Max Bill was born in 1908, in Winterthur, Switzerland. From 1924 — 27 he was apprenticed as a silversmith at the Arts-and-Crafts school Zurich. During those years, he also went on a study tour to Paris and travelled in Italy. In 1927/28 Bill studied at the Bauhaus Dessau under Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Lazlo-Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer. Very importantly, he also became a student of Wassily Kandinsky, whose theoretical writings he took as a major point of orientation. Bill then worked as an architect, later as a graphic designer and sculptor. Eventually, he also worked as a journalist, writer, and product designer. Starting in 1930, he performed at the satirical show »Der Krater« (»The Crater«) in Zurich, became a member of the Work Federation, and belonged, next to Richard Paul Lohse, Verena Loewensberg, and Camille Graeser, to the inner circle of the »Züricher Konkreten« (»Zurich Concrete Group«). In 1933 he completed building his residence and studio in Zurich-Höngg. At the same time, he started doing first geometrical sculptures and increasingly concentrated on artist circles in Paris where he lived from 1932 until 1936. There he met Belgian painter, sculptor, and architect Georges Vantongerloo and joined the artist group »Abstraction-Création« which Vantongerloo had founded together with Theo van Doesburg, Antoine Pevsner, Naum Gabo, and Auguste Herbin.
In 1937 Bill became a member of the »Allianz,« a group of modern Swiss artists, and in the following year he joined the »Congrès international d’architecture moderne« (CIAM). During this time he completed first theoretical writings on art and architecture, on elementary forms, visual rhythm, measurement and proportion. Among these writings were the first version of »Konkrete Gestaltung« / »Concrete Design,« written in 1936, and »Konkrete Kunst« / »Concrete Art« (in: Werk, 8/1938). This led to his later pioneering treatises that also dealt with product design. In 1941 Bill founded the »Allianz-Verlag,« a press where he published further writings. From 1944 — 45 he had a teaching appointment for »Formlehre« (»science of forms/shapes«), at the Arts-and-Crafts school Zurich. In 1951, together with Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher, he co-founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (»Academy for Design«) and became it first Rector. There he designed buildings and items for daily use, yet he also developed an educational program grounded in the teachings of the Bauhaus. Numerous travels in the 1950s took Bill to Brazil, the U.S., and other countries. From 1967 until 1974, Bill held the chair for Environmental Design at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg (University of Fine Arts). In the years to follow he held many public offices in art organisations and politics.
With the Swiss Pavilion at the Triennale di Milano in 1936, Bill accepted one of his first public commissions. Dispensing with expressive forms of design and privileging clear building structures and proportions along with a well-measured synthesis of construction, material, and form, became the hallmarks of his architectonic design (Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm, 1950 — 55; Studio and administrative building of Radio Zurich, 1964 — 74; residence and studio building in Zumikon, 1967/68). Bill’s interest in functional, »industrialized« construction also aimed at the development and use of prefabricated construction modules. He had employed the system of prefabricating concrete already for his first residence and studio in Zurich and had further developed it as head architect of the division »Bilden und Gestalten« (»Creation and Design«) at the national exhibit in Lausanne (1964) with the pavilion system. Moreover, the development of prefabricating systems was not limited to the realm of architecture.
From its very beginnings, Bill’s artistic work which included the fields of architecture, art, and design, focused on basic principles of order and construction. »we call ›concrete art‹ those artworks that emerged on the basis of their very own means and rules – without extrinsic reference to natural appearances or their transformation, that is, without abstraction. (…) concrete art in its final consequence is the pure expression of harmonious measurement and law. it puts systems in order and through artistic means gives life to these kinds of order« (trans. from Bill, Konkrete Kunst, 1936). The lithography series 15 Variationen über ein Thema / 15 Variations on a Theme (1938), printed in Henri Matisse’s printing press in Paris, documents in the genre of graphic art a systematic as well as mathematical-logical approach to the inner and outer structure of an artwork. Grounded in a foundational concept, the composition variations of geometric forms reveal method-oriented artistic approaches through which the Bauhaus student positioned himself in the art-theoretical discourse of the »concrete« as it circulated at the time. These approaches kept informing Bill’s entire, broadly conceptualized theoretical and artistic work, including the graphic arts and painting as well as object design, interior art, and architecture.
In the sculptural work that Bill pursued in variations throughout almost his entire productive life, the reference to foundational principles and to possibilities of variation remained a determining quality of his creative methods – methods that were geared towards objectivity (Unendliche Schleife / Infinite Loop, 1935 — 53; Familie von fünf halben Kugeln / Family of Five Half Spheres, 1966). After 1944 Bill extended these methods into the realm of commercial graphic design, typography, and the design of items for everyday use. For this he developed what he called »product forms,« always following his persuasion that »the difference between everyday problems of design and artwork such as painting or sculpture is simply a gradual one, not a fundamental one« (Feststellungen, 1974 — 76). Among the products he designed were the Patria typewriter (1944), the dreibeinstuhl (literally: »three-legged chair«) produced in several variants (1949), the kitchen clock produced by Junghans (1949), and the ulmer hocker – hocker für zwei sitzhöhen (literally: »ulm stool – stool for two seat heights«) which Bill designed as a multifunctional piece of furniture with Hans Gugelot in 1954 at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm.
Starting in the 1930s, Bill participated in numerous exhibitions that made his work internationally known (»Konkrete Kunst« / »Concrete Art,« 1947; »Die gute Form« / »The Good Form,« 1949; Werkbundausstellung Köln / Exhibition of the Work Federation Cologne, 1949). In 1951 he participated in the Biennale in São Paulo, in 1955, 1959, and 1964, he was part of the Documenta I-III, and in 1971 his work was exhibited at the Sculpture Biennale in Budapest. In 1974 a large solo exhibition toured the U.S. Since then Bill’s work has been shown in many exhibitions, and the following only provides a small selection: Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (1987), Kunsthalle Bielefeld (1989); in 2008 Bill’s 100th birthday was honored by an exhibition at the MARTa Herford Museum and the Kunstmuseum Winterthur.
Max Bill died on December 9, 1994, in Berlin.
Max Bill: Ohne Anfang ohne Ende. Eine Retrospektive zum 100. Geburtstag: Ausst.-Kat. MARTa Herford Museum, Zürich 2008
Thomas, A.: Mit subversivem Glanz. Max Bill und seine Zeit, Bd. 1, 1908 — 1939, Zürich 2008
Max Bill. Aspekte seines Werks: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstmuseum Winterthur und Gewerbemuseum Winterthur, Sulgen 2008
Bill, J. (Hg.): Max Bill. Funktion und Funktionalismus: Schriften 1945 — 1988, Bern 2008
Bill, J.: Max Bill am Bauhaus, Bern 2008
Max Bill. Typografie, Reklame, Buchgestaltung: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Bielefeld u.a., Bielefeld 1998
Rüegg, A.: Das Atelierhaus Max Bill 1932/33, Heiden 1997
Bill, A. u. Th.: Max Bill. Die Grafischen Reihen, Osterfildern-Ruit 1995
Max Bill Retrospektive – Skulpturen, Gemälde, Graphik 1928 — 1987: Ausst.-Kat. Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt/M. 1987