Article about Modernism by Lisa Wallius:
“Like many ‘isms’, it seems both to stand for something clearly definable- a major twentieth- century movement in art, architecture, design and literature, even culture- and yet to demand continuous and ever more probing investigation into its history and significance”.
On display at the Museum of London is a cocktail cabinet. Entering the gallery “People’s City: London’s Suburbs” I have to admit I did not see the cabinet straight away. Not because it is particularly small or easily overlooked, but the beautiful Ford car standing beside it caught my immediate attention and the furniture piece beside this glorious vehicle did not feel that special. It might be I discarded it because it felt like it’s something I’ve seen many times before. Looking closer, the cabinet and the car are quite alike. (See fig 1 and 2)
Fig 1. Ford car Museum of London 1936 Fig 2. Cocktail cabinet Museum of London 1937
The maple veneer is sleek and shiny, the lighting in the room bouncing off its edges just as it does with the car. The lines in the wood of the cabinet’s framework mirror the lines of the car grill and the curves match the curves of the car giving it a robust and masculine impression. The owner of the car might as well own this cabinet too and my guess would be that he is a man with a rather well payed job and someone who would like other people to know it. The cocktail cabinet was made in 1937 (designer unknown) and though it may not be what most people would consider typical modernist, to me it fits the bill of modernist design perfectly. A style of design not yet out of style. But I’ll come back to that later.
Most people would argue that trying to put a finger on what Postmodernism is, is much more difficult than understanding Modernism but I would counter that pinpointing Modernism is much more challenging. And to understand Modernism you have to understand society at the time; the feelings created by the First World War and the need to improve the world. The desire to change in art and design, politics, women’s rights, housing and humans’ connection with the planet. When I hear the word “Modernism” I think of the colors white, blue, red and geometrical shapes. Light and airy. Experimental. I also think of design today and of how modernist ideas so have shaped the architecture and design we see around us by simply strolling down the street. Modernism and Postmodernism I would argue aren’t ideas that came and went but rather something that is still relevant in the present day. It exists in how we view the world and relate to everything around us. In the words of Gabriel Josipovici in his article Modernism Still Matters:
“Modernism, whenever it began, will always be with us, for it is not primarily a revolution in diction or a response to industrialization or the First World War, but it is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities”.
Perhaps Josipovici’s quote is not one hundred percent accurate in the sense that architecture and design then and now is not a concern of limitations but rather liberation and playing with the idea of what makes design. He is right in saying that Modernism will always be with us though and it is also because of this that I find however I try to explain Modernism and whichever word I choose they never seem to be enough. They still do not cover all of what the word entails.
As with so many art movements, Modernism came into being as a reaction of the past. Out were the set ways of how art, design and architecture should look like and in was the experimental, the improved man made and raw. As Nietzsche said “God is dead” so arose the “I believe what I can see” rationalism that lies in the heart of the movement. We are going to progress, rely on facts and improve. Break free from traditions, embrace the new and experimental. In this, man, and not God is responsible for building a better future, taking advantage of the new materials and the machine. I believe there are both good and bad ideals transpiring from this new way of thinking that has shaped our society today and debating them can be a lengthy process.
The rationalism of Modernism shows itself most clearly in the “less is more” way of thinking but it’s important to remember that this rule cannot be applied by everyone. “Keep only in your home the things you need” was the saying, but how much of a necessity is it then to own a cocktail cabinet; a cabinet with storing liquor and making cocktails as its sole purpose. For that matter, how necessary is it to buy that new chair with exciting metal legs? Your old chair with standard wooden legs functions as a chair should, so what would be the purpose of purchasing a new one, metal legs or not. In this aspect, modernism is very much linked with consumerism; to create a better society you have to own not just any type of chair, but the right one. Regardless of its intentions, Modernist ideals weren’t really for everyone, but for those who could afford it. Andreas Huyssen touches upon this in his book After the Great Divide: Modernism, Massculture, Postmodernism by stating “Modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture”. The cocktail cabinet is not only a piece of storage for your liquor, but also a piece of furniture that you want other people to notice and compliment. The pure existence of the cabinet makes it more Modernist than any of its other features and designs for it is for people to look at and admire. It is a status symbol laying out your rich life for display and connected with other things cocktail such as cocktail dresses, cocktail parties, cocktail shakers and cocktail glasses it is a lifestyle rather than the epitome of rationalism. There is a contradictory element here that is very important.
Putting things on view I find is also a big part of Modernism. Wilk writes that in the early 1900s “Furniture became an object to view, an element in the vistas and sight lines of the interior, and an integral element of its spatial composition”. However, in my opinion this idea isn’t new. The decoration of your home and the furniture you have in it, have for those who could afford it always been a means to show one’s status. What is certain though, is that there is a definite decadence connected to the new Avant-Garde and utopian way of life at this time and it’s evident from looking at the surroundings adjacent to the cocktail cabinet in the museum. Most of the objects on display are fit for the kitchen and social gatherings: cocktail glasses, glass bowls, a toaster, decadent salt and pepper shakers, martini glasses, a hoover, a gramophone and a radio to mention some. The perfect recipe for a successful dinner party I would say; tidy your home, put some music on and get to work with those cocktails. To this, the cocktail cabinet would be the ultimate piece of attraction where one could mix drinks like they do in the house of the rich in West End or Midtown Manhattan. If you can afford it, there could certainly be no reason for you not to enjoy it.
Fig. 3 Cocktail cabinet and display, Museum of London Fig. 4 Display, Museum of London
I touched upon the importance of man- made materials in Modernism previously but to say that the movement was only about concrete, glass and steel would be simplifying and not at all accurate. As big of a part as the machine played in Modernist ideals so did nature. In nature one could find organic and curvilinear forms that now are visible in many designs of the 1940’s. See for example these two chair designs of Alvar Aalto and Ray and Charles Eames (fig 5 and 6) and how they curve almost like a leaf. At the time not only steel was bent to accommodate specific designs but wood as well. Going back to the cocktail cabinet of my study, it may have glass and metal fittings inside but the outside of it is coherently wood. Nature is visible not only in the choice of material but also in its curves. One Modernist feature of the cabinet I believe is the lack of ornamentation that in itself makes it decorative. Granted, there is the maple veneer that could arguably serve only decorative purposes but in this case I believe it only highlights the nakedness and core of the wood and that rawness is an important factor of its design.
Fig. 5 Alvar Aalto chair 1920-1949 Fig. 6 Charles and Ray Eames chair 1950
In the introduction by Richard Weston in the revised and expanded book Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius by Nikolaus Pevsner, he writes that the modern movement with its clean lines, crisp forms and new sense of space were the basis for a “universally recognized style” and the natural expression of the age of science, industry and the machine. And maybe Weston here pinpoints why modernism still feels relevant today and not yet “out of style”- aren’t we still in the age of science and new inventions? The display at the Museum of London shows nothing we do not see every day anyway. We are still very much familiar with toasters, cocktail glasses and cars. Furniture design still tries to better our homes, making them even more practical, even more functional and even more fashionable. Cocktail cabinets are not something I have seen in any home I have visited to this day, but I still recognize the idea of owning things that hold only one specific purpose.
Whatever your thoughts on Modernism are I would argue that at the root of the movement lie not a machine- like coldness or a mass consumerism slowly devouring our own sense of self. But rather an unyielding optimism, and although some would say that optimism died after the Second World War, I would say it survived, and with it, the genuine desire to make the world a better place through design. And that, I believe is pretty amazing.
Attfield, J. Bringing Modernity Home: Writings on Popular Design and Material Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2007)
Desmond, K. Ideas about Art (UK: John Wiley and Sons 2011)
Huyssen, A. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Massculture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press 1986)
Pevsner, N. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (New Haven, Conn; London: Yale University Press 2005)
Wilk, C. Modernism- designing a new world 1914-1939 (London: V&A Publications 2006)
Josipovici, G. Modernism Still Matters www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/09/writers-english-modernism
accessed 17/1 2016
Modernism and Nature http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/modernism-and-nature/ accessed 26/1-2016
Museum of London online collection http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/497643.html
accessed 30/1 2016
accessed 22/1 2016
Keenan, J. What is Modernism/Postmodernism? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ehh1b6kNWA accessed 22/1 2016
Museum of London, People’s City Gallery: London’s Suburbs. 15, 18, 25/1 2016
Fig 1 – 4: Images from Museum of London taken by Lisa Wallius in Januari 2016
Fig 5: Alvar Aalto chair http://www.pamono.co.uk/sessel-von-alvar-aalto-fuer-artek-1933?gclid=CKndoLye4MoCFRKNGwodWuYM7Q viewed 5/2 2016
Fig 6: Charles and Ray Eames chair http://www.nest.co.uk/product/vitra-dsw-eames-plastic-side-chair-yellowish-maple-base viewed 5/2 2016
 Wilk, C Modernism- designing a new world 1914-1939 p.12
 Museum collection http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/497643.html accessed 30/1 2016
 Josipovici, G Modernism Still Matters www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/09/writers-english-modernism accessed 17/1 2016
 Desmond, K. Ideas about Art p.143
 http://www.philosophy-index.com/nietzsche/god-is-dead/ accessed 22/1 2016
 Huyssen, A After the Great Divide: Modernism, Massculture, Postmodernism p.7 introduction
 Wilk, C Modernism- designing a New World p.229
 http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/modernism-and-nature/ accessed 26/1-2016
 Pevsner, N Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius p.7