Wiener Secession and Werstatte
Greatly influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement the Vienna Secession was founded
in 1897 by Josef Hoffmann [1870-1956], Koloman Moser [1868-1918] and Josef Olbrich [18671908] with the artist Gustav Klimt to challenge conservative Viennese taste, designing furniture
in part influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh which combined simple forms, sometimes
with rich surface decoration, with ideals of craftsmanship, nevertheless prepared to embrace
the potential of mechanical production.
Deutscher Werstatte, the Bauhaus
In Germany similar movements toward reform were stimulating the creation of Werstätte
under the influential figures of Richard Riemerschmid [1868-1957], Henry van de Velde
[1863-1957], Peter Behrens [1868-1940] – architect and designer for the industrial enterprise
AEG - and Karl Schmidt, combining continued integrity of craftsmanship with standardising
‘Typenmobel’ ergonomic design. The Deutcher Werkbund founded in 1907 under Hermann
Muthesius sought to fuse the efforts of artists and craftsmen to raise the standard of German
design. Increasingly within the Werkbund those who promoted a ‘standardising’ rational
approach to design were pitted against those ‘individualists’ who still asserted the centrality of
personal creativity. Appointed director of the Weimar Bauhaus in 1919 Walter Gropius [18831969], initially of the ‘individualist’ persuasion and notwithstanding the important participation
of artists such as Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky and Laslo Maholy-Nagy, shifted to a theory
of rational design based on a full understanding of function, form and the manufacturing
process. Marcel Breuer [1902-1981] and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe [1886-1969] made
important innovations in furniture design with the introduction of cantilevered forms in
tubular steel.
de Stijl and UAM
In Holland another progressive movement under the banner of Theo van Doesburg’s de Stijl
movement (from 1917) incorporated art more self consciously into the design process,
especially the spatial exercises of Piet Mondrian, expressed by Gerrit Rietveld [1888-1964] in
simple geometric forms which still embraced machine technology. In France Le Corbusier
[1887-1965] and Rene Herbst [1891-1983] were prominent amongst progressive designers
gathered in the Union des Artistes Modernes, founded in Paris in 1930, creating furniture in
the rational Modernist mould but with expressive tendencies, with significant contributions
also by Eileen Gray [1878-1976] and Jean Prouve [1901-84].
Art Deco
The first quarter of the century also saw decorative furniture created by French artists EmileJacques Ruhlmann, Paul Follot, Andre Groult, Leleu, Sue et Mare and others in the classical
tradition; simple forms with rich surface decoration. Pierre Legrain also drew on African tribal
inspiration; Eileen Gray and Jean Dunand working in traditional lacquer, and Paul Iribe were
amongst those providing luxury furniture for an exclusive clientel, such as the couturier
Jacques Doucet. A fusion of Art Deco with elements of Modernism was expressed in the 1930’s
United States Streamlined Moderne.
Scandinavian and British Modernism
Scandinavian design in the 1930’s manifested a traditional respect for the values of wood and
craftsmanship, making innovative use of wood laminations combined with an exploration of
simple undecorated forms, exemplified by the designs of Alvar Aalto [1989-1976], Kaare Klint
[1888-1954] and Hans Wegner [b1914].
Significant in British design in the 1930’s was Gordon Russell, initially influenced by the ideals
of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but increasingly embracing rational design and machine
technology. He played an important part in the design of Utility Furniture during the war, and
after the conflict in the creation of the Design and Craft’s councils.
Organic Modernism
Charles Eames [1907-1978] and Eero Saarinen [1910-1961] developed new ‘organic’ designs compositions of interdependent and integrated parts - in the 1940’s, based on the use of
three-dimension laminates and steel supports, progressing on to the use of early moulded
plastics. Storage furniture followed the ‘equipment’ ideas of Le Corbusier for standard units
with interchangeable functions. Also significant were Warren Platner [b.1919], George Nelson
[1908-86] and Harry Bertoia [1915-78] in the U.S., and Robin Day [1915-2010] and Ernest Race
[1913-64] in Britain creating the Contemporary style.
In post war Italy design in the hands of Vico Magistretti [b.1920], Ettore Sottsass [b.1917],
Marco Zanuso [b.1916], Carlo Mollino [1905-73] et al. embraced modern industry and
materials, creating designs with organic shapes. Arne Jacobsen (1902-71) created innovative
designs in laminated ply and fibreglass shell chair forms. In the 1960’s Italy and Europe took
the lead with moulded plastic furniture with designs by Joe Colombo [1930-71] and Verner
Panton [1926-98], as well as Magistretti and Zanuso. Rounded forms of seating in foam were
created by Gaetano Pesce [b.1939] and Olivier Morgue [b.1939].
Pop Culture
The 1950’s and 60’s saw a growth consumerism backed by the mass media. After the era of
Modernist standardisation, art and design looked to popular culture for inspiration, rich with
emotional values. Youth culture and eclectic individual tastes replaced dogmatic design
theories, giving rise to ephemeral values. Cheap and disposable furniture with bright ‘pop’
motifs were a mark of the times. The eclectic mix was epitomised by Terence Conran’s Habitat
shops. The ‘Hippy’ culture introduced environmental values and a renewed appreciation of
individual creativity. The 1970’s also saw a revival of craftsman built furniture in Britain
(especially John Makepeace, Fred Baier and Alan Peters), America (Wendell Castle), and
Post Modernism, Memphis and late 20th century ‘plural’ styling
Post Modernism based on ideas proposed by Robert Venturi in 1966, reintroducing the ironic
use historical motifs shown in the designs of Charles Jencks. In Italy the Memphis group under
the leadership of Ettore Sottsass (with Nathalie du Pasquier, Michele de Lucchi, George
Sowden, Aiata Isozaki, Michael Graves et al.) made use of the full spectrum of materials and
forms to create bright and surprising juxtapositions.
The 1980’s and 90’s manifested a plurality of styles. ‘High Tech’ transferred utilitarian furniture
from workplace to home. ‘Bricolage’ saw an assembly of detritus from the urban wasteland recreated into works of art by Tom Dixon [b.1959], Ron Arad [b.1951], André Dubreuil et al. The
‘Ethnic’ style sought to identify with the simplicity and integrity of tribal cultures, the
‘Naturalistic’ with the threatened environment. ‘New Baroque’, expressed by Phillipe Starck
[b.1949], Borek Sipek [b.1949] and Dubreuil was a rediscovery of self indulgent-display, and
the most commercial style.
21st century: New Modernism, Vintage and Art Design
In the 21st century a new historicism has emerged in the form of so-called ‘vintage’ furniture,
celebrating the iconic furniture of 20th century Modernism. Contemporary ‘New Modernist’
designs show a respect for the principles of Modernism; focus on function with simple
ergonomic forms, and materials ranging from the self-consciously natural to the innovative
synthetic. As well as reference back to organic modern forms, ‘art’ has found an expression in
‘Art Design’ expounded by such contemporary architect-designers as Zaha Hadid (b. 1950)
employing modern materials to re-explore fluid moulded organic forms, and ‘art’ is also
expressed in the naturalistic patterning of surfaces. Concerns with environmental impact are
combined with a re-orientation towards a domestic environment which is becoming
increasingly technological; furniture is either highly utilitarian and minimal or sculptural,
employed in an ambience-defining capacity.
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