How Modernism changed the face of art, architecture and design

  • 3 Aug 2015

Furniture designers ARAM take a look at how Modernism made all things new

Modern architecture is so closely ingrained in modernism it’s impossible not to spot the influence just by looking out of a window.

The efficiency of homes, heavy-use of concrete and ‘machine for living’ sentiment is reflected in modern housing projects, skyscrapers and city designs.

The production of objects that prized function over form and stresses simplicity also gave birth to some of the most famous styles of chair and table that are still in vogue today, either placed in an office or glimpsed on shows like Mad Men.

Modernist values such as simplicity, open-plan rooms, function over form continue in design and city-planning.

Brief history of modernist design

The years between 1800-1900 witnessed artists, writers and designers employing various mediums such as realism and romanticism to create incredible works of art. However, the growing presence of industry, social class and the eventual explosion of WWI saw a new form of artwork rise to prominence. Modernism began as a rejection of the bourgeois and the horrors of war.

Championed by artists, architects and writers, Modernism is an umbrella term that spans many sub-genres of artistic expression such as:

  • Cubism
  • Fauvism
  • Surrealism
  • Futurism

Ezra Pound, a modernist writer, coined the phrase “Make it new.” This would become a trademark of modernist belief. Modernists advocate a refutation of ornamentation and believe that art should prize function over form. In design and architecture, modernism values simple, efficient design that eschews fancy and frilly decoration.

Key Principles

  • Function over form. Famed Modernist Le Courbusier once said, “Houses are machines for living in.”
  • A rejection of traditional artistic values
  • A reaction to the horror of WWI and the rise of industrialisation
  • A new way of looking at the world “Make it new!”
  • Prized minimalism

Key Milestones

1870-1890s – Impressionism in France marks the beginning of modern art trends. Artists stress colour and light in nature over the painstaking detail of previous periods. Van Gogh was a prominent impressionist.

1886 – Pointilism follows impressionism. Paintings comprised of small dots that the viewer’s mind has to put together as a picture.

1900 – Expressionism is invented. The style is a rejection of reality and a focus on meaning and emotional experience. Fauvism appears as a result. This style focuses on painterly qualities and colour over realism. Art for its own sake.

1907 – Cubism. This bizarre style of artwork prizes geometry and the energy of shape over reality. Pablo Picasso revolutionised the world of art.

1916-1922 – Dada or Dadaism was a reaction to WWI. This style of art was deliberately designed to offend and outrage traditional artists. Dadaists were furious that Europe allowed the war to happen.

1910-1919 – As Constructivism took hold in Russia, an art-style that stressed function, modern furniture trends began. Influenced by the growing modernist art and literature style. Modern furniture prized function and minimalism – discarding the ornamentation of the Victorian era.

During this period, Modern furniture and design mainly originated from Germany. Walter Gropius founds the first Bauhaus School in Weimar in 1919, which fuses fine art and architecture and prizes minimalism. The UK would not adopt modernity until after WWI.

1917 – Dutch De Stijl movement begins. Mainly theoretical movement that combines painting, architecture and design. Prized straight lines, geometric shapes and primary colours.

1918       – Famed Modernist architect Le Corbusier moves to Paris and meets Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant. The two reject cubism as romantic and propose an ‘after-cubism’ manifesto called Purism.

1920’s – Modernist architecture truly picked up following the end of World War I. The period saw architects experimenting with new materials (Steel, plywood, plastics) and new ideas, working to create functional objects that also pleased the eye.

1923 – Le Corbusier publishes Vers Une Archiecture (toward a new architecture.) The book contains phrases that typify modernist architecture and design theory: “A house is a machine for living in” and “a curved street is a donkey track; a straight street, a road for men.” 

1925 – Wassily Chair/Model B3 created by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus school. The chair employed new materials like tubular steel and leather straps. The chair was only possible due to advances in tubular steel technology.

1927 – Eileen Gray Side Table is invented and becomes a classic. The table utilises tubular steel and is a simple, efficient and elegant piece of furniture.

1928 – Le Corbuiser begins experimenting with furniture and designs his own version of the Chaise lounge, which had an adjustable seat section and head rest. The Chaise Lounge was supported by sleek tubular steel.

1929 – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, of the Bauhaus school, designed the Barcelona chair. Famous design that went on to win the Museum of Modern Art award in 1977, illustrating that it is both furniture and a work of art.

1939-1945 – WWII takes place and changes Modernism forever. The forward-thinking ideals of modernists are shattered by the horrors of a second great war, and the popular style of Art Deco was denounced for mimicking a sense of luxury in a period of war and terror. Newer modernism is now focused on developments of technology and adapting to the future.

Modernist design continues with the likes of Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Isamu Noguchi, Ludwig Miles van de Rohe and Bauhaus designing across the world. New plastics and materials allows more flexibility and freedom when designing and the skyscraper comes to typify modernist architecture for its lack of ornamentation and good use of space and efficient design.

1948-     The Noguchi Table is designed by Isamu Noguchi. The famous sculptor creates a simple glass table that is refined and natural looking.

1950’s – Present Modernism is succeeded by post-modernism, which values style over substance and coincided with the beginnings of TV and entertainment culture.

Despite this, Modernist design continues outside of the umbrella term.

The Figureheads

As well as the famous modernist names in art and literature, there are designers we now regard synonymously with Modernism.

Eileen Gray (1878-1976)

Eileen Gray was an Irish designer and architect who is most famous for her esteemed side table design. A young Gray moved to Paris following a period of study as a fine artist. She designed the Bibendum chair in the modernist style, which was a break from her previous traditional works.

This prompted a new focus from Gray, and she became one of the most well known modernist architects and designers in France. She designed furniture using glass, tubular steel and chrome in 1925 – far before La Corbusier.

Before her death in 1976, Eileen Gray met with Zeev Aram to help relicense and reproduce her iconic designs. Her legacy lives on.

Notable Designs: Eileen Gray Side Table (show) (Bibendum Chair) Roattino Lamp

Le Corbusier (1887-1965)

Le Corbusier is the alias of one of the most famous architects of all time, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gri. The modernist artist and architect was born in Switzerland in 1887, but moved to Paris in 1917. From here, Le Corbusier designed buildings, artwork and furniture that valued function over form.

His architecture employed lots of concrete, designing buildings that were ‘machines for living in.’ Corbusier envisaged building homes in a manner inspired by cars, on a prefabricated machine line.

He began to experiment with furniture in 1928 and created a custom version of the Chaise Lounge and a number of other designs which were designed under three categories: type-needs, type-furniture and human-limb objects.

Notable works: LC-3 chair, LC-9 table.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969)

As part of the Bauhaus movement, German-American Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe combined art and architecture with a modernist focus. Heavily employed plate glass and industrial steel when creating buildings, striving to create a modern style of architecture that suited his era.

When designing furniture, Mies’ modernist sensibilities meant he strove to create simple, elegant designs that used modern materials. The Barcelona chair he created in 1928 is an iconic piece that is still popular to this day.

Note works: Barcelona Chair, Brno Chair, Tugendhat Chair

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988)

Noguchi was a Japanese American sculptor, artist and architect whose style fused Asian and western design into one modern combination. Living between Japan and America and frequently facing opposition and scorn, Noguchi had a prolific career as an artist.

His design for the famed Noguchi table is simplistic and effective, in keeping with modernist aesthetic. Using natural shapes and forms, Noguchi’s furniture, architecture and sculptures looked natural while stressing purpose.

Notable works: Free form sofa, Noguchi Table.

………………………………………………

More about ARAM

Zeev Aram opened his first showroom in 1964, a small, white space on London’s Kings Road. At the time, he recalls, you could buy the odd piece of Eames but generally, the UK was a modern furniture desert. And here was the work of Castiglioni, Breuer, and Le Corbusier, for the first time available to the public to buy and put in their own homes.

Now ARAM is one London’s best modern furniture stores, selling only genuine, authorised, original designs.

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