Modern Design

By Alex Brown,


The concept of MODERNISM was a response to the growth of industrialisation from the 18th century into the 20th century. It began as a debate opened by W.Morris who objected to the replacement of hand production by machines. Across the continent, the Deutsche Werkbund resolved the threat of industrialisation by reconciling artistic endeavour and technical/ mechanical practice.


When World War-I ended, the very might industrial power that facilitated the production of military products began to change the fabric of Western societies. Modernist ideologies came to life again in Russia, Holland, Germany and France. When W. Gropius and Miles van den Rohe (both from the Bauhaus) emigrated to the USA, the concepts of Modernism (technology, efficiency and honesty) appeared much in corporate architecture and furnishing.

In Russia, the contribution to MODERNISM was Constructivism. The emphasis was on spatial composition, colour theory, surface, space and volume.

In Holland, De Stijl looked into the re-composition of the most fundamental elements of design, namely the basic PLANES and CUBIC FORMS in its belief for a pure and harmonic ideal design concept.

In France, Le Corbusier made explicit the need for expanding Modernism to town planning within a vision of the destiny of society. In architecture, his concepts created the basis of Rationalism, who were close to Functionalism.

It was however in Germany that the officials laws of MODERNISM were codified. The Bauhaus school propagates the integration of all disciplines of art, design, craft and architecture to produce a totally designed and unified environment (through mass production).

2.1 The Basic Concepts

The general stylistic features of the Modern Movement can be described as follows:

This means an honesty, in the sense that decoration must not mask the way a product is made, its constructional basis or spatial arrangement.

The use of new materials made possible by the industry is encouraged together with the mindset that products could be mass- produced and consumed.

To generate the utility and honesty of materials and structure, ‘form follows function’.

The modern century needs to be seen as a form of PRORESS and the PAST must not be used.

There are no divisions between disciplines and class of consumer. It was a search for a unified language/ style for all, an universal and timeless beauty involved.


By the late 50’s, the Modernist style has evolved into an international design language, spanning the entire spectrum of consumer goods. This was considered a second-generation of Modernism though without any intellectual base of original movement, and much activated instead by the expanding capitalism. As a reaction to this form of Modernism, several design manifestations emerged from 1965, under the name POST-MODERNISM.

It was also a response to the change in social, economic and intellectual conditions of the time, a response to post-modern conditions. As the pattern of consumerism had become essential to the economic structure of highly industrialised manufacturing nations, it engendered a cycle of obsolescence and renewal. The wheels of industry and commerce, oiled by the increasingly sophisticated techniques of advertising, both in print and on television, were kept in motion by a wide middle-class market whose appetite for the new was constantly stimulated.

A demand was created for constant stylistic evolution within a vast array of luxury goods and labour-saving devices, and, indeed, within categories of basic household goods and appliances, the functional form of which should in theory be impervious to fashion.


Since the late fifties the applied arts have been dominated by middle class consumerism, and by an ever inventive avant-garde of designers whose ideas have often only found popular acceptance in a somewhat diluted form.

Style consciousness and design awareness have been greatly stimulated by the proliferation of colour magazines dedicated to materialistic concerns. The British Sunday Times newspaper launched its colour magazine in 1962 and set a rapidly followed precedent for mass-circulation supplements, providing instant information on questions of fashion and style. The fluid integration of advertising and editorial features in such magazines has proved a clever marketing device. More specialised publications have targeted specific sectors of the market, and by proffering images of a sophisticated life-style attainable through consumer goods have done much to promote fashionable styles and to perpetuate the cycle of consumerism.

Prominent among such magazines are the up-market fashion journals Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, more popular women magazines such as Elle and Marie Clair, men magazines such as Playboy launched in 1953 and the French Lui, launched in 1964, the last two were just as interested in selling products, style and gadgetry as with selling female glamour; design magazines such as the British Design or the Italian veteran Domus, and interior design magazines such as French Art et Decor, the British House and Garden and American House Beautiful.


Since 1945, there has been a tremendous technological advance of which numerous aspects have certainly affected industrial and product design:

This has allowed mechanisms to be smaller and lighter, as well as the casings that house them to be refined further in shape.

This allowed large scale ‘mass’ production, due to the assistance from computer driven tools, allowing profitable shorter production runs and different runs of similar but not identical products.

The new technology after the war period invented new materials and this has allowed designers to be more creative as new materials could take any form required.

Together with technological advances, new concepts became clear.

  • Designers began to design products that reflected the new technological developments. For instance, the DIGITAL QUARTZ watch industry of the 70’s with the novelty of having numbers flickering away became so fashionable to threaten the existence of the analogue face.
  • Designers also looked into the child in every adult humans wanting to handle only those simple, toy-like comforting objects that have a friendly form and pleasant texture for their design concept. This is fairly obvious in the design of cameras, calculators, electrical appliances among many others, in which pressing of small buttons is all that takes to operate the machine.
  • The development in electronics has allowed designers to create working ICONS OF PERSONAL FREEDOM through greatly enhanced power and portability, of which the classic example is the SONY Walkman cassette tape player.

5.1 Variants of Modernism

The design during 1945-1960 involved the period of RATIONALISM and/ or FUNCTIONALISM in design. Functionalism claimed that the function of an object determines its shape and form. It was used as a necessity during WW I for military and engineering design, and after WW II, it was still fashionable but not in design. After 1945, major manufacturers began to integrate design and designers into their organisations and for problem-solving. Some designers thought that the concept of ‘function determines form’ would lead to a ‘natural beauty’, and would determine its own aesthetics, independently from the maker. It was important that the product would ‘look right’; and this ‘looking right’ means not allowing the pursuit of beauty to overwhelm functional criteria in design.

At the same time, there was a injection of new vigour into the applied arts by the Pop Art movement, suggesting a new palette of colours in reflection to the fresh, ironical edge of popular culture. The Pop ethic positively encouraged designers to exploit vulgarity, brashness and bright colour, and to use synthetic or disposable materials in contexts in which they would formerly have been unacceptable. Pop has had a lasting effect on design in a wide variety of media, including interiors, graphics and fashion. Pop has spawned furniture in bright, primary coloured plastics and in boldly printed fold-away cardboard; it has inspired, notably in Britain and Italy, witty sculptural furniture in brash, synthetic materials reminiscent of the sculptures of Claus Oldenburg.

Italian Pop furniture was one aspect of the Italian design community's wide-ranging intellectual approach which, since the Sixties, has made Italy the most progressive country in many areas of the applied arts.

5.2 The 60’s

Space-age images were very topical in the mid-to-late Sixties, the years in which America’s president, J.F.Kennedy, promised and sent a man to the moon.

Futuristic style appeared in furniture design as designers were caught up too in the space race.

Pop design challenged the notions of tradition and longevity by producing disposable furniture, fun furniture, ‘knock-down furniture’; it also experimented with new technologies and materials (plastic, foam-padding).

There was also the interest in ERGONOMICS, seen in the designing of the Boeing 747.This study of the characteristics of human users and their relationship with the environment and products aimed to adapt human factors to design. (This was later followed through into the 1980’s.)

5.3 Since the 70’s …

By the early 70’s, Post-Modernism in Italy had developed a number of alternative approaches and in the following decade, radical furniture designers such as Sottsass, A. Branzi, Michele de Lucchi among others came together to form the group known as MEMPHIS. Outwardly, their design celebrated eclecticism, stylistic revivalism, decoration, irony and fun. Their style was characterized by bright, playful colours and lively contrasts, laminates printed with patterns like magnified noodles or granules, and logic defying forms sloping shelves, asymmetrical chairs and tables.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the new concepts of DESIGN FOR DISASSEMBLY, DESIGN FOR NEED and DESIGN FOR RECYCLING came to prominence.

Design for Disassembly emphasised on the design of an object in its environment, not how it looks, but on its reason to be in a wider world. This requires the avoidance of adhesives or screws.

Design for Need refers to the ‘return from form to content’, seeing the importance of designing for human’s needs rather than for his wants.

Design for Recycling came about as designers have now begun to look in to the ecological problems such as pollution, shortage of resources and waste. It concerns designing the product so that the materials used are easily recoverable and this ability to take apart any product is fundamental to the new cause of recycling.


Until the end of WW II both in England and the USA, the profession of interior designers is known as that of decorators/ craftsmen. In 1953, the Institute of British Decorators became BRITISH INSTITUTE OF INTERIOR DESIGN.

6.1 Variants of Modernism

For the first time in history, America was well ahead of Europe in all areas of Modernist design during and after WW II. Under the hands of Miles van den Rohe, buildings and interiors broke down to simple geometric forms with the application of steel frameworks sheathed in plate glass, creating a new feeling of OPENNESS and INTERACTION WITH NATURE which was to inspire countless later interior designs.

In an age of jet travel and intercontinental television programmes facilitating INTERNATIONAL MODERNISM, the domestic interiors share in common indoor plants, built-in furniture, animal skins as floor coverings, narrow venetian blinds, open storage space in the main living area and smooth organic forms. Internal lighting was another key aspect of Modern interior, characterized by scattered free-standing lamps.

Alongwith the emergence of the new International Modernism is the phenomenon of CONTRACT INTERIORS, i.e., design projects for commercial offices as opposed to domestic use.

6.2 The 60’S

The decorative styles of ART NOUVEAU and ART DECO were revived, together with Victorian inspired decorative elements and wallpapers.

Interior design was also affected by the Pop movement: it broke away from conventional layout and brought in the FUN, LOUD and COLOURFUL aspects of YOUTH.

6.3 Since the 70’s

The HIGH-TECH movement of the 70’s celebrated the aesthetic of industrial production by introducing steel scaffolding, office furniture and factory flooring into the domestic interior, following in general the trend of architects, with the result of creating surprisingly elegant interiors. This popularized the concept of using available industrial products, such as metal sheeting, medical trolleys, studded rubber flooring laboratory glassware in domestic or commercial contexts. The style had been used with considerable chic in the design of shop interiors, notably in London by the entrepreneur Joseph Ettedgui, whose Sloane Square shop was designed in a sophisticated version of the style by the architects Norman Foster Associates.

All-black simple furniture was launched in the 70’s by Habitat and by the 80’s it became more refined and ideal for cool MINIMALIST interiors which turned out to be a sort modified International Modernism.

In total contrast to this came the new movement of the 80’s, POST-MODERNISM. The Italian design-house MEMPHIS was the main influence, bringing in the FUN, OUT-OF-SCALE but APPEALING element into the interior.

In Japanese interior design, a very distinct and powerful style has emerged. Eg. Arata Isozaki, Tadeo Ando and Shin Takematsu in architecture and Yasuo Kondo and Uchida in Interior Design.


As a discipline in which information is enhanced and made more clarified, graphic design has always been driven by fashion, and successful graphic designers were hence those who can respond to changes in technology and who have a ‘feeling’ for what is in the air.

Since 1945, graphic design has expanded and diversified from its centuries old roots. It took from the fine arts movements such as Cubism (for the technique of COLLAGES with the cutting up of printed and photographic materials), Surrealism, Futurism, De Stijl and Constructivism. (Typographic and type design was shaped by art innovation introduced by De Stijl and Constructivism; the latter ‘invented’ agitated typography.)

7.1 Variants of Modernism

The new Typography of the Modernist before 1945 was characterised by FREEDOM from tradition, GEOMETRICAL simplicity, CONTRAST in typographic material, EXCULSION of non-functional ornament, richness of photographs, use of COLORS, and so on.

In the 50’s, it was reinforced by the new concepts of corporate design and identity, and magazine design, which soon became international. The leading designers from both America and Europe advocated a strict use of grids and sans serif faces, and asymmetric composition of pictures. However, many sans serifs typefaces were difficult to read because individual letters were insufficiently differentiated from one another; but the new sans serif (of the Univers and Helvetica families) were easily readable; thus they became very popular and adopted for public signs throughout Europe.

Since 1945, pictograms (signs) have become a very important part of graphic design because of the surge of international travel, sporting and cultural events demanding a graphic signing system that does not depend upon words, but which communicates by visual simile.

7.2 The 60’S

In graphic design the new Modernism became manifest around 1960 in the trend towards a clean, even clinical, style for magazine and book design, and for promotional and corporate graphics. The new graphics owed much to the Constructivist style advocated by the Bauhaus, and ranged from the purist grid-structured austerity of layouts by Max Bill to more dramatic or witty designs.

In the late 60’s, the roughness of Pop Art broke the classic rigidity of the International Style and started a fashion for anti-design graphics, and for unfinished look as an anti-establishment image.

Another style was introduced by the student drug culture and rock and pop music; it was essentially a rework of Art Nouveau resulting into the PSYCHEDELIC STYLE of the 60’s. Its complicated squiggly design and lettering were supposed to be as mind-expanding as those drugs that inspired it.

7.3 Since the 70’S …

By the early 70’s graphic design was effective in all fields of visual and textual communication; it also influenced the art-world of the conceptual movement in association graphic-text to create multi-layers meaning.

In the 80’s, the analytical approach of graphic design for corporation looked in detail to the working of the client company in depth, asked structured questions directed to all levels of employees as a process. Identifying goals and values, clarifying to the company what it is doing are the main objective of other corporate graphic designer.

The most forceful manifestation of young style after psychedelia and the hippie cult was the British PUNK phenomenon of around 1976-7. Punk was a counter-culture founded on raw-edged music and half-formed REBELLIOUS philosophies. The deliberate haphazardness of punk graphics became the basis for so-called New Wave graphics which, in a highly-polished and stylish form, have had a lasting influence on the Eighties as part of the ongoing radical or anti design movement which found its most vociferous exponents in Italy.


Fashion of the 20th century, especially after WW II was a reflection of the changing values and attitudes. Modern fashion was one created through a combination of aesthetic analysis, new fabric and the challenge of past traditions.

8.1 Variants of Modernism

It was of no surprise that when Christian Dior showed off his first Paris Collection in 1947, a new chapter on fashion began. Women, tired of the sensible clothes of the war years embraced the ‘NEW LOOK’ - powerful yet elegant and feminine, with a narrow waistline. For men too, the shapeless wartime suits took a turn for a narrower cut.

The 50’s was marked by the birth of YOUTH CULTURE with its own dress, behaviour, music, and language. Worn initially by soldiers and marines (introduced by the US Navy in 1942), T-skirt made a comeback as the young saw James Dean in it.

In Haute Couture, the introduction of “shocking pink’” into fashion was brought about by Elas Schiaparelli, who was greatly influenced by Dali. Supported by movie stars, who were trend setters then, Cristobal Balenciaga never failed to inject a sense of sophistication and fantasy to the 50’s.

8.2 The 60’S

Miniskirts, invented by Mary Quant, dominated the fashion trend of the 60’s. Designers also experimented with coloured and patterned tights as a result. Inspired by Mondrian’s paintings, Yves Saint Laurent used bold colours and purity of form as his trademarks then. Men’s fashion took a drastic change as they slipped into a more casual and colourful form of clothing. Two young fashion designers evolved dramatically new fashion concepts: Andre Courrèges with Op-Art, Science Fiction Clothes of the Future, launched in 1965 amid enormous publicity, and Paco Rabanne with his provocative metal and plastic clothes which hit the headlines the following year. The lavish use of zip is seen both on the outfit and on footwear (boots).

8.3 Since the 70’S …

The 70’s fashion designers drew inspirations from sources such as FEMINISM, THE HIPPY MOVEMENT (bell-bottom) among many others. Zandra Rhodes' torn silk dresses of 1977 were a sophisticated version of the aggressive punk uniform and one was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its costume collection - street style to museum within a season. Dubbed as the NEW ROMANTIC LOOK, this multi-layering with complex fastenings was considered a step beyond the creative spirit of Punk. A young generation of Japanese fashion designers has, in the 80’s made considerable impact in the West with styles evolved from Japanese cultural heritage. Isse Miyake is the most celebrated and the most talented. Another style of the 80’s is the CORPORATE LOOK, the professional image that was popular among the YUPPIES.

Exciting contemporary designers include Calvin Klein, Georgio Armani, Donna Karen and Norma Zamali in America, and they are known for their simple classic, easy styles, both for their day- and evening-wear. Soft, natural fabric, such as linen and silk are much preferred.


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