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 Sources of Modern Design


               By Alex Brown                           




After the Great Exhibition of 1851, a report by one of the Commissioners, Richard Redgrave, pointed to the problems of style which the Exhibition had brought into focus. He stated that: "......the ORNAMENTAL so largely prevails to the exclusion of the USEFUL. This is apt to sicken us of decoration and leads us to admire those objects of absolute utility (the machines and utensils of various kinds), where use is so paramount and ornament is repudiated, and FITNESS OF PURPOSE being the end sought, a noble simplicity is the end result".


So too, the Times of London wrote of some of the objects on display at the Exhibition that: "The only beauty attempted is that which the stringent application of mechanical science to the material world can supply; and in the truthfulness, perseverance and severity with which the idea is carried out, there is developed a style of art at once national and grand".


Both these quotes show an awareness of the corrupting and "sickening" effects of decoration on the design of products and also show an increasing awareness that an attention to function and fitness for purpose could produce beautiful products. These and other similar statements suggest that there was now a growing desire for a change of approach in design thinking.




Usually design theory is more advanced and radical than practice. However, due to the Industrial Revolution, this position had been reversed. Theory still refused to grasp the importance of mass production and the significance of a FUNCTIONALIST approach to design. There was a general desire to have a unified design style for all products but in most cases this simply meant some variation or other on Gothic or Classical decoration.


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. 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. 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.


(Note:   1.     The Moralists saw the answer as a 'return' to earlier, simpler, pre-industrial values with the ARTIST taking a prime role.


            2.      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.


Time was to prove that the Rationalists were correct in their judgement of the way that Modern society was heading).




It was in Germany that the Rationalist spirit was most strong. As a new industrial power - in military and industrial competition with Britain - it sought to harness industry and art in the service of the state. Having fought a successful war against the French in 1871, Germany consciously set out to be the most powerful state in Europe and sent delegations to Britain and to the United States to study their most advanced products which were later applied to German industry, design and society. Britain, although still a superpower in military-industrial terms was losing its technological edge. After leading the Industrial Revolution, Britain had, so to speak, 'run out of steam' and again turned towards tradition and the past as sources of authority


5.0     REMEMBER (1).............. 


These arguments about design theory and practice were taking place in a truely revolutionary social situation. In Europe and to some extent in the United States, society was changing rapidly not only in terms of new inventions (electricity, telegraph, automobile, camera, steam ships, gramophone, and so on), but in the reality of everyday life:


1. Population growth: Existing cities doubled and tripled in size within the century as the population grew rapidly. New cities came into existance around factories, around coal deposits or along river or rail transportation routes. Cities became overcrowded, unhealthy and sometimes dangerous places with the mass movement of people from the country areas to the factory-cities, coal mines or shipbuilding areas to find work.


Society changed from being an agricultural to being an urbanized society. A whole new social class came into existence: the industrial Working Class based in the factories and living in the working class areas of the cities. In order to better their lives they organised themselves politically and formed new political parties to look after their interests. 


2.       The Middle Class who made money out of the new Industrial Age through invention of its products or professional services (lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc), became enlarged and much more powerful economically and politically. 




For those, like the Moralists who rejected outright the new industrial society - the crowded cities, the factories, blast furnaces, the inhuman working conditions, child labour, the dirt and the squalor and the endless masses of industrial poor, what was the alternative? It could be found in the writings of the anti-industrial and basically Humanist ideas of the social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). His book, The Stones of Venice became the 'bible' of the Arts and Crafts wing of the Moralists. Ruskin's influential views can be summed up as follows:


1. Freedom and creativity associated with craft workmanship. Every man a creative individual. The craft system and handwork as the basis for human dignity.


2. Rejection of mechanization, standardization and mass production as de-humanizing.


3. "Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions". The Middle Ages/Gothic period as the Ideal Society. (non-industrial, small scale, craft production). Recovering lost craft skills and older methods of production.


4. Men before machines, morality before profit. Rejection of "Progress", design teaching. "Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and user".


5. Note that: Note that the Arts and Crafts Movement saw Craft work coupled with socialist ideals equals the humanitarian society. The Good Society.




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:


"An association of artists has just been formed with the aim of producing crafts of an artistic character and at reasonable prices; they have resolved to devote themselves to the production of useful objects to which it is their intention to give an artistic value".


Other designers soon followed Morris's example and set up craft workshops - C.R. Ashbee, A.H. Mackmurdo, Lethaby, and others to provide an alternative to mass production industrial  methods - a more humane alternative they would say.


The Characteristics of Arts & Crafts Movement design were:


a)   The pre-Industrial Revolution life in villages; Gothic vernacular; the usefulness and simplicity of peasant/rural products and designs; the natural world. Use of natural materials and colours, flowered patterns, `cottage style'


b)     Rejecting factory production it sought to return to a `hand made', craft-based approach to the design of products.




These Arts and Crafts companies were commercially successful amongst the newly enriched Middle Class. Their idea of liberating the industrial working class through craft production was doomed to failure. The working class could not even afford to buy most of the Arts and Crafts products.


In a sense Arts and Crafts designers were TOO SUCCESSFUL. Their influence in Britain as heads of newly established Design Schools meant that British design maintained a nostalgic, backward-looking, traditional and sentimental style full of 'gothicky', cottage images.


Design influence in Britain was seen in terms of the Craft tradition. In Germany on the other hand, design was seen in terms of industrial production. This was the policy of the German design schools and inspired by German government initiatives to become the major European industrial power.


The Arts and Crafts Movement, further helped Britain lose its competitive edge in Industrial Design by this snobbish 'anti-industrial', 'anti-trade' attitude to design.




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. 


Art Nouveau was, like the Arts and Crafts Movement, a reaction against the overdecorative and fundamentally corrupt state of design at the end of the 19th century. So too the moral and craft ideas of William Morris had their influence. However, it was in mainland Europe - France, Spain and Vienna and in Scotland that the style achieved its most dramatic results. The characteristics of Art Nouveau were:


a)     Uses natural forms of plants, stems, vines, flowers, etc. as source of decorative motifs. Linear emphasis of basically Arts & Crafts products, exaggerated and lengthened to give characteristic Art Nouveau `flowing' look.


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


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


The result of this was the production of a very sophisticated and successful new style which at its best eg. the work of Macintosh in Glasgow, Scotland, achieves both the elegance and structural simplicity of design so close to the Modern Movement.  (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).  Mackintosh’s work - so European in some ways - was certainly heading in the direction of the Modern  Movement style. In different circumstances it could have become an alternative to the Functionalist Modernism of Gropius and the Bauhaus. Mackintosh’s career failure and death prevented this possibility from happening.


Art Nouveau, like the Arts and Crafts Movement was based on craft approach to design and production. To this extent, they were both attempts to hold design back from being fully absorbed in the industrial process that had affected every other part of society. While the aims of these movements - individual dignity through craftsmanship and the importance of Art were understandable (and their products in some cases very beautiful), they were ultimately doomed to failure in the face of the overwhelming and unstoppable force of industrial power, and mass production.


THE WORLD HAD ALREADY CHANGED. Both movements faded away in history.


10.0    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. As for the Modern idea that everything had to be 'functional' or have a definite purpose, the French writer Marcel Proust, wrote:"To judge be the principles of this (modern) aesthetic, my bedroom was far from beautiful, for it was filled with things that were no use at all....but for me it was just those things that were not there for my convenience...that my room derived its beauty".


More directly, Proust states: "The only really beautiful thing is the one that has no use at all; all that is useful is ugly". And, if function is everything, then "the most useful (and beautiful) place in the house is the toilet".


From our late 20th century Postmodern attitude, there is a certain agreement with this position. Objects should not only be designed for utility but for visual and tactile pleasure, for fun and surprise. The work of Postmodern architects or the products of the Memphis design studio are attempts once again to move beyond the functional.


It was also pointed out that the 'function' of decoration (apart from visually enriching objects) was to STYLISTICALLY link all the elements in an environment together. Their simple functional shape does not necessarily do this: a chair is a chair, and a telephone is a telephone. In order to achieve a totally-unified environment, another and secondary LAYER OF FORM  - called decoration -is used to make them part of the same visual family. 




In a world of crowded cities, factories and mass-production and an increasing demand for more and more products, neither of the craft-based styles offered a realistic design alternative. The styles themselves and the techniques used to produce their products simply could not handle the pressure of numbers placed upon them. They ended up as decorations for a small, artistically-aware middle class clientele. They could not mass produce products for the urban masses - and nor did they want to.


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.


"A civilization can only claim to possess an art if the latter permeates it throughout, if it makes it presence felt in the most ordinary utensils". and "Utility can regenerate Beauty".


Not appreciated in his home country, he went to the city of Weimar in Germany, then in a state of rapid industrialization. He became Director of the Weimar Art School and later founder of the Weimar School Arts and Crafts His principle was: "to create the most advanced citadel for the realization of the idea - in Europe and in the world - of a return to truth, to the fundamental principle of rational design". Therefore, he did not allow students to study historical styles but required that in design they find the true and appropriate form of the object out of the function it had to serve.


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. The group was also meant to be a reference point for all those who had the ability and desire to make quality products and to THINK IN TERMS OF THE NEW TECHNOLOGY. Here in the Werkbund was the first real attempt to link ART and INDUSTRY together and possibly for the first time - the Artist became a Designer. That is: applied his formal and visual skills to the design of mass-produced products.


The difference was that it was not enough to design the product in isolation but necessary to have a full understanding of the process of their production BEFORE they were finally designed.


Design was no longer craft art but INDUSTRIAL DESIGN.




By 1909 in Germany there was a conflict of opinion between the educators of the Weimar School led by Van de Velde and the leaders of the Werkbund industrial design group led by Herman Muthesius. The problem was this:


a)      Muthesius wanted a complete integration of artist-designer with industrial production. It was only through standardization of product designs that the artist could establish reliable standards of taste. And for German nationalistic reasons products must be designed which can be exported to as large a number of countries as possible. Therefore, there was no longer any justification for solitary creation (the artist as individual designer).


(It is worth noting that Muthesius had been a German government official at their embassy in London between 1896 and 1903. For him, industry, art and design should exist to directly serve the needs of the state).


b)   Van De Velde completely rejected any system which would exercise control over the creativity of the artist particularly the idea of standardized  type of product to make things easier to mass produce. He said, "In his very essence the artist is a fiery individualist, a free and spontaneous creator. He will never submit to a discipline that would impose a model or standard upon him".


For Van de Velde, the role of the artist-designer was to independently create functional products which industry would them mass produce. For Muthesius, current industrial techniques would dictate types of product that the artist-designer would design and design education would be geared to this idea. Both however, wished to lay down the foundations of a new style relevant to the age they lived in.


Supported by a group of young architects and designers, Van de Velde won the argument and design education continued along the road he had mapped out for it. He ensured this would continue by appointing Walter Gropius as head of the Weimar School when he retired.


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


To some extent, history has shown that Van de Velde was correct. The primitive industrial techniques available at the time would have severely limited the range and diversity of products which could have been produced. The consumer or market-led and competitive forces of the late 20th century demand a wide range of different products of the same type.


Modern industry is now geared to this flexible kind of production where the designer generates creative ideas for the market) and design education in this case was that dveloped and taught at the Bauhaus.




A founder member of the Werkbund, Berhens (1866-1940) was trained and practiced as an architect and designer. His style along with many other German designers of the time was the German version of Art Nouveau - called 'Jugenstil'. Later Berhen's style developed towards the straight line, geometric look of the early Modern Movement. In 1907 he was asked to go to Berlin to become artistic director for the giant AEG electric company. Apart from designing a significant early Modern building, (the AEG Turbine Hall), his importance for industrial design was this:


He was responsible for the form and appearance of the majority of AEG products. These included, posters, brochures, arc lamps, fans, clocks, electric kettles and teapots. In other words, Berhens designed the company's consumer products and some of them - particularly the kettles and teapots - are "among the most beautiful objects of the 20th century". As far as design was concerned his tasks were as follows:


1.  Coordinate the aesthetic form of products with the the company's manufacturing process, use of machines and the materials employed.


2.    Ensure the greatest amount of standardization of component parts as possible.


3.   Give AEG products a unique and unrivalled aethetic form consistent with the image of an quality-driven company.


The majority of Berhens' designs conformed in their precise and simple shape to the technique and economy of production. Aesthetic concerns were secondary and derived from the logic of the production process. In 1910 he wrote that his product design forms: "to some extent emerge by themselves from the machine and from mass production and are suited to them".


Berhens is the best example of the WERKBUND artist-designer required by Muthesius. That is, the artist who voluntarily submits his artistic consciousness to the objectivity of the machine and to perfectly rationalized mass production.


His work is no longer that of the solitary artistic imagination, but rather that of the rationalist DESIGNER/ORGANIZER coordinating the functional design of products with the organizational needs of INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION. One must be clear however, that Berhens' aesthetic control was of a very high order. Under his guidance the factory produced beautiful products. Other designers may not have been able to achieve this.


Berhens is the classic industrial designer and represents the first real integration of art and mass production industry in the 20th century.


The simplicity demanded by mass production processes here becomes the basis of an aesthetic - a new style.




There are individuals who seem to produce work which is well in advance of the common style of their time. Christopher Dresser, (1834-1904) the British product designer was one of these. In the midst of the most vulgar and overdecorated period in European design history, Dresser's work shines out with an individual brilliance.


He was influenced by the ideas of his tutor Gottfried Semper - a German designer-educator who held that design should EVOLVE through fitness of purpose. Dresser's product designs for metalware, ceramics, glass and textiles were quite remarkably modern, functional, geometric and undecorated. He was not an artist, nor an Arts and Crafts traditionalist. He was, what he himself called: "a commercial designer".  There were two things that set him apart in his thinking.


a)     That design was a scientific and objective process and that in design it is necessary to resort to "an analytical method".


b)      His interest and love for Japanese art and products. He visited Japan and found it to be a revelation about purity of design. It fundamentally affected his thinking about design.




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.




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