Designing Britain Home Page crd graphic title
  From Solving Problems to Selling Product
  Context
  Overview
Social Reform 1930-1950
Cultural Revolution 1950-1970
  Profession
  Overview
Design Reformers 1930-1950
Emerging Practice 1950-1970
Flexible Production 1970-1990
  Theory
  Overview
Modernism
Postmodernism
  Product Evolution
  Assignments
  Assignments Intro
Assignment 1
Assignment 2
  Image Archive
  Author
  Home
 

Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Theory > Modernism
 
THEORY – MODERNISM

From the 1920s until the 1960s the Modern Movement heavily influenced British designers. Although its roots stretch back to the nineteenth century, Modernism emerged as a coherent, documented body of thought in post-First World War Europe, and quickly became an international movement. Much has been written about Modernist theory, and it has had an influence in all areas of the arts, from music and literature, through to product design and architecture. There are many interpretations of Modernist practice, and this account can only provide a brief introduction to the issues relating to design. You are encouraged to pursue further reading, either from the bibliography contained in the Theory - Overview, or from other sources available in your university library.

Modernist designers sought ideal forms for the products and architecture they created – forms that would have a universal appeal, and that would transcend individual differences in taste, regardless of the user’s social position. In this way design was envisaged as a unifying force, helping to create a fairer, socially just world, and producing timeless objects unaffected by the vagaries of fashion.

In order to achieve these aims Modernist designers attempted to take an objective view of the product they were designing. Starting with a clean slate they based their design decisions on a rational assessment of the problem posed by the brief. They believed that new products should be fit for the modern age, and commonly rejected past solutions in favour of using new materials and technology. A frequently quoted maxim was ‘form follows function’. In so far as new products were intended to have symbolic content, this meaning was confined to an expression of the zeitgeist, or ‘spirit of the age’. It was felt that it was possible to arrive at a universal ‘correct’ solution to a problem within the confines of the most advanced technology and materials available to the designer.

As a consequence of these aims, Modernist designers also rejected ornament, believing that the aesthetic of a product should be derived from its structural integrity rather than applied decoration or references to the past. Instead of artefacts helping to differentiate between the taste and identity of individual consumers, they were seen as holding possibilities as a general, unifying presence. Indeed some strands of Modernist thought sought to achieve a metaphysical or platonic form for their products, a form able to transcend the messiness and subjectivity of everyday life in favour of a higher order of formal composition.

In Britain, the writer Herbert Read became an important advocate of Modernism. Read was an influential intellectual throughout the middle of the twentieth century, publishing a number of important critical works, and founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The reading contained on this site is drawn from his influential 1934 book, Art and Industry.

Read uses the term Industrial Art in the way that we would use the term 'design' today. However, this is not simply a historical distinction in the use of the word – Read argues that design is a form that, like art, must please the senses or intellect, but which must in addition perform a utilitarian function. He argues for a stripped-down aesthetic that has been freed from the irrelevancies imposed upon it by a particular civilization or culture, and whose values are absolute or universal. Read cites the example of cultures in Medieval Northern Europe (12th and 13th Centuries) and Ancient Greece (5th Century BC). He sees these as successful cultures because they are "without an aesthetic. What they did they did as the result of practical problems, without taste, without academic tradition". Put simply, Read’s position is that an object of true aesthetic worth, whether it be an object of art or utility, will maintain its value regardless of its historical or social context.

You can download the introduction to Art and Industry by clicking on the link below. The illustrations reproduced on this page are the examples that Read uses to reinforce his argument. The comparison of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples is common in this period of writing on design, and examples can be found in other parts of this module.
 
Herbert Read, ‘Introduction’, Art and Industry (pp 7-10), London, Faber and Faber, 1934
 
In chapter 1 of Art and Industry, Read draws a contrast between the rose engine with its ‘unjustified applied decoration’ and the preferred spinning wheel, with its ‘discreet ornament that is subservient to the general structure’.
Click to view larger imageView larger image
In chapter 1 of Art and Industry, Read draws a contrast between the rose engine with its ‘unjustified applied decoration’ and the preferred spinning wheel, with its ‘discreet ornament that is subservient to the general structure’.
Click to view larger imageView larger image
CRD01010 & CRD01011 In chapter 1 of Art and Industry, Read draws a contrast between the rose engine with its ‘unjustified applied decoration’ and the preferred spinning wheel, with its ‘discreet ornament that is subservient to the general structure’.
 
Later in his book Read illustrates his argument by showing how ‘once the element of scale is abolished, the engineer’s and architects designs approach each other in aesthetic effect’. CRD01009 Later in his book Read illustrates his argument by showing how ‘once the element of scale is abolished, the engineer’s and architects designs approach each other in aesthetic effect’.

Click to view larger image View larger image
 
By the 1950s these fundamental principles of Modernism began to be questioned. Designers began to believe that they should take a more subjective approach to problem solving and that rather than searching for universal solutions, they needed to reach a better understanding of the individual tastes and preferences of consumers, recognising that products play an important role in forming personal identity. They believed that design should acknowledge and work within cultural differences rather than attempting to remove them.

You can see how the theories of Modernism began to be revised, and new design methodologies developed, by following the links to Theory – Postmodernism, and Profession – Flexible Production.

Assignment 1 helps you to reach a fuller understanding of these viewpoints by asking you to compare and contrast texts from the 1930s through to the 1980s, including the Herbert Read piece provided here. Go to this section of the site to download the texts, and to get details of the written assignment.
 
Top