DESIGN AND FORM
1900 to 1940
Birth of Modern Design
If design for the nineteenth century meant decoration, design for the twentieth century meant form (Figure 3.1
). Even as Art Nouveau designers were searching for a modern style through decoration, others were rejecting the impulse to decorate, a legacy of eons and eons of human history (and prehistory), to discover modernity in simple, unadorned form. Beauty was no longer dependent upon adding ornament to an object, as Christopher Dresser had described, but something intrinsic to it in the simplicity of its shape, structure, material, texture, and color and in its function. Turning to form meant more than just the absence of decoration, however; it signified a new understanding of what modern design might be. Form brought universality to design, eliminating the distinctions of taste in ornament that came with education and privilege and offering the possibility of a design that could be grasped equally by the entire population even if it was not always to their liking.
How simple form came to define modern design can be attributed to a number of causes, but why and how it happened so quickly at the beginning of the twentieth century has still not been resolved. One of the factors behind the abandonment of ornament was the continuing authority of Arts and Crafts values, with their emphasis on simplicity. A second was the growing emphasis on efficiency in manufacture in which rationalized, standardized, undecorated forms were thought to be easier than decorated ones to fabricate by machine. A third was the influence of modern art movements and the advent of abstraction as a primary mode of twentieth-century artistic expression.
From Ornament to Form
The shift from ornament to form did not necessarily mean that a whole new class of objects had to be created; in a complete reversal of prestige, the countless utilitarian objects that had been omitted from design in the nineteenth century, like Thonet’s 1859 bentwood chair (see Figure 1.2
), were suddenly reassessed for their elegance of functional form. Form goes hand in hand with function, the two having been forever linked by the familiar expression “form follows function,” which was appropriated from the writings of the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856–1924). While the lack of decoration meant that the function of an object might now be more apparent, this phrase was misunderstood and misapplied to suggest that function
alone should determine the form of an object, and if the form satisfied its function, the object would by its very nature be beautiful. By the 1930s it had become a rallying cry for legions of modern designers and architects, who adopted it as a notion that was central to their practice. But this belief, which dates back at least to classical Greece, had already been dispelled many times, as it was in 1913 by Hermann Muthesius (1861–1927), architect, civil servant, and spokesperson for progressive design in Germany. In his article “The Problem of Form in Engineering,” he protested: “
The idea that it is quite sufficient for the engineer designing a building, an appliance, a machine, merely to fulfill a purpose, is erroneous, and the recent oft-repeated suggestion that if the object fulfills its purpose then it is beautiful as well is even more erroneous. Usefulness has basically nothing to do with beauty. Beauty is a problem of form, and nothing else.”
FIGURE 3.1. Richard Herre, Poster for Die Form (Form), 1924. Published by Deutsche Werkbund. Lithograph.
The centrality of form was underscored as the term took its place in the discourse of design during the first quarter of the century. Form was the name of a number of twentieth-century craft and design journals, among the first those of the Swedish Society of Industrial Design (Svenska Slöjdföreningen, founded in 1905) and of the German Werkbund, or Work Association (Deutscher Werkbund, founded in 1907), which renamed its journal Form in 1922. But modern form, at least in its early years, did not call for a single look or style, as was demonstrated when in 1924, the Werkbund mounted its exhibition Die Form with a catalogue entitled Form without Ornament. The Werkbund had been founded by Muthesius as an association of artists, industrialists, manufacturers, and merchants with the mission of upgrading the quality of German design by bringing artists to work in industry and creating a modern national style for the sake of Germany’s economy and international reputation. The exhibition poster by Richard Herre (1885–1959), an architect, designer, and graphic artist whose furniture was also included in the exhibition, depicts a large advertising kiosk drawn in extreme perspective with the text raised upon it in crisp, three-dimensional lettering. Its clean lines and modern sans-serif typeface (type that does not have small projections at the ends of the characters) would seem to suggest that the exhibition had a single premise, to display objects with an austere geometry like this, an industrial aesthetic that was then moving to the forefront of progressive design. But to respect the work of its designers of all aesthetic persuasions, the Werkbund showed a range of products that embodied the complex tensions and tendencies that modern design was experiencing in Europe as it was first being defined. While such products as stainless-steel cutlery, ovenproof-glass kitchenware, and metal door handles brought the industrial aesthetic into the exhibition, other objects that were displayed there revealed quite different attitudes. These included pieces that although simplified continued to draw inspiration from the historic styles of the past, from the energy of the Art Nouveau experience, and from the handwork of the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as geometric designs showing the influence of new developments in modern art. With such a diversity of artistic approaches, it was clear that a universal, full-blown aesthetic of modern form had not yet been achieved.
The emphasis on form in the twentieth century does not mean that decorated objects were not also produced during the period; they were and in great quantities, affirming the persistence of the basic human desire for decoration that would not be obliterated by the sudden emergence of new ideas from an avant-garde elite. Much of the continuing decorative design at this time seemed to retreat to the past, however. The historic ornament produced during the early twentieth century was generally less innovative than the revival designs of the nineteenth, when the past had been dramatically reconfigured as a new style for the present, but reproductive, where the past was recreated in the false
guise of authenticity, as in much of American Colonial Revival design. New appliances for the home, such as radios, record players, and later televisions, typically relied on the comfort of historic styles for their form and their cabinetry. Although the dancers in a Victrola advertisement from 1922 are decked out in the latest fashions, their console record player uneasily recalls French furniture from the eighteenth century, with its concave panels, curvilinear moldings, and ball feet on casters, but tepid reminders of the elegance of French Rococo design (Figure 3.2
FIGURE 3.2. Advertisement for Victrola Record Player, 1922.
At the same time, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), the most respected of French twentieth-century furniture makers, was updating traditional cabinetry, leading the field with his elegant works of the highest level of craftsmanship and most luxurious of materials. His designs, which were executed by a large staff of architects and craftsmen, demonstrated how simplification and stylization could take traditional precedents and make them seem modern. His beautifully crafted decorative objects, like this lady’s writing desk with its gently curving legs, exotic ebony wood, ivory inlays and drawer pulls, and silken tassels, revived the long tradition of fine design that had defined a national style (Figure 3.3
). André Mare (1887–1932), a painter and decorator, gave his own prescription for reconstituting the national past for the modern day. “
First of all,” he wrote in a letter to the French glassmaker Maurice Marinot (1882–1960), “make something very French
, stay within the tradition . . . Return to simple, pure, logical and even slightly harsh lines . . . return to bold,
very pure, very daring colors”—descriptive of the dense, bold pink and black floral pattern of one of his own silk textiles in which the stylized forms of the flowers and leaves are defined in swirling linear detail and flattened against the fabric’s silken surface (Figure 3.4
FIGURE 3.3. Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Lady’s Writing Desk, c. 1923. Macassar ebony, ivory, silver, and silk.
FIGURE 3.4. André Mare, Textile, c. 1923. Silk and cotton.
Many had hoped that the Art Nouveau explorations of new styles would save decoration, but its time was brief and had only a limited impact on the future development of modern design. Josef Hoffmann’s attempt to create an ornament appropriate for the twentieth century through geometry was discredited, for example, by the Viennese architect and journalist Adolf Loos (1870–1933). Loos took aim at him, along with several Jugendstil masters, in his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” where he scoffed at Hoffmann’s efforts as an unnecessary and pointless pursuit for the modern era. Loos adopted an aesthetic of simple form that was suggested by the industrial architecture and standardized commonplace products he had come across during the several years he spent in the United States. He was also taken by the subtlety of the English craft tradition, particularly its immaculate tailoring, which he deeply adm...