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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Design, 1925–50

The second quarter of the twentieth century saw radical changes in design. The Art Deco style, which reached its apogee at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, gradually waned; its decorative flourishes and emphasis on rich and exotic materials seemed increasingly irrelevant, considering the economic pressures of the Great Depression in the United States and growing political instability in Europe. It was replaced by the ideas of young modernist reformers who believed that beauty need not depend on ornament but could be achieved through the manipulation of form and the judicious use of color and texture, that simplicity and economy were preferable aesthetically—even morally and politically—to the elaboration and extravagance that typified Art Deco. The geometric forms and plain undecorated surfaces favored by modernists were, however, too demanding for most people. It was with relief that consumers turned to the warmer organic design, with its emphasis on wood and natural materials, that emerged in Scandinavia in the mid-1930s.

The Bauhaus, founded in Weimar in 1919 as a school of arts and crafts, soon became known as a center of avant-garde design under the direction of Walter Gropius. The school strove to mold designers who could create beautiful and useful prototypes suitable for commercial production. In 1933, the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus, but during its brief existence it produced a generation of architects, artists, and designers who spread its teachings around the world. Among these were the architects Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer; the designers László Moholy-Nagy, Marianne Brandt, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld; and the painters Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, and Josef Albers.

One of the strongest and most influential reactions against the Art Deco movement came from the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. His Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau at the 1925 Exposition was a forceful rejection of the use of expensive, exotic materials in the extravagant, one-of-a-kind objects that typified Art Deco. He defined the house as a “machine for living in,” while furniture was “domestic equipment.” The pavilion itself was a prototype for standardized housing, conspicuously furnished with commonly available items such as leather club chairs. Like members of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier advocated furniture that was rationally designed along industrial principles to reflect function and utility in its purist forms, with a strict rejection of applied ornament. Other important movements positing avant-garde theories of design and architecture included De Stijl in Holland, which advocated a seamless unity of art and architecture, and Russian Constructivism, whose utopian projects embraced a combination of machine forms and abstract art.

In the United States, designers responded to European influences, gradually transforming them into a uniquely American idiom. Many of the most prominent figures in the prewar period were, in fact, European émigrés. The American Designers’ Gallery in New York opened in 1928 and introduced consumers to modern interiors and furnishings by designers including Ilonka Karasz, Joseph Urban, and Donald Deskey. Many of its designers used industrial materials such as steel and chrome in their furniture. The machine aesthetic was an important influence on design. Streamline Moderne, with its aerodynamic forms and implications of speed, reinforced the growing importance of automobiles and trains. The role of the industrial designer itself gained prominence, especially during the Great Depression, when companies relied on designers such as Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy to create enticing new product designs in an effort to stimulate consumer demand.

World War II profoundly affected the material and formal developments of architecture and design. Items such as steel, aluminum, and copper were rationed for use in the war effort, forcing designers to substitute nonessential materials, including cardboard, glass, and plywood, in their designs. Many American designers worked for the war effort itself, applying their knowledge and expertise to military exigencies. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, worked on behalf of the U.S. Navy, developing molded plywood designs for leg splints.

Much of this new technology found its way into furniture design following the war. Charles and Ray Eames developed their highly influential “LCW” chair, an inexpensive, mass-produced molded plywood object, from their wartime experiments. Museums and designers across the country turned their energies to promoting American design through the Good Design movement, which promised quality-of-life enhancing products for any budget. Inspired in part by prewar European efforts to democratize design through industrial production, this movement energetically promoted modern design to the American consumer through museum exhibitions, trade shows, and advertising. Likewise, European design councils sponsored exhibitions and designers in an effort to stimulate national consumer interest. Following years of economic and political turmoil, consumers now had access to goods of modern design in rapidly increasing quantities.