Modern furniture and decoration has come into being through the same processes that in other times were responsible for the organization of other styles. To analyze these processes is to define those social, economic and emotional changes that distinguish one time and one place from another. The appraisal or even description of a style demands detachment, perspective. To write at this moment in a summary or conclusive vein about modern furniture — meaning in the largest sense, the special contribution or characteristic production of the first third of the twentieth century — is therefore more in the realm of journalism than of permanent record. As a record of the time and its customs, contemporary furniture is still a fragmentary and incoherent document. Its acceptance is still far from universal and its characteristics are largely those of personal schools, either of designers or of the fashion promoters that are an essential factor in the sale of merchandise. Yet there are certain well-defined tendencies, favored materials and techniques that may be accepted as the ingredients of the formulating style, and there are reflections in both contemporary architecture and in the story of earlier approaches to modern furniture, that reveal the outlines of the future picture.
The impulse or urge to design along other than historical lines appears to have originated in England about the middle of the nineteenth century, when a rebellious group of young artists, including William Morris, Ruskin, Rosetti, Philip Webb, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Faulkner, and Marshall set out to design and manufacture interior decorations. Their particular revolt was against the dead classicism which then dominated all the arts, the heritage of the eighteenth century; they took up the challenge of the new machine and sought to cancel it and its effects. All this was to be accomplished by a return to naturalism, to the medieval concept of humanity, nature and brotherhood. The whole movement is inextricably combined with a poetic nostalgia for the Gothic, as it typified the good old days. The Pre-Raphaelites discarded all painting after the fifteenth century; Ruskin denounced the "foul torrent of the Renaissance." In furniture, textiles, metal work and all the other accessory arts, they attempted to restore the theory of hand processes, and designed accordingly. This phase dwindled into the rapturously self-satisfied aestheticism of the Oscar Wilde school, and its output offers little inspiration to the designer beyond its freedom from the cliches of the time.
The fundamental concept of good materials, honestly expressed with fine craftsmanship, of undisguised form influenced by function, stands out above all the poetic obscurantism. This feeling, which the originators expressed so gropingly, spread to the continent and evoked in Holland, Germany, Austria, the Scandinavian countries, and France a system of radical thought. The teaching of art, particularly of design and applied art, was transformed, and various new movements followed to develop the nationalistic trends. Based uniformly on the naturalistic approach, as distinguished from the classical, these movements did not always appear to recognize the true forces that inspired them, and developed along many tangents. The English Arts-and-Crafts movement had its parallels in L'Art Nouveau of France, the Secession of Austria, and the Deutsche Werkbund.
The first tangible expression of a modern approach to furniture occurs in the exhibition in 1894 in Brussels. Here Henri van de Velde emerged as the genius of L'Art Nouveau, and his 1895 Paris
exhibition of four complete rooms established the style. Though an advocate of functional design, he somehow confused the "line of force" with the peculiar whiplash curve which has come to symbolize L'Art Nouveau. At the Paris International Exposition of 1900, Van de Velde's style was a sensation; its very brilliance proved its undoing. Commercial copyists of varying degrees of skill adopted and manipulated the typical curvet! line ad nauseam; its furniture and large scale work it quickly became graceless, forced, tiresome; its vogue in decorative glass and metal-work lived on, but was sterile.
German craftsmen and designers accepted Van de Velde enthusiastically, and in 1902 he opened a school — the Bauhaus — at Weimar, under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Weimar. Another school at Darmstadt had Peter Behrens, Hans Christiansen, and Ludwig Habich working under Josef Olbrich.
The various forces coalesced in the first decade of the 1900's into the Deutsche Werkbund, aimed at consolidating the active forces in art education and production. For the most part, their design was simple
and unaffected, sound in construction theory and practice.
In Vienna, the Secession was organized in 1896 by Josef Hoffman,Roller, Klimt, Moser, Olbrich and others. It pioneered in the application of the English Arts and Crafts. In 1903, the Wiener Werkstatte appeared. Architects, mostly pupils of Otto Wagner, formulated a coherent style, and by the time of the World War, their thought dominated house design and decoration in Europe.
Design in Sweden enjoyed intelligent direction of an artists association, responsible for the employment by Orrefors Bruck of Simon Gate and Edvard Hald. The co-operative associations have been a force in the classification of design ideas, and today Sweden produces outstandingly good furniture. Design in the United States followed a curious roundabout procedure. In the nineteenth century, the applied arts had little or no encouragement other than from the commercial producer. The decline of the Victorian and the rise and fall of Eastlake left the manufacturers with a vague notion of design as mere fanciness, applied ornament, gimcrackery and untrained individuality submerging craftsman-ship and perception. The Chicago Exposition of 1893 led architecture into the paths of inspired classicism, and for thirty years thereafter, Ancient Rome alone inspired all major design. Furniture followed with eclectic copying of all the major historical styles, scaled down, misinterpreted, unintelligently adapted. In the 1920'S the vogue for good reproductions improved the tendency, but the major output of furniture was unskillfully designed after the Brothers Adam, the Louis periods, Chippendale, Tudor, Italian, and other historical motives.
Among the architects there were, however, a few exceptions, working on personal interpretation of, historic forms, or completely iconoclastic. Of the former, the free Gothic of Bertram Goodhue, the Romanesque of H. H. Richardson and the classic variations of Burnham and others in Chicago are milestones of individuality. Of the iconoclasts, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan were almost alone in recognizing the potentialities of the new age of steel construction and its child, the skyscraper. Alone they sought new external expressions for this technique.
Their productions are recognized today by their vitality and sincerity, but at the time the classic movement was too strong. Sullivan, disappointed, died in 1924. Wright worked in Japan and elsewhere, and is today hailed as a prophet even in his own country. Their recognition in Europe, however, was almost immediate, and the advanced schools did not hesitate to build on their constructional premises. To the German Schools in particular the work of Sullivan and Wright suggested an honest approach to essential design, and their architects and designers show this influence profoundly.
Sullivan's work was principally in commercial structures in the Middle West; Wright, besides several excellent business buildings, designed many houses in the Great Lakes region, as well as farther West.
The time was between 1907 and 1912. Interior furnishings were largely in the styles designated as Mission, Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, English Cottage types, etc. They all had simple, crude outlines, and were almost invariably of oak, exaggeratedly heavy, stained or fumed to a deep tone. The joinery was elementary and largely faked, always obvious.
Decoration was meager; besides excessive copper hinges, handles, and straps, it was by means of cut-out shapes. Textiles were coarse and dull in color, and leather in dark browns, reds and greens provided a dingy palette. The resulting interiors were dark and morose; their lack of suavity and grace damned them and undoubtedly was responsible for the rejection of the whole idea — house and all.
The Mission style was based loosely on the few primitive articles of furniture left by the Spanish Missionaries in the Southwest, crossed with strains of the glorified amateurishness of the English Arts-and-Crafts School. The English had largely discarded this, and were elaborating on the fin-de-siecle shapes, reviving motives of the seventeenth century that favored oak. The French, Germans, and Austrians still based their work on L'Art Nouveau: liberal tastes permitted the borrowing back and forth of new ideas. Original tendencies were brewing, but were still indistinct and largely a matter of personal eclecticisms, tinged with bizarre overtones.
Thus, there appear two divergent impulses in early twentieth century European design: one a matter of decorative interpretation, re-casting the ornamental forms of all bygone times in a new idiom; the other a
simple rationale of construction and functional necessity, in-spired by essential architecture alone, often referred to as the International style.
The more decorative school may be regarded as an unorthodox merger of many types of decoration. It enunciates no major principles, but strives merely for fresher individuality, more original ornamental forms than mere copies of historical examples, good as they may be. It respects the continuity of the old, offering only to embellish it with new and more personal detail. It is pleasant and well-mannered, often elegant; it
employs beautiful materials and works them with accomplished craftsmanship. Fine woods and metals, ivory, glass and the new synthetic materials are used according to the designer's fancy. The forms often suggest older styles: there are reminiscences of Empire solidity, Directoire lightness and grace, Chinese and Hindu conventionalization, Chippendale and Neo-Grec; the designer is generally free to take old patterns at will, subduing ornament, exaggerating some details, emphasizing surface material and proportion. The individual pieces have the distinction and decorative unity that characterizes fine furniture of all ages. Their arrangement in rooms, in association with floor, wall and window treatment, is more or less orthodox. Essentially a matter of decorative stylism, it is chic, stylish, suave. Striving for originality sometimes leads it into bizarre shapes and color schemes, but the critique will be one of personal taste.
The German and Austrian forms of this style grew directly out of the earlier decorative schools. The Wiener Werkstatte, the various Werkbund and conventional schools on the Continent developed a clear style during the several decades during which American schools were concerned with the canons of formal historical periods. The leaders of the style bear familiar names: Josef Hoffman, Bruno Paul.
This progressive influence barely touched America until after 1925, although a few designers, such as Joseph Urban, Paul Frankl, Winold Reiss, were conspicuous in the post-war years for their originality and untraditional approach. But their work was personal and limited to personal contact; the current European sources were a closed book to the commercial producers and hence to the country at large. Small objects — pottery, porcelain, metal work, textiles, book printing, and binding, followed European inspiration in the same manner as fashions in women's dress, but furniture and architecture styles were pure archeological research.
The Paris Exposition of Decorative Art in 1925 threw into dismayingly sharp relief the general back-sightedness of American applied art. The United States had nothing to show. The exhibits of the European designers stirred a spirit of inquiry, and in 1926 and 1927 the trend of European design began to appear in America. It was unfortunately treated as a unified style; the copyists set to work with more nthusiasm than judgment. Indiscriminately, any motive, form or arrangement of colors that had no precedent labelled their new concoctions Modernistic, Futuristic, Moderne, Modernique, Art Moderne, in much the same way that a compo swag made a chiffonier Adam, or a scrolled iron leg made a cookstove Queen Anne. In other words, the same external details by which essentially twentieth century utilitarian articles were tricked into a semblance of historic types, were used to qualify these pieces as
At this point it is important to go back to consider the more revolutionary development which produced a widely divergent style. Prior to the Great War the steel cage system of construction was, so far as its
influence on design in Europe little more than a philosophical possibility. The social and economic upheaval of the war brought a new interpretation of function and utility. In Germany, France, Holland and
elsewhere appeared a new simplified, wholly untraditional style. Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, Marcel Breuer, Aalto, are today the exponents of Louis Sullivan's edict that
"form follows function." The simple, undecorated utilitarian form is considered adequately beautiful, if designed with honest respect for the materials and new conveniences that serve our needs. It is, therefore, logical to design the implements of daily use in accordance with their special conditions. Lighting by electricity creates new problems and new possibilities; we should therefore discard the electrified-candlelight technique of lighting and design according to the new possibilities. Steel tubing can be bent into elastic shapes for light comfortable chairs, but it may be contrary to the nature of the material to work it into the traditional shape of chairs. Thus, the style attaches less value to the designer's preoccupation with aesthetics in the established sense. It pre-supposes an essential, basic beauty in objects designed precisely to their required use and whose final shape is nothing more than the expression of this use and of the materials of which it is composed. By this strict criterion most furniture is dismissed as beautified, not beautiful; its non-essential ornament is hung on, not implicit in the major design, hence detracts.
This viewpoint leads directly to the composition of rooms. Designers of interiors of this school feel that we must discard the notion of a room as the inside of a box, with the walls to be treated as continuities which enclose certain given activities. Rather, each wall may be regarded as the background of a specific purpose. The new furniture is therefore more closely integrated with its architecture than heretofore. The architect-decorator conceives his room not alone as planes of walls and ceilings, doors and windows, but in terms of the actual factors essential to human occupancy; artificial light and ventilation, the functions of storage and seating, sleeping and eating. The relationship of these varied elements and functions is the true basis of the design of the component parts.
The name, "International Style" has been applied to this school because of an obvious similarity in the output of designers in all lands, Japan as in Germany, Italy or the Argentine. This is easily ascribed, aside from the general disregard for nationalistic tendencies, to the fact that the essential materials are no longer local. Steel and concrete, glass and rubber, are marketed on international plans, and no process or material may long be restricted to one region. Thus the whole of the style is not uniformly applicable to every place and condition, and the same judicious selection must be governed by local conditions.
The fact remains that no style can long escape the establishment of cliches by which the ununderstanding classify and recognize it. An unfortunate characteristic of the functional style has been the uncompromising use of angles and straight lines: the mechanical line has alone been identified as the functional line. This is not necessarily true, either from facility of production or use, but it earned for modern furniture the condemnation of being harsh and uncomfortable. Of recent years the proponents of the functional manner have displayed greater ease of manner which renders the typical forms more generally acceptable. It seems safe to predict in the immediate future a widening response to the logic of this style as the truthful and unaffected expression of the age, because it serves it best.
The excessive simplification will of itself create obstacles, since most furniture is produced to be sold. New sales demand new markets, but much selling must be in old markets. Furniture must therefore become obsolete, or out-of-style, to reopen these markets, and the speeding-up of the process of obsolescence is part of the stylist's job. The fashion element will probably operate to introduce extraneous
factors or to play up minor details. In this light, the truthful development of a style may be retarded, if not rendered impossible, by these capricious elements.
In the ten years following the first imports of European modernism, America has sampled most of the movements and manners current abroad. It seems odd that the simplest solutions have been the last
arrived at. The earlier modern work was often really bizarre, unnecessarily different. To the unbiased observer it merely exchanged ornaments, and the new ones were rarely as praiseworthy as the historical.
There was small virtue in its mere rebelliousness. Too much picturesque novelty, too little craftsmanship; too much sales promotion by material manufacturers, too little critical objection by the consumer, all contributed to the hoop-la merchandising of the style. If the style had an idiom, it was slang.
Presently — about 1930 — reticence, sobriety, taste became characteristic. Exhibition work as shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Chicago Exposition and other displays indicated a clearer
concept of the objective, a mature approach to rational furniture design.
This furniture is characterized by simplicity, directness of purpose and material, absence of applied decoration, and an effort toward simple bulks, eliminating projections, mouldings, deep shadows. It is
generally low, and planned to give the impression of being an integral part of the room. This applies principally to storage furniture as chests, cabinets, bookcases, etc. Beds are reduced to the simplest terms of bed-ding supported on frames with minor panels as head- and foot-boards, if any. Couches and chairs stress comfort, ease of handling and maintenance. Tables are of wide variety — dining tables are
chiefly expanding types, often with resistant tops of synthetic materials, and bases are sometimes of metal. Small tables display much ingenuity in the use of new materials as well as glass, metal and wood. Mirrors tend to cover large areas of wall, unframed, sunken or set in simple molds.
Of materials, wood is consistently favored for most purposes. More than ever fine veneers are available through the improved techniques of making plywood, and design around the possibilities of wood grain
has largely supplanted surface ornament. The various synthetic materials, compounds of casein, phenol-resin, ureas, etc., provide Bakelite, Formica, Micarta, Catalin, Plastacele, Lumarith, and numerous others which are used in furniture as resistant tops, decorative panels, handles, ornaments, etc. Of metals, stainless steel, aluminum, chromium-plating and new plating processes on other metals commend themselves for their ease of maintenance. Textiles featuring synthetic yarns are generally used, often in combination with wool, silk, cotton, etc. Colors are clear and clean; patterns are simple, chiefly introduced in the weaving.
There is occasional mention of machine processes. Furniture making is still a craft. The machine is a tool, and properly handled it can perform many operations better than the hand. But it cannot make a piece of wood furniture. The ultimate perfection of the piece lies in the joinery, a hand process which attained its ultimate perfection one hundred and fifty years ago. Upholstering is similarly a handicraft and even the finishing of wood is a point of manual skill. The glib advocate of "machine processes for the machine age" must hereafter design in some material and method that renders the machine more universally competent than it is now. When that time comes, furniture will assume its distinctive appearance, without discussion as to whether it should recall the glories of Greece, or demonstrate the fantasy of an H. G. Wells trip to Mars.