Work with Material

Life today is very bewildering. We have no picture of it which is all-inclusive, such as former times may have had. We have to make a choice between concepts of great diversity. And as a common ground is wanting, we are baffled by them. We must find our way back to simplicity of conception in order to find ourselves. For only by simplicity can we experience meaning, and only by experiencing meaning can we become qualified for independent comprehension.

In all learning today dependence on authority plays a large part, because of the tremendous field of knowledge to be covered in a short time. This often leaves the student oscillating between admiration and uncertainty, with the well-known result that a feeling of inferiority is today common both in individuals and in whole nations.

Independence presumes a spirit of adventurousness—a faith in one's own strength. It is this which should be promoted. Work in a field where authority has not made itself felt may help toward this goal. For we are overgrown with information, decorative maybe, but useless in any constructive sense. We have developed our receptivity and have neglected our own formative impulse. It is no accident that nervous breakdowns occur more often in our civilization than in those where creative power had a natural outlet in daily activities. And this fact leads to a suggestion: we must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness, and experience the most real thing there is: material.

Civilization seems in general to estrange men from materials, that is, from materials in their original form. For the process of shaping these is so divided into separate steps that one person is rarely involved in the whole course of manufacture, often knowing only the finished product. But if we want to get from materials the sense of directness, the adventure of being close to the stuff the world is made of, we have to go back to the material itself, to its original state, and from there on partake in its stages of change.

We use materials to satisfy our practical needs and our spiritual ones as well. We have useful things and beautiful things—equipment and works of art. In earlier civilizations there was no clear separation of this sort. The useful thing, could be made beautiful in the hands of the artisan, who was also the manufacturer. His creative impulse was not thwarted by drudgery in one section of a long and complicated mechanical process. He was also a creator. Machines reduce the boredom of repetition. On the other hand they permit a play of the imagination only in the preliminary planning of the product.

Material, that is to say unformed or unshaped matter, is the field where authority blocks independent experimentation less than in many other fields, and for this reason it seems well fitted to become the training ground for invention and free speculation. It is here that even the shyest beginner can catch a glimpse of the exhilaration of creating, by being a creator while at the same time he is checked by irrevocable laws set by the nature of the material, not by man. Free experimentation here can result in the fulfillment of an inner urge to give form and to give permanence to ideas, that is to say, it can result in art, or it can result in the satisfaction of invention in some more technical way.

But most important to one's own growth is to see oneself leave the safe ground of accepted conventions and to find oneself alone and self-dependent. It is an adventure which can permeate one's whole being. Self-confidence can grow. And a longing for excitement can be satisfied without external means, within oneself; for creating is the most intense excitement one can come to know.

All art work, such as music, architecture, and even religion and the laws of science, can be understood as the transformed wish for stability and order. But art work understood as work with a substance which can be grasped and formed is more suited for the development of the taste for exploration than work in other fields, for the fact of the inherent laws of material is of importance. They introduce boundaries for a task of free imagination. This very freedom can be so bewildering to the searching person that it may lead to resignation if he is faced with the immense welter of possibilities; but within set limits the imagination can find something to hold to. There still remains a fullness of choice but one not as overwhelming as that offered by unlimited opportunities. These boundaries may be conceived as the skeleton of a structure. To the beginners a material with very definite limitations can for this reason be most helpful in the process of building up independent work.

The crafts, understood as conventions of treating material, introduce another factor: traditions of operation which embody set laws. This may be helpful in one direction, as a frame for work. But these rules may also evoke a challenge. They are revokable, for they are set by man. They may provoke us to test ourselves against them. But always they provide a discipline which balances the hubris of creative ecstasy.

All crafts are suited to this end, but some better than others. The more possibilities for attack the material offers in its appearance and in its structural elements, the more it can call forth imagination and productiveness. Weaving is an example of a craft which is many-sided. Besides surface qualities, such as rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, it also includes color, and, as the dominating element, texture, which is the result of the construction of weaves. Like any craft it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art.

When teaching the crafts, in addition to the work of free exploring, both the useful and the artistic have to be considered. As we have said before, today only the first step in the process of producing things of need is left to free planning. No variation is possible when production is once taken up, assuming that today mass production must necessarily include machine work. This means that the teaching has to lead toward planning for industrial repetition, with emphasis on making models for industry. It also must attempt to evoke a consciousness of developments, and further perhaps a foreseeing of them. Hence, the result of craft work, work done in direct contact with the material, can come here to have a meaning to a far wider range of people than would be the case if they remained restricted to handwork only. And from the industrial standpoint, machine production will get a fresh impetus from taking up the results of intimate work with material.

The other aspect of craft work is concerned with art work, the realization of a hope for a lawful and enduring nature. Other elements, such as proportion, space relations, rhythm, predominate in these experiments, as they do in the other arts. No limitations other than the veto of the material itself are set. More than an active process, it is a listening for the dictation of the material and a taking in of the laws of harmony. It is for this reason that we can find certitude in the belief that we are taking part in an eternal order.


Black Mountain College Bulletin, 5, 1938. Reprinted in College Art Journal III:2, January 1944, pp.51–54 and in Anni Albers: On Designing, 1959 and 1971.

Weaving at the Bauhaus

In a world as chaotic as the European world after World War I, any exploratory artistic work had to be experimental in a very comprehensive sense. What had existed had proved to be wrong; everything leading up to it seemed to be wrong, too.

Anyone seeking to find a point of certainty amid the confusion of upset beliefs, and hoping to lay a foundation for a work which was oriented toward the future, had to start at the very beginning. This meant focusing upon the inherent qualities of the material to be used and disregarding any previously employed device for handling it.

At the Bauhaus, those beginning to work in textiles at that time, for example, were fortunate not to have had the traditional training in the craft: it is no easy task to throw useless conventions overboard. Coming from Art Academies, they had felt a sterility there from too great a detachment from life. They believed that only working directly with the material could help them get back to a sound basis and relate them with the problems of their own time.

But how to begin? At first they played with the material quite amateurishly. Gradually, however, something emerged which looked like the beginning of a new style. Technique was picked up as it was found to be needed and insofar as it might serve as a basis for future experimentations.

Unburdened by any considerations of practical application, this uninhibited play with materials resulted in amazing objects, striking in their newness of conception in regard to use of color and compositional elements—objects of often quite barbaric beauty. Such a free way of approaching a material seems worth keeping in mind as far as the work of beginners is concerned. Courage is an important factor in any creative effort. It can be most active when knowledge in too early a stage does not narrow the vision.

One of the outstanding characteristics of the Bauhaus has been, to my mind, an unprejudiced attitude toward materials and their inherent capacities. The early, improvised weavings of that time provided a fund of means from which later clearly ordered compositions were developed, textiles of a quite unusual kind. A new style started on its way. Little by little the attention of the outside world was aroused and museums began to buy these weavings.

A most curious change took place when the idea of a practical purpose, a purpose aside from the purely artistic one, suggested itself to this group of weavers. Such a thought, ordinarily in the foreground, had not occurred to them, having been so deeply absorbed in the problems of the material itself and the discoveries of unlimited ways of handling it. This consideration of usefulness brought about a profoundly different conception. A shift took place from the free play with forms to a logical building of structures. As a result, more systematic training in the construction of weaves was introduced and a course in the dyeing of yarns added. Concentrating on a purpose had a disciplining effect, now that the range of possibilities had been freely explored.

The realization of appropriateness of purpose introduced also another factor: the importance of recognizing new problems arising with changing times, of foreseeing a development. As Alfred North Whitehead says, on foresight: “…the habit of foreseeing is elicited by the habit of understanding. To a large extent, understanding can be acquired by a conscious effort and it can be taught. Thus the training of Foresight is by the medium of Understanding. Foresight is the product of Insight." The creative impetus, previously coming from the world of appearance, now received stimulus from the intellectual sphere of a recognized need. Only the imaginative mind can bring about the transformation of such rational recognition into a material form.

Physical characteristics of materials now moved into the center of interest. Light-reflecting and sound-absorbing materials were developed. Utility became the keynote of work, and with it the desire to reach a wider public than before. This meant a transition from handwork to machine work when large production was concerned. It was realized that work by hand should be limited to laboratory work and that the machine was to take over where mass production was involved. With this new orientation the interest of industry was aroused.

A desire to take part actively in contemporary life by contributing to the forms of its objects was much alive in our minds. And we realized that revised aesthetic values and technical advances each bring about a change of attitude, the one influencing at first the few; the other, less subtly, the many.

The changing inclination of that period affected those working in the Bauhaus workshops and each reacted according to his ability, trying to help toward the building of new forms. The work as a whole was the result of the joint effort of a group, each member contributing his interpretation of an idea held in common. Many of the steps taken were intuitive rather than clearly conceived, and it is only in retrospect that their impact has become evident.

September, 1938 (Revised July, 1959)

Bauhaus: 1918–1928. Eds. Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius and Ise Gropius. New York. The Museum of Modern Art, 1938. Reprinted in Anni Albers: On Designing, Pellango Press, New haven 1959 and Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

On Jewelry

When I was asked to speak here about some work I had been doing, together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher at Black Mountain College, a work started quite a while before this war, —I was asked too, if I could refer in some way to defense work, in the mind of so many of us the most urgent work of the moment. Though our work has nothing to do with defense work, there was something right in asking to connect it with it. For it is obvious that the urge we feel for doing our part in a catastrophe of such huge proportions as this war, stands in the foreground of all of our thoughts. But I think we have found that for many of us our part cannot be that of going into a munition factory or that of helping those who suffer in this war in a direct way. Many of us are tied to our homes, to our normal circle of action to our work continuing as usual. But in all of us, I believe, the need to take some part is accelerating. The work we are doing may have no immediate effect on the outcome of war, as also the work I am going to speak about here, will have no influence on it now. But as every action transmits its sense or nonsense beyond its actual radius, whatever we do has its effect. To give our actions the meaning we want them to have implies questioning them anew and becoming conscious of their implications.

The work I am going to speak about here is the work I have been doing together with Alex Reed, student and later teacher, at Black Mountain College. It was not started with any clear knowledge of its possible inferences. Like any other work that has not been tried before, it took on form only by being tried. We knew the direction in which we wanted to go but not where we would end.

You will be astonished, I think, to hear, that the first stimulus to make jewelry from hardware came to us from the treasure of Monte Alban, the most precious jewels from ancient Mexico, found only a few years ago in a tomb near Oaxaca. These objects of gold and pearls, of jade, rock-crystal, and shells, made about 1000 years ago, are of such surprising beauty in unusual combinations of materials that we became aware of the strange limitations in materials commonly used for jewels today. Gold and silver, pearls or diamonds or their substitutes comprise just about the total scale. Rock-crystal with gold, pearls with simple seashells are beautiful together, we found. We began to look around us and, still in Mexico, we found beads made of onyx, which nobody ever seemed to buy. We saw silverbeads and remembering the Monte Alban combination of rock-crystal and gold, we combined onyx with silver. We made variations of this first combination and later, back in the States, we looked for new materials to use. In the 5 & 10 cents stores we discovered the beauty of washers and bobbypins: Enchanted we stood before kitchen-sink stoppers and glass insulators, picture books and erasers. The art of Monte Alban had given us the freedom to see things detached from their use, as pure materials, worth being turned into precious objects.

After indulging for a while in new material combinations of our necklaces we soon found the need for good constructions in addition to our strange conjunctions of materials. As we were neither goldsmiths nor knew even the simplest metal work or stonepolishing, we were forced to use materials as we found them as elements for our work. Strangely, we found that having to work with given elements or units, brought about new ways of construction, new ways of linking parts together, new catches, new ways of suspending parts. The professional jeweler has means of forming all parts forming a piece of work. His inventiveness in regard to construction depends on reshaping in already given ways, while our amateurish manner of using existing units made new constructions necessary. They were rather forced upon us by the material than being sought by us. We felt more acted upon than acting. I believe a goldsmith would come to many new and surprising results if he reversed at times his usual procedure and would, instead of making all parts to fit a given whole, form independent parts which would challenge his inventiveness and constructive ingenuity in combining.

To our surprise we found that though we used such common materials as bobbypins or washers or stopper chains for our necklaces they sometimes looked quite beautiful and even precious. To our greater surprise still, we found that other people liked them too. But our greatest surprise was, that others, like ourselves, did not care about the value or lack or value of our materials used, but enjoyed instead of material value that of surprise and inventiveness, —a spiritual value.

From the beginning we were quite conscious of our attempt not to discriminate between materials, not to attach to them the conventional values of preciousness or commonness. In breaking through the traditional valuation we felt this to be an attempt to rehabilitate materials. We felt that our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things, though we believe them to be permanent. We tried to show that spiritual values are truly dominant. We thought that our work suggested that jewels no longer were the reserved privilege of the few, but property of everyone who cared to look about and was open to the beauty of the simple things around us. Though so-called costume jewelry has gone in this direction, it is hard in them to trace back the simple elements that constitute them. We tried to emphasize just this side in our work. We wanted to lead the person looking at our jewels back through the process that brought it about. All things are at their beginning formed in this way of unprejudiced choosing. From time to time, it becomes necessary again to go back to it to clear the way for new seeing.

If we can more and more free ourselves from values other than spiritual, I believe we are going in a right direction. Every general movement is carried by small parts, by single people forming their way of believing and subordinating everything to this belief. We have to work from where we are. But just as you can go everywhere from any given point, so too the idea of any work, however small, can flow into an idea of true momentum.

Black Mountain

March 25, 1942

Typescript of an untitled talk given at Black Mountain College, March 25, 1942.

Design: Anonymous and Timeless

Though only the few penetrate the screen that habits of thought and conduct form in their time, it is good for all of us to pause sometimes, to think, wonder and maybe worry; to ask "where are we now?"

Concerned with form and with the shape of objects surrounding us—that is, with design—we will have to look at the things we have made. With the evidence of our work before us, we cannot escape its verdict. Today it tells us of separateness, of segregation and fragmentation, if I interpret rightly. For here we find two distinct points of departure: the scientific and technological, and the artistic. Too often these approaches arrive at separate results instead of at a single, all-inclusive form that embodies the whole of our needs: the need for the functioning of a thing and the need for an appearance that responds to our sense of form.

This complete form is not the mixture of functional form with decoration, ornament or an extravagant shape; it is the coalition of form answering practical needs and form answering aesthetic needs. Yet wherever we look today we are surrounded by objects which answer one or the other of these demands and only rarely both. If we believe that the visual influences us we must conclude that we are continually adding to disunity instead of to wholeness, that we are passing on the disunity which brought our objects about.

Wholeness is not a Utopian dream. It is something that we once possessed and now seem largely to have lost, or to say it less pessimistically, seem to have lost were it not for our inner sense of direction which still reminds us that something is wrong here because we know of something that is right.

An ancient Greek vase, though unsuited to any use today, still fills us with awe. We accept it as a manifestation of completeness, of true perfection. A bucket, fulfilling today somewhat the same purpose and functionally far superior to the ancient vessel, embarrasses us and we would blush were our cultural standards to be judged by it. We sense its incompleteness. It is true that some of our technical products today, our chemical glass or china, for instance, or some of the work of engineering, exhibit, in addition to—or by reason of—their clearly defined function, a rare purity of form; they are beautiful. But of the many things that make up our equipment today, hardly any are pure in form though perhaps sufficiently useful. On the other hand, those of our objects which are more concerned with the artistic, the products of our crafts, often are found lacking technologically and are often, if at all, only in part representative of our time.

Though fundamentally, people seem to change very little in the course of centuries, we of today are obliged to approach this work of designing very differently from our predecessors. If we realize that designing is more than merely giving a final outer appearance to articles of use, our problem becomes obvious. The craftsman, the designer of old, usually did not find his raw material ready made, waiting to be put to use by him; he had to prepare it himself. Nor did he follow a prescribed course of handling his material, but often himself was the inventor of working methods. At the same time he was the artist, free to use his material to his end in whatever way he would feel impelled to use it. The characteristics of the material, or the working procedure may have intrigued him, or the use his product was meant to be put to, or any other stimulus or their combination that may excite an artist. Picasso writes: "The artist is a receptacle for emotions, regardless of whether they spring from heaven, from earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing face, or from a spider's web."

In our modem world this all-comprising work of the craftsman is broken up into separate functions. The task of supplying the raw material is largely in the hands of science. Science not only supplies us with new processes of treating the product of nature as we have known them, but, changing the structure of materials, creates new compounds. The properties of known materials can be transformed, giving them new qualities. New materials have been brought to us, often characterized by their amazing pliability, their lack of rigidity. Today, the task of determining the working processes is in the hands of technologists and engineers; the execution of the work is in the hands of workmen, each one of them responsible only for a segment of the work. The planning of the shape of the thing to be? Here we have reached the crucial point.

We may think of "design" as the form we give to things after consideration of the varied and many claims from which that form evolves. There are the claims made by the purpose of the object as to choice of working material; further claims in regard to treatment that the chosen materials make and claims which develop with procedure of work. We must also regard as cogent, those considerations that come up with marketing, both financial and psychological, that is, those dealing with an imaginary or future public. Trends are important considerations whether in regard to function or appearance, including the trends that come into view and those that should be brought about. Obligations arise with exerting influence by the very act of adding more objects to this already complicated world. Finally, if we regard the culmination, the subtle effects of those intangible qualities that lie in proportion, in color, in surface treatment, in size, in the relationship of all factors together which constitute FORM—all of this enters into what we consider "design," then the problems of designing today, I think, become apparent.

The craftsman held together in his work all these varied aspects of forming. He was the coordinator of all the forces affecting his product. He had the material in hand, not only figuratively, but actually, and it was his actual experience of wood, of fibre, of metal, that told him about his material. Its strength and its weakness directed him. His tools, too, were in his hands and they led the way, circumscribing the range of action. His output answered first of all the demand of his own community, a public known to him through direct contact, and its response directed him—approving, suggesting, disapproving. His production was on a scale that allowed for changes and, if it proved unsuccessful, financial risk could be kept under control. His independence as the sole in command, his not being tied to any outlined routine of production, allowed for formative speculation and imaginative variation from piece to piece and thus for improvement. (This chance for progress from one piece to the other is important to the conscientious worker.) Above all, the craftsman was free to follow the promptings of material, of color, line, texture; to pursue a thoughtful forecast of function, a cleverly conceived construction, to wherever it would lead him. The results were objects embodying the many forces that took part in their making; some so finely blended that this whole became art, others, less successfully, the fertile soil for art.

Today we have a different scene. The many considerations that go into this entity called FORM are, of course, the same. But the miraculous event that is changed from addition to sum—the fusion of parts into one whole—is indeed a rare event. No one organizer is any longer at work. A staff of specialists, sectional professionals, has taken the craftsman's place. (With expanding knowledge goes limitation in range.) The product of contributions from scientist, engineer, financier, market-analyst, production-manager, sales-manager, workman, artist, is the addition of these many factors; to form from the parts a whole takes a spirit of great cooperation. Too often though, the parts compete, each seeking to predominate and, subsequently we have not wholeness but fragmentation. A cathedral, of course, was also not one man's work; but a common belief guided all efforts and acted as coordinator where today we seem largely lacking in an over-all purpose.

Division of work is not the only aspect of specialization. Specialization means the loss of direct, actual, experience beyond the field of specialty and there, substitutes information for experience. But information means intellectualization and intellectualization—one-sidedness, incompleteness. Alfred North Whitehead comes to my aid here when he says:

Effective knowledge is professionalized knowledge, supported by a restricted acquaintance with useful subjects subservient to it.

This situation has its dangers. It produces minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. Now to be mentally in a groove is to live in contemplating a given set of abstractions. The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is paid. But there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life. Thus in the modern world the celibacy of the medieval learned class has been replaced by a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts. Of course, no one is merely a mathematician, or merely a lawyer. People have lives outside their professions or their businesses. But the point is the restraint of serious thought within a groove. The remainder of life is treated superficially, within the imperfect categories of thought derived from one profession.

The dangers arising from this aspect of professionalism are great, particularly in our democratic societies. The directive force of reason is weakened. The leading intellects lack balance.

Designing has become more and more an intellectual performance, the organization of the constituent parts into a coalition, parts whose function is comprehended but can no longer be immediately experienced. Designing today is indirect forming. It deals no longer directly with the medium but vicariously: graphically and verbally.

To restore to the designer the experience of direct experience of a medium, is, I think, the task today. Here is, as I see it, a justification for crafts today. For it means taking, for instance, the working material into the hand, learning by working it of its obedience and its resistance, its potency and its weakness, its charm and dullness. The material itself is full of suggestions for its use if we approach it unaggressively, receptively. It is a source of unending stimulation and advises us in most unexpected manner.

Design is often regarded as the form imposed on the material by the designer. But if we, as designers, cooperate with the material, treat it democratically, you might say, we will reach a less subjective solution of this problem of form and therefore a more inclusive and permanent one. The less we, as designers, exhibit in our work our personal traits, our likes and dislikes, our peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, in short, our individuality, the more balanced the form we arrive at will be. It is better that the material speaks than that we speak ourselves. The design that shouts "I am a product of Mr. X" is a bad design. As consumers, we are not interested in Mr. X but in his product, which we want to be our servant and not his personal ambassador. Now, if we sit at our desk designing, we cannot avoid exhibiting ourselves for we are excluding the material as our coworker, as the directive force in our planning.

The good designer is the anonymous designer, so I believe, the one who does not stand in the way of the material; who sends his products on their way to a useful life without an ambitious appearance. A useful object should perform its duty without much ado. The tablecloth that calls "Here I am, look at me," is invading the privacy of the consumer. The curtains that cry "We are beautiful, your attention please," but whisper "though not very practical, we will need much of your time to keep us in shape," are badly designed. The unknown designer or designers of our sheets or of our light bulbs performed their task well. Their products are complete in their unpretentious form.

The more we avoid standing in the way of the material and in the way of tools and machines, the better chance there is that our work will not be dated, will not bear the stamp of too limited a period of time and be old fashioned some day instead of antique. The imprint of a time is unavoidable. It will occur without our purposely fashioning it. And it will outlast fashions only if it embodies lasting, together with transitory, qualities.

Not only the materials themselves which we come to know in a craft, are our teachers. The tools, or the more mechanized tools, our machines, are our guides, too. We learn from them of the interaction of material and its use, how a material can change its character when used in a certain construction and how in turn the construction is affected by the material; how we can support the characteristics of material or suppress them, depending on the form of construction we use. In architecture this may mean the difference of roman and gothic style, in weaving the same difference on a minute scale, the difference of satin and taffeta—the same material in different construction. Important, too, is the realization that with the increased perfection of a tool in regard to any one function, its range of use grows more limited. Thus we find that for a hand-weaver, for instance, the foot-power loom allows for far greater variety of work than a machine loom for "each step towards the mechanical perfection of the loom, in common with all machines, in its degree, lessens the freedom of the weaver, and his control of the design in working," says Luther Hooper.

In regard to material and tools or machines, it may be easier to supply the direct experience of their influence on the form of the object to be, than to supply the experience of the public demand and public reaction. The buyer, who today is the interpreter of public taste, only rarely has the necessary penetrating insight or foresight for this influential task. Were the judgment of the buyer of any consideration to the production and exhibition of a work of art, for instance, the event of a Paul Klee or a Picasso would have been utterly impossible. The public has more good sense and sound judgment than is usually supposed. The buyer has an inclination to base his estimation on the expression of lower rather than on higher tastes. He also may be misled in his interpretations by the deflecting influence of advertising. If the public were given a free chance to choose a larger number of well-designed objects, it would perhaps rise above any now-expected response. The designer of today who is asked to consider this forecast of public reaction is dealing possibly with a fictitious public, a public that is known to him only by hearsay. He may be adjusting his product to the unreal public that a biased interpreter is showing him. The craftsman of old was in the fortunate position to know his public in the circle of his immediate neighbors. Even though this group may not have included all of his customers, he could check public response by direct contact with this part of his public. A tentative production by the method of craft, on a small scale, might make it possible to try out an object and gather public reaction to it before it is produced on the enormous scale of today's mass production. Maybe it would then be possible to avoid speculation as to the acceptance of an article and have a more reliable basis for judging public response. Perhaps it would then also be possible to be bolder in our production and not necessarily conform so much to questionable standards. This may be less impractical than it seems for it might make it possible to avoid large scale financial risk. All these practical considerations, real, or fictitious, such as those in regard to a general acceptance, may act, as we have seen, as a stimulus to the designer. On the other hand, these very considerations may, at times, be frustrating to him and may impede the full play of his inventiveness, his freedom as an artist. When the practical usefulness of the object to be threatens to turn mainly into constraint, his conscience as artist may tell him to disregard it in favor of unrestricted use of color, line, texture, or whatever other form-element may be leading him on. Losing sight of the practical purpose need not necessarily be a loss, for the impractical result may turn out to be—art.


Magazine of Art 40:2, February 1947. pp. 51–53. Reprinted in Anni Albers: On Designing 1959 and 1971. Edited and reprinted as "On the Designing of Textiles and the Handweaver’s Place in Industry," American Fabrics 50, Summer 1960, pp. 89–99.

Material as Metaphor

A short while ago I had a visit from a ten-week-old baby who looked at me wide eyed and I thought somewhat puzzled and was struggling as if trying to tell me something and did not know how.

And I thought how often did I feel like that, not knowing how to get out what wanted to be said.

Most of our lives we live closed up in ourselves, with a longing not to be alone, to include others in that life that is invisible and intangible.

To make it visible and tangible, we need light and material, any material. And any material can take on the burden of what had been brewing in our consciousness or subconsciousness, in our awareness or in our dreams.

Now, material, any material obeys laws of its own, laws recognizably given to it by the reigning forces of nature or imposed by us on those materials that are created by our brain, such as sound, words, colors, illusions of space—laws of old or newly invented. We may follow them or oppose them, but they are guidelines, positive or negative.

The human brain is a computer. Total chaos is not human. In the cosmos we try to unravel the riddle of its order. Television, my great teacher, tells me that astronomers are finding ever more simplifications of order, unifying ever more everything.

How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? "Accidentally." Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey their rules and their limits. We have to obey, and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure. (Years ago, I once asked John Cage how he had started to find his way. He will not remember it. "By chance" was the answer.) Students worry about choosing their way. I always tell them, "you can go anywhere from anywhere."

In my case it was threads that caught me, really against my will. To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered. But circumstances held me to threads and they won me over. I learned to listen to them and to speak their language. I learned the process of handling them.

And with the listening came gradually a longing for a freedom beyond their range and that led me to another medium, graphics. Threads were no longer as before three dimensional; only their resemblance appeared drawn or printed on paper.

What I had learned in handling threads, I now used in the printing process. Again I was led. My prints are not transfers from paintings to color on paper as is the usual way. I worked with the production process itself, mixing various media, turning the screens….

What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication.

That listening to it, not dominating it makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.

The finer tuned we are to it, the closer we come to art.

Art is the final aim. In an interview recently Maximilian Schell, the actor, said, "art is for realizing dreams."

February 25, 1982

Typescript of Albers’s statement as member of a panel "The Art/Craft Connection: Grass Roots or Glass Houses" at the College Art Association’s 1982 annual meeting. February 25, 1982. The panel was moderated by Rose Slivka, editor of Craft International and the panelists were Anni Albers, John Cage, Lee Hall, Robert Malloy, Phillip Pavia, Jacqueline Rice and Peter Voulkos

1938 Work with Material

1938 Weaving at the Bauhaus

1942 On Jewelry

1947 Design Anonymous and Timeless

1982 Material as Metaphor