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This major exhibition at the V&A is the first to explore Modernism in the designed world from a truly international perspective and in terms of all the arts.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century our relationship to Modernism is complex. The built environment that we live in today was largely shaped by Modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of Modernist design. We live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of Modernism, as post-Modernist or even post-post-Modernist.

Modernism was not conceived as a style but a loose collection of ideas. It was a term which covered a range of movements and styles that largely rejected history and applied ornament, and which embraced abstraction. Born of great cosmopolitan centres, it flourished in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, Prague and New York. Modernists had a utopian desire to create a better world. They believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration. All of these principles were frequently combined with social and political beliefs (largely left-leaning) which held that design and art could, and should, transform society.

Modernism: Designing A New World is the first exhibition to explore the concept of Modernism in depth, rather than restricting itself, as previous exhibitions have, to particular geographical centres or to individual decades. Many forms of art and design are represented in the show. But as befits a period when the debates surrounding how people should live took centre stage, the exhibition focuses on architecture and design. The range of objects – including architectural, interior, furniture, product, graphic and fashion design as well as painting, sculpture, film, photography, prints, collage – reflects the period's emphasis on the unity of the arts and the key role of the fine arts in shaping contemporary visual culture.

The exhibition concentrates on the years 1914-39. Europe and, to a lesser extent, America are the focus but the reach of Modernism is demonstrated by selected exhibits or projects from different parts of the world.

Searching for Utopia

At the core of Modernism lay the idea that the world had to be fundamentally rethought. The carnage of the First World War led to widespread utopian fervour, a belief that the human condition could be healed by new approaches to art and design – more spiritual, more sensual, or more rational. At the same time, the Russian Revolution offered a model for an entirely new society.

The desire to connect art and life led to a spirit of collaboration between artists and designers, with architects playing a leading role. Aesthetic conventions had been overturned before the war by the advent of Cubism and Expressionism, but now designers took the process further. Focusing on the most basic elements of daily life – housing and furniture, domestic goods and clothes – they reinvented these forms for a new century.

Communist Utopia

The Russian Revolution of 1917 set out to build utopia. Art was to become part of everyday life, and technology was to be extended to its limits and beyond.

Avant-garde architects and artists threw themselves into the collective effort. They evolved new theories and institutions, developed new types of buildings and produced all kinds of innovative propaganda.

Many worked under the banner of Constructivism, proclaiming that the task of art was ‘not to adorn life but to organise it’.

Social Utopia

Designers and artists working from a socialist perspective believed that utopia could be achieved within existing social and economic structures. They saw the machine and industrial production as ways of creating greater equality.

Different visions of utopia were not exclusive of one another. The Dutch group De Stijl believed in the spiritual as well as social dimensions of their work. The Bauhaus school in Germany abandoned its initial spiritual emphasis for the ‘New Unity’ of art and technology.

Spiritual Utopia

In the years before and after the First World War there was a wave of spirituality. Artists and designers rejected the sterile materialism of the modern world and instead sought a form of expression that would reflect the human intellect and soul.

German Expressionist design, with its organic forms and crystalline structures, conveyed its spirituality very directly. But the geometry and abstraction of Dutch De Stijl or Russian Suprematism also embodied spiritual and metaphysical truths.

Dionysian Utopia

Many artists were intoxicated by the endless possibilities offered by science and technology. The Italian Futurists based their vision of utopia on the potential power of technology. They envisaged a world entirely recreated in terms of the machine: everything from clothing to architecture, from music to theatre.

The Futurists celebrated the energy, violence and dynamism of contemporary urban life. This wild Dionysian response was essentially emotional and sensual rather than practical.

Rational Utopia

Rational utopia rested on the idea that mechanisation could improve daily life and transform the products of the designed world. Like much of Modernism, it was formulated in opposition to the perceived evils of the present – above all, the repressive political structures and glaring social inequalities.

Its solutions were highly rational and practical. A new environment – clean, healthy, light and full of fresh air – would transform daily life. There was no need for revolution, only for social change.

The Machine

No idea was more central to the dreams of a new utopia than that 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.

Performing Modernism

Modernist theatre and cinema was a laboratory for utopia, an arena for experimentation. Here designers could try out new materials, new ideas for mechanised or robotic bodies, and new ways of organising the body in space.

In exploring these ideas, designers collaborated with choreographers, directors and performers. But they also took the concept of performance and theatricality beyond the stage into other spheres, including exhibitions, shops, cafés and events, both indoors and out.

Performance has been largely overlooked in the study of Modernism. Though highly significant, it is by its nature ephemeral. Yet, it is central to the Modernist enterprise of creating a new world.

Building Utopia

In the mid 1920s, as the post-war economy improved, the new utopia 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.

Social Agenda

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.

New Materials

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.

Bauhaus Dessau

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.

Promoting Modernism

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.

Domestic Interior

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.

The Healthy Body Culture

Modernism was permeated by a deep concern for health. World war and the flu epidemic that followed had killed millions. Poor housing conditions continued to blight people’s lives and made tuberculosis a major disease. Alongside these negative factors, there was a positive one: the new, and more open, response to sexuality and the body.

Health was seen as a metaphor for a bright new future. In practical terms, it meant that buildings, both private and communal, should have modern amenities. These ranged from indoor toilets and hygienic kitchens, to swimming pools, gyms and sun decks.

The connection between health and the body can be seen throughout the mass media and the visual arts. Everywhere there were images of sports men and women, dancers and gymnasts, swimmers and sunbathers. These images were not merely a celebration of health and exercise. Often they had deeper social and political resonances.

Modernism and Nature

During the 1930s many designers and architects, especially the more avant-garde, turned away from mainstream Modernism. Eschewing objectivity, geometry and machine imagery, they shifted their attention to Nature. Here they found organic, curvilinear forms and a more satisfying outlet for their emotional and psychological needs.

Nature provided a new guiding principle (the ‘laws of nature’) in which form was derived from function and natural geometry. It was also a source of materials that could be shaped by human creativity. Designers now saw that brick, stone and above all wood had expressive qualities that were lacking in steel, concrete and glass.

At the same time, the sense of a grand, collective Modernist enterprise began to wane. Designers no longer necessarily set out to change society. Instead, they focused on enhancing the human experience.

National Modernisms

During the 1920s, Modernism had been closely associated with left-wing politics. In the 1930s, however, it proved surprisingly adaptable to different political systems, including dictatorships.

At the same time, the rise of totalitarian regimes triggered the emigration of many leading designers and artists. This hastened the spread of Modernism from its historical centres to countries such as Britain and the United States, but also to South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the nascent state of Israel.

The five case studies in this section of the exhibition look at the way in which Modernism changed in the 1930s, especially in terms of politics. They focus on national settings where Modernism had originated (Germany, Russia, Italy), as well as those where it was adopted later (Sweden, Britain).


When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, they initiated a purge of Modernist culture in favour of a romantic, conservative vision of the nation. They immediately closed the Bauhaus and prevented many Modernists from working. Jewish designers suffered especially.

Avant-gardism of any kind was snuffed out by Hitler but various strains of Modernism continued throughout the 1930s. In engineering, industrial design and even products for the home, the authorities actually favoured modernity as a sign of progress. For designers who avoided politics and high-profile public commissions, it was sometimes possible to continue working.


The competition for the Palace of the Soviets, held in 1931–3, represented a remarkable flourishing of Modernism in Russia but also its death knell. Over 400 Russian, European and American architects submitted entries, many of them significant Modernist designs.

However, at precisely this time Stalin tightened his paranoid and sadistic grip on the nation, directing his attention to cultural policy. After 1933, only realistic, optimistic and heroic art and architecture was permitted. Most forms of creative experiment were cast as degenerate and pessimistic. Despite this, the techniques of Modernist design were put to political use in international exhibitions, films and graphic design.


Although the Italian Fascists were enamoured of ancient Roman architecture, they also welcomed Modernism. For Mussolini, a diversity of artistic tendencies was evidence of the richness and vibrancy of Italian culture.

This positive view of Modernism was a legacy of the Futurists (many of whom had Fascist inclinations). Obsessed with modernity, they saw Modernism as a true reflection of a dynamic, industrialised and technologically oriented regime.

To suggest that there was no obstacle between political leaders and the people, Mussolini often described Fascism as a ‘glass house’. Modernist architects looking for patronage seized on this as a means of securing work.


Modernism arrived in Sweden with the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. Critics and the government admired Modernism as a suitable symbol for Swedish social democracy, and four million people – two-thirds of the population – came to the show.

The exhibition offered mass production, standardisation and utility as solutions to pressing social problems. However, it was not the rational or scientific character of the exhibition that drew praise, but its human qualities and everyday practicality. Critics claimed that Swedish Modernism reflected traditional ‘national’ virtues, founded in Lutheranism and the age-old struggle against the harsh climate.

Swedish Modernism was highly regarded elsewhere, especially in Britain, for its humanism and its distinctly local character.


Modernism established a foothold in Britain only in the 1930s. The most influential Modernists in Britain were émigrés from Europe and beyond.

Among them was the Georgian-born Berthold Lubetkin, who assembled a team of young British architects under the name of Tecton. They designed two blocks of flats, Highpoint I and Highpoint II, that were uniquely emblematic of the development of British Modernism.

Highpoint I, conceived as workers’ housing, closely followed Le Corbusier’s architectural principles of the 1920s. Highpoint II combines a Modernist shell with more poetic, even Surrealist elements.

Mass Market Modernism

By the early 1930s Modernism had extended its reach far beyond an avant-garde or elite audience. It was becoming part of everyday life.
Modernist design was increasingly imitated for its aesthetic qualities alone. Stripped of its social ideals, it became identified as a style, one among many that designers and consumers could choose from.

Published widely in magazines and shown in exhibitions, Modernism clearly signified the new and began to make inroads into the mass consumer market and the home. Modernism was readily accepted as a selling tool – in advertising and typographic design, shop display and product design.

Transport organisations – from airlines to municipal rail systems – encouraged the public to engage with Modernist design, while popular cinema provided glimpses into Modernist worlds, both real and imagined.

Modernism: Designing A New World 1914 - 19396 April - 23 July 2006sponsored by Habitat
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