Movement, Style, Fashion in Modern Design

by George Schwab

Photos above, Le Corbusier building, Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, 1929.
Is Modern design a Movement, Style or Fashion?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how the names we give things are important to the understanding we have about what we are talking or writing about. This may sound obvious, but truly, it’s critical to communication. I remember the first year of architecture school when we were made to understand the difference between “shape” and “form.” The former referred to some thing two dimensional and the latter referred to something three dimensional. You would be really fried-up for confusing the two.

Adolf Loos, Moller house, Vienna, 1927

At the risk of being pedantic, (who me?) I want to examine how we use the terms “modern” and “modernism.”We commonly use the words “style,” “movement,” “fashion,” almost interchangeably in the general course of conversation when we refer to modernism. There are exceptions to that statement but, in the main, I think that it’s true, especially in internet conversation.

In the late 19th Century architects, designers and artists began to recognize that the decorative and ornamental excesses of late Victorian design had to be reined in if we were to have the financial means to address the squalor of the urban environment both in Europe and America. At the same time as they saw every filigree and swag, every over-the-top finial and cherub, they saw the horrendous conditions in the slums of the cities on both continents. They knew something had to be done. Their answer was hygiene, and they stripped the ornamentation from the interiors and exteriors of buildings and painted them white. This was the beginning of modernism.

Braque, Landscape at LEstaque, 1907

So when we say “Modern Movement” we are referring to the tendency of architects, artists and designers to minimize ornamentation and rely on design techniques such as proportion, line, primary colors, tension and juxtaposition in form and massing and other means to achieve an aesthetic that pleased the eye and the heart without all the gewgaws.

When we say “Modern Style” we are referring to those various (both in time and place) understandings of how this modern world-view can be achieved. We see this in the Craftsman Style in America and the Art Deco Style in Europe and the International Style of architecture on both continents.

And when referring to “Mid-Century Modern Style” we are talking about that understanding of modernism that arose post World War II in Europe and America, constrained by the devastation wrought by the war in Europe and the exuberant explosion of optimism and self-congratulation as well as the heightened awareness of aesthetics achieved by the GI Bill recipients.

Seagrams building, New York City. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect. Photo by Tony Green Seagrams building, New York City. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect.
Photo by Tony Green

Iconic Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner

When we say “Modern Fashion” we are not just referring to clothing but to the deliberate marketing of Modernism, in all its various styles, to world markets via the mass media in all its diversity. Now, I don’t mean this in any negative sense. Modern styles fit the way we live today, perhaps more than ever. Danish Modern furniture is highly appropriate for the constrained urban spaces that we see here in the early 21st Century. And it’s interesting to note that Modernism and the Modern Movement are just about a century old now. In that time modernism has had time to seep into the psyches of the world’s populations and we are alive to see its general acceptance as an accompaniment to the way we live both in Europe and America.


Leave a comment