Domestic life in a Modern world

The radically new 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.

Rethinking the kitchen

In some instances, entire rooms were re-imagined. The kitchen, for example, became a laboratory for rational, well-thought-out use of space, a domestic workspace in which the housewife could cook, wash, iron and clean efficiently.

In 1927, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (known as Grete) was helping to build housing projects as part of the Municipal Building Department in Frankfurt, Germany. The aim of the vast project was to standardise building elements and mechanise all construction. This applied not only to the exterior construction but to the interiors as well. An effective kitchen, for instance, would reflect an organised and rational domestic interior.

Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen was not the first ever fitted kitchen but it was the first to be made in mass quantities. It became the most successful and influential kitchen of the period.

Frankfurt kitchen
Frankfurt Kitchen (detail), Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, 1926 – 27, Germany. Museum no. W.15:1 to 89-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Efficiency was key to the design. The housewife's movements and patterns as she circulated around the kitchen had been tracked and analysed. Each element of the kitchen was measured in relation to others in order to minimise unnecessary steps and therefore save labour. A large window and moveable overhead lamp provided generous light. The drop-down ironing board and slatted dish rack positioned over the sink added to the efficient layout. Eighteen aluminium storage containers with pouring spouts at the back allowed easy access to flour, sugar, rice, and other dried goods (no need to open a cupboard), and the refuse bin was built into the wall with access on both the kitchen side, for disposal, and on the hall side for rubbish removal.

Hygiene was also paramount. The kitchen was separated from the dining area because at the time it was deemed unhealthy to have an 'eat-in' kitchen. Cupboards and counters were painted blue in the belief that flies would be discouraged from landing on their surfaces. Lihotzky also recommended oak wood to repel mealworms, and utilised raised concrete plinths to avoid dirt-catching and insect-attracting nooks and crannies.

Ten thousand of these kitchens, made in three sizes to fit different flats, were produced. Although reception was mixed (some women felt that rather than easing their burden, the small space cut them off from the rest of family life) the influence the kitchen had on interior design was immense.

Domestic household goods

While kitchen design was being streamlined, other household goods were scrutinised in an effort to modernise the home. Architect Bruno Taut urged householders to 'get rid of everything that is not essential for living'. Although not all wanted (or could afford) to follow this injunction, a new product market did evolve, reflecting Modernism's 'rational' vision of the home. These Modernist products were described as 'household equipment'.

Lighting the way

Following architect Walter Gropius' adage to 'return to the heart of things', designers stripped away the ornament from household goods to return them to their functional core. Lighting, for example, was an essential tool for home and office. Functional yet expressive lamps such as Wilhelm Wagenfeld's Table Lamp MT8/ME2 were exhibited extensively by the Bauhaus in 1924. Wagenfeld had apprenticed as a silversmith before studying at the Bauhaus Metal Workshop. He went on to become a highly popular and successful designer of metal and glassware. The Table Lamp MT8/ME2 was notable for its translucent glass globe, which provided both ambient light and direct light for reading – but its high price put it out of reach of many would-be buyers.

2006ak4210 1600
MT8, table lamp, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, about 1924, Germany. Museum no. M.28&A-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Homeowners and business-owners were looking for lighting that was not only reasonable and pragmatic but was also stylish. The PH lamp, developed by Poul Henningsen, was prized for its three tiered, moulded opalescent glass shades predicated on mathematically determined curvatures. These shades provided the maximum amount of light without shining into the eyes of the user. Danish designer Henningsen, who had trained as both a mechanical engineer and architect, made no less than 40 versions of the PH lamp, in wall-mounted, standing, and hanging styles.

2006an5553 2560
Table lamp, designed by Poul Henningsen, made by Louis Poulsen, 1927, Denmark. Museum no. M.26-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Versatility was also prized among Modernist designers. Produced in 1930 by master craftsman Christian Dell, the Dell-lamp type K was a characteristic feature of many middle-class houses, apartments and housing estates across Germany. Made of lacquered steel, nickelled brass, cast iron and 'ebonite' (very hard rubber), the Dell-lamp possessed an ingenious structure that allowed it to be fully adjustable. The lamps were advertised as having 'functional form and the lightest, most extreme adaptability'. In 1931, Richard D. Best of Birmingham produced a similar lamp, the Bestlite, which became a feature of the British Modernist interior throughout the 1930s.

2006ab6686 2560
Dell-Lampe Type K, desk lamp, designed by Christian Dell, made by Zimmermann GmbH, 1929, Germany. Museum no. M.27-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Plastics enter the home

Machine-made and purely functional goods, however, also needed to perform a 'psychological' function in the home. A pleasing surface treatment, elegant form and smooth contour would elevate an object from simply 'fit-for-purpose' to a satisfying and agreeable home addition.

In the 1930s, plastic was quickly recognised as a structural material with inherent qualities that would make it suitable for many common objects, such as radio cases and cigarette boxes. When Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) was introduced, the rangebound aspects of wood were replaced by the limitless possibility of this new, mouldable material.

Radio emerged, after the First World War, as a new industry with rapidly expanding devotees. The earliest receivers resembled scientific instruments, but by the 1930s, plywood casings gave way to the 'moderne' (later Art Deco) sophistication of plastics.

2006ah8579 2560
Ekco AD-65, wireless, designed by Wells Wintemute Coates, made by E.K.Cole Ltd, 1932, Uk. Museum no. W.23:1-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The quintessential curves made available by plastic can be seen in Wells Coates' AD-65 wireless, made entirely from Bakelite for Ekco Radio, and the Model EC 74 radio produced by Serge Chermayeff, one of the interior designer industry's leading figures. Although at first consumers considered Bakelite an inferior substitute for wood, these innovative designs became immensely popular with the buying public.

2006au5630 2560
EKCO AC 74, radio, designed by Serge Chermayeff, manufactured by E. K. Cole Ltd, 1933, England. Museum no. CIRC.12-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Daily life

The new media of radio and sound cinema, as well as powerful advertising campaigns, enticed the public to embrace the message of modernity as progress.

Considering that mass production (and mass consumption) was a central tenet of Modernist thought, what better way to promote these ideals than with the everyday objects used in the home? Many designers chose to focus on furniture but a few turned their attention to the smaller household items such as tea sets, appliances and ashtrays.

2006au9334 2560
M.73A-1988, Marianne Brandt, 1924, Germany. Museum no. M.73-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
2006aw8784 2560
Tea pot, Naum Slutzky, 1928, Germany. Museum no. CIRC.1232-1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In these items, the symbolic rigours of practicality, efficiency, rationalism and functionalism are softened. The aesthetic of the machine gives way to a more humanist tendency. Although they still represent a cultural shift in tone towards the functional organisation of design, the artist's hand in these objects is still present.

2006av0922
Savoy, vase, designed by Alvar Aalto, manufactured by Karhula. Museum no. C.226-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Find out more about Modernism in the home