What was Modernism?

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 influenced by the aesthetics and the ideology of Modernist design. But what was Modernism?

Searching for Utopia

Modernism was not conceived as a style but a loose collection of ideas. It was a term that covered a range of movements in art, architecture, design and literature, which largely rejected the styles that came before it. The methodology flourished in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, Prague and New York and was prominent in the years between the World Wars.

Drawing, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1934, England. Museum no. E.3770-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At the core of Modernism lay the idea that the world had to be fundamentally rethought. The carnage of the First World War and the Russian Revolution led to widespread utopian fervour, a belief that the human condition could be healed by new approaches to art and design. Focusing on the most basic elements of daily life – housing and furniture, domestic goods and clothes – architects and designers set out to reinvent these forms for a new century.

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
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

Architecture and social change

Europe had been ravaged by repressive political structures and glaring social inequalities. Tackling economic inequality became central to the Modernist agenda and many architects devoted their energies to housing. Affordable housing was one of the most urgent needs of the inter-war period. Designers and architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius developed model housing estates in an attempt to resolve the housing crisis.

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 allow for mass-production.

Design for White City housing scheme, drawing, Eric Mendelsohn, 1934, UK. Museum no. E.677-1993. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

New technologies

Many artists and architects were intoxicated by the endless possibilities offered by science and technology. They envisaged a world entirely recreated in terms of the machine: everything from clothing to architecture, music to theatre. The house could be a 'machine for living in' and the task of art was 'not to adorn life but to organise it'.

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

Henry Ford's assembly lines had inspired the notion that mechanisation would eliminate wasted time and effort, provide high productivity, and help solve the ills of contemporary society. Industry became not only a means to an end, but also an aesthetic. Machines and machine parts were seen as models of functional, unselfconscious design, of beauty without ornament.

Rejection of ornament

So what did Modernism look like? As a design principle Modernism promoted sleek, clean lines and eliminated decorative additions that were purely for the sake of embellishment. Out were the frilly fripperies of pre-war styles. This new world would take its cue from technology, factories, practicality and usefulness. Form would most certainly follow function.