Born at Südern-Lindern in the Bern Oberland on 11 November 1888, Johannes Itten was the son of a teacher and he trained as a primary-school teacher at the teacher-training institute in Bern. After briefly teaching primary school, Johannes Itten spent a semester at the Geneva École des Beaux-Arts in Genf before taking a diploma in mathematics and science to teach secondary school.
Trips abroad, however, convinced Johannes Itten that he would be happier and better off as a painter. In 1913 Itten trained under Adolf Hölzel in Stuttgart, where he met Ida Kerkovius, Oskar Schlemmer and Willi Baumeister. Johannes Itten moved to Vienna in 1916, where he was inspired by music and his circle of friends in Vienna, which included Adolf Loos and Alma Mahler. They in turn introduced Johannes Itten to Walter Gropius, who extended to Itten one of the first invitations to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919.
While teaching in Weimar between 1919 and 1923, Itten developed a universal doctrine of design, which he taught as the Bauhaus preliminary course. Itten's fellow Bauhaus teachers were Gerhard Marcks, Lyonel Feininger, Georg Muche, Oskar Schlemmer, Lothar Schreyer, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.
In 1926, however, Johannes Itten founded an art school of his own in Berlin to train painters, printmakers, photographers and architects. In 1932 Johannes Itten was still teaching at the private school but also taught at the Krefeld School of Textile Design, where he trained industrial textile designers until 1938, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. At the close of 1938, Itten became director of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zurich and of the school affiliated with it.
Johannes Itten worked extremely hard in the years that followed, teaching and holding administrative posts at several arts and crafts schools and museums. Teaching, giving so many lectures and organising exhibitions left Johannes Itten virtually no time for painting. Not until he retired in 1955 was Itten able to devote himself intensively to his own work.
Johannes Itten laid out his experience and knowledge of colour in "Kunst and Farbe" ["Art and Colour": 1961]. Itten followed up that book with another, "Mein Vorkurs am Bauhaus" ["My Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus"] on form and design.
Darmstadt Polytechnic awarded Johannes Itten an honorary doctorate in 1965. In 1966 Itten received the "Netherlands Sikkens Art Prize" and, by now internationally acclaimed, he represented Switzerland at the 33rd Venice Biennale.
Johannes Itten died in Zurich on 25 March 1967.