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Modern Design


              By Alex Brown              





Even until the end of the 19th century by which time industry and technology had affected all parts of society, ornament and more ornament was the solution for most designers of domestic or commercial products.


However, at the same time an increasing number of voices began to call for a new, simpler, more truthful and functional position in art and design. These prophetic voices referred again and again to the need for FUNCTIONAL DESIGN to be applied to all designed products - not just to industrial items, but to social and domestic products and for a unified design style centred on utility and simplicity of form.




Who were these radicals who called for a renewal of design along functional lines? They can basically be split into two groups: the first might be called the MORALISTS, and the second, the RATIONALISTS.


a)      The Moralists saw the issue of design in terms of truth, the power of art, the vernacular-craftsman tradition, a love of nature and a rejection of the brute force of industry. The Moralists saw the answer as a 'return' to earlier, simpler, pre-industrial values with the ARTIST taking a prime role. Amongst these groups we may include:


          1.       The Arts and Crafts Tradition: (Theorists:John Ruskin, William Morris)

          2.       Art Nouveau : (Macintosh, Voysey, Victor Horta)


b)     The Rationalists saw the issue as a full acceptance of industrial power, rational design principles, functionalism and the teaching of 'good' design as a way of ensuring high design standards linked to the realities of industrial production. The Rationalists, however saw the answer as an 'advance' towards new values and a full embrace of the potential of industrial power with the TRAINED DESIGNER as the key figure. Amongst these groups and individuals we may include:


          1.       The German Werkbund

          2.       Henry Van de Velde and the Weimar School


Although both these groups saw the corruption of design (over-decoration, bad taste, lack of truth, and so on) which prevailed in the 19th century as the key problem,   each group proposed a different answer to that problem.




In 1861, heavily influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin, William Morris (1834-1896) set up a design and production company, the first of its kind: Morris and Company: "craftsmen of painting, sculpture, furnishings and glass" and dedicated to the craft and socialist ideals put forward by Ruskin. Morris also designed embroidery, stained glass, wallpapers, textiles, typography and book production. Together with painters such as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Ford Maddox-Brown (who also saw the pre-industrial age as an Ideal period). His description of the company is as follows:




There were basically two stylistic sources for the development of Art Nouveau style: The Arts and Crafts Movement itself. (Truth, nature, morality and anti-industrial) and French Rationalism (rigorous expression of structural forces, materials and forms). The Art Nouveau style can be understood as an extension and exaggeration of the Arts and Crafts, vernacular tradition. The simple 'peasant' furniture, graphics and products produced by Morris and others were elongated and stretched into more linear/organic forms. 


A)       Special interest in furniture, product design and graphic illustration. (Ie. Total design), plus the use of complex and rich colour selections.


B)       Artists: C.R. Mackintosh (Scotland); Voysey (England); Horta & Guimard, (France);  Antonio Gaudi (Spain), amongst others.


(It is also worth noting the work of the Americans: Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, who produced work similar in form to that of the Europeans. The similarity between Macintosh and Wright both in style and their 'Total Design' approach is quite remarkable). 


5.0   REMEMBER (2)


It should be remembered that the vast majority of designers and the public did not take up these radical positions. In some cases they rejected the 'drive for simplicity and utility'. For them, decoration was not corrupting or 'sickening' but ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Without it products and interiors would be characterless - like living in a prison cell or sanatorium.




The Rationalist (and German position) on this was different: industrial power was not a threat but an opportunity to harness the enormous power of industry with the conscious guidance of Art and Design. There was no point in trying to reverse the Industrial Revolution. The real issue now was whether it was possible to direct it towards aesthetic ends to create a TOTALLY DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT. 


Rationalism treats form as the result of a process or an activity. In the case of design, this activity is the use of the object - Its function. Functionalism is Rationalism applied to design and the result was a revolutionary event - the Modern Movement in design.




Two significant things happened in 1907 in Germany that were to have a major impact on European design. The first was the founding of the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts by the Belgian designer, Henry Van De Velde and the founding of the Deutcher Werkbund (= German Work Group) in Munich.


Van de Velde - originally a painter - had earlier set up a 'factory of applied art' in Belgium inspired in part by the ideas of William Morris in the UK. Unlike Morris, however he was much more radical and not content just to look back into history for inspiration.


Design education at Weimar was to be DESIGN FROM FIRST PRINCIPLES.


In a real sense, he had started the first Modern Design School. It became a model for all future Design Schools and led ultimately to the founding of the BAUHAUS. However, Van De Velde, athough radical in his educational thinking, still saw the ARTIST as the prime mover in all design issues and quite independent from industry.




In October 1907, a meeting took place in Munich, Germany between a group of artists and a group of industrialists. They founded an association - the Deutcher Werkbund  - for the joint purpose of bring quality design into industrial production.


Design was no longer craft art but INDUSTRIAL DESIGN.


In 1919, the Weimar School of Art changed its name. From then on it was called , the BAUHAUS.




It is possible to view the development of Modern Design at the beginning of the 20th century as a fusion of the different styles and movements described above. Progressive designers had begun to experiment with a simplified functional style which incorporated:


a)       The orthogonal grid and rationalism of Classicism.


b)       The flexibility and simple functionalism of the Arts and Crafts.


c)       A more 'geometric' Art Nouveau (stripped of decoration).


d)       The rationale of industrial process and mass production (simplicity of form).


Now backed by the anti-historical, functionalist and workshop-based teaching in the new design schools a generation of designers began to emerge who saw design as an exercise in rational thought  applied to the making of form.


This new TOTAL DESIGN style became known as  the Modern Movement in Art and Design.




Modern Design begins in  real sense after the First World War (1914-1918). The forces of the Industrial Revolution, the theories and practice of the engineers, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, the Rationalism of the Classical Tradition, the endless mass production of the factories and, unfortunately, the catastrophe of the First World War brought about an emergence of a new, non-historical design approach - Modern design or its essence, Functionalism.




The reason for the massive casualties in the First World War was very clear: TECHNOLOGY in the form of massed artillery, machine guns, planes, gas shells, tanks and submarines. At home whole industries were turned over to war production: guns, shells, tanks, planes, and so on. Women, who used to live a purely domestic life, were now working in large numbers in factories while their men went out to the battlefields. Society changed. It became clear that industrial production (ie. mass production) was the key to winning the war, NOT individual heroism.


b)       In Western Europe and the United States, the war had forcefully brought together all parts  of production - design and industry  - in a coordinated effort to win the war.


c)       Technology and industrial production had developed rapidly in order to cope with war production needs. The war forced Western society to move more quickly towards becoming fully industrial states. 


12.0 REMEMBER...........(1)


Remember that the ideas and theories of Modern Design already existed before the war began in 1914. While the war certainly disrupted the steady development of the Modern Movement for four years or so, it also 'forced' its various elements together afterwards. The essential Modern concepts were:


1.       Truth to materials and to the idea of Functionalism (`form follows function`).


2.       Rejection of historical styles and decoration ( ie. `truth' to the 20th century)


3.       The idea of a DYNAMIC new and `modern' age: The Machine Age


4.       The search for a unified style for all designed items (Total design)


5.       Design driven by rational analysis of problems and by mass production techniques. The link with industry. In an industrial society the artist becomes designer.


13.0 THE BAUHAUS  ( Germany 1919 -1932 )


Henry Van de Velde had founded the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, Germany in 1907. On his retirement he passed the Directorship of the School to Walter Gropius. In 1919, Gropius arranged for the School of Arts and Crafts to be combined with the Academy of Art. This new institution was called the BAUHAUS and it was destined to become the most influential design school of the time (or since).


In other words, design, arts and crafts techniques (handicraft) and Fine Art were to be integrated within one institution. Pure Art education would be combined with Craft education to produce a TOTAL design approach to the environment. Thus, Applied art -DESIGN - would bridge the gap between the Technological and the Artistic.


The painters, architects and designers who taught at the Bauhaus were amongst the most adventurous and progressive. Klee, Feininger, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Mart Stam, Hannes Meyer. Guest lecturers from the DE STYL group  - van Doesberg, Oud and Rietveldt. The Bauhaus brought together the best Modern Cubist-Expressionist-De Styl designers of their time.




The basic philosophy of the Bauhaus as defined by the architect Gropius and the artists Itten and Kandinsky can be outlined as follows:


1.       An integration of all the arts (to produce a totally designed and unified environment). 


2.       Design for mass production methods/standardization.


3.       The teaching of  'creativity', basic design principles and rational analysis.


4.       The integration of art/craft and industrial methods.


A new design culture was to be formed by combining all the professions around a single idea.


"Let us create a new guild of craftsmen without class distinctions that raise a barrier between craftsmen and artist. Together let us desire, conceive and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise towards heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith" (Gropius. Bauhaus Director. 1919)


15.0 THE BAUHAUS PROGRAMME            


The teaching programme was to take place in a WORKSHOP-BASED environment.


The key idea was: LEARNING THROUGH DOING. Even the painters who came to the Bauhaus, taught art skills in this situation: NOT 'high art' theory, but theories and practice of colour and geometry and analysis of form. The School was divided up into:


a)       Workshops dealing with different materials: wood, metal, fabrics, glass etc.

b)       Drawing and Painting studios

c)       Science and Theory lectures


By 1924 we see the emergence of the 'functional aesthetics' that became the real trademark of the Bauhaus and the final image of Modern Design. The city of Dessau, now under the control of the Nazis, finally closed the School down in 1932.




Teaching individual CREATIVITY as a means of PROBLEM SOLVING. Another key difference from the past was the idea of the NEW. That is, that new forms, shapes and solutions could be created to suit new problems.


In this Bauhaus philosophy, the Form of objects is a result of a detailed functional analysis of the 'problem'. Theoretically, the form simply EMERGED from this functional analysis of purpose and materials. The designer simply brought all these factors together in a coherent way. Unlike the artist, the designer did not IMPOSE his/her personality on the problem, but rather acted as 'midwife' to the potential solution. This was the theory of FUNCTIONALISM - the Bauhaus legacy.


17.0    DE STIJL (the `Style' ): 1917-1931


De Stijl art and design was more radical in form than Bauhaus-inspired work. Its designs were very uncoventional and abstract. However its unique ideas eventually were merged and became influential within the Bauhaus and eventually within the mainstream Modern movement


Reitveldt's 'red and blue chair' is an excellent example of De Stijl design processes:


18.0    CONSTRUCTIVISM  (1918 - 1932)


Very similar in its way to De Stijl, Constructivism (see lecture no.4) in design terms expressed the same very abstract concerns in a more radical way, perhaps than De Stijl and certainly more so than the Bauhaus. Both movements saw the way forward towards the Modern as a matter of FORM, GEOMETRY and ABTRACTION. This was equally true for their product and architectural design work as it was for their art.




The 1920s were the beginnings of the Modern Movement in design.


The economic despression of the late 20s, the anti-Modern policies of German and Soviet dictatorships and finally in 1939 the start of the Second World War, prevented the mass application of Modern Design principles. They were available and after the War they would be applied on a global scale - as the only design approach and philosophy that suited the Modern Age.




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