Central to the Modernist dreams of a new utopia was the idea of technology, represented in word and image by ‘the machine’.
Modernist designers and artists saw the mechanisation and rationalisation of life as a key objective of a new society. Advocating machine-based mass production (Fordism) as the means of achieving a better world, they applied it to everything, from the production of art to the design of kitchens.
Machines and machine parts were seen as models of functional, unselfconscious design, of beauty without ornament. Artworks, as well as domestic objects and buildings, were conceived as machines or the result of machine manufacture (which they rarely were).
Photographs were images made by machines that also depicted or evoked the world of machines. Film, the latest image technology, brought the machine even more vividly to life.
American concepts of organisation and efficiency had a huge impact in Europe during the 1920s. The most influential were Henry Ford’s theories on mass manufacturing and the labour-saving systems developed by management consultant F.W. Taylor. From Moscow to Paris, Berlin to Prague, Fordism and Taylorism were admired, emulated and – in some instances – satirised. They were seen as a Holy Grail, the basis on which a new world could be built.
This faith in Americanism, often based on scant knowledge, found expression in photography and painting, in theatre and film, in building and architecture.
The New Person
It was important for Modernists to find appropriate clothing for the new era in which they were living. Some spiritually oriented artists wore a type of cassock. Others preferred the traditional tailored suit (often, the English suit) for its essentially Modernist qualities of simplicity and standardisation. The more radical outfits often looked like boiler suits or laboratory uniforms. They evoked the idea of the factory, and the designer or artist as worker or technocrat.
The factory as a building type had special meaning for Modernists. It was a site of production (a key word) and was associated with the worker. Honest, practical and egalitarian, it epitomised the qualities that many Modernists aspired to in their own work.
The factory product was the opposite of art, untainted by pretence, as was the factory building. The purpose of a factory was clear: it housed, or was, a product of the latest technology.
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.