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HUSO2325: ART HISTORY & Theory

Asssignment 3: Final Essay- Group 1

Lecturer: Loic Bertrand Chichester
Students name: Truong My Duyen
Students ID: s3325086
Date of submission: 8 May 2013

Essay topic:

Modernism in design has had immense and broad implications for the world that
we now occupy. Discuss two implications and how they relate to modern design
culture and critique their positive and negative aspects.

Modernism in design has had an enormous impact on todays design culture. In essence,
modern design is characterized by the use of industrial materials, the absence of
ornamentation, the simplification of forms with an emphasis on functionalism that are
compatible with modern 20
technology. Today, these modern design principles continue
to be the dominant style in institution and corporate buildings in the 21
This essay examines two important implications of modernism on todays industrial design
principles with reference to prominent design schools in the 20
century. It will also
provide critical analysis of the positive and negative aspects which modernism has brought
to nowadays design culture. Ultimately, the essay will argue that while modernism in
design creates the spirit of innovation for contemporary architects and designers, it also
poses some problems regarding its engagement with humans spirit and cultural
surroundings and the sustainability of design itself.
The use of modern industrial materials in design and the adoption of
To begin with, it is important to define the term Modernism. Modernism refers to both
radical aesthetic transformation and social revolution which hit art, architecture, music,
cinema and literature in the 1920s to 1940s (Brettel 1999). Modernity, which is related to
modernism, often means new modes of transport (bus, aeroplane, train, the automobile),
new materials (reinforced concrete, steal, steel, glass), new media (the X-ray, film,
photography, recorder), new energy and power (Ray 2010; Rodrigues & Garatt 2004).
Modern design and architecture fully embraced the industrial revolution brought about by
modernity by using available industrial- produced building materials. Le Corbusier
maintained that A house is a machine for living in. To understand more about how
modernism has influenced architecture and design today, let us look at the Bauhaus- the
most influential school of design in the 20
century. The Bauhaus sought to create
harmony between individual lives, modern industry and technology (Getlein 2010).
The skyscraper Seagram Building, designed by Mies Van de Rohd- one of the three
directors of the Bauhaus, was built with steel frame and glass walls which are highly
structural and efficient. The interior of the building was designed with lavish and high-
quality materials including bronze and marble (Marien & Fleming 2005). In using these
industrial materials, Mies did break away from typical brick apartment buildings of the
time to create a highly functional and free-of-decoration building.

In designing his fruit bowl, Josef Albers also used industrial materials such as glass,
chrome-plated brass and combined these materials with black-lacquered wood into the
object. Since all these parts are produced by machine (Straber 2009), Joself fulfills the
requirement of industrial production and the Bauhaus mission to unite art and technology.

Mies Van de Rohe, The Seagram building, 1958
Joself Albers, Fruit Bowl, 1924
Critique of industrial materials and machine aesthetics
The Bauhaus exploration of industrial materials and industrial process led to various
options of materials for architectures and designers nowadays including steel, concrete,
porcelain, pottery, metalwork or stagecraft.
With the advent of the elevator and new building materials, high-rise buildings and
residential apartments have come to being. The New York skylines, replete with towers
made of steel and glass, are directly influenced by modernism in design.

Innovations such as tabular steel chairs, efficient lighting lamp, streamlined appliances,
comfortable office chairs which are mass-produced, are part of everyday household.
However, there are also downsides of the machine mindset and the use of industrial
materials. When Le Corbusier called A house is a machine for living in, he disregards all
the associations that define it as a home- neighborhood and family. Indeed, the association
of modernism with mechanization is said to dehumanize the audience (Greenhalgh 1990).
Humanity should be connected with larger external realities in which they can relate to
other people, places, planet to add depth and meaning to their lives. However, modernism
and modern design tend to suppress this culture and break away from historic associations
which are an essential aspect of humans lives, in order to follow technological impetus.
Mies van der Rohe were also concerned with this matter, he puts: We are concerned, for
the most part, with questions of design posed by the development of technology. I consider
dealing with these questions from a cultural point of view to be of utmost importance. It is
The New York Skyline
not a matter of senselessly using new materials; to me it is far more crucial that these
materials be used to realize higher spiritual values (Droste 2006, p. 83).
To understand more about Mies van de Rohes saying, let us compare and contrast the
work of architecture in the pre-modern and modern time: The Villa Fallet (1906-1907) by
Charles-douard Jeanneret and the Villa Savoye (1928-1931) by Le Corbusier.
While the Villa Fallet was highly ornamented, the Villa Savoye is abstract and consists of
clean lines with stripped off decorations. The more striking difference lies in the use of
materials. The Villa Fallet, which employs a wide range of materials including wood, stone-
based bricks, can establish harmonious relationship with the nature and the surroundings.
In contrast, Le Corbusiers villa uses limited industrial concrete materials. The geometric
box-like enclosure of Villa Savoye opens itself to only the sun and sky and thus does not
engage with its setting. It is a self-contained and autonomous object which somewhat
isolates the users rather than being a habitable place to live. Therefore, it can be seen that
the materials and forms used by modern design fail to communicate cultural and spiritual
values to human.

Charles-douard Jeanneret, The Villa Fallet, 1906- 1907

Another downside of modern design materials is that they pose design problems rather
than solving. When Mies van der Rohe first talked about how to make modern architecture
possible in 1924, he said we should consider new building materials that are weatherproof,
soundproof, lightweight and even unbreakable glass (Wohlfert 2010). In reality, there are no
materials of this kind that are in existence. Moreover, even though glass has been the
symbol of modernity, the all-glass and skin-to-bones skyscrapers prove to be highly costly
to produce. Modernism also created more problems with interiors (Conway 1991). For
example, the practicalities of open plan living rooms proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright
which blend into the kitchen and dining room have yet to become the reality.
The notions of form follows function and less is more
Another central principle of modern design is the notion of form follows function, which
means that design or architecture should exist mainly to serve particular purposes. This
notion is also in harmony with the principle of less is more. Modern designers were
seeking for simple, universal and impersonal forms to be in tune with the technological age
such as clean lines, geometrical forms. Mies van de Rohe believes that good design has to be
efficient and show how a building works.
To illustrate, Le Corbusiers stripped-down metal recliner costs more than a sofa bed. The
different parts of the chaise longue communicate visually that it is versatile and
multifunctional. Its inclination can be adjusted continuously (Vitra Design Museum
2013).The padded surface of the chaise longue which is bended twice sharply is designed
for users to rest their head and foot in a convenient way. Le Corbusier, who was fascinated
by the machines aesthetics, also called this chaise longue a relaxing machine.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1928- 1931

Under the Bauhaus principles, structures, rooms, architectures and everyday household
objects are reduced to only clean lines and removed unnecessary ornaments (Getlein
2010). Miess 1929 Barcelona Pavilion building is reduced to bare minimum with less
accommodation, only a top, a bottom and some sides. This building was designed for an
official opening of an exhibition pavilion so it was intended to exist temporarily (ArchDaily
2013). Thus, Barcelona Pavilion demonstrates both functionalism and simplicity design

Le Corbuiser, Chaise longue, 1928.
Mies Van De Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion, 1929
Another classic example of form follows function was the Bauhaus building in Dessau
which was designed by Walter Gropius in 1926. This Bauhaus building does not have
traditional fascade. Instead, it is made of glass and extends in three dimensions to form an
L. At the same time the horizontal and vertical lines with no embellishments also show that
the building is highly functional. The individual design of each of the buildings was
intended to indicate different internal functions within the building (Droste 2006).

The critique of functionalism and less is more
The work and ideas of the modern design schools such as the Bauhaus has laid the
foundation of modern design principles that are still influential nowadays. First, the notion
of functionalism inspired by modernism has become the timeless precept in design.
Functional concerns will always be the first step in a design process (Smock 2004).
Under functionalism, a chair is made to sit and a lamp is made to provide efficient lighting..
The philosophy of form follows functions has also made our lives more convenient and
comfortable. If we can imagine our modern life without comfortable chairs, portable mobile
devices, efficiently electric lighting, elevators, railways, we can clearly see how modern
design has changed our lives.
In addition, less is more is an internationalist and universal ideal (Smock 2004). By
separating history from design and replacing it with timeless universal principles,
modernism purifies product of design to some extent and makes forms that can speak to

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Dessau, 1925-1926
Without a doubt, modern design movements including the Bauhaus and Le Courbusier
have somewhat turned their ideals and vision into real projects. We live in a designed
environment and design has become part of our culture (Moholy-Nagy 1975), thus, we
need to appreciate the designers who create many practical products and help us do more
than we never dreamed we could.
Walter Gropius said: It is not the products of the Bauhaus that are the decisive thing, but
the direction in which we drove forward a method that can be employed today with the
same vitality as thirty years ago (Friedewald 2009, p. 113).
Although modern design movements were short-lived, its principles had deep impact on
todays design and architecture. Particularly, the Avant-gard mindset of the Bauhaus has
always remained the progressive spirit of innovation and inspiration.
On the other hand, the idea of functionalism also has many shortcomings. First, the quality
of design is not only measured by its practical functions but should respond to the
emotional and intellectual needs of human. Modern design placed a lot of emphasis on
structural and technical characteristic on the objects but ignores cultural relevance (Aav &
Stritzler-Levine 1998). Under the influence of art for arts sake from modernism, a
modern design object only draws attention to itself and disconnects with users. In addition,
the functional modernist claims that functionalism rationalizes design process as it strips
away unnecessary details (Greenhalgh 1990). This claim is not applicable since human
beings are irrational in nature. They are not only looking for things that are useful but also
things that engage them and satisfy their psychological needs. In fact, ornaments and
details which are removed in modern design can play an important role in connecting
humans with history and culture as analyzed in the above pre-modern and modern villas.
Buchanna, Doordan & Margolin (2010) maintain that functionalist design would focus on
the functioning of products but in doing so, they ignore the involvement of people in this
functioning. If a product functions in relation to the user, it may enhance its meaning and
its quality which can add value to multifaceted role of objects in everyday life. Similarly,
Freuds psychoanalytic conception of art is less concerned with distinguishing works of art
from other products of human activity than they are with explaining why people are moved
by them (Wartenberg 2007).
Above all, it is worth mentioning that modernism has become the historic phenomenon
(Harrison 1997). Therefore, some of its ideals and principles cannot be applicable today.
The same goes for modern design. Todays modern buildings are plain and repetitive by
keeping with such modern dogma as "form follows function" and "less is more back in the
1920s. Moreover, these principles cannot be applied for everyone since each person has
different needs and preferences. The founders of modern design did produce innovative
and beautiful buildings but nowadays it has lost its ability to impress or surprise people.
More importantly, their buildings are not closely related humans emotional needs and the
way we live. The negative results of modernism in design would probably be inhospitality
of our cities in the future (Heynen 1999).

In conclusion, the contribution that Modernism in design has made to our modern world is
undeniable and its influence has not yet come to an end. The Bauhaus in particular and
modern design in general have always remained as the spirit of innovation and inspiration.
Its principles including form follows function and less is more have served to provide
designers with a rationale to practice and have made or lives more convenient. Despite
these positive contributions, modern design principles are not responsive and connected to
human needs as well as the outside cultural, historical environments. Its principles are fast
becoming old-fashioned and repetitive while the practical design problems (materials and
space) are still not solved.
Word count: 2200

Book References
Aav, M & Stritzler-Levine, N 1998, Finnish modern design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday
Realities, 1930-1937, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, London.
Buchanan, R Doordan, D & Margolin, V 2010, The Designed World: Images, objects,
environments, Berg, Oxford, UK.
Brettell, RR 1999, Modern Art 1851-1929, Oxford University Press, New York.
Conway, H 1991, Design History: A students handbook, 2
edn, Routledge, New York.
Droste, M 2006, Bauhaus: Reform and Avant-Garde, Taschen, Koln.
Friedewald, B 2009, Bauhaus, Prestel Publishing, Munich
Harrison, C 1997, Modernism, Cambridge University Press, London.
Getlein, M 2010, Living with Art, 9
edn, McGraw-Hill, New York.
Greenhalgh, P 1990, Modernism in design, Reaktion Books, London.
Hennen, H 1999, Architecture and Modernity: A critique, MIT Press, Massachusetts.
Marien, MW & Fleming, W 2005, Arts and Ideas Vol 2, 10
edn, Clark Baxter, California.
Moholy-Nagy, L 1938, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture
and Architecture, Dover Publications, New York.
Ray, KR 2010, Bauhaus Dream-house: Modernity and globalization, Routledge, New York.
Rodrigues, C & Garratt, C 2004, Introducing Modernism, Tien Wah Press, Singapore.
Smock, W 2004, The Bauhaus Ideal Then & Now: An Illustrated Guide to Modern Design,
Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago.
Straber, J 2009, 50 Bauhaus Icons you should know, Prestel, Munchen.
Wartenberg, TE 2007, The Nature of Art, 2
edn, Thomson & Wadsworth, California.
Online references
Hughes, R 2006, Paradise Now, The Guardian, viewed 4 May 2013,
Kroll, A 2011, AD Classics: Barcelona Pavilion / Mies van der Rohe, Archdaily, viewed 6
May 2013, <
MacCarthy, F 2007, House style, The Guardians, viewed 4 May 2013,
Vitra Design Museum, Chaise Longue reglage continu B306, Vitra Design Museum,
viewed 7 May 2013, <
Wohlfert, L 2010 Whats wrong with modern architecture?, People Magazine, viewd 6 May
2013, <,,20069034,00.html>
Image references
Albers, J 1924, Fruit Bowl, glass, metal, wood, lacquered black, The New Collection, Munich.
Buchanan, P 2012, Villa Fallet, image, 30 January, viewed 4 May 2013,
Kroll , A 2010, AD Classics: Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier, image, 27 October, viewed 4 May
2013, <>
Kroll , A 2011, AD Classics: Barcelona Pavilion / Mies van der Rohe, image, 8 February,
viewed 3 May 2013, <>
Perez , A 2010, AD Classics: Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe, image, 10 May, viewed
6 May 2013,<>
Prokos, A, View of New York City from Rockefeller Center, image, viewed 4 May 2013,
Sveiven , M 2010, AD Classics: Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius, image, 10 Nov, image,

Vitra Design Museum n.d, Chaise Longue reglage continu B306, image, viewed 6 May
2013 ,<