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               The Modern Movement


By Alex Brown





"First of all we have to analyse carefully the essence of an object, why it functions correctly, and then it has to fit perfectly with its purpose, in other words, fufil its practical function, be easy to handle, economic and beautiful". (Walter Gropius, Director of the Bauhaus, 1927)


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 arguments about design philosophy raged on but it was clear that the Past - in the form of historical styles - could no longer offer a model upon which an industrial society could base its products. 


Modern Design in this sense can be seen as a merger of all these traditions - STRIPPED OF THEIR HISTORICAL ASSOCIATIONS.




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.


This war COORDINATED and rationalized the industrial forces of Western Europe and the United States. Every part of society was organized to contribute to the war effort. When the war ended, that same mighty industrial power would finally change the face of Western societies. There was no going back. Western societies were now thoroughly INDUSTRIAL SOCIETIES. Those societies had learned that massive production increases can be achieved by coordinating all the different parts of a society, the material and the cultural. Design, as an aspect of production, was drawn inside this new more-highly organised state.


Design in the broadest sense had become integrated with Industry in the cause of the war. It was a relationship which would deepen and strengthen with time. In a way, design lost its original ideal of the application of art and beauty to functional products. Design became part of production.




After the War, the various pieces of the Modern Design model were already in place waiting to be brought together. Three things should be remembered:


a)   The link between Industry and 'art' & design had already been established by the formation of the German Werkbund in 1907 (an association of designers and industrialists).


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. 


Although Germany had lost the war (unable to break the combined military forces of Britain, France and the United States), it had established a lead in the development of Modern design concepts (Weimar School of Art & Werkbund), while Britain remained trapped in the Arts and Crafts myth. Although suffering considerable economic and social hardships after the war, it was in Germany that the new style finally emerged in the 1920s in the form of the BAUHAUS. It was there and in the other defeated country - the new Soviet Union - that the most recognizably Modern design was produced.


4.0     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.


The war forced the development of technology and central planning in Western societies. Industry became the key sector to which other areas such as social life, art and design had to adjust. The design ideas which had developed in pre-war and essentially craft-based societies were now integrated into the  new mass production world after the war. We can say that their time had come.


5.0     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.


The integration of all the arts within one institution was a radical step. The idea was that there was to be no 'superior' art - that all were equal and dedicated to the creation of the total environment - like the anonymous humble stonemasons, carpenters and others who formed the Craft Guilds of the Middle Ages and built the great cathedrals.


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)


7.0     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 workshops dealing with different materials: wood, metal, fabrics, glass etc. and a 'workshop master' was put in charge of each. An 'elementary course' (foundation course) ran parallel to these workshop classes. It dealt with analysis of FORM, color contrasts, composition with textures. Students were trained in Craft, Drawing and painting and science and theory.


Craft training included:


a)       Sculptors, stonemasons, ceramics, woodcarvers, etc.

b)       Blacksmiths, locksmiths, founders metal turners.

c)       Cabinetmakers, Painters and decorators, glass painters, mosaic workers.

e)       Etchers, wood engravers, lithographers, art printers

f)        Weavers


Drawing and Painting:


a)       Freehand drawing, live models, landscapes, still lives & Composition studies.

d)       Ornamental design  and Lettering.

f)        Construction and technical drawing.

g)       Interior and exterior design, Furniture and Product design.


Science and Theory:


a)       Art History (not as a history of styles) as a study of methods and techniques.

b)       Science of materials.

c)       Anatomy - from living models

d)       Physical theory of colour and Rational painting methods.

f)        Bookkeeping, contract negotiation & personnel.

g)       Individual lectures on subjects of general interest in all areas of art and science.


In line with the workshop/craft philosophy, students were called apprentices, journeymen, and junior masters and the general programme was based on: 'manual skills, avoidence of rigidity, creativity, & individual freedom of expression'.


The workshops were used to produce and sell products. This, to some extent allowed the School to be financially independent of the Weimar City Council which was generally hostile to the whole idea of the school. It also reinforced the craft/work ethic - the practical approach - of the Bauhaus and the moral approach of anonymous, rational and humble design workers.


8.0     FROM CRAFT (IN 1919) TO TECHNOLOGY (IN 1923)


Right from the start the Bauhaus was in a constant state of change and evolution. The first phase up till 1922, was a mixture of social commitment, expressionism, and craft -  based mystical romanticism. During this period the workshop was seen as a 'sacred place' equivalent to a monastery in the Middle Ages with all craft workers (masters and apprentices) dedicated to a great creative harmony. The connection back through Van de Velde and the Arts and Crafts was still there in the Bauhaus in its early stages.


However, certain influences began to affect the thinking of the Bauhaus and these were:


a)       The Dutch  DeStijl movement (Theo van Doesberg).


b)       Russian Constructivism (Moholy-Nagy)


Neither of these radical movements took a Crafts approach to design. Both were committed to PURE GEOMETRY as a way of generating the form of objects. Rather than the manual skills of the craftsman, De Stijl and Constructivism saw the process of design as one of FORM-MAKING derived from an analysis of function, AND that functions could in all cases be resolved into pure geometric shapes.


From 1922 onwards, the workshops were no longer seen as craft training places where design arose out of craft techniques. Under De Stijl and Constructivist influence, design and craft (the making of things) were split into two different processes. - The workshops now became  simply centres for the production of design prototypes - which were firstly designed in the studios. The design studio became the  most important part of the Bauhaus teaching environment where FORM then PRODUCTION became the key sequence..


In place of the old 'unity' of craft design, the Bauhaus after 1922 split production of objects into DESIGN and PRODUCTION. In a real sense INDUSTRIAL DESIGN HAD BEGUN. Whereas before, the workshop had been the centre of the Bauhaus, NOW it was the design studio.


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.




In 1925 as  a result of hostility from the citizens of the town of Weimar, the Bauhaus moved its premises to the other German city of Dessau. It was here in Modern buildings designed by its Director, Gropius, that the School achieved international recognition  as  centre for Modern Design in all areas: Marcel Bruer and Mart Stam's tubular furniture; Marianne Brandt's lamps and teapots; Annie Albers and Gustave Stolz's fabric designs. Graphics and typography and modern architectural ideas were also generated by Bauhaus teachers which made the clearest statement so far of how Modern design would evolve.




The political situation in German during the 1920s was becoming unstable. The Bauhaus, its teaching staff, students came under increasing attack from right-wing or Nazi political parties, traditionalists, conservative artistic and academic groups who suspected the Bauhaus of having communist ideas. Bauhaus students were seen as dangerous, foreign-influenced radicals. Conservative politicians and academics also rejected Bauhaus (ie. Modern) design as 'un-German'.


These increasing attacks led in 1928 to the resignation of its founder - Gropius. His place was taken by Hannes Meyer, but for the same reasons, in 1930 he was also forced to resign and Mies Van Der Rohe, the architect took over as Director. The city of Dessau, now under the control of the Nazis, finally closed the School down in 1932.


The great experiment was over. Many of the Bauhaus academics left Germany altogether and emigrated to the United States were their influence was considerable. Both Gropius and Mies van Der Rohe took over as head of schools of architecture. Marcel Breuer set up in practice as an architect in the States and so on. Germany had to wait until the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 to recover Modern Design and recognize the contribution of the Bauhaus.




Neither before nor since has any one institution had so much influence on design thinking as that of the Bauhaus. It was not just a matter of the STYLE of its products, but just as much, its teaching methods and programmes. Unlike traditional academies (which depended on copying and understanding historical styles and methods) teaching in the Bauhaus centred on:


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.


In fact this extreme functional position was seldom actually practiced at the Bauhaus because due to the influence of DeStijl and Constructivism, there was always a ready-made geometric form which could be made to suit the purpose and the form. In this approach - Form came first and shaped the functional end product. Function, in this case, followed Form. What today many people think of as the ‘functionalist’ sty;le of the period was really the geometric/formalist style of the De Stijl influence. Is it surprising that so many different products ended up looking so similar? Yet even here there was a practical point: simple geometric shapes allowed for easier industrial production and standardization.


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


The Dutch Modern Movement was centred around a magazine called ‘De Stijl’ (the Style), which first appeared in 1917. Later the name was used to describe the work of the whole of the Dutch Modern group.


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.


De Stijl was founded in Holland and was based essentially on the ideas of four men: The painters, Piet Mondrian; Theo van Doesberg; furniture designer: Gerrit Rietvelt and the architect: J.P. Oud. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had an indirect influence on the geometric design style of this group. However, particularly under the direction of Piet Mondrian the group’s became  more abstract and radical. The ideas of this group centred on the search for and recombination of the most fundamental elements of design, namely the basic planes and cubic forms. Indeed, Mondrian’s painting style was sometimes called: ‘Elementarist’. The theories and aims of the group can be stated as:


1.   The search for a universal language of art which could unite all designed objects.


2.   Essentially artistic in character and concerned with pure colours and forms in painting architecture and furniture design with right-angle geometry as the basis for all designs and in particular the right-angled grid as a unifying field.


3.  Limits the forms it used to separated surfaces and planes which define 3-dimensional space. Yellow blue and red colours (black was used to act as a 'frame' for coloured objects or planes).


4.  The key concept is one of ELEMENTARY, economic, functional and un-monumental forms placed in a dynamic and asymmetrical relationship to one  another.


De Stijl proposed a 'grammar of shape AND of colour' which would apply to all forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture and interiors. The similarity of colour and shape between Piet Mondrian's paintings and Reitveldt's 'red and Blue chair' is not a coincidence. According to the group's philosophy, the world was at the beginning of a new age - a new world order - and therefore required a new and very abstract visual language.


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


The basic chair forms: backrest, seat, arms and supporting frame are reduced to their most basic geometric cubic forms and 'colour-coded'. The other aspect is that the parts are clearly separated - articulated - from one another. Space is allowed to flow through and between the elements which float in space in a definite relationship with one another. The function or comfort of the chair is simply a starting point for an act of geometric abstraction.


13.0    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.


After the Russian Revolution the new Soviet state established an institute for design: the VCHUTEMAS in Moscow in 1920, like the Bauhaus a merger between craft and art institutes. Right from the start, copying of historical models was excluded and was replaced by systematic teaching of spatial composition, colour theory, surface, space and volume. Applied to industrial design, the goal of the teaching staff was the production of ARTIST-ENGINEERS. The characteristics of Constructivism can be summarized as follows:


1.       Totally anti-historical, anti-art, and functionalist in character. 


2.  Dynamic expression of individual volumes, spaces, structure & transparency.


3.      Red and black colours predominate and diagonal elements are used to express  dynamism.


4.    Large scale engineering  and construction emphasis in design. Supporting  structures are emphasized around the volumes which they support.


Like the Nazis in Germany who closed the Bauhaus, In 1932 the Soviet government closed the Vchutemas and repressed any experimentation in art and design. A simplified Classicism was re-established (again like Nazi Germany) as the official state design style and re-named 'Social Realism'.




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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