Appendix 13: Defining Modernistic Furniture Design for Amateur Woodworkers in the 1930s

Some background on furniture design and merchandising of this era:

After the disappearance of mission furniture in the 1900's, and before the emergence of "Moderne," there was no distinctively American style. One feature of the new style was that it could accommodate the American passion for "built-in" features without having its lines spoiled!


"Moderne," a style introduced by French and Swedish designerss -- Art Deco and International Style -- became popular in America after it was exhibited at A Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933. In architecture, Moderne -- sometimes referred to as the 'Ocean Liner' style -- is characterised by curved glass windows, flat roofs, porthole windows, etc.

In furniture, its popularity comes from pleasing lines, unusual woods, and interesting finishes.

After the decline of the popularity Arts and Crafts and Mission furniture in the WW I era, there was no distinctively American style before the emergence of "Moderne". One feature of the new style was that it could accommodate the American passion for "built-in" features without having its lines spoiled!

Another influence was Bauhaus design. (click here for some background. Bauhaus, a school of applied arts and architecture founded in 1919 by the designer/architect Walter Gropius, sought to integrate art, craftmanship, and technology.

The Bauhaus located in first in Weimar until 1925, Dessau until 1932, and then Berlin, until its closing, under the architect L Mies van Der Rohe. As well as Gropius, its faculty included Josef Albers (1888-1976), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), and Marcel Breuer (1902-1981.)

In origin, its approach -- functionalist -- did, however, emerge in part from the Arts and Crafts movement and, in impact, led to Modernism. Starting with Gropius, the proponets of the Bauhaus movement divined that the inevitability of the future was mass-production. Using austere, rectilinear geometric forms, and modern materials -- such as tubular steel and plastics -- by integrating art, craftsmanship, and technology, its ideal was to create prototype designs for mass-produced everyday items.

Given its impact upon style of design in the 1920s in America, the inevitably that Bauhaus style would permeate amatuer woodworking was only time. In 1929, a curious article, "Manual Arts and the Modern Art Movement" appeared in the Industrial Education Magazine. And, as a new periodical -- May, 1930-- the Chicago-based Popular Homecraft acknowledged the pull of the modern style by including small projects in it issues (more info to come). Check out section seven in Chapter 4

Some of the sources used:

Kate Carmel "Against the Grain: Modern American Woodwork" in Janet Kardon, ed., Craft in the Machine Age, 1920-1945: The History of 20th Century American Craft. Abrams, 1995 pp 74-87; Throm, Edward L., ed, Fifty Years of Popular Mechanics 1902-1952 New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951, page 232; Noel Riley, ed.  Elements of Style

How Popular Homecraft Defined Modernism for Amateur Woodworkers in the 1930s:

John Gerald Shea exhibits his "take" on modernism in this Popular Homecraft article, December, 1937, pages 443-445. The box below includes the image of the coffee table and the first three paragraphs of Shea's article. Look especially at the highlighted portions of Shea's text, because -- for me at least -- they reveal some insight into the "politics" of modernistic design in woodworker's magazines.

In describing his "Modern Nursery Suite",  Popular Homecraft May-June, 1938, author I W Streng echoes some of Shea's claims -- but does not elaborate on the finer points -- Streng's text is included in second box  below.

Likewise, in the opening paragraph for his project, "Modern Bedside Stand", L Kumerov, Popular Homecraft, November, 1937, also shows economy of description, simply limiting his characterization of this style to "very much in vogue today", and that it possesses "simplicity of line and form". (More text by Kumerov reprinted as part of image, below.)

F G Knowles the "Lazy-Rest Porch Furniture", reminiscent of the Art Deco style, popular in the  1920s and 1930s decades. The editors at Popular Homecraft claim Knowles is a "designer", a label not even accorded one of the magazine's regular contributors, John Gerald Shea -- a nationally-recognized author of woodworker's manuals.

The present popularity of modern furniture comes as a decided boon to the home craftsman, for in most cases modern articles, constructed as they are along simple utility lines, are easy to make. While it is generally felt that this style is still in its infancy and will, as time advances, obtain greater refinement and maturity, still, if the craftsman is discriminating in this selection, he will be able to find a variety of modern designs which are really quite graceful as well as serviceable.

john gerald shea's modern coffee table

Among such designs may be found the Modern Coffee Table; and, while this article is identified with the new furniture, still it possesses a number of refinements which make it eligible for use even with the older and more dignified furniture styles. It is an excellent utility piece, and if not used in front of a sofa as prescribed, it may serve well as an end table beside a living room chair.

The theory of modern design emphasizes the necessity of complete utility and space saving qualities to the exclusion of elaborateness of decorative treatment.

The modern furniture designer is constantly faced with the problem of making things practical yet simple.

There must be a purpose for every piece of wood or metal which is used. The craftsman will then be interested in observing these principles as they are applied in the construction of this coffee table; for, with the exception of the feet which are not purely modern, there is very little waste space to be found elsewhere in its construction.

The designer, I W Streng, characterizes the modernistic look as "straight lines and smooth curves"

i w streng's modernistic crib i w streng's modernistic wardrobe

L Kumerov designed this piece

F G Knowles designed this set portions of text from his article in gray-shaded box below.

Details in the text for construction include this for the "curved corners": Using 6 1/2" X 4 1/2" blocks,  on a lathe turn to 6" diameter, and then, with a bandsaw, cut out inner circle to 2 1/4" radius.

f g knowles' lazy-rest porch furniture

There is a great chance for individual expression in this set as the choice of wood and the selection of fabric material will have a decided influence upon the finished design.

(This will be explained in more detail under finishing.)

This set is designed to imitate bent-wood furniture that is much the rage with many decorators, so care should be taken in construction to show as little of jointed sections as possible.

Below is an Art Deco Lounge in the 1930s Design That Shows Where Knowles "Lines" Come From

art deco lounge 1930s