Biographies of Modernist Designers
Marcel Breuer (1902–1981)
After a short period of artistic training in Vienna, the Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer studied at the Bauhaus from 1920 to 1924. He rose quickly and was appointed master of the furniture workshop in 1925 at the age of only 23. Works such as the plywood armchair from this period show the influence of Theo van Doesburg, the Dutch designer who brought the ideas of the De Stijl movement to the Bauhaus.
Through his experiments in the workshop, Breuer became interested in finding ways in which new materials could be used in the design of furniture suited to modern life. By using tubular steel in the ‘Club’ chair and B5 side chair he invented a kind of furniture that could be easily mass produced and is still popular today. Breuer continued designing furniture for mass production but left the Bauhaus in 1928 to open his own architectural firm in Berlin. He remained there until the rise of the Nazis forced him to leave for the USA in 1938.
Once in America, Breuer met up with Walter Gropius, with whom he would practise as well as teach architecture. The partnership only lasted a short time, however, and Breuer left to establish his own firm. He died in 1981.
Serge Chermayeff (1900–1996)
Despite never receiving any formal training, Serge Chermayeff was one of Britain’s most admired inter-war architects and designers. He was born into luxury as the son of a wealthy Jewish family on the outskirts of the Russian empire and was sent to Harrow to receive a British education. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 deprived the family of their riches, and Chermayeff moved across Britain, Europe and even Latin America looking for work.
In 1924 he took a job in London as an interior designer and over the next few years established himself as one of the industry’s leading figures. By the early 1930s he was able to branch out into product design and even architecture. With his international connections, Chermayeff was receptive to new ideas about modern design and was a member of organisations such as MARS and the Twentieth Century Group, which promoted the new style.
In 1933 he formed a partnership with the German architect Erich Mendelsohn. Between them they constructed one of Britain’s most iconic Modernist buildings, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
In 1940 war and bankruptcy forced Chermayeff to emigrate to America, where he reinvented himself as a teacher and academic. He ended his working life as Professor of Architecture at Yale University.
Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931)
Although he never realised his ambition to become a well-regarded architect, Theo van Doesburg made a huge contribution to the intellectual development of Modernism and was one of the most energetic thinkers of the period.
He became interested in avant-garde art at a young age, producing paintings in the style of Kandinsky in his early twenties. In 1916 he helped to found the artists’ groups De Anderen and De Sphinx, and through them met artists and architects such as Piet Mondrian and J.J.P. Oud.
This association resulted in the publication of the journal De Stijl, which Van Doesburg was to edit until his death. The first issue appeared in November 1917. De Stijl aimed to unite art and architecture, and the strength of its message meant that the work of its contributors was often described as ‘De Stijl’.
Anxious to promote De Stijl ideas, Van Doesburg travelled to Germany and Paris to lecture and participate in exhibitions, eventually settling in France in 1923.
Since the mid 1910s Van Doesburg had been producing colour schemes for the buildings produced by other architects, and from the early 1920s he became increasingly interested in working as an architect himself. He collaborated with the architectural student Cornelis van Eesteren on some housing models for an exhibition in 1924, and in the late 1920s took charge of the redecoration of the Café Aubette in Strasbourg. Despite these efforts Van Doesburg was only able fully to design one building by himself – his own house in Meudon, which was completed in 1930.
Van Doesburg died in 1931 and without him the journal De Stijl also perished. However, his ideas had made a big impact and his theories were carried into the next decade by younger designers, such as the Swiss architect Max Bill.
Naum Gabo (1890–1977)
In 1914 the outbreak of the First World War led the 24-year-old Naum Gabo to flee Munich, where he had been studying philosophy and art history, and seek refuge in Norway.
It was while living in Norway that Gabo began to develop as an artist, creating an approach to sculpture that he called the ‘sterometric’ method. Rather than considering sculpture in the traditional sense as mass occupying space, Gabo thought of sculpture as a combination of spaces defined by intersecting planes. In his early Constructivist experiments, Gabo would piece together sheets of cardboard using tape or glue to form abstract figures.
With the success of the Russian Revolution, Gabo returned to his homeland in 1917. For Gabo, though, the Revolution was important not so much for its ideology of Communism but as a symbol of a spirit of newness and creation. His approach became increasingly abstract and concepts of movement and time took the place of figures in his work.
Although Gabo was committed to the ideals of Leninist Russia, he believed that art existed for itself rather than as a vehicle for political ideas. This standpoint differentiated him from his Russian colleagues, and, in part as a result, he moved to Berlin.
Here he participated in the First Exhibition of Russian Art, met artists of the German Dada movement and lectured at the Bauhaus. Despite his hope that revolution would soon sweep all of Europe, Gabo sensed the coming oppression in Germany. He left for Paris and then London, where he lived during the Second World War. In 1946 he finally emigrated to the USA, where he continued to exhibit his Constructivist sculpture and died in 1977.
Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954)
Edward McKnight Kauffer began his professional life as a painter, but became one of Britain’s best known inter-war designers. He embraced commercial design not just as a way of making money but as an important art form in its own right. Contemporaries praised him as a ‘good translator’, adept at using modern art to address a popular audience.
Born into poverty in the Midwest of America, in his late teens Kauffer was given the opportunity to study in Europe. He eventually settled in England and began designing posters as a way of supporting his family. Success meant that this activity was soon the chief focus of his attention. By the early 1920s Kauffer’s graphic art was so well known that it was later used in Brideshead Revisited as an emblem of the period. His greatest works were produced after the late 1920s, when he developed a bold, machine-like style. In 1940 the war forced Kauffer to leave for New York, where he continued to work up to his death in 1954.
Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953)
Despite the fact that Berlin was the centre of Germany’s architectural avant-garde in the first decade of the 20th century, Erich Mendelsohn chose to study architecture in Munich. This would have a decisive impact on the direction of his early work. Munich was the home of the Blue Rider (Blaue Reiter) group and as a student in Munich Mendelsohn had come in contact with its members.
His early work was a synthesis of current philosophical ideas that considered art to be an expression of the soul. He believed that cast concrete – a revolutionary building material – offered the greatest expressive potential. His now iconic Einstein Tower reflects these concerns.
In 1920 Mendelsohn went to the Netherlands and was impressed by the rational, rectilinear work of the De Stijl group. The commercial buildings that Mendelsohn executed during this period show his attempts to integrate expressive curvilinear details within rectilinear and cubic structures.
Within ten years Mendelsohn’s office had grown to become one of the largest in Europe and he achieved international recognition. When the Nazis made life in Germany impossible, he left for England where he stayed for the next three years until he was lured to Palestine to work on public projects. There was plenty of work in Palestine, and Mendelsohn decided to move there in 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War brought commissions to a halt and he emigrated to the USA in 1941. With numerous private and public commissions, he continued his search for dynamism in concrete until his death in 1953.
Hannes Meyer (1889–1954)
The controversial Swiss architect Hannes Meyer studied in Basel and then Berlin before returning to Switzerland to open his own practice in 1919.
From the outset, in projects such as the Freidorf housing development, Meyer expressed an interest in a specific aspect of architecture: urban planning. The European economy was in ruins following the First World War and Meyer believed that architecture was a means of improving people’s living standards. The primary task facing the architect was not, therefore, a matter of design in any aesthetic sense but rather a matter of organisation according to function.
In Meyer’s view modern design practices, including the use of new building materials and techniques, could make construction more efficient. His projects called for strict systematisation of all facets of the building process, including the use of pre-fabricated parts to be assembled on site. This approach went hand-in-hand with Meyer’s political ideas, in the sense that standardisation was central to communal living and an expression of an egalitarian society.
In 1928 Meyer was appointed director of the Bauhaus after the departure of Walter Gropius. He had formalised his functionalist concept of building in print and could now apply these ideas in practice. Encouraging partnerships with industry, he steered the Bauhaus towards the ideal of affordable design for mass production.
In 1930, after a controversy in which he was accused of advocating Communism, Meyer was overthrown by the faculty (with the help of Dessau’s mayor). He left for the Russia and worked on urban planning commissions until 1936. After a short period in Switzerland, he became director of the Institute of Urbanism and Planning in Mexico City in 1939. After ten years in this post, he returned to Switzerland where he died in 1954.
László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946)
A sculptor, photographer, film maker and graphic designer, László Moholy-Nagy experimented with many different artistic genres. He was one of the most prominent Modernist theorists and gained a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as a teacher and writer.
Born in Hungary, he served in the First World War as a young man before participating in the country’s radical political and artistic movements. At the age of 24 he moved to Germany, involving himself in Berlin’s Dada and Constructivist avant-garde, and later joining the Bauhaus where he was an important figure for much of the 1920s. It was here that he earned an international standing, writing alongside Walter Gropius as well as producing his own work.
By the mid 1930s the rise of Nazis forced him to leave the freelance design practice he had established in Germany. He then worked in Amsterdam and London before moving to America to head the New Bauhaus in Chicago. He died in Chicago in 1946, having become a US citizen.
Xanti Schawinsky (1904–1979)
Xanti Schawinsky is usually known either for the activities of his early career, as a young ‘enfant terrible’ of Bauhaus theatre, or for the work he produced at its close as a respected and mature abstract artist. However these two perspectives ignore his tremendous versatility, and the important role he had to play in bringing Modernist ideas to different parts of the inter-war world.
Schawinsky was born in Switzerland, the son of a Polish Jew. His creative nature was obvious from an early age, and in his teens he studied art and music in Zurich, before travelling to Berlin and Cologne to learn about design and architecture. In 1924 he enrolled at the Bauhaus, and became involved in the school’s vibrant theatrical scene, also focusing on photography and painting. From the mid 1920s Schawinsky undertook wide range of professional commissions, working as a stage designer, a municipal studio director and a freelance designer. He also returned to the Bauhaus to teach.
In 1933 Germany’s growing intolerance forced him to move to Milan, where he spent several years producing commercial graphic design, principally for the typewriter company Olivetti. An invitation to join the progressive Black Mountain College brought him to the USA in 1936. He spent two years at Black Mountain introducing Bauhaus ideas to his American students, before moving to New York to take up freelance design and pursue painting – an activity which absorbed almost all of his attention in his final years. As innovative in commercial art as he was in his unpaid pieces, Schawinsky’s work demonstrated the huge creative power of the inter-war meeting of art and industry.
Grete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000)
Grete Lihotzky is known primarily as the architect of the Frankfurt Kitchen. She studied architecture under the eminent teachers Josef Hoffman and Heinrich Tessenow in her hometown of Vienna during the First World War. She went on to work with her mentor Adolf Loos, and later Ernst May, planning affordable flats for cooperative housing estates.
Her lifelong concern for efficient planning arose out of the dire need in Europe for better living conditions following the war. Modern design, she felt, was the way to achieve this goal at a reasonable price. In order to keep costs down, the building process had to be simplified by incorporating pre-fabricated parts ready for installation. For Schütte-Lihotzky this rationalisation of building also found its expression in the activities of inhabitants: modern design could simplify living itself, and in particular the daily work of the housewife.
Her work with May as an architect for the Municipal Housing Department in Frankfurt led to the development of a standardised kitchen that was installed in 10,000 flats. This kitchen was the result of a focused study of human movements during food preparation. The goal was to make a kitchen that would reduce the amount of wasted energy and so make household chores easier.
In 1930 Schütte-Lihotzky worked alongside Ernst May on the design of workers’ housing cooperatives in the Soviet Union as part of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. During the Nazi era she took part in the Resistance movement while based in Turkey and was captured by the Gestapo during a mission in Vienna in 1940. She spent the remaining war years in a Bavarian prison before being liberated by the US army.
Remaining true to her Communist ideals, Schütte-Lihotzky was to all intents and purposes barred from working on major projects in the West after the war. As a result she worked as a consultant for projects in the Soviet Block. She lived to the age of 102, long enough to witness a much-needed reappraisal of her career.
Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976)
Ladislav Sutnar was a Czech-born designer of homeware, toys, exhibition venues and printed matter. He made a significant contribution to the spread of Modernist design, but is often overlooked outside eastern Europe.
While Sutnar’s porcelain products reflected his modern sensibility in their simplicity, it is his graphic work that most embodies the tenets of Modernism. His primary concern was to make text and image communicate more effectively. Sutnar saw the principles of modern design as the key to achieving greater readability. Whereas traditional graphic design – with its static symmetry – would result in arbitrary relationships between texts and images, his modern methods of composition placed these elements in ‘logical relationships’.
For Sutnar, design was a field though which avant-garde invention could be passed to the consumer. He spread his ideas though teaching, as director of the Prague State School of Graphics and as executive secretary of the Czechoslovak Arts and Crafts Association. In 1934 he had his first one-man show, and in 1938 he was selected to design the Czechoslovak pavilion at the New York World’s Fair to be held the following year.
The fair provided him with a reason to visit New York, and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis provided him with a reason to stay. In exile, Sutnar met with former members of the Bauhaus who also took refuge in New York. For the remainder of his career, Sutnar worked in various fields, promoting his information design ideas through brochures, seeking manufacturers for his glass and porcelain, taking commissions for graphic design projects and designing corporate identities for companies.