schramberg, 1956–1957
  1. Literature:
  2. Bill, Jakob (2008): max bill am bauhaus, Bern.
  3. Bill, Jakob (2008): Max Bill: Funktion und Funktionalismus. Schriften 1945–1988, Bern.
  4. Bucher, Annemarie: Max Bill, Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/d/D6183.php, 8.4.2016.
  5. Buchsteiner, Thomas & Otto Lotze (2005): max bill, maler, bildhauer, architekt, designer. Ostfildern-Ruit.
  6. HfG-Archiv Ulm, Die HfG Ulm, http://www.hfg-archiv.ulm.de/die_hfg_ulm/geschichte_3.html, 8.4.2016.
  7. Max Bill und Georges Vantongerloo Stiftung, http://www.maxbill.ch, 8.4.2016.
  8. Max Binia Jakob Bill Stiftung, http://www.bill-stiftung.ch/index.htm, 8.4.2016.
  9. Schirn Kunsthalle (1987): Max Bill, Retrospektive. Skulpturen Gemälde Graphik 1928–1987, Frankfurt/Zürich/Stuttgart.
  10. Schmid, Erich (2008): bill – das absolute augenmass (Film), Presseheft, Schweiz.
  11. Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft: Max Bill, http://www.sikart.ch/KuenstlerInnen.aspx?id=4000286, 8.4.2016.
  12. Thomas, Angela (2008, 2012): Max Bill und seine Zeit, 2 Bände, Zürich (Band 1: Mit subversivem Glanz (1908–1939), 2008, Band 2: Nur kleine Geister halten Ordnung (1939–1994), 2012).
  13. Thomas, Angela (1993): Max Bill: The Early Years. An Interview. Translated by Susan Ernst-Peters. In: The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts (Nr. 19, 1993, Swiss Theme Issue), S. 98-119.
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