Moving Away from Bauhaus and Ulm
The Development of an Environmental Focus in the Foundation Programme at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad

Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan
publication date: 03.2019

The National Institute of Design (NID) came into existence at the intersection of postcolonial aspirations to design a new nation and the new citizen and Cold War cultural diplomacy. It was located in Ahmedabad, a medieval western Indian city on the banks of the river Sabarmati, famous for its textile mills and as the place where Gandhi began his anti-British campaigns. Initially it was housed, perhaps quite appropriately, in a museum building designed by Le Corbusier where discussions began on the appropriate educational philosophy and pedagogy: Who would produce new lotas for the new nation? Who would teach them and how?

In 1961, India’s first prime minister wrote an official note:



“I am glad to learn of the establishment of the National Institute of Industrial Design, a training service and research agency at the national level; I think such a design institute is certainly needed in view of our development in many ways. I wish the Institute success.”[1]



It was then a little over ten years since independence and the role for modern design was clear—nation building and providing a “standard of living” for Indians. Charles and Ray Eames had responded to this call, drawing in their “India Report” (1958) the contours of an institute for design education to “hasten the production of the ‘Lotas’ of our time,” those perfect pots which were, for them, the metaphor for good design anchored in the cultural life of India. However, in the following year, a travelling exhibit from MoMA (1959) consisting of about 400 objects of everyday use toured nine cities in India, introducing contemporary good design from Europe and America. The exhibit was sponsored by the Ford Foundation (who also sponsored the visit of the Eameses), whose representative in India, Douglas Ensminger commented, “This show is absolutely going to stand this country right on its ear—which is precisely what we want.”[2]

The National Institute of Design (NID), as it was eventually named, thus, came into existence at the intersection of postcolonial aspirations to design a new nation and the new citizen and Cold War cultural diplomacy. It was located in Ahmedabad, a medieval western Indian city on the banks of the river Sabarmati, famous for its textile mills and as the place where Gandhi began his anti-British campaigns. Initially it was housed, perhaps quite appropriately, in a museum building designed by Le Corbusier where discussions began on the appropriate educational philosophy and pedagogy: Who would produce new lotas for the new nation? Who would teach them and how?

Images of undergraduate student work in the Foundation Programme at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (NID) give the impression that the NID simply transplanted the contents of the Bauhaus’s Preliminary Course and the Grundlehre of HfG Ulm. This article tries to uncover the thinking that led to the development of the Foundation Programme, explores the ways that it drew on the pedagogies developed at the Bauhaus and at HfG Ulm and the diversions it made to become and remain relevant to the evolving landscapes in India.


Forging an Educational Philosophy

NID’s first teacher H. Kumar Vyas joined the NID in 1962. He recollects:



“My earliest and most vivid recollection of this period is of a series of informal and protracted meetings among few of us. These were held at the Corbusier Museum building, the temporary headquarters of the Institute and were moderated by Gautam Sarabhai, the founding member and chairman. It was in course of these meetings that the Institute’s value systems and its educational ethos emerged.”[3]



Three aspects formed the backdrop to these discussions. The first was India’s long, unbroken history of craft manufacture where techniques and skills were passed on inter-generationally within caste-based knowledge networks clearly unsuited for the new pedagogical enterprise. The second, and equally unsuitable, were the existing art schools in India, established in the mid-nineteenth century and still reproducing the curricula and methods of their British forbears. The third was the contact with modernist ideas in different parts of India—in Tagore’s Santiniketan, in Bombay’s Progressive Artists Group—intensifying after independence with the arrival of European and American experts in various fields, travelling exhibits, new materials and technologies.

In preparation to articulating the educational philosophy of NID, the founding chairman of NID, Gautam Sarabhai defined NID’s purpose:



“NID’s concern is with the quality of the physical environment and its relevance to human needs. The task is educational-professional education of designers, and education in the wider context, through service to industry and the communication links established to provoke informed and sober public discussion. The endeavor is not only to respond to existing demands with discrimination and without preconceptions, but to create an awareness of problems of contemporary significance that are as yet generally unrecognized. Its challenge is responsible pace-setting.”[4]



Sarabhai outlined an educational philosophy with the supporting organizational structure and culture that would guide individuals and groups “toward cooperative and purposeful action.” The document was shaped by his interest in psychology, organizational behaviour and education (his family hosted Maria Montessori in 1940, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and A. K. Rice of the Tavistock Clinic in the 1960s) as also his understanding of what education in the modern professions entailed.

The NID was to provide professional education. The defining characteristic of a profession is that “its practice is required by its society,” involving not only teaching theory but practice under super-vision as well-“learning to know” and “learning to do.” Such learning would take place through apprenticeship where teachers would be able to retain the respect of students only if they themselves practised. Practice would also provide opportunities for the application of intellectual rigour and ingenuity to the “messy, complex, multiple variables of community life.“[5] This also called for an integrating generalist approach, not a specialist one which leads to an increasing fragmentation of knowledge. Education, Sarabhai declared, included direct instruction from what is known, discussion of what is only partly or incompletely known, intellectual training or the integration of knowledge and opportunities for growth and maturation.

As the primary institution in an undergraduate’s life, an educational institution needed to offer a model of adult authority which was not punitive but provided opportunities for students to acquire knowledge and discover for themselves to what use they can put the knowledge they have gained. To achieve this, the institution needed to be small, have a selective admission process followed by ruthless selection at all stages from matriculate to faculty member. And finally, Sarabhai concluded with:



“Good education, in the true sense consists not so much in acquiring knowledge, about just one thing or about everything as in acquiring the capacity to think clearly about anything. In addition to acquiring knowledge about his specialty, a student should have adequate opportunities to think for himself, to have his ideas questioned, and to question the ideas of others. If he is to acquire the capacity to think, he needs practice, and guidance while he practices.”[6]



The bibliography at the end of the document cites A. K. Rice’s The Modern University: a model organisation, written in 1970, which discussed the organization and governance of universities in relation to maturation of students and the possibilities of learning in formal institutions. One can also see the clear echo of the Bauhaus model of learning centred round masters and apprentices, though Sarabhai does not explicitly mention this.

This philosophy of education was expressed in an institutional structure and organizational culture, which provided faculty and students with opportunities to discuss and contribute to educational goals and strategies through consultative forums. It also proposed continuous qualitative evaluation and the possibility of trust and communication informing the relationship between teachers and students in pursuit of an ideal balance between authority and responsibility. These ideas were drawn from Sarabhai’s interest in psychoanalysis (the ideas of Erik H. Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Alan Roland) and the early collective of teachers’ interest in educationists and philosophers such as Ivan Illich (who visited Ahmedabad in the 1970s), Jiddu Krishnamurti and Gijubhai Badheka. The question is: How did these ideals translate into a programme, courses, curricula and pedagogies?

Faculty Training



“There is no single university or institution abroad for design education which lends itself to be adopted as a model for the Indian situation. Instead, individual design teachers and consultants from abroad who have an established reputation for work in specialised fields of design have to be located and their assistance sought for ‘training’ future faculty members and for assisting in developing a programme suitable to India’s special needs.”[7]



And thus began the effort to create NID a “seed farm” of design education and an advertisement was placed in newspapers in 1964, inviting applications for student-faculty trainees for postgraduate training in design. Two interrelated processes were initiated: structured faculty training programmes (graphic design, product design, followed by ceramic, textiles and furniture design) and work on real-life projects. Faculty trainees worked on projects in collaboration with international experts and consultants, often funded by the Ford Foundation. They got first-hand experience of how designers worked and collaboration with subject specialists served to bring relevant fields within the folds of the institute. The morning hours were given over to such project work and the afternoon devoted to design training exercises with experts. It was at this point that NID’s connection with HfG Ulm began with the visit of Hans Gugelot to NID in 1965.

Five years earlier, in 1960, Ulm founder Otl Aicher had made a visit to India and his report, Prerequisites for Development, is a document “on the country’s economic, social, political and cultural situation—not free of exoticism—but at the same time full of sympathy for the subcontinent’s desire to modernize.”[8] Another document, “India 1960: Thoughts on the occasion of a visit to India in May 1960” has his sketches and texts with “concrete suggestions for solving traffic problems, organizing settlement structures and building houses.”[9] These may have provided some orientation for Gugelot who observed a society where the “influences of the technologically oriented west were colliding with the society which was in the process of creating a secular state based on socialism and economic planning.“ It was also a society, which had the strong “inclination to hold on to existing values for as long as possible, instead of turning to the new,“ where neither the rich nor the emerging professional classes “proved itself a leader in terms of taste” and “‘new’ products were accepted by the common man without discrimination.” He saw NID as a “central place, which would be in a position to make everyone conscious towards desire for quality” and since the profession of the form designer was still completely unknown, the institute could play a pioneering role in this regard. And, most importantly for our discussion, he observed that Indian universities attached great importance to passing the exam with good grades and “herein lies the task of the Design institute, to point completely in a new direction and to propagate a new attitude towards training. It is actually going to be a pioneering work, which should perhaps start at the kindergarten level.” Gugelot’s report ended with details on the development of a foundation course for industrial designers, developed in Ahmedabad in collaboration with Vyas.[10]

The main areas this year-long course covered bore close overlaps with the Grundlehre of HfG Ulm:

Design - Elements of design - without technology - and colour methods (using exercises deve-loped by Albers and Itten)

Drawing - Freehand and presentation methods

Workshop - Practical methods for wood, metal, plastic, plaster, photography and typography

Sciences - Physiology, economy, constructive geometry, Sociology, gestalt, symmetry, science theory

Technology - Properties and application of materials and technical design

Seminar - History of culture during 20th century. Product theory

In the second and third years, he recommended that courses should present a natural progression of the foundation course with students working more and more on practical tasks. The balance in relationship between the acquisition of new knowledge and capacities on the one hand and the practical work on the other would be shifted more and more in favour of practical work, as students advance into their studies through the years. This framework was developed further by Vyas when he visited Ulm in 1966 with the assistance of another Ulm teacher, Herbert Lindinger. Most of the elements of this foundation course, developed mainly for training potential faculty members, found their way into the Foundation Programme for undergraduate design education, which commenced in 1970. After about five years significant adaptations were made, giving the programme a unique character of its own.

Foundation Programme at NID: An Approach

About a decade after the Sarabhai document, Mohan Bhandari, the architect of the NID’s Foundation Programme wrote Foundation Programme at NID: An Approach (1983), which reveals how the educational philosophy outlined in the Sarabhai document melded with the Ulm-experts’ suggestions and translated into curricula, pedagogy and classroom assignments and transactions.

The document opens with a detailed analysis of the period 1970–75, when the Ulm exercises were implemented and the Foundation Programme struggled to “evolve and identity of its own.” Bhandari felt that “there was something very vital lacking”: learning was becoming “more and more class-room oriented” and “students seemed to in a way sleep walk through the classroom/studio hours.” New entrants, he observed, would soon decide they were the “graphic design type” or the “product design type” and only apply themselves to those courses, which would secure them a place in those specialisations. It seemed that the programme itself had created “sufficient reasons and circumstances for students to specialize straight away and the very basic objective of the foundation programme remain unfulfilled.” A new framework was needed to rectify this downward spiral.

The document goes into introspection on the inadequacies, and in fact destructive influences, of the Indian school system and its debilitating effects on the learner who arrives at the NID. The Indian family, community and religion, along with the school system, Bhandari felt, provided a rigid and regimental setting in the early impressionable years of childhood at the cost of an exploratory, curious spirit with a questioning attitude leading to “approval seeking” which “totally curtails one’s tolerance for confusion or ambiguity which is a (sic!) inseparable of a (sic!) exploratory process of learning.” Only an experimental form of learning “would enable youngsters to ask certain fundamental questions about the present nature of our society and not take its existing status quo for granted which is in a way opposed to the society’s own concept of a safe and convenient socialisation.” NID’s Foundation Programme was therefore seen as a critical stage to prepare the undergraduate to transition from and transcend social conditioning to foster qualities like selfesteem, mutual understanding and respect that would lead to a strong sense of purpose for the human race to continue a meaningful existence.[11]

The introduction acknowledges that the Bauhaus and HfG Ulm too were faced with a similar task and were considerably successful. But since the time of the Bauhaus and Ulm the world has changed a great deal. Today’s economical-ecological priorities and other problems in general facing the world have changed considerably, too. It must be remembered that in the period of research for this book, the UNIDO-ICSID international conference on Design for Development took place at NID (1979), emphasising once again the orientation of design towards the problems of development. Victor Papanek was a delegate at this conference and his book Design for the Real World was already a subject of much discussion within NID. Thus, the Foundation Programme’s role was seen to be the “formative stage” between school education (with its attended shortcomings) and design training to address the many emerging challenges in the social and ecological environment.

Some parts of the Ulm model were retained: the language of quick visual observation and the language of visualization of ideas, learning about materials, visual sensitivity—perception of form and colour, visual literacy and scientific thinking in terms of science and maths lessons. But it was clear that the Gugelot-Lindinger exercises by themselves would not create this vital sense of ethical purpose that was envisaged as the critical attitude required for a designer in India as they were essentially classroom-based skill-training activities. Bhandari then proposed including an environmental awareness component into the Foundation Programme with the city as a real-life classroom to bring students closer to the realities of their country and underlined that “this must happen in their education in form of a formative stage before entering the stage of training for a specialized type of professional expertise.”[12]

This was how the Environmental Exposure course took shape, making a significant departure from the Ulm model. Students chose a micro environment in the city and conducted a detailed ethnographic study on the inanimate components (shops, homes, places of worship, food carts and so on), the human actors (women, men, children, the old, the homeless and so on) and their interrelationships. The area would be studied over an entire semester of four months recording changes over a single day and over the entire period—seasons, festivals, civic disturbances (Ahmedabad is a city prone to ethnic violence). All these were to be recorded visually using all the representation skills learnt in the classroom. Equally, understanding the histories of the people and place was encouraged to contextualise the present form, which was experienced by the student. This stage was to be followed by a second one where students would identify problems in the environment and relate it to distinct patterns of human behaviour and attitude. This course provided students with a deep first-hand insight into real life situations with a cumulative result in terms of understanding the city as a whole in many parts. The city-based Environmental Exposure course had a second component, which took students to rural areas within the province and a similar ethnographic study was carried out in that location.[13] This was also the time when Christopher Alexander and his analysis of an Indian village in Notes on a Synthesis of Form was widely discussed on campus.

To all this was added exposure to fine arts, music, films and extra-curricular activities to broaden the students’ horizons and provide an appreciation of creative practices allied to design. This way the programme laid the foundation encompassing cognitive, emotive, intuitive and physical aspects of a learner’s growth both from the point of view of making him a design professional and broadly exposed human being.

The second major departure from the Bauhaus-Ulm model was the final course, which introduced students to design as a problem-solving methodology within the Foundation Programme as a logical extension of the Enviromental Exposure course. Bhandari noted that design methodology or a problem-solving process in design in Europe or America was mainly framed in the context of a designer and client relationship. Learning methodology was thus centred on the concept of a design office situation where a designer deals with a client (who is a manufacturer of goods or a representative of a commercial corporation) who brings to him a problem in terms of arousing a desired consumer reaction for better profits. In such a formulation the designer’s role was relegated to the promotion of consumerism and hence contributed to the producer’s aim to maximize his profits. Yet, Bhandari believed, in developing countries, social commitment and serious consideration of national priorities needed to be reflected in the philosophy of design education at a school of design. How then could one introduce students to the idea of design as a tool of development at the grass roots?

Bhandari proposed ending the Foundation Programme with a course wherein the students are introduced to design methodology, which “incorporates an individual designer’s questioning attitude, his sense of social commitment and his value system in general (hopefully honed by the exposure to the city and village). The course envisaged a broad-based analysis stage where each aspect of the problem is studied at varying scales with solutions at each scale: from designing a device to suggesting where to seek solutions. In short, a designer should be trying to deal with the total problem at environmental scale and not with its parts only. The Gestalt principles learnt in the perception exercises in the classroom were expected to become the conceptual framework at the level of problem-solving. The generation of alternative solutions, experimentation, validation and feedback was introduced as was the realisation that these were neither water-tight compartments nor linear in sequence. Grappling with the complexity as well as the ambiguity and uncertainty this might entail was also introduced to students.”[14]

It was on the basis of these experiences in the one and a half-year Foundation Programme that the individual decided on a specialization rather than engaging with the Foundation Programme through the lens of a preconceived decision of a future specialisation. Bhandari hoped that after the Foundation Programme, the spirit of attitude building and sensitization would be continued in all design disciplines. He advocated periodic reviews and critical reappraisals to ensure that the programme remained relevant and responsive to changing times. It has since been revised though maintaining to this day the basic framework and logic he proposed.





  1. ^ National Institute of Design: 50 Years of the National Institute of Design 1961–2011, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad 2013.
  2. ^ Quoted in Farhan Karim: Domesticating Modernism in India, 1920–1950, Doctoral thesis, Uni-versity of Sydney, 2012, pp. 7–26.
  3. ^ H. Kumar Vyas: “Learning at NID. Then and Now,” Unpublished essay, Ahmedabad, (ca. 1990s), p. 14.
  4. ^ Gautam Sarabhai: National Institute of Design: Internal Organisation, Structure and Culture, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad 1972, p. 1.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid, p. 4.
  7. ^ National Institute of Design: National Institute of Design - Documentation 1964–69, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad 1969, p. 88.
  8. ^ Regina Bittner: “On behalf of Progressive Design: Two Modern Campuses in Transcultural Dialogue,” accessed online: (accessed on 5 March 2019).
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Summarised from Gugelot’s report on his visit to NID in 1965, HfG-Archiv/Ulm Museum, pp. 1–15. Translations by Ruma Dutt.
  11. ^ Mohan Bhandari: “Foundation Programme at NID: An Approach,” National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad 1983, pp. 4–16.
  12. ^ Ibid, p. 29.
  13. ^ Ibid, pp. 85–98.
  14. ^ Ibid, pp. 103–114.

Colour interaction, unknown students, undated.
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