Modernism in design

Would you believe that the concept of Modernism in taste and design is a modern idea? Think about that for a second.
Surely being progressive is inherent in human nature.
However, the idea of art, design and culture as a tool of progression is a modern idea.

Before Modernism, taste was dictated to the wealthy classes by the whims of the king or other élite figures (emperors come to mind). Tradition was the dictated rule and deviating from that resulted in ridicule. The idea of Modernism was the basis for 20th Century design, fashion and art. It still affects us today.

Ironically, Modernism evolved from looking to the past, at a time when mass production and consumption had taken over from style and taste. In the mid-19th Century, groups of designers rebelled against mass production and used the best of what the past could offer to bring a ‘new’ attitude towards taste and style. This set the tone for the Modernist approach that was to follow.

Over one hundred years ago, that yearning was to create a style that was at first individualistic, nationalist and tribal and then became internationalist and universal.


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Paris, A Rainy Day
Gustave Caillebotte


Since the late 19th Century, technology has ensured that the speed of change has been phenomenal. We have now become accustomed to this feeling but there was a time when it was very exciting and radical. Major technological advancements in communication, transport and electricity transformed everyday life and perceptions and pushed everyone into the 20th Century whether they liked it or not. This feeling that change happens too fast is still with us as we struggle to catch up with technologies that our children master in an instant.

There were great advancements in physics, engineering, science and technology which encouraged change in all aspects of studying and thinking about human existence. New ideas were rife in psychology, philosophy and sociology, our way of perceiving the world was changing.


What is the Modernist style?

Modernism was not a definitive style in itself, it was an approach to art, design, fashion, theatre, architecture music and literature. It is the idea that form follows function, that an object’s use should be the priority and the design should not interfere with the function of the object. This led to more and more simplification of design.

The idea of a lack of ornamentation was radical at the turn of the 20th Century. Simplicity of design is now a symbol of good taste in today’s world. That may change in the future, of course.

The Modernist approach was such a contrast to Victorian clutter. The idea of minimal, stark and unfussy seemed radical. Steel, plastic, laminated plywood, fibreglass and new materials were being introduced to architecture and design.

Abstract designs and motifs began appearing in textiles and, therefore, clothing and fashion. Bold primary colours were of interest to artists curious about exoticism and far away lands and cultures that were becoming more and more accessible.

Early influences of Modernism

It is difficult to imagine a Modernist attitude without the foundations built by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx in the 19th Century.

The artistic movements of Impressionism and Symbolism pulled art kicking and screaming into modern life.

The Industrial Revolution affected all aspects of contemporary life and created consumerism and urbanisation.

The birth of Modernism begins, ironically, by looking backwards to a time before mass-produced design became the new normal. Historical revival styles were rife in 1850s design. Almost every old style was reinvented in a wave of nostalgia and easy reproduction. The innovation lay in mass production for commerce and not in the design of what was being produced.

Rapid advancements in technology had led to industrial chaos. The constant revival of historical styles had led to a confused mixture of styles only possible from the advancements of industrial production. This obsession was the tipping point for a desire to return to a simpler style.


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Orchard, Dearle, 1899
William Morris


The Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, led by William Morris, looked to medieval methods of producing carefully crafted objects where form follows function. English art critic John Ruskin also called for a turning back to simpler times. It was a romantic, idealised notion of honest artist/craftsmen working with the natural forms of materials to create simple, handcrafted designs in opposition to the mass-produced.

A new sensibility was called for, bringing in a simpler style which eventually became the ‘modern’ style. William Morris invented the notion that we still have of decluttering. To have only in your possession that which is beautiful or useful. For some this had links to religion and for others it gave birth to the modern idea of functional design over unnecessary decoration. This utility ideal could be applied to everything – from fashion to art to architecture to interior decoration.

The Arts and Crafts movement rejected the machine over the human and the individual craftsman over the mass-produced. There was growing interest in social justice over pure commercialisation. These ideas still resonate with us in the 21st Century.


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Tulip Wallpaper Design, 1875
William Morris


The Arts and Crafts movement re-employed some design practices from medieval times including the setting up of guilds and workshops. They produced small numbers of items using locally available materials. It was similar to the craft boom of today but without Etsy.

The movement led to ideas that industrialisation could improve life for all and not to make it worse or socially unfair for some.

The rise of the bourgeoisie added a layer of new money to the tastemakers’ ideals. Advancements in technology made everything faster, easier, time-saving – freeing up leisure time for those who had the money. The poor had it just as hard as ever despite a significant rise in concerns about social injustice.

Modernism at the turn of the 20th Century

Our perception of time and movement was radically altered with the invention of instant telecommunications and faster travel. Engineering innovations (such as cantilever construction) were increasingly applied to furniture design as well as architecture.

Ideas about psychology and experience became more internalised into individual experiences as the reality of perception. New ideas about psychology from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were emerging.


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Monet: Giverny, 1900
Claude Monet


The new way of looking at art and design pushed through the idea of Modernism, of no longer looking to the past for inspiration but using modern technology to put forward these ideals of taste and design.

In the early years of the 20th Century, writers, thinkers and artists pushed Modernism to the extreme and rapidly changed taste and art. Abstraction in art, atonal music and a subjective point of view in literature were also tackled and presented to the world.

Modernism in design

Breakaway groups (secessionists) sprang up in the late 19th Century and encouraged ideas that rebelled from the past and tradition. In Europe, Modernism became known as The International Style while it blossomed throughout Europe and beyond. Following Impressionism, many rebellious ‘isms’ were invented by secessionists to establish and define radical new attitudes towards the arts and design: Fauvism; Cubism; Futurism; Symbolism; Expressionism. Many, many ‘isms’ have since followed to try and define new ideas of art and culture.


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Jugendstil or Early Modernist Style L…


The ‘look’ of Modernism in 20th Century design:

White or plain walls – no wallpaper.
Floors: neutral shades or hard flooring with abstract rugs.
Light: lots of natural light from plain windows with blinds or plain, simple curtains. Industrial: angle-poise lighting.
Modular low-level furniture: tubular steel, chrome, glass, bent-wood and leather.
Function over form- exposed radiators and lamps, concrete walls.


Modernism in art

Known as ‘avant-garde’ art in Europe before it was named Modernism. The term avant-garde was used for the first time around the turn of the 20th Century and only previously used in a military context.

The roots of Modernist art lie in the mid-19th Century, with the Pre-Raphaelites, the Nazarenes and Manet, each disatisfied with the accepted forms, traditions and ideals of art.

In the late 19th Century, Impressionism broke down conventional ideas about representation in art and paved the way for abstraction in art. Symbolism rejected a realistic depiction of the world and explored individual human perception.


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The Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh


At the turn of the 20th Century there was a growing interest in psychology of the self. This was reflected in and encouraged by artist such as the Fauves and Expressionists.

Picasso and Matisse became popular for rejecting traditional forms of perspective and colour in their art.


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Open Window, Collioure, 1905
Henri Matisse


Modernism in literature

In 19th Century France, the Symbolism of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud found less realistic, more subjective description and the use of words themselves as an art form. Other precursers include Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Walt Whitman and playwright August Strindberg.

In the early 20th Century, stream of consciousness writing became popular: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Kafka.

Modernism transformed literature in the 20th Century. Writers would question the reality of existence and personal experience, the existence of god and the loss of traditional values.


Modernism in fashion

Influential French couturiér Paul Poiret was attracted to Modernism in art and collected Impressionist paintings. He was also friends with Fauve painter Francis Picabia and collected colourful works from Picasso and Matisse.


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Two Empire Line Evening D…
Paul Iribe


Poiret’s interest in colour and exoticism filtered into his fashion and theatrical costume designs. At this point, artists were still being used to illustrate fashion, so artists and fashion designers were working closely together. New printing techniques also allowed bright expanses of colour to be used for fashion magazines.

Poiret was a member of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, set up in Paris in 1901 to promote modern French art and design.

The Modernist ideal of simplifying and streamlining was actively applied to fashion. The s-shaped corset was a definite attempt to simplify the female shape to allow for a healthier and less-restricted posture. This in turn led to a more tubular, simple, streamline silhouette that threw away the restrictions of the corset and eventually threw away the need for a corset altogether.


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A Divided Skirt by Paul P…
Felix Studio


Art Nouveau designs crept into fashion through use in textile patterns and appliqué design. Eventually the geometric shape took over as Cubism and angular forms became popular in art and design. Silhouettes became angular as did hats and hairstyles. Goodbye fuss and frills, hello straight lines and angles.


Modernism towards the mid-20th Century

1910 – 1930
A Modernist approach to all design became most popular between the two world wars. Shiny, synthetic and polished material symbolised a new fascination with technology, fast cars, new materials, electric lighting and technological objects of innovation.

Before art deco was named art deco in the 1920s, the style it resembled most had been known as the Moderne style in Europe. The new fuss-free and natural styling of Art Nouveau gave way to the geometric, abstract and angular shaping of art deco. Modern textiles sported Modernist geometric designs on carpets, rugs, crockery, ornaments, fashion and accessories.


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Evning Dress Created by P…


The Modernist outlook was all about looking forwards, to disrupting the status quo and ideas of realism. It was here that the idea of the artist as rebel and revolutionary began. Just accepting progress was not enough. Shocking our perceptions of what is normal and traditional was a quest and pushing the boundaries was encouraged. This is when art and design started to ask more questions than it answered.

World War I certainly helped to shape this upheaval and turmoil in which ordinary values of society were overturned. The technology used throughout trench warfare meant that there were more senseless deaths and massacres than ever before and more horrific injuries to tend to, physical and psychological.

By the time we reach the 1950s, Modernism was an accepted approach towards design and a
popular attitude for the nuclear age and the beginning of the space race. A Modernist approach is no longer seen as the avant-garde.

I hope that this history has helped to outline some of the ideas of Modernism and how they have been applied to every form of art and design in the 20th Century. It is also interesting to notice that the Modernist attitude towards taste and style still appears to affect our senses even today.

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