Steeped in the Bauhaus
“I was a product of the Bauhaus,” Susan Keig explained, as we sat in the living room of her apartment designed by Mies van der Rohe, an early Bauhaus member. Surrounded by her vast library on typography and graphic design, amid a home with much of the original 1951 cabinetry and other Miesian touches, Keig is in many ways a direct line to the strand of revolutionary design behind the iconic 860|880 buildings.
Keig’s first glimpse of Bauhaus ideas was in college in 1938 as an art major, when her mentor returned from a summer class given by Maholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus (then on Prairie Avenue in Chicago). It was a radical time filled with radical ideas, among them the notion of merging technology and design, craftsman and artist, function and aesthetic in an uncompromising vision of the future— ideas certainly at the avant garde in 1930s Kentucky.
“The Bauhaus started after World War I to encourage better building,” she says. “Function and the combination of technology and art,” were its driving forces. “People tend to think all of this happened by itself,” she says with a sweeping gesture to the glass and steel frame. “They see so many buildings like this; they have no idea.”
When an inheritance offered the opportunity in 1960, she knew she wanted to buy an apartment at 860 Lake Shore Drive, built nine years earlier.
The building was revolutionary for its day—clean lines, severe some would say, the glass “walls.” The floor to ceiling windows even opened up. “That’s why the building wasn’t so popular when it first came on the market,” she said. “People were afraid they’d fall out. Frankly, there wasn’t any building like this. Only architects who believed in the building would move in at the time. People were too scared.”
But Keig understood immediately what van der Rohe was doing. “I bought it 15 minutes after seeing it,” she says. “Everything just clicked. I’ve been here more than 50 years, and all I’ve done is add clutter,” she says laughing.
Keig broke ground in other realms as well, rising to a vice president of a leading design and film studio in Chicago. “Chicago used to be a hub of graphic arts and design, typography, printing—you name it,” she recalls. A past president of the Society of Typographic Arts/American Center for Design, she taught design at the Institute of Design (IIT), and lectured at Yale University, the Heritage of the Arts SUNY, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her love of typography also traces a direct line to the Bauhaus. Maholy-Nagy was, among other things, a graphic artist committed to “new typography” that stressed the “clarity of the message at its most emphatic form.” No need for serifs, no need for even capital letters, the “new typography” sought to boil typography down to its essence: a means of communication.
That philosophy is evident in the 860|880 buildings. “Everything in this building was Helvetica typeface,” she says, although that was changed—much to her dismay—during recent renovations. The address’s numerals above the entryway are now Futura, she notes. “It’s in the same family, but it’s not Helvetica. If you’re good you can tell the difference.”
After nearly 50 years at 860, she is one of the last repositories of the building’s history and its early days. She hates to see that history and understanding of Mies and the Bauhaus fade. “People just buy real estate today,” she says. “They’re not interested in finding out more about it. Like the story of Helvetica– how it evolved, its history—but no one is really interested in it anymore.”