The three most influential design philosophies of the past century have been Modernism, American Industrial Design and Postmodernism. Each broke with precedent in its own way but the enduring legacies of these pioneering movements mean that contemporary designers are struggling to articulate a stylistic philosophy of their own.
The Modernist movement arrived on the world scene in the late 19th century at a time when the world was being swept by forces of industrialization. Electricity, the automobile, skyscrapers, relativity, mechanised warfare, appliances - all confirmed that we were living in an age that had no parallel before it. And that required a design language that broke with the past and embraced new forms of production, new materials and above all else - rejection of everything that came before it.
The Eiffel Tower was arguably the first Modern monument. Designed by Gustave Eiffel to be the centerpiece of the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, it was a marvel of engineering and construction of the kind that the world had never seen. At a time when steel production was only just beginning to ramp up thanks to the Bessemer process, it was one of the earliest architectural attempts at revisiting how structures were constructed using the metal. It prompted wonder and disgust in equal measure.
Parisian critics in particular were scathing in their observations: Where was the ornamentation? The gargoyles? The carvings? And what was its purpose? It was not a museum. It was not a church. It was not a place to live. It was "an odious column of bolted metal". Despite the initial criticism, the Eiffel Tower grew to be one of the modern wonders of the world and continues to evoke wonder among those who visit.
Shortly after 1889, Louis Sullivan, the American architect, is credited with articulating what became the foundational philosophy of Modernism: Form follows function.
Three simple words became the rallying cry of modernists everywhere, eager to revolutionize design and architecture. And revolutionize is the right word. Because these three words might as well have been the "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" of the Modernist age, in terms of the impact they've had on how we lived in and interacted with the world around us ever since.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York (designed by Louis Sullivan's mentee Frank Lloyd Wright) is perhaps the best representation of the philosophy. Visitors start at the top and walk down in a continuous spiral designed to mimic the art viewing experience. Architectural form, following function.
The challenge of course in applying the maxim of “form follows function” is its inherent contradiction in applying it to product design. Core principles of product marketing such as planned obsolescence and differentiation would be at risk if simplicity and substitutability became buzzwords instead. As Frank Lloyd Wright himself said, “'Form follows function' is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one.”
Despite the inherent contradictions, the wave of Modernism swept the creative scene with a force never seen before. Art, Philosophy, Architecture, Design - none were immune to the forces of Modernism willing to challenge every precedent with a simple question - Why?
And in many ways the Mart Stam cantilever chair is the definitive design of the Modernist movement. Why must a chair have four legs? Why must it be made of wood? Why can't it be instead a single metallic tube moulded to support a seat?
American Industrial Design
If modernism prioritized function over form, it can be reasonably said of American Industrial Design that its main objective was to prioritize sales. At the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, demand for new consumer goods had essentially dried up. High unemployment and stagnant wages meant disposable income was low and there was no “need” to buy anything new. In such a stagnant and oppressive environment, Raymond Loewy first hit upon the underlying concepts of American Industrial Design.
"For American designers the conception of aesthetics consists of a beautiful sales curve, shooting upward" - Raymond Loewy
Loewy understood that in such depressing times, consumers had to be motivated to make a purely discretionary purchase and this motivation needed to not only alleviate the pains of the grinding Depression of the moment but make her feel she was making an investment in a better future.
Gone were the straight lines and functionalist ideals of Modernism and it was replaced with sensuous futuristic curves that signified prosperity, growth and a way of living previously unknown. Why does a toaster need to be aerodynamic and streamlined? Well if it is from the future it does.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing through the 40s, Loewy designed many iconic products that painted a vision of the future to American consumers. Among the iconic designs were the Pennsylvania Railroad S1 locomotive and the Sears Coldspot refrigerator. The Coldspot refrigerator not only introduced the trademark aerodynamic styling associated with Loewy into the kitchen, but also introduced practical innovations that improved the product’s serviceability and maintenance. In the year of its launch, Coldspot sales soared 300 percent. A beautiful sales curve Loewy undoubtedly approved of.
By the time the 1950s came around, American Industrial Design had entered its peak. The post-War boom years released a wave of pent-up consumption and for designers there were previously unparalleled opportunities to design and create products that not just catered to niche markets and well-to-do clientele but a new mass market that wanted, and more importantly, could afford luxury. The term 'populuxe' is sometimes used to describe popular American Industrial Design in the 1950s represented by the Herman Miller ball clock. The term simultaneously conveyed the ideas of popular luxury or luxury for all as a precursor to affordable luxury movement of today.
American Industrial Design did not just break with Modernism in that form did not follow function or in the use of synthetic plastics or colors. Instead it represented a refined aesthetic where the things you have did not "just" let you live well but instead, the things you have allow you to live in a way that you have never lived before.
At the height of Modernism and the American Industrial Design movement, Jay Doblin (the influential mid-century designer who went on to start the design consultancy Doblin, that is today a part of Deloitte) asked, "How do we make it more human"?
Postmodernism in industrial design tried to fight back against the pervasive influence of functionalism by introducing elements of wit, irony and whimsical in everyday objects.
The cold lines of Modernism may have been futuristic but did not ultimately satisfy the very human interest in the grand, the humorous, the graphic and the disgusting.
The desire to make something that was more human is what probably drove Michael Graves to design the iconic 9093 kettle (popularly known as the ‘Alessi Kettle’) in 1985. It retained many of the clean lines and stainless steel outfittings of Modernist design but the flourish of blue and the addition of the bird on the spout which whistles when the water boils, clearly break with Modernist functionalism and were key to establishing the kettle as a postmodern design icon.
As Postmodernist principles have percolated through art, architecture, fashion and literature, it can be seen in retrospect as the approach that reinvigorated the dying idea of desire in consumption.
An object of desire is not in demand just for its functionality. Nobody wants a Craig Green Moncler coat because it is any warmer than a down parka. Yet, the reductive approach of Modernism to distill everything to nothing but the essentials meant that consumer products needed a new language to communicate value that was more than purely functional. Postmodernism is that language.
Yet, the philosophy of Postmodernism and the relativistic interpretations it spawns has led to criticism from various quarters including from the very designers, architects and writers it was meant to help by liberating them from functionalist straightjackets. The architecture critic Martin Filler notes that “Postmodernism came nowhere close in quality to Modernism at its apogee, not least because that later style wholly lacked the social impetus that animated the designs most emblematic of the Modern Movement.”. The primary criticism of Postmodernism stems from its apparent vacuousness and lack of a coherent underpinning principle. In some ways, anything could be called Postmodern.
“This is the postmodern desert inhabited by people who are, in effect, consuming themselves in the form of images and abstractions through which their desires, sense of identity, and memories are replicated and then sold back to them as products” - Larry McCaffrey
But beyond criticism of its social impact and lack of apparent cohesion lies a more fundamental criticism of Postmodernism.
If Classical Victorian design prioritized ornamentation over practicality, Modernism reduced form to its core functional elements, and Postmodernism elevates style to the same level as functionality, we must ask: can a distinctive new style ever truly emerge in the future? Is Postmodernism the twilight zone for the evolution of design where form and functionality have converged to enable multiple interpretations? And in the myriad abstract shapes and forms of Postmodernism, can everything said to be Postmodern? Thus negating the philosophical foundation of any future trend?
It will take a true design icon to emerge from the philosophical vortex of Postmodernism and assert a new path.
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