By Daniel Zazove & Ramón Campos.

László Moholy-Nagy was a seminal figure in the development of modern art and design in the first half of this century. In terms of design, he was a man with a mission. Form should follow function. Ornamentation and decoration were superfluous and undemocratic; they represented old superstitions and an upper-class taste for disguising utility.

Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsód in the Hungarian countryside on July 20th, 1895. He began to read law at Budapest University, but he was called up in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915 and was wounded on the Russian front two years later. During his convalescence he resumed the drawing and painting he had occupied himself with during his military service. He left Hungary for Vienna at the end of 1919 and arrived in Berlin in early 1920. There he became a co-founder of constructivism, compiled an anthology of modern art, and contributed to several advanced art magazines. His earliest reputation was based on his abstract paintings and formalist photography.

Courtesy of Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

In 1923 Walter Gropius invited him to join the staff of the Staatliche Bauhaus at Weimar – a pioneer art and architecture school which laid a special emphasis on design and workshop technology. Here he succeeded Paul Klee as head of the metal workshop and taught the Foundation course, the true backbone of the institution. He was also interested in ballet and stage design and in the fields of layout and typography. In a study of the Bauhaus movement, it has been said that «it was above all Moholy-Nagy’s personal interpretation of constructivist attitudes that contributed to the emergence of a recognizable Bauhaus industrial design style». In 1928 political unrest and the resignation of Walter Gropius forced his own resignation and he returned to Berlin to make a successful living as a stage designer and to develop the diverse range of his other interests. In particular, he pursued his painting by experimenting with the use of new and unusual materials. He also consolidated his reputation as a typographical and layout designer. In 1934 rampant fascism persuaded him to leave Germany to settle in Amsterdam where a large printing company offered him facilities to experiment with color photography. The following year he moved to London under the sponsorship of Herbert Read. He lived among other refugees who had settled in Hampstead. Here he worked as a poster and layout designer for such clients as Imperial Airways and London Transport. He exhibited in numerous exhibitions, undertook book designs, and contributed photographs to several specialist publications.  In 1937 there came an unexpected invitation to lead a new Bauhaus in Chicago, a project sponsored and funded by the Association of Arts and Industries. The venture collapsed in acrimony after a year because the money dried up. Moholy-Nagy, however, succeeded in salvaging the concept from the wreckage for in 1939 he founded his own School of Design in Chicago, reorganized as the Institute of Design in 1944, in a disused bakery at 247 East Ontario Street, Chicago. Many of his former students rejoined him and the school was staffed by former colleagues, who initially worked without pay.

As an artist he himself could sympathize with the craftsman whose skills were becoming outdated by the machine, but he felt that all factory workers could only gain in economic terms if all such wasteful processes were phased out. The man was as versatile as any Renaissance figure. He was determined, self-opinionated, deep thinking, articulate, a resolute optimist, and a born teacher. (1)

In December of 1945, Moholy was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent X-ray treatments, which enabled him to carry on his superhuman schedule, including his cooperation with Parker, for another year.

In November 1946, László Moholy-Nagy died. Kenneth Parker dedicated him an emotional obituary published in «Parkergrams» of December 1946.


Kenneth Parker, counting with the participation of his wife Mildred who advised on art to different institutions, identified a genuine design gift of a high order when in 1944 he appointed to Moholy-Nagy as Art Adviser to the Parker Pen Company – and he was given the opportunity to prove his thesis. It was a working relationship well suited to Moholy-Nagy’s disposition. Once a month he spent two days with the Company in Janesville, listening to questions and problems ranging from the printing of an ink-bottle label to projects for a new factory building. When Moholy returned to Chicago he had absorbed the practical atmosphere in which his designs were to be realized. Together with his gifted collaborators, Beatrice Takeuchi, and Nolan Rhoades, he worked on the design of pens, desk sets, clips, inkstand, packaging, posters, stationery, and showrooms.

A Moholy-Nagy patent design for Parker Pen Co.
Moholy-Nagy Parker “51” pen prototype. 1946. (From Michael Fultz collection).

Moholy-Nagy left written that “the Parker “51” with its enclosed mechanism is one of the most successful and harmonious designs of small utilitarian objects”. He gave us a particular prototype design for Parker «51» in which a generously exposed nib reminds us of an extension of the own fingers that support the pen. An idea that would later be taken up in the design of the Parker «65».

A Moholy-Nagy Parker “51” pen prototype demonstrator. February 1946. (From Parker “51” Book, by Shepherd & Shepherd).


Initially named “Magic Wand”, the original idea of a Parker magnetic desk set is due to Kenneth Parker who, in December 1943, filed a patent for the use of a writing instrument on a desk set held in its position by magnetism so that it could readily be removed from or replaced in its normal supported position.

Kenneth Parker’s patent num. US 2,386,500 for a magnetic pen set desk.
Kenneth Parker’s patent num. US 2,386,500 for a magnetic pen set desk.

As soon as this patent was granted in the fall of 1945, the primary idea was creatively developed under the patronage of the Parker Pen Co., so, in a couple of months, there were 5 patent applications filed for a Parker magnetic desk base; two from Moholy-Nagy himself, another from Robert Gruen Associates and, two more, one from Edward Harmon, Parker’s employee, and other, num. US 2,510,634, filed by Philip Hull, manager of the Parker Desk Set Department, which was the one finally adopted.

Different patents promoted by the Parker Pen Co. for a magnetic pen set desk.
Label from a Parker Magnetix desk set.
Label from a Parker Magnetix desk set.

Parker completed the development of the Magnetix desk set, with the socket receptacle designed by Moholy-Nagy and described in his patent design Des. 150,311.

Moholy-Nagy design for Magnetix desk socket- receptacle.
Moholy-Nagy design for Magnetix desk socket- receptacle.
A double Parker Magnetix desk base furnished with the sockets designed by Moholy-Nagy.
This 1946 first ad of what later was called Magnetix is interesting. In addition to the use of "Magic Wand" as its first name, and the citation of different designers involved in its creation, the ad itself is inspired by the artwork of Piet Mondrian, whose name is often mentioned in connection with the Bauhaus. His rigorous geometric compositions of verticals and horizontals and garish palette of primary colors were important to numerous Bauhaus masters, and his influence appeared in Bauhaus architecture.


This Parker pen desk set prototype with simple shapes intersecting on a horizontal and vertical axis, synthesizing different independent functional components into a harmonious whole, embodies the original idea of the Bauhaus «form should follow function». Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo’s wife, in her first edition of the book “Moholy- Nagy: Experiment in Totality”, used a photo of this desk set to illustrate her husband’s industrial design. Following this citation, the desk set was unaccounted for until 2013, when it was discovered again in Wisconsin by Susan Wirth. In 2016, this piece was incorporate to the catalog of the expo “Moholy-Nagy: Future Present”, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York.

Moholy-Nagy desk set Magnetix prototype and letter holder for Parker “51” in chromium-plated brass with magnetized ball socket. 1946. (Courtesy of Milwaukee Art Museum).
Moholy-Nagy desk set prototype (detail).

Currently the set desk belongs to the Milwaukee Art Museum funds, who has it exposed here along with Moholy-Nagy’s artwork «Nuclear II», initially owned by Kenneth Parker and donated to the Museum.

László Moholy-Nagy. “Nuclear II” 1946. Oil and graphite on canvas. 126 cm. x 126 cm. Milwaukee Art Museum. Kenneth Parker's donation.

(*) References:

  • (1) Biographical text supervised by Mrs. Hattula Moholy-Nagy, whom we thank for her collaboration. For a more detailed biography, visit
  • Wayman, R. (1995). “Parker History”. Internal Parker Company Memorandum.
  • Kostelanetz, R. (1971) «Documentary Monographs in Modern Art: Moholy-Nagy». Published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
  • Moholy-Nagy, L. (1947), “Vision in Motion”, p. 57, fig. 40. Paul Theobald. Chicago.
  • Moholy-Nagy, S. «Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality» (1950). Harper & Brothers. New York.
  • Parker «Shoptalker»: June 1946.
  • Parkergrams December 1946.
  • Hull, P. (2001). “Memories of Forty-Nine Years with the Parker Pen Co.”. Hedberg Public Library. Janesville, Wi.