Aesthetic tastes of decade
Defining Modern What
Paul Frankl, Form and Reform: A Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930, pages 23-31
... Today we stand at the threshold of a new era—an
era youthful but
mature, full in stature and declaring its independence of the
antiquated styles of older nations. Ours is the era of the Machine.
Machinery is creating our style. It is imposing a new tempo and a new
mode of life. With shameful sentimentality we still cling to the
outgrown "styles" of the past -- to houses designed in period styles
ridiculously alien to their settings; to gilded gewgaws and polished
marbles, to pseudo-period furniture.
create works in the
tempo of the new spirit means to break with old conventions and to
establish new aesthetic values. New materials demand new forms and
treatment consistent with their inherent nature. To distort, to
mutilate or to disguise the innate essence of a medium in a vain effort
to make it conform to conventions of the past, to superimpose upon it
some preconceived "style"—this is very denial of any sound
comprehension of the meaning of Style.
No longer can
back to the era of handmade and peasant crafts. It would be silly
affectation and hypocrisy to attempt to do so. We must accept the
machine. But we must accept it as masters and not as slaves. In the
matter of furniture and fabrics. Let us recognize the fundamental fact
that the machinery is most suitable, not for reproduction, but for
production. Why turn our Tudor chairs with twentieth-century machinery?
This is as incongruous as it is artistically dishonest. Machine-made
reproductions of handwork, machine-made copies of period styles, are
incongruous. Machine-made productions of contemporaneous designs,
soundly manufactured in materials of our own day, and intended for mass
production, are innately consistent, honest and well built, and in
addition, are specimens of a more authentic style than all the copies
in the world. Let any sound aesthetician, of no matter how conservative
a stripe, refute the essential truth of this fact!
we may define as the external expression of the inner spirit of any
given time. When that expression is the mere aping or borrowing of the
spirit of an alien epoch—of any other country, or any other
but our own, as Gilbert put it—it becomes dishonest
affectation. It may
assume, but it can never convince. The recent craze for the more
extreme atrocities of the Victorian era, indulged in by neurotic and
sexless decorators, told us nothing about the Victorian era, but
exposed the psychoses of its perpetrators. It was amusing; it was
frivolous; it was silly; it was an aberration of idle minds. But worst
of all, it was irrelevant.
While veritable style
lives, it is
incessantly changing. Nature knows no style. Her forms are constantly
repeated. Trees, ferns and herbs, despite their evolution, maintain
their fundamental forms throughout the ages. Style is the symbol of
man's creative genius. It is the outward record of his relation to God,
nature and mathematics. It is evident in the Assyrian temple, the
Buddha of Kamakura, and the Issenheim Altarpiece. In these monuments
the style differs, but Style informs all.
the life of
style. If for generation after generation man repeated the same
architecture, the same painting, the same music, his world would be
like that of the bees -- the endless proliferation
through eternity. What elevates men, in the last analysis, above the
bees is the mastery and the recognition of Style.
has been called the style of reason. Its appeal is an appeal to the
intelligence. Its emphasis upon simple forms, its return to
mathematical axiom and the fundamentals of form, confer upon it a
classical rather than a romantic beauty. Romanticism relies upon
associational values, upon the stimulation of suggested memories. By
line, proportion and inherent relations, the new classicism makes a
direct appeal to the vision and the mind. Modern forms are simple: the
square, the circle, the horizontal line, skill-fully and dynamically
coordinated—these are a return to the Greek ideal. Their
success is due
entirely to the correlation and the coordination of elements.
If I follow the gist of Frankl's claims about "modern", the
sense of the new
concept of "modern" is revealed in its twofold purpose: (1) to begin with
the premise that the lives of humans base are organic, that is, their
lives are under constant change, but also at the
same time, "stable", i.e., unchanging; and that (2) to be modern
is "to make
logical use of the products of invention". As a tradition, modernism
elects makes a
fresh approach, and frees itself from constraints, by consciously
tradition and the expectations which the latter imposes with regard to
facade and plan.
Human need comes first,
where -- in skillful hands traditional styles discarded, to
appropriate and beautiful forms emerge from the inside outwardly to
express the life within.]
Among the numerous assumptions that I have realized
since beginning this project is how important it is to -- step by step
-- define terms, both for yourself, as author, and for you,
the reader. Without definitions, especially in the areas of woodworking
and/or of furniture design, soon communication would collapse.
"Modern" is one of these terms.
The reasons why in this
history of amateur woodworking "modern" begins in the 1920s is yet to
come, later, when I deal with Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. (while
the paragraphs below deal with "modern", later, in the 1930s, "moderne"
becomes widely used term Source
Noel Riley, page 353)
term that I believe was the final trigger for my concerns about the
necessity of defining terms is "Modern". For example, provocatively,
Martin Eidelberg introduces readers to his volume,
Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was ,
to furniture design from 1935 to 1965 by speculating about what
"What Modern Was", that is, thinking
about "Modern in the Past Tense".
As a term, "Modernity", itself, I think we all agree, "closely linked
with a sense of time". "Temporality", that is "time", normally, in our
minds we associate with the "present";
occasionally, perhaps, modern is
linked to the future, especially Eidelberg argues, "if it carries
implications of lasting values".
examples: "Modern is ..." and "modern will be ..." he says are "the
standard declensions". On the other hand, when we are confronted with
"Modern was ...", are we guilty of a contradiction? For me, I admit,
"modern was" is a new coinage.
Eidelberg deliberates further
on this theme of "Modern in the Past Tense" by noting that "the
emergence of the term Postmodern has, if anything, emphasized the
curious sense of separation that now exists between us today and that
age that we designate as Modern". Our sense of difference -- Eidelberg
uses "distance" is temporal, for sure, in that it is the
result of a very sensitivity of both how time has passed and
the major shift in ideas and values, both public and personal.
My 40-year sojourn in
the academic world merely reinforces Eidleberg. Just looking at the
titles of books on the shelves in my den provides testament to
Eidelberg's claims: The First
Moderns, The Modern Mind,
The Postmodern Adventure, The
Postmodern Turn are but
a few among several.
The term Post-Modern itself was coined both the
1930s and 1950s -- for somewhat different reasons and is something I
can document -- as each generation recognized its distance from a
and Postmodernism, in their simplest usage, refers
to the period of 20th century marked with the development of atomic
weapons and other technological innovations (like television and
contraception devices), which, taken together, in Western culture
especially, have had a major impact upon human behavior and beliefs.
connotation, postmodernism is characterized by a dismissal or rejection
of traditional values, and an resounding dismissal of absolute truth.
Postmodernism's approach to understanding society produces doubt and
uncertainty about tradition and challenges hierarchy and authority.
With such evidence, postmodernism is thus visualized as a challenge to
traditional cultural values, which puts it into a contest with
conservative social and political thinking. Postmodern/ Postmodernism
are terms used in different Disciplines, including History, Visual
Arts, Literature, and Music.)
aside, our goal issue is to understand and explain what really
occurred, especially as these terms, Modern and Postmodern relate to an
amateur woodworking movement. I found Eidelberg's book, Design
1935-1965: What Modern Was, instructive in that it
sets out with both images and text significant artifacts of that
relatively short, but explosive -- in all senses of that term -- period.
Modern design, in
its simplest and most generic form, implies the up-to-date, a current
trend, or, better still, a future trend. Many use Modern with
a capital M to refer specifically to the period between the early 1920s
and the outbreak of World War II: the heroic age of Le Corbusier and L'Esprit Nouveau, the age of Walter Gropius
and the Bauhaus. It was the time when the guiding principles
of twentieth-century industrial design were
forged, the time when an idealistic generation sought to
clarify and purify design, to create a language of rational, eternal
form. Others might argue that Modern design, even with the
capital M, also encompassed the decade and a half after the war,
an equally heroic age of artists like Charles and Ray Eames, Eero
Saarinen, and Tapio Wirkkala.
From the vantage point of the
1990s, the nomenclature and chronology of Modernism take on a certain
irony. Can events of three-quarters
of a century or even a half-century ago still be termed modern?
Ars longa, vita brevis, but can we
term designers modern when they have been dead for several decades?
Source: Martin Eidelberg, Design
1935-1965: What Modern Was; Selections From the Liliane and David M.
Stewart Collection. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1991,
theory of modern design was deliberately simple as a response to the
growing complexity of the world. Modernist objects look very
different to those that came immediately before them: they have no
ornament and no overt reference to historical style and they tend to
emphasize materials and processes of constructing. Modernist
designers aimed to use industrial processes to create objects with
integrity that simplified and dramatized everyday life.
Noel Riley: The Elements of Design: A practical
Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts From the Renaissance to the
Present New York: The Free Press, 2003,
Bauhaus movement introduced the Modernist style to the World. In 1906,
at Weimar, Germany, the Grand Duke of Saxony School of Arts and Crafts,
founded by Henri van de Velde -- and devoted to the ideas of Ruskin and
Morris -- merged in 1919 with the School of Fine Arts of the same name
to form the State Bauhaus at Wiemar, Germany. Under the leadership of
Walter Gropius (1883-1969), the school was destined to become the
greatest in the twentieth century for the development of modern
architecture and design." I have much more material that supplements
on aesthetic tastes for the 1920s decade-- from the
perspective of events in America -- that I will add later.)
My motivation for citing Russell's observations
about Gropius, the Bauhaus and use of machines for cabinet-making and
furniture construction are obvious when it is revealed that the English
promoters of the Arts and Crafts style, as purists, claimed that the
only true art in furniture making stemmed from hand work. (See the Principles
of Bauhaus Production here.)
When the Arts and Crafts style moved to America
around 1900, however, and American promoters had to contend with the
dictums about handwork vs machines championed by their English
counterparts, the use of power machines for manufacturing arts and
crafts furniture won out.
beliefs are not easily changed however; as late as the early 1920s,
Barnsley constructed his famous "hay-rake" table -- in the Arts and
Crafts style -- our of white oak, using a foot-powered table-saw.
important event occurred in Paris in 1925: the International
Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art. (also Stockholm
Exhibition of 1930.)
details above focus on influences forthcoming from Europe.
Domestically, much social turmoil was caused by massive waves of
immigration, from eastern and southern Europe, primarily. The impact of
this immigration upon the native populations was significant,
especially in producing different streams of nativistic responses.
(Generally considered the best book-length account is John Higham's
Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism,
1860-1925, with this link leading to a
"limited" accessibility through google print.)