Home Interior Styles: Modern Movements
At the 1925 international Exposition des Arts Décoratifs there were two pavilions which were either scorned or almost unnoticed yet which would have an enormous influence on domestic design over the next several decades. These were the stark, geometric Russian Constructivist pavilion (people joked that it had been made from packing cases) and a little pavilion belonging to an art magazine called L’Esprit Nouveau (’New Spirit’), designed by the cousins Charles-Edouard and Pierre Jeanneret; the former was the editor of the magazine, and is better known by his nom de plume, Le Corbusier.
The L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion was roughly box-shaped, with a plain white exterior and an equally bare and Spartan interior. On exhibit were no ornamentation, no draperies, curtains or wallpaper, no mantelpiece or small tables on which to display photographs and family treasures, no comfortingly panelled study, no polished wood furniture, no rich materials of any kind … absolutely no vestige, in fact, of familiar home-like things.
Instead, there was starkness. The walls were white, except for one which was painted plain brown. Industrial-type storage cabinets, painted yellow, were used as room dividers and the staircase was made out of steel pipes. The kitchen was tiny, and the bathroom — almost as large as the living room — had an entire wall made of glass bricks and was intended to double as an exercise room. As for the furniture, there were side tables of the kind usually found in restaurants, tables made of slabs of wood resting on tubular steel frames and some rather nebulous leather armchairs. The whole was meant to show the ‘new spirit’, the comprehensive rejection of decorative art, and was meant to shock.
However scornful the reaction to this building (one US critic said it exhibited the prosaic literalness of a cold-storage warehouse cube), its architect was actually trying to come to grips with modern living and the advent of the new technologies — to create with his ‘machine for living’ a style to mark the age. Undeterred by the hostile reaction of the critics, Le Corbusier went on to build a number of villas based on this same austerity. By the 1930s this ‘new spirit’ architecture was gaining ascendancy.
However, Le Corbusier’s pavilion was certainly not the first building to demonstrate conspicuous austerity. As far back as 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos had written a much abused essay called ‘Ornament and Crime’, in which he advocated the removal of all ornament from architecture and interiors — indeed, from everyday life as a whole. He argued that what had seemed appropriate in the past was no longer appropriate to an industrialized world. Loos had since 1904 been designing villas with plain white plastered walls that lacked any such decoration as cornices (crown moldings) or mouldings. What he despised, however, was not decoration but ornamentation, and his otherwise austere rooms were filled with beautiful surfaces. Although he was afterwards to change his mind about austerity, his cri du coeur for the elimination of ornament became the basis of a veritable crusade by the German, Dutch and French avant-garde.
The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Germany by Walter Gropius, was dedicated to reform. All vestiges of the past were to be removed, and luxury became as much of a crime as ornamentation. This extremism made its mark, for after 1920 there was a decided shift in popular taste: rooms became steadily less cluttered, a tendency which reached its apotheosis with the minimalism and hi-tech of the 1970s.
If dance and clothes influenced the Art Deco style, economics, politics and World War II were the primary factors affecting the acceptance of the modernist style in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. With the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Art Deco — which, with its exotic materials and faint air of decadence, had always been the province of the rich — ceased to be a domestic style, although it continued to feature in large buildings, restaurants, movie theatres and ships.
However, Le Corbusier’s unglamorous ‘cube’ style was uniquely suited to post-Depression times, being more adaptable to slim budgets. There was also a political aspect to the style’s sudden regaining of popularity during the 1930s: the new totalitarian states, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, were staunchly grandiose and monumental when it came to architecture, and so the new austerity came to represent a rebellion against totalitarianism.
Most of the modernist German architects and designers of the Bauhaus ended up in the United States, where men such as Gropius, Breuer and Mies van der Rohe were feted and given many commissions. Thanks to this patronage, the new Modernism became regarded as chic, unfettered, an emblem of the ‘free world’, a refreshing change, and an altogether necessary break from traditions of the old world. The whole modern movement set new high standards for living. It not only influenced architecture and interior design but also created a general framework for daily living. It advocated a cleaner and more regulated environment and a way of life which would complement the new technological age. Le Corbusier attempted to redefine the home by calling it a ‘machine for living’.
Rooms were pure white, uncluttered, glass-walled, and filled at first with the de rigueur modern classics of Le Corbusier, Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. Later the marvellous new shapes made possible by airplane-material technology, beautifully reinterpreted by Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, joined the works of Le Corbusier and the rest of his generation. Modern abstract and expressionist paintings were hung on the walls, and occasional furniture was made of glass and chrome, plexiglass, perspex or white moulded plastic. Often the only colour to be seen apart from in the paintings was in the leaves of large plants and the tan-and-beige of leather upholstery. Europe’s Modernism was glamorized and made sleek and sophisticated. Renamed the International Style, it was for years a favourite of the enlightened rich, filtering down in due course to the enlightened middle classes.
Minimalism — the art of living with the least — uses Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that ‘less is more’ as its creed. At its best: as in traditional Japanese interiors, it is a celebration of space, or of form in space, so that one can revel in the pure sculptural lines of a piece of furniture or architectural element.
Rooms are kept as sparse as possible, with pared-down furniture and no visible clutter. Often there are hi-tech elements: industrial grey carpeting, studded rubber flooring, crisp woven matting, slick tiles and gleaming lacquered or metallic finishes.
In good minimalist rooms — as opposed to bad ones which can look merely bleak and uncomfortable — background colours are kept to a minimum, white being prevalent. The shapes of the furniture and all the objects, even the humblest of baskets or a single flower, combine to achieve a special and rewarding significance. In a minimalist environment storage is of course all-important, for the absence of the usual detritus of domestic living is essential to the style. For most of us, minimalism is a difficult style both to live with and to live up to — it is not an easy option. For the enviable and disciplined few, however, who can live without clutter, the visual rewards are great.
Post-Modernism is not so much just another manifestation of Neoclassicism — one of those styles which, like Gothic and Rococo, slips in and out of favour through the centuries — as a somewhat playful style based on allusion or reference to history and the classical order in a movement that is otherwise contemporary.
Pillars, pediments, arches and so on are incorporated on the outsides of buildings and in interiors in a rather dégagé manner — for example, free-standing pillars or pediments and other architectural elements are used as decoration rather than for support or delineation. Post-Modernism makes no attempt to recreate or revive a historical style, but rather it light-heartedly acknowledges the presence and influence of the past on contemporary spaces and elements of design.
The colours used are distinctive — both harmonious and strong. They are pale terracottas, sea greens, lilacs, washed pinks and sky blues — representing land, light, air and sky. In many ways they comprise much the same colour combination as those used in the Neoclassical and Adam rooms of the 18th century.
One thing the mixture of historical and creative revivals with the modern movement during the last part of this century has done is to create a sense of release, of freedom and experimentation in decoration. This is true especially among the young, the impecunious, the avant-garde and the unconventional.
According to various surveys, the majority of us tend to nostalgia as we grow older, more settled and more solvent, decorating more like our grandparents (or how we would have liked our grandparents to have decorated!). But for the more uninhibited minority anything can go, from wonderful (but expensive) experimental furniture by sculptors, painters, architects, craftsmen and designers, through brightly coloured contemporary pieces like the Italian Memphis work and its copies, to ingenious made-up pieces and revitalized junk. All or any of these can be set against a variety of backgrounds and can be rearranged at will.