Saturday, 26 March 2016

European Modernism (1919-1933) and International Style (1922-1932)


Schroder House: 1920s Modernism by Gerrit Rietveld

European modernism and international style begun at the end of the arts and crafts movement and has connection with the Art Deco movement as they cross over in the 1920s to 1930s.

Early modernism was a movement of growth, cultural trends and changes which began in the early 20th century. The rapid growth of cities and the horror of World War 1 meant that traditional forms of art, architecture, literature etc were outdated and ill-fitted to the newly formed, contemporary society.

Throughout the changes to the social and economic balance of society came the development of new technology and the continuation of mass production which began in the 19th century. This gave many innovators the ability to develop products and techniques that would enhance and benefit their society and unbeknown to them, future societal systems to come. The movement gave rise to the automobile, innovated by Henry Ford in 1908 called the ‘Model T Ford’.

Henry Ford's Model T automobile 1908

Henry Ford did not invent the first car, but was the innovator behind a newly develop version of the automobile, one that was easier to operate, more reliable and affordable to the average American worker. Earlier models of the car were very complicated and much harder to operate then Fords creation. They required a chauffeur (a particular person to drive it) meaning that the vast majority of society didn’t have easy access to the vehicle. This period in time was called ‘Fordism’.

By the early 1920’s, many of the key inventions which were key to becoming fundamental in everyday life were becoming increasingly available to the everyday consumer. Examples of this being electrical lighting, domestic appliances like the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator and communications including the telephone and the gramophone and of course the automobile played a key role in bringing rural and suburban communities together.

According to some early critics of the movement, early modernism was developed out of the Romanticism era and was a reaction against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and their dehumanising working conditions and values. It was the age of change and a shift towards the new. It was about recreating old forms using new techniques making it more relatable to the westernised society.

In other aspects of design, artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were causing a shock with their rejection of traditional forms of art.

Left - Henri Matisse, Right - Pablo Picasso

During the Early modernism period, the Bauhaus in Germany (an art school which redefined the meaning of art and design) was founded. The school was renowned for its innovative team of craftsman and their modernist approach to art and their ability to enable students to be comfortable with new methods of art, craft and design including mass production and architecture. It was shut down in 1933 by the Nazi government.


International style developed mainly in Germany, Holland and France in the 1920s and later in America in the 1930s. During this time, it became the dominant trend of architectural design in America. The movement was all about sleek, modern aesthetics which stripped away any unnecessary decoration once popular in early times.

Le Corbusier Villa Savoye 1929-1931

The era emphasised the use of steel and glass which made it ideal for the use of commercial, high-rise buildings. The international style design period increased the populations discontent with earlier decor which had little to no relevance to the building itself. They aimed to create structures that were similar in both the exterior and interior design. Designers in this period idealised the concept of functional and ‘neutral’ design without old fashioned decorative elements- its principle being honesty and “clear harmony between appearance, function and technology” of design.

International style reflected early forms of minimalism where surfaces were left plain with no distinctive decoration, simple linear lines formed and spaces became more open and exposed. Buildings used a lot of glass, steel and concrete which gave the structures strength.

The student building at Bauhaus 1925 by Walter Gropius

The name “International Style’ was actually thought up by two curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) and Philip Johnson (1906-2005) who were hosting an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Arts, in New York called ‘International Exhibition of Modern Architecture” in 1932.

For me, the original concept behind early modernism and international style was to rebel against the conformity of a previous way of life and to develop a new society which transforms traditional forms and values into a more relatable and up-to-date idea. It was all about change and being different. Modernist creatives disliked like idea that art had to reflect a particular form and style. They wanted to investigate new ways of doing the same thing by pulling back the layers of the past and refining their ideas. They discovered that there were multiple ways of approaching a situation (not limited to the artistic realm but also in social and political context) which resulted in the same outcome. For example, there is typically never a right or wrong way to do things; there are always multiple paths to take that end up in the same destination.

During the decline of the International Style period, architects felt dissatisfied with the result of the era as they had lost all aspects of early historical design. They began to rediscover innovation and ornamentation, creating buildings using modern techniques and materials but depicting decorative features once again.

   Art Deco Federal building 1920's

I find it quiet ironic that throughout history, designers and innovators attempt to rebel against conformity within their society and create new and unique forms which, unbeknown to them, catapult around the world, creating another version of a ‘copy and paste’ society of which they once tried to escape from.


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