Modernism was sort-of screwed to begin with.

{Heads up: This is a long, non-illustrated essay-of-a-post and may be boring to non-designers.}

The moment I knew I wanted to become a designer was the moment I first acknowledged the poster designs of the Swiss De Stijl movement. Yes, I had seen some of those iconic posters as a young lad, however, I had not truly acknowledged them as pieces of design. Once I learned the basic principles of typography and layout, the beauty of Swiss modernist design really shone and spoke out to me; I am sure that this happens to many, if not all, aspiring and current graphic designers. The use of simplified form, simplified type, and logical layout in De Stijl, as well as Bauhaus posters was—and still is—utterly captivating. I knew then not only that I too wanted to make graphic works of art, but that my mentors would be the modernists of the 1900’s.

Like many young designers, I believed that modernism was merely a visual tool—a style that could be used in a poster or project to evoke a type of simplified designerly sophistication. This often included an overt use of Helvetica Bold, Univers, and Akzidenz. I cared mostly about the pretty facade of modernism in order to make my own schoolwork pretty in the same way; at that time I was truly missing the point of modernism. Like many other design students, I was lacking the understanding of the ideological meat and potatoes behind modernism that made it so significant.

In Modernism in Design, author Paul Greenhalgh breaks down modernism into two eras: pioneer and international. Pioneer modernism occurs from 1915 to 1930 and is primarily concerned with ideology—this is the true beginning of the movement. This is what I never understood before—modernism is not truly a style, or at least does not begin as one, but is rather a series of ideas created by intellectuals and artists of the time. International modernism, on the other hand, is truly a style. This is the era, from 1930 to the late 70’s, where image evolves, creating visual movements such as De Stijl. Unfortunately for the pioneer modernists, they never sought to create a style. Instead, the pioneers sought to use design as a method to change the world completely and finally; the hope was that their ideologically driven design wold pretty much stick forever. This is perhaps the greatest problem with modernism: the belief that the “modern” ideas and designs of the 1920’s-30’s would be timeless, even though they were clearly created to deal with problems of the time period.

All world-changing movements are inherently problematic. This is simply because there will always be too many variables caused by human-nature to take into account when making societal changes. In Modernism in Design, Greenhalgh gives us twelve tenets that generalize the modernist ideals. The first, and “most overarching concern” is “Decompartmentalisation”—the idea that “the Modern Movement was to break down barriers between aesthetics, technics and society, in order that an appropriate design of the highest visual and practical quality could be produced for the mass of the population.” This summarizes the goal of the movement. Modernists wanted to make the world a better place; at the time, World War I had just ended resulting in the greatest loss of human lives in history, and people felt betrayed. They were betrayed by politics in the form of monarchies and dictatorships, by the economy in the form of capitalism, and by technology/industrialism in the form of weapons. In order to combat these things, many European artists and intellectuals turned to communism and socialism. Karl Marx taught that capitalism was bad because it alienated the working class, keeping the working class from rising in social hierarchy, and thus psychologically and spiritually harming the underclass. Thus, modernist designers and artists sought to redesign life for the common man in hopes that this will in turn fight capitalism, industrialism, and bring about democracy.

Most of the twelve tenets described by Greenhalgh are based on the Marxist ideas of de-alienation/decompartmentalisation/design for the commonfolk. The more formal-design oriented tenets describe how objects should visually show how they function, should be as simplified as possible, and should not visually reference history, which lies in the same camp as simplification, as any decoration would have been a form of historical reference. Of these, the biggest problem is the overall idea of design for the “universal common man.” With the main camps of modernist designers being located in small gatherings in Germany, Switzerland, and Russia, how would they know what exactly the “universal man” is? Is there such a thing as the “universal common man?” I do not necessarily think so. There are far too many cultural and historical traditions and ideas that make up the individual, and these cultural differences vary somewhat drastically from area to area throughout the world. By stating that universal design is the way to change the world, the modernists strip away history and culture. By their standards, history and culture and two things that helped create WWI and suffering. However, when one strips away culture and history from a person, there can not be individuality, and individuality is part of human nature. Unbeknownst to the modernists, when a country is stripped of its culture/history and individuality is replaced with nationalism, we have something very similar to fascist Nazi Germany. Therefore, “international design” is in itself, problematic.

Other than universalizing design at the cost of individualism, the modernists found problems in the sheer idea of utilizing design as a method of creating change. Let’s take Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair for example. Breuer designed the chair within the constraints of modernism: it shows its method of fabrication by not hiding any of its components; it uses extremely limited decoration, if any at all, in order to universalize it; it’s made of steel which is a modern material; it uses simple, functional, logical geometry such that form follows function. Now, in order for this chair to start altering peoples’ lives, it needs to be distributed amongst the masses. Short of getting the government to take control of the chair’s production and forcing it upon families, there is no guarantee that a family or person is going to purchase this chair. Why? Simply because products will always be subject to human opinion, and as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This proves a problem, as the modernists need to rely on the idea that society will change first in order to accept modern design, and modern design is needed in order to change society. The problem is reminiscent of the classic “chicken versus egg.”

Finally, perhaps the greatest problem pioneer modernism faced was that of attempting to be a timeless solution to all of mankind’s social, economic, and humanitarian problems. This issue is clearly seen in the fact that pioneer modernism became exactly what it did not wish to become—a style occurring at a specific point in time, and not a theosophical, internationally-adopted-worldview. All movements, regardless of whether they choose to be or not, are products of their time, and thus, will always be remembered and seen as such in future times. As Greenhalgh states, “…the specific conditions of the period 1900-30 which provided the stimulus for the creation of various manifestos and it is in terms of that period that they are best understood.” Pioneer modernism was created as an answer to “the secular materialism of Freud and Marx….[and] the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of mainland Europe.” As the world slowly adjusted to these technological changes through democracy and economic stabilization, modernism began to be adopted as an aesthetic instead of an impractical ideology.



  1. R64

    Good post. Wasn’t “De Stijl” a Dutch movement though?

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