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Wednesday, September 7, 2011


When we think of "modern" in terms of art and design, we picture that which is simple, sleek, shiny, slick, elegant, efficient, ergonomic, graceful, and practical. Such thinking eschews most if not all decoration, as well as that which is heavy looking, overstuffed, cluttered, clunky, and pretentious.  Artists and designers have been trying to visually define that which is "modern" for more than a century. Art Deco and Art Nouveau were both early attempts to do this, though both were only modestly successful in that they tended to hearken back to previous styles or to nature itself in terms of their decorative motifs. Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to work in a modern mode, embracing geometry and the rectilinear, imposing it upon natural materials and wide open spaces. He had some success in an architectural sense, though often his interiors and especially his furniture designs had a rather hard, stiffly uncomfortable quality. In 1919, in Germany, Walter Gropius found the key, a simple, three word alliteration that, when followed religiously, led to the discovery of what we think of today in our minds as modern--form follows function.

Barcelona chair and ottoman, 1929,
Mies van der Rohe
In practice, this meant designing both interiors and exteriors to first be completely functional, and then allowing that functionality to dictate the appearance. Beauty would follow absent decoration. And when decoration was needed, it should function only as decoration as in a painting or sculpture free of additional attempts to beautify that which was already inherently beautiful. In its purist form, colors should be natural, nature should not be imitated but invited inside, either through glass walls, natural building materials, or as a temporary "guest" in the form of plants and flowers. The corollary of the German "form follows function" was the French "less is more," the implication being that designers in the past had missed the truly "modern" by trying too hard. They would design an object, be it building, room, table, or chair, but then fail to recognize the functional beauty of their creation, feeling they needed to make that which was already beautiful, more beautiful by decorating it in some manner.  Recoiling from Victorian excesses in terms of decoration, they sought only to simplify decorative elements rather than eliminating them.

Donald Desky's Radio City Music Hall
auditorium, 1932
In architecture, the work of Phillip Johnson exemplifies this mindset. In furniture, the designs of Mies van der Rohe (the Barcelona Chair, above) and Marcel Breuer's bent, tubular, stainless steel creations are good examples. In terms of interior design, the work of Donald Deskey comes to mind, though his most important work, the interior of the Radio City Music Hall, at times bends toward the theatrical rather than the purely modern. However the name that has most come to signify "modern" design is Bauhaus, the German institution of art and architecture which Gropius founded in Dusseldorf in 1919, before moving it to Dessau in 1925, and then Berlin in 1932. The school closed when Hitler came to power and faculty members such as Gropius, van der Rohe, Breuer, Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Joseph Albers, Lionel Feininger, and Laszlo Hoholy-Nagy, departed for the United States where a pale ghost of the German institution opened in Chicago. After the war however, its influence blossomed, its simple, yet elusive rationale becoming the dominant factor in the exteriors, interiors, items, and institutions of design we know today.
The Bauhaus Dessau, 1925-32

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