On any given day in today’s society, a man can climb out of a neatly polished vehicle after having patiently made his way through the traffic moving box by box up the road. He looks up toward the sky but sees only exorbitantly massive rectangles blocking all but a small rectangle directly above of blue. He shakes his head as if he wants to avoid the smothering stiffness. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, he continues walking along the street and finally enters one of the skyscrapers.
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On the way to his office, he stops in front of a big box full of soft drinks. Pushing one of the square buttons easily, he receives a sleek metal cylinder full of refreshing liquid. He drags one tubular metal chair from the corner and grabs one of the rolled newspapers waiting on a nearby projection of the wall, sleek and smooth, that served as a desk. Sipping his drink, he discovers an article, highlighted by a slightly shaded box and bold, sans-serif letters that inform him of how inflation is crashing the economy.
Eager to learn more, he turns to boot up the electronic box sitting on his desk to seek what he wants to know on the internet. As he watches the flickering lights begin to dance across the rectangular screen, he suddenly realizes how much of his world is comprised of boxes that leave him with an impression of mundane standardization, including his own identity. Reflecting on how this modernist agenda came to fill his world, the man instead began researching social change, being led almost immediately to the ideas coming out of the Bauhaus and the Industrial Revolution.
The earliest roots of what today’s researchers identify as the modern period are generally recognized to be twined about the natural forms and artistic investigations of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s and the Art Nouveau movement of the 1890s. William Morris is the acknowledged founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement in direct response to the ever-encroaching and dehumanizing standardization of machine-made objects churned out as the Industrial Revolution warmed up. “Not only art but also everyday objects, buildings, décor, everything lacked a face, and it was the realization of its lack in this particular respect which began to make the period so cruelly conscious of its anonymity” (Cassau, 1962).
In everything they did, crafters working under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement placed value in art created by hand. The Industrial Revolution provoked several innovations, a progressive trend of thought, cultural movements toward mass consumerism, new forms of art using new materials, new literary styles, architectural approaches, and other changes to the daily life of all individuals living in the modern world.
Detail of expressions such as that expressed in the Arts and Crafts movement was only possible through careful and painstaking devotion to the task and required a great deal of human ingenuity to replicate the natural curves and angles that continued to be difficult to achieve by machine which had the unintended effect of challenging the machine to find a means of mass-production of these forms and ‘modernizing’ them into less ornate figures.
As the arts of this period were refined to incorporate the new forms and materials available through industrial production and the greater demand of the emerging consumer culture, this movement naturally evolved into the Art Nouveau movement of the 1880s and 1890s. It was during the Art Nouveau period that the modern era of graphic design was born. James Pryde and William Nicholson, painters related through marriage and working under the pseudonym of the Beggarstaffs, began using colored paper cut into basic shapes to create Japanese-inspired designs that refocused the world of art (Chwast 2000).
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This coincided with a general social shift toward the wonders of the industry as life became more comfortable and affordable through mass-produced objects. As art reflecting social interest became reacquainted with the simple and sometimes harsh lines of industry, bolder forms, simpler shapes and more functional design came into vogue.
These forms introduced into the mainstream society were the early roots of Modernism, but it was the Bauhaus that can truly be pointed to as the birth of the movement. Modernism was “the name given to the new forms that appeared in all of the arts – in paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, and literature” (Pile 2005, p. 323). Modernity is not merely a conceptual framework based on the individual but reflects the condition of society as a whole.
It can be comprised of intellectual ideas, movements, and processes of modernization. While this is one aspect of modernity, modernism can be understood through a range of dimensions. In the study of architecture and interior design, modernity could be perceived as the “dialectical relationship… which modernism consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively reflects the effects of capitalist development” (Heynen 1999, p.4).
Modernism, therefore, has historical, sociological, philosophical, and cultural contexts that are interwoven into the fabric of society. According to Malcolmson (2006), Modernism was the reflection of the search for “a better place for all citizens at all social levels after the appalling carnage of the Great War” (p. 410). The Bauhaus designers were driving contributors to the art of employing straight lines and the inventive use of materials in household items (Barr 1954, p. 220). These artists embraced the machine age characterized by much of the rest of the Modern movement.
The Modern movement, far from driving audiences away, served instead to draw them closer as the reliance of sculpture artists upon more manufactured materials and fabrication processes began to blur the boundaries that had existed between the world of art and the world of the everyday. This movement was a response to the corporate and industrial take-over of the world by insisting upon taking something back. “By using these industrial-commercial processes and materials, they subvert these same processes and materials. Modernism effectively steals the language of those wielding power (the military/industrial complex), and by association, the American Federal Government” (Richard Serra, 1989).
While the world of high art was seen to be increasingly driven by commerce and the wealthy, settling into a codified ritual of production and technique, the world of sculpture was set apart by its rapid changes as new materials and forms became available through advances in technology.
Given that the period in which this movement grew was a time of turbulent change within the large societies of the world, this rebellious attitude on the part of sculpture served to establish this as the art form of the people, an idea that was furthered by the individuals creating the work. “Sculptors have preferred inscrutability to compliance with the values of a world increasingly influenced by marketing and entertainment. The sheer variety of materials and forms that have been presented as sculpture … makes it clear that sculpture has not been regarded as a stable concept with fixed boundaries” (Causey, 1998, p. 7).
During this period, everything from furniture and architecture to sculpture and typography was created in such a way as to illustrate the harsh functionality that characterized the period of re-growth and rebuilding that followed the destruction of the war years. The Bauhaus approach stripped all forms of any unnecessary design elements, insisting upon the functionality of the finished product. The beauty of the piece was to be found not in its artistic embellishments and additions, but instead in the simplicity of its line and the functionality of its form.
The four drivers of the modern movement were Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was the search for a utopia that combined the artistic and aesthetic movements important to the common man. Mies van der Rohe’s grand but mystical skyscraper designs and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye denoted the age of the citizenry. Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe led the modernism movement in architecture and heavily influenced the designs of art and other objects going into the future. Their designs were the epitome of logic, clarity of structure, use of space as fluid planes, and surfaces as fine materials.
Le Corbusier, for example, pioneered the designs of the 20th century in developing the ideology of colors in abstractions, materials such as bottles, pitchers, and glasses as well as floor plans and elevations in buildings.
This also had a profound impact on the types of graphic arts produced during this period, reflecting the close connection between human forms and machine production seen during the Art Nouveau period. “When used together, asymmetrical typography, geometric layout, and photographic illustration defined the radical new form language of Modernist design” (Chwast, 89). As a result of this closer connection, in collusion with earlier advancements between art and commerce, the era of graphic art truly saw its first flourishing in areas of advertising and packaging.
Key artists during this period included Paul Renner and Jan Tschichold who re-wrote the rules of typography to more accurately reflect the modernist ideals. Tschichold, Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky, all coming out during this same period in time, are generally considered to be the fathers of graphic design as we know it today. Typography and layout played a large role in the movement as they were the primary communicators of the style.
“The official lettering on most signs and buildings at the 1925 exposition, Peignot, became one of the typographic emblems of the age. In addition, the elegant specimen sheets of Moderne display faces produced by type foundries served as paeans to the style” (Chwast, 2000). As a result of the increasing sophistication of message and design features, the field became a viable marketplace in and of itself.
However, this material change into the machine age, from form to function, had been greatly criticized by the COBRA artists (Surrealist group comprising of Asger Jorn, Joseph Noiret, Christian Dotremont, Corneille, and Karel Appel) who believed in spontaneity and expressionism. They were against the rationalist grid adopted by modernists. They were of the view that modernism eluded true mass consciousness, and instead considered man as an unconscious element of the architectural framework. Residential buildings created in the machine age reflected mass production and were a superimposition of the machines in factories upon the household rather than the aesthetic sense of man (Sadler 1999 p. 7).
Nevertheless, modernism has been a generational movement that also inspires current-day architects. Their works have transformed the humane and organic environment into architectural styles which reflect the experience of the users, lifestyles, and surroundings. From the interiors to the exteriors, modernists have influenced the scheme of construction by developing systems of approach, plans, designs, and structure with the specific ideology of serving its dwellers within their holistic environment.
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Had the principles of Modernism not been so widely accepted, the world might have drifted in the direction illustrated by the steampunk movement. This area of fiction speculates as to what the world might have looked like had steam power still been the primary source of energy. “One of the most important influences has to be Japanese animation, or anime, which is replete with images of mechanical robots, neo-Zeppelin starships, goggle-wearing hackers, and the melding of the techno with the organic” (Bebergal, 2007).
During the Victorian era, when most of these novels are set, society wasn’t fully committed to one form of energy over another yet. Steam power still had a strong advantage over other forms of energy as it was more widely distributed, having been developed earlier than other means of generating power. As designs offered through these various forms of recent art have demonstrated, machines based upon steam power are necessarily different in style and appearance than machines based upon gasoline or electricity.
Understanding that the designs would have needed to be different to provide the same degree of function, these artists have also tended to look more toward the arts and crafts movement as inspiration for designs rather than the art nouveau tendency toward mass production. Steampunk is one form of the art movement that directly followed Modernism, commonly referred to as Postmodernism.
The Postmodern movement was characterized by new technology and a return to the principles of art history as it was put to use within the commercialized social sphere of the latter half of the twentieth century leading up to the 21st. This style is characterized by “a playful kinetic geometry featuring floating forms, sawtooth rules, and randomly placed blips and lines; multiple layered and fragmented images; pleasant pastel harmonies; discordant, letter spaced typography; and frequent references to art and design history” (Chwast, 2000).
Postmodern artists recognized that representation, whether expressed in words or images, is not a neutral or innocent activity, but rather one with profound effects on everyday lives. It explores the concept that there is more than one valid means of looking at the world. Although some would argue that postmodern art relies on a non-definition of societal symbols and forms to provide the ultimate expression of the sublime, the reality is that there are no forms that have not attached themselves to specific societal meanings.
However, current examples within the art world demonstrate how artists have been deliberately working to influence contemporary thought through their art, an inexact science in itself because of the indeterminate nature of the message contained in the sublime. By challenging our ideas of specific images, such as the American cultural view of all people of Arab descent being evil, or of words, these art forms become powerful tools in reshaping political and/or societal views and blurring the boundaries of what we thought we knew.
Through this investigation, it has been shown that the modern period beginning near the end of the previous century was characterized by a revolution in the world in the form of the machine age. It was a revolution that would change all aspects of society including artistic expression and purpose as well as begin to establish a cyclic pattern that provides deep insights into today’s movements in graphic arts.
This cycle began with a generally negative response to the changes being introduced to society, particularly the aversion to anything made by vile machinery rather than retaining the masterful touch of the sublime human mind. Gradually, as society warmed up to the benefits to be gained through mass production and the standard of living slowly rose, the art world found itself reflecting this ease. It softened its stance against machinery by beginning to produce art that was more easily mass-produced and that reflected the major concepts associated with the machine age, such as clean, sharp lines and bold shapes while it began to recognize and even embrace the relationship between art and business in the form of the object poster.
As society continued to embrace the wonders of the new world opened to them through industry and science, these forms only became condensed more completely into the minimalist lines of expression and abstraction that characterize the Modern period through such approaches as Expressionism, the Bauhaus, and the revealed understandings of Art Deco. Through this movement, the art world can be seen to fully embrace the machine world and perhaps even abandon itself to its uses entirely, thus representing the polar opposite stance from that taken by the early modernists in the Arts and Crafts period.
Barr, Jr. A. Masters of Modern Art. New York: Simon and Schuster: 1954.
Bebergal, Peter. “The Age of Steampunk.” The Boston Globe. (2007). Web.
Cassou, Jean, Emil Langui and Nikolaus Pevsner. Gateway to the Twentieth Century: Art and Culture in a Changing World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.
Causey, Andrew. Sculpture Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Chwast, Seymour and Steven Heller. Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
Malcolmson, P. “From Bauhaus to Our House: Modernism, 1914-1939.” Queen’s Quarterly. Volume: 113. Issue: 3. Fall Issue, (2006).
Pile, J. F. A History of Interior Design. Laurence King Publishing, 2005.
“Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.” (1989). Art Law. Harvard: Harvard Law School. Web.
Sadler, S. The Situationist City. The MIT Press, 1999.