The Oxford University Press defines modernism as “a style or movement in the arts that aims to depart significantly from classical and traditional forms.” A more pragmatic view might be that modernism is a revolution against the conservative values of realism. From an architectural point of view, modernism evolved as a means of disposal for traditional design in favour of methods more technologically current. The ironic part is that modernism really found its voice during the later part of the 19th century and continues today what we often refer to as ‘modern day’. What is considered the modern style of design, really refers to the word ‘modern’ as a noun, not an adjective. Whichever set of words best describes the meaning of modernism for each person, it all comes down to one basic concept: simple versus ornate.
Even the most ancient examples of furniture are ordained with some sort of decoration. Something the craftsman used as means of beautifying what he thought was plain, even mundane. Sure, tables and stools were originally created out of a need, but the innate human need for expression also had its influence. Religious altars became taller, bore carved images and even depicted stories of bravery. As the centuries rolled by and new materials were discovered, furnishing became more colourful. Fabrics were woven and dyed; metal was fashioned into nails and other hardware. As the perceived needs of the average person changed, so did their surroundings. Items in homes became a way of showing wealth and superior taste. The bigger and more ornate, the better. The Italian Renaissance is a classic example of this piece of design history. Large intricate scrolls painted with gold leaf were the staple of Italian design. Dark woods, chubby winged infants and voluptuous woman were everywhere. The longer the piece took to make, the more value was placed on it. Furnishing were no longer created out of necessity, they were made for ornamentation.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century brought a multitude of manufacturing evolutions to industry. There is no doubt these innovations were a necessary part of the world’s history, but many historians argue that modernism was a response to the spoils of the Industrial Revolution. Industry grew quickly during the 19th century, too quickly. Many thousands of people perished from the hardships of unchecked labour and poverty, yet demand stayed high. Purists of the modernist movement counter that argument with the fact that technology was the driving force behind new designs. Either way, the turn of the 19th century into the 20th definitely brought what had previously been regarded as a fleeting fad of the avant garde to a full fledged modernistic movement.
The most iconic piece of modern furniture is the Wassily Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925. It is a simple square frame of chrome tubular steel, lashed with straps of black leather for the seat and back. At the time, the Wassily was seen as an impossibly functional chair of wafer thin leather. It was in such stark contrast to what everyone had in their homes, that you either loved it or hated it. Obviously, more loved it than hated it, because the Wassily is still one of the most popular design pieces sold today. The Eileen Gray side table is another iconic piece of modern furniture that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. It also makes use of tubular chrome steal, but in a circular fashion. An incomplete circle is the table’s footing, with a single piece of chrome steel rising up to hold a full circle of chrome and glass as the table’s surface. It is simple, understated and supremely modernistic. Many other tables of varying sizes and functions have used elements of Eileen Gray’s original design, but her side table will always be a part of the history of modern furniture.
The 1960’s brought a new flair to modern furniture. Designs began to incorporate subtle elements of tradition, such as the use of dark woods. The lines were still light and clean, but the way in which some of the materials were finished or upholstered felt different. In reality, these slight changes ended up appealing to a much wider market than just those interested in modernism. Consumers who felt alienated by what they perceived as odd-looking found colours and textures that appealed to their traditional tastes, but with a modern twist. Some design historians have called it post-modernism; others termed it as modern classic. Whichever label it bears, the fundamental elements of modern furniture stay in place. Perhaps it is the very absence of adornment that keeps modern furniture so ageless. So far it has survived 100 years of fads, technological advancements, ecological changes, global economic upheavals and political transformations. It appeals to those with a budget, and those who wish to have a cutting edge image in their home environment. It may be an oxymoron, but modernism is timeless.