Modern is a term applied to the work of 20th-century designers, especially of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, who used industrial materials to create sleek, streamlined buildings, furniture and other artefacts


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Modernism




 We've all seen the work of modernist designers, perhaps without knowing it, but it can be hard to define just what makes their work 'modern'.

 'Modern' is a term applied to the work of 20th-century designers, especially of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, who used industrial materials to create sleek, streamlined buildings, furniture and other artefacts.

 The term is used mainly of architecture, interior design and furniture, although the influence of modernism spilled over into the design of smaller items from rugs and other textiles to teapots.

 The word 'modernism' is often used n the same breath as 'Bauhaus' a famous German art school founded by Walter Gropius, which was open from 1919 to 1933.

 'Bauhaus' was not in fact the name of a style, but simply the name of the educational establishment, although the work done there represents a close distillation of the Modern Movement.


 The early 20th century was a period of rapid social and historical change, and this was reflected in the arts of the time. A mood of austerity and a taste or practical simplicity followed the stark days of World War 1.

 Many artists rejected the sensuous curves of art nouveau, and deplored what they saw as the nostalgic escapism of Arts and Crafts.

 They welcomed the machine age and the new materials and technology it offered. They were concerned about originality in style and new methods of construction, and strove to be independent of the past. 'Design' became a concept in its own right.

 The influence of Bauhaus meant that modernism flourished in Germany from the 1920s onwards. It was slower to establish itself in England, which was staunchly traditional - typified by the vast amount of mock Tudor building in the 1920s and 1930s.

 The new generation of English consumers preferred to spend their money on the mass-produced novelties of art deco.

 Modernism received a greater welcome in Scandinavia, and the USA embraced it enthusiastically. Many Bauhaus refugees from Europe made their home in the USA during World War 2. Modernist interiors and furniture typically made use of tubular steel, chromium plate, mirrors, tubular lighting and plate glass.

 By the 1950s, modernist designers took readily to the new plastics, fibreglass and polyurethane.

 In Scandinavia, though, modernist designers rejected metal and plastic as cold and inappropriate for furniture. They preferred to use wood (which they had in abundance) - particularly plywood and bentwood.

 The modern style is characterized by simple , austere design, a lack of ornamental carving or moulding, the use of strict geometric shapes, and only plain or slightly patterned fabrics.

 Unfortunately, this angular, standardised and mass-produced look gave interiors an impersonal, anonymous and hotel-like feel.

 Worse some manufacturers desperately tried to commercialize the modern look, and they produced some very bad examples. In trying to be 'original', they went overboard on asymmetrical decoration, with carpets and cushions covered in stripes and spots in the style of Picasso and Braque, and unusual angular furniture which was ugly and uncomfortable.


 Unfortunately a good deal of fine modern furnishing was also produced. One of the best-known examples of modernism applied to furniture is the 'Wassily' chair designed in 1925 by Marcel Breuer, the star pupil of Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus.

 Made of tubular steel, it was also ergonomically designed. Breuer's B5 chair of 1926 and B33 chair of 1930, manufactured by Thonet, also have a dateless modernity about them.

 Mies van der Rohe was the last director of the Bauhaus, and his 'MR' chair was a simple but ingenious use of the cantilever principle, which was widely copied.

 Although Finnish designer Alvar Aalto was not attracted to tubular steel, his laminated wood furniture of the 1930s has a very 'modern' look.

 Chairs are still manufactured today to his original 1930s designs. Many items of furniture designed by the Swiss, Le Corbusier, such as the 'Grand Confort' armchair of 1928, are also still being made.

 In England, the main source of chromium-plated tubular steel furniture between the wars was Practical Equipment Limited (PEL).


 In soft furnishings, the rug was often the only decorative item in the stark modernist interior. Examples designed by Da Silva Bruhns, Kauffer or Marion Dorn are still eye catching, with their bold geometric designs of lack, white, brown, beige or grey set off by accents of blue, orange and red.

 Chrome and glass ceiling lights complemented the uncluttered modern look, while ceramics appeared in geometric shapes, or curved shapes with geometric decoration.

 Oddities such as square teapots, cups and saucers, however, were less successful and never really caught on.

 Eventually the modernist ethos permeated later 20th-century design, and many of those first examples have become the classics of today.

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