Modernism: Building Utopia
In the mid 1920s, as the post-war economy improved, Modernists utopian desire to create a better world began to take shape. Avant-garde, Modernist design moved from little-seen exhibitions or small circulation magazines to a wider audience.
Designers now had official positions as city architects or organisers of large international exhibitions. This gave them a stage on which to promote the ‘New’, and to do so in ways that proclaimed the unity and internationalism of the arts. The New Architecture, the New Dwelling, the New Photography, the New Typography were all terms used during the period.
Underpinning this movement towards the New was the idea of the 'New Spirit', one that reflected new social and economic relations, as well as new technology. This, so designers hoped, would seize the imagination of everyone and fundamentally transform the way people lived.
At the heart of Modernism in the designed world was a commitment to social reform, if not revolution. Political views varied among Modernists, but they were generally left leaning.
Tackling economic inequality was central to their agenda and many architects devoted their energies to housing. Affordable housing was one of the most urgent needs of the inter-war period, and massive changes in investment, land tenure, planning controls and building practices were enlisted to resolve the problem.
Hundreds of thousands were re-housed throughout Europe, but the Modernist approach was particularly influential in Holland and Germany under Social Democratic governments.
‘The Dwelling' exhibition
This was the largest exhibition of Modernist architecture and design of its time. It took place in Stuttgart in July–October 1927 and was organised by the Deutscher Werkbund (an association of leading German designers and industrialists) under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The exhibition is best known today for its model housing estate, designed by leading international architects. This can still be seen on the Weissenhof hill. But there were also other displays. They included domestic appliances and furniture, bathrooms and kitchens, photographs and models of new international architecture, and new building techniques. An international audience of 500,000 visited.
In their drive to transform society, Modernist architects set out to industrialise the building process. New construction techniques and the use of materials such as steel, concrete and glass would reduce costs and so allow more housing to be built.
Economy was not the only motivation for using these materials. Architects saw them as inherently ‘new’. They admired steel for its tensile strength, concrete for its resistance and glass for its ability to admit light. They sought innovative and expressive ways to reveal these properties, and used steel and glass to create visual transparency – a quality that was greatly prized in the New Architecture.
The Bauhaus was arguably the most influential art and design school of the 20th century. Founded in Weimar in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, it attracted some of the key figures in the evolution of Modernism.
The teaching was innovative and the work of both teachers and students had a huge impact, as did the building that Gropius designed when the school moved to Dessau in 1925. These achievements, combined with a talent for self publicity, made the Bauhaus internationally famous.
The Nazi authorities closed the school in 1933. Many of its members went abroad, where they were to disseminate Bauhaus ideas through their work and teaching.
The crusading nature of Modernism generated many exhibitions and countless books, journals, posters and advertisements. In both design and content, these argued the case for the ‘New’, often with a generational and political bias against the old.
Modernist graphic design and advertising came to be known as the New Typography. It favoured sans-serif lettering, sometimes without uppercase letters, and ‘Typo-Photo’, in which photographic images were montaged alongside type. Colour and composition were influenced by abstract painting.
The radically new character of Modernist architecture led designers to re-consider virtually every aspect of the interior, from the arrangement of walls and furniture to the choice of lighting and tableware.
Architect Bruno Taut urged householders to ‘get rid of everything that is not essential for living’. Although not all could afford or wanted to follow this injunction, a new market did evolve. Reflecting the ‘rational’ vision of the home, these Modernist products were described as ‘household equipment’.
In the 1920s Modernist products were made in very small quantities, but after 1930 the selection grew. Small firms found their market niches and established manufacturers launched Modernist lines.
Sitting on air
In Modernist circles, the chair represented a particularly important and popular design challenge. This was partly because the new interiors required suitable furniture, but also because it was easier to make a chair than to construct a building.
Literally hundreds of architects and designers produced chairs. The most innovative contribution was the cantilever chair, with two legs rather than four, first designed in 1927 by Dutch architect Mart Stam. It sprang from a recent design innovation, the use of tubular steel for furniture, pioneered by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus.
In their shiny, chromed surfaces and mechanistic, hygienic appearance, these chairs declared the radical nature of the new interior. Visually and physically light, they embodied the Modernist goal of weightlessness and transparency.
Vilstol easy chair
Vilstol easy chair
Bruno Mathsson (1907–1988)
Manufactured by Firma Karl Mathsson
Laminated and solid beech, jute (webbing), linen and wool (cushion) 80 x 52 x 112cm
Museum no. W.50–2005
Swedish designer Bruno Mathsson was fascinated by the act of sitting. In designing the Vilstol (easy chair), he sought to create a modern chair that was based on the position of the sitting body. He brought his considerable practical experience to this design problem, having been an apprentice in his father’s cabinet-making firm for most of the 1920s. Without stuffed upholstery, he addressed the challenge of comfort by forming the seat from bands of woven jute, an idea that he adapted from the underbelly belts used to secure saddles. The chair is also remarkably light, having been made from a laminated and bent birch frame. Although Mathsson’s anthropomorphic design and use of natural materials are widely credited with tempering the severity of Modernist design, the Vilstol has a clear relationship to Aalto’s contemporary designs. With a stable frame, economical use of materials and small number of parts, Mathsson’s chair shares many of the principles underlying the design of contemporary tubular-steel furniture.
Chair, model B403
Chair, model B403
Ferdinand Kramer (1898–1985)
Manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet, Frankenberg
Bent beechwood frame, moulded plywood
81.5 x 43.5 x 64.5cm
Museum no. W.3–2005
Kramer’s bentwood chair, designed for manufacture by the Thonet company and costing a modest 28 Reichsmarks, featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue Der Stuhl (The Chair), mounted by Adolf Schneck in Stuttgart in 1928. Kramer designed this chair for simplicity of manufacture and robust construction, rather than elegance in Modernist terms. There is no attempt to exploit the flexibility of bent beechwood in cantilevered curves or flexing seat or backrests. Furthermore, it was far from being the cheapest of the Thonet chairs. In an interesting article Kramer defended the need to create ‘type’ equipment for the home, arguing from economic necessity in the marketplace, but also on aesthetic and spiritual grounds: ‘The type dwelling requires type furniture on rational and aesthetic grounds.’ Furthermore, he argued, that the personality of the individual did not have to be expressed by one-off objects made by hand or inherited from family. The dwelling and its contents should simply be a backdrop for the expression of individuality through other means.
Eileen Gray (1879–1976)
Made by galerie Jean Désert
Sycamore frame with chromium-plated mounts and fixtures, leather upholstery
79 x 55 x 98cm
Museum no. CIRC.578–1971
The Irish designer Eileen Gray had a glittering career behind her in Paris as an Art Deco designer when she began to take an interest in Modernism, around 1925. Her young Romanian friend Jean Badovici introduced her to the work of Le Corbusier and other Modernists and helped her with a number of architectural commissions, including the house they shared in Roquebrune (1925–9). Gray admired Le Corbusier, who gave her a set of his architectural drawings, but retained an acute and critical eye of her own.
The so-called ‘Transat’ armchair was beautifully made of sycamore with metal fixtures, evoking the elegant craft of the ship chandler. Several prototypes exist, but it was to be a long time before it was manufactured commercially. The principle was that of a suspended loop of leather upholstered material, with a headpiece that could pivot to suit the posture of the sitter. Some versions use an upholstered sling of leather for the seat, like a deckchair, indicating that one of the sources of inspiration was the ocean-liner deckchair. Although Gray used chromed joints and connecting rods to allow for the use of straight sections of wood – simplifying manufacture and enabling the chair to be taken to pieces – the two side frames are expertly mortised in a way that could be industrially produced only with difficulty.
Marcel Breuer (1902–1981)
Manufactured by Isokon Furniture Co., London
Moulded birch plywood with zebrano veneer
79.2 x 62.2 x 98.5cm
Museum no. CIRC.80–1975
Given by Mr and Mrs Dennis Young
The Isokon ‘Short Chair’ – along with its companion piece, the full-length ‘Long Chair’ – was a translation into plywood of an aluminium chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1932. When Breuer emigrated to Britain, Walter Gropius had just been appointed Controller of Design to Jack Pritchard’s fledgling Isokon Furniture Company, and it was Gropius’s suggestion that Breuer design a version of the aluminium chair in plywood.
The sensuous curves of the plywood seat, with its built-in headrest, are played off against the four strips of bentwood that support it and also supply the armrests. This is one of the most comfortable chairs of the 1930s, and one that has provoked many a Hampstead intellectual to fall asleep over his or her Penguin book. English traditional notions of comfort and Modernist principles of clear expression of materials and structure were perfectly combined in this design.
Chair, model B32
Chair, model B32
Marcel Breuer (1902–1981)
Made by Gebrüder Thonet, Frankenberg
Chrome-plated tubular steel, bent solid beechwood, cane
82 x 47 x 57.5cm
Museum no. W.10–1989
Marcel Breuer designed this chair the year after Mart Stam and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe introduced their cantilevered designs to the public in 1927, though it apparently was not manufactured until about 1930. It was an innovative design in several respects. Breuer broke a convention that he himself had introduced: the use of a continuous tubular-steel frame behind the back. In this design he attached to the frame a seat and back made of wood and cane. This resulted in a more complex, more interesting design in which the textures of the natural materials contrasted markedly with the shiny steel frame. The use of cane would have been, for contemporaries, an unmistakable allusion to Thonet bentwood furniture, which had enjoyed renewed popularity among Modernist architects.
Chair, model ST 14
Chair, model ST 14
Hans Luckhardt (1890–1954)
Manufactured by DESTA, Berlin
Chrome-plated tubular steel, painted plywood
87.5 x 53.5 x 61cm, seat height 44cm
Museum no. W.49–1984
So accomplished were the first Modernist cantilevered chairs of Mart Stam, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer that it became difficult for others to design cantilevered chairs that seemed anything other than either pale imitations or outlandish attempts at novelty. Yet Hans Luckhardt’s design, which approached the borders of novelty, went beyond even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s in its eschewing of anything approaching rectilinearity. Like other cantilevered chairs, it relied on the tensile strength of extruded steel tube to achieve its minimal structure. However, it made use not only of a cantilevered frame (like previous designs), but also of a cantilevered seat of extraordinarily thin plywood, which seemed to float in the middle of the frame despite being attached at two points by steel flanges. The chair proclaimed itself as a triumph of industrial materials and contemporary design over the laws of nature.
Alvar Aalto (1898–1976)
Probably manufactured by Artek
43.2 x 38.1 x 38.1cm
Solid birch and birch plywood
Museum no. W.50 to C–1977
Devising rigid bent elements that could simultaneously serve as leg and support for a seat was the object of considerable research by Alvar Aalto and can be seen in several of his plywood reliefs. For Aalto, the creation of a structural element that could serve simultaneously as a horizontal and vertical support was a ‘type’ solution in wood, analogous in its importance to the concrete piloti or the antique Doric column. He called the standard leg of his three-legged stools the ‘Doric’ leg or the ‘bent knee’.Aalto and Otto Korhonen patented (in Scandinavia and Britain) the method by which the Doric legs were formed: thin sawcuts were made along the grain of a birchwood lath (most of the length of which formed the leg), thereby allowing the necessary flexibility to bend the piece at the top. Into these slots were glued thin sheets of veneer, which, when set, maintained the right-angle bend. At first, the L-shaped legs had to be manufactured by hand, forming the tight curve out of the separate veneers of wood as it was glued, but a machine was soon developed that could perform this action in a hot press. The stool is reduced to its basic industrial components: an L-shaped leg and a circular top. Dozens of stools could be stacked in a corner, and the resultant spiralling form became a motif of displays of Aalto furniture in the 1930s and ever since.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Modernism: Designing a new World 1914–1939', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 6 April – 23 July 2006.