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Modernism - Working Document Working question - Did Modernism Fail? + What modernism was in this specific timeframe (Swiss Style and Brutalism)

+ Underlying principles / aims / what it set out to achieve

+ Where is succeed - Swiss Style

+ Where it failed - Elitist / not responding to needs / Brutalism

+ How it became postmodernism - altered to suit new styles - evolutionary vs. revolutionary

+ Uses today for graphic design - still taught

+ Relevance and application of principles / aims etc. in today’s design practice

1. Intro Introduction into what the essay will cover (see above)

2. Underlying principles / aims Modernism responded to very strong forces: the huge scale of growing and expanding cities, and the buildings and infrastructure they required for their expanded populations; the new materials and new technologies for building and construction that became available. Alongside these pragmatic adaptations to technological change and scientific advance, there were some large cultural changes.

When modernists thought of the city, they envisioned ideally an empty expanse of space on which a new conception of the city could be erected without the hindrances of the past.

Criticism of the nineteenth century bourgeois social order and its world view.

Josef Müller Brockmann - Grid Systems in Graphic Design- pg. 10:

‘the expression of a certain mental attitude inasmuch as it shows that the designer conceives his work in terms that are constructive and oriented to the future.’ ‘the designer’s work should have the clearly intelligible objective, functional and aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking’ ‘His work should thus be a contribution to general culture and itself form part of it.’ Tim Wyciskalla - The Utopian Failures of Modernism

‘Modernity can be described as transitory (ephemeral). It can also be described as having taken flight from the old world (fugitive). Lastly, modernism can be described as responsive and reliant on the times (contingent).

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.’


At the core of Modernism lay the idea the world had to be fundamentally rethought. The carnage of the First World War and the Russian Revolution led to widespread utopian fervour, a belief that the human condition could be healed by new approaches to art and design. Focusing on the most basic elements of daily life housing and furniture, domestic goods and clothes - architects and designers set out to reinvent these forms for a new century.

Many artists and architects were intoxicated by the endless possibilities offered by science and technology. They envisaged a world entirely recreated in terms of the machine: everything from clothing to architecture, music to theatre. The house could be a ‘machine for living in’ and the task of art was ‘not to adorn life but to organise it.’

During the years between the World Wars, Modernist design and art shared certain underlying principles: a rejection of decoration and applied ornament; a preference for abstraction; and a belief that design and technology could transform society.


Characterised by a deliberate rejection of the styles of the past: emphasising instead innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques in order to create artworks that better reflected modern society.

Although many different styles are encompassed by the term, there are certain underlying principles that define modernist art: a rejection of history and conservative values (such as realistic depiction of subjects); innovation and experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work) with a tendency to abstraction; and an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes. Modernism has also been driven by various social and political agendas. These were often utopian, and modernism was in general associated with ideal visions of human life and society and a belief in progress.

Modernism is associated with innovation and progress. Many modernist believed that by rejecting tradition and embracing new technology they could invent new ways of making art.

Despite the fact that early practitioner rejected consumerism, modernism has flourished in consumer / capitalist societies. Modernism even began to fuse with consumer culture during the 1960s. This merging of consumer and the original idea of modernism led to a radical transformation to of the meaning of ‘modernism.’ It seems that a movement based on the rejection of tradition has become a tradition of its own.

Unlike the artworks of the 19th Century, the modernist and postmodernist periods were composed of very revolutionary and transformed images. The ideas and opinions behind the images became more openminded and hence the images themselves were more flexible and avant-garde. The period of modernism saw the partial abandonment of conservative traditions. Modern artists looked ahead to the future and not the past, they supported freedom of expression and equality.

Ezra Pound, the godfather of twentieth-century modernism, whose injunction to “make it new!” became the mantra of the modernist movement.

It is the presumption that whatever is up-to-date is better than whatever is deemed to be out-of-date. At the root of this presumption is a belief that the present is superior to the past and that, by logical extension, the future will be better than the present.

To such prejudiced optimists, who prefer to call themselves progressives, the past is populated with barbarians and savages who should be condemned for their perceived ignorance, and treated with the contempt that such unenlightened untermenschen deserve. They are not ‘up-to-date’ and, as such, need not be seen as our equals.

When I think of modernism, I think of cutting edge, new, fresh, and original…

When I think of post-modernism, I think of all these things, but with also an added element of irony and/or deeper meaning such as a radical political statement, deconstruction of historical benchmarks, or socioeconomic commentary, not that modernism can’t contain these things, but I believe it’s more pronounced in postmodernism.

When it comes to Modernism, in a nutshell I can say it is a time in our history when traditional values began to change. Modernism attempted to rethink science, art, culture, ethics, philosophy and psychology. It attempted to find new or hidden meaning in the human experience and had to deal with coming to terms with new ideas.

Modernism is a term used in the aftermath of the 1st World War and the Russian Revolution in a period where the artistic avant-garde dreamed of a new world free from conflict, greed and social inequality.

At the core of modernism lay the idea that the world had to be fundamentally rethought. The carnage of the First World War led to widespread utopian fervour, a belief that the human condition could be healed by new approaches to art and design, more spiritual, more sensual, or more rational. Then it went on to say The Russian Revolution offered a model for an entirely new society.

Some commentators define modernism as a mode of thinking - one or more philosophically defined characteristics, like self-consciousness or self-reference, that run across all the novelties in the arts and the disciplines.

Modernist architects and designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, believed that new technology rendered old styles of buildings obsolete. Le Corbusier thought that buildings should function as ‘machines for living in’, analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for traveling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from Ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages, Following this machine aesthetic to emphasis the materials used and pure geometrical forms.

Paul Rand -

I haven't changed my mind about modernism from the first day I ever did it... It means integrity; it means honesty; it means the absence of sentimentality and the absence of nostalgia; it means simplicity; it means clarity. That's what modernism means to me. ‘Architecture must move with the times because it helps create the times.’ (Banham 1962)

Banham, R. (1975) Age of Masters. A Personal View of Modern Architecture. England, The Architectural Press Ltd.

‘If Academicism can be defined as yesterday’s answers to today’s problems, then obviously the objectives and aesthetics techniques of real architecture (or a real art) must be in constant change.’ (Smithson, A. and Smithson, P. 2011)

(Smithson, A. and Smithson, P. 1957)

Smithson, A and Smithson, P. (2011) The New Brutalism. Vol.136, p.37. Available at: stable/23014866 (accessed: 09-11-2017)

Smithson, A and Smithson, P. (1957) The New Brutalism. Vol.136, p.37. Available at: stable/23014866 (accessed: 09-11-2017)

‘we are for a design that lasts, that responds to people’s needs, and to people’s wants’ Vignelli (2010)

3. Successes There is also a direct influence from the constructivism, elementalism and minimalism movements in the Swiss Style artists. Minimal design is about removing the unnecessary and emphasising the necessary; its about a functional and simple use of fundamental elements os style for the purpose of the artist’s objectives.

This principle is one of the core reasons why Swiss Style graphic designers pay so much attention to type. Typeface is one of the most fundamental elements of visual communication that is able to deliver the message in a very precise, clear way.

According to the Swiss Movement, adding more elements without fully exploring the potential of the fundamental ones can be considered a ‘waste’. As these basic elements, like typography, have so much aesthetic potential, there’s rarely a need for other visual graphic elements.

Jan Tschichold - The New Typography - pg.12

‘Where no tradition existed, and where therefore there was the least amount of restraint on design, record progress was made’ Early modernism successfully captured the feeling of hope and faith in technology and the new emerging world that it grew from. There was a sense that the establishment could be challenged through art and new forms of thought, new ideas about reality were not only investigated through art but celebrated.

Modern art represents the aesthetic move into social equality. The modern artist rejected the glorification of art and the artist which the medievalist were accused of producing. Art was no longer a trade of the aristocracy but of the people.

Bauhaus for example used very specific typography and rules but more importantly analysed the specific roles of items to transmit information. It is interesting that modernism was also seen in German graphic design as some critics believe that World War 2 effectively drew an end to the true spirit of modernism.

Keeping in mind the social and political background of modernism, the actual graphical aspects of modernist design make sense. Modernist images were generally very symmetrical and alignment was very important. Images were structured and simplified; fonts were arranged in very specific manners to complement the images themselves. Fonts were generally simple such as sans serif or sometimes looked almost hand drawn. Also popular in modernist graphic design were the use of rules and empty space as components of the work’s structure.

The Utopian Failures of Modernism - pg.56

‘The modernists believed that the pre-modern world remained so stagnant because it believed it had reached the best possible situation, as it was waiting for the completion of salvation history. Modernity sought to help the situation by ending the stagnation and bringing about a new world order and culture.’

4. Failures Linda Hutcheon - The Politics of Postmodernism

‘The “elitism” of Dada and of Eliot’s verse is exactly what postmodernism paradoxically seeks to exploit and undercut.” pg. 182

‘It is not just the cry of rage of a minority of intellectuals who want to teach others how to live, and who celebrate their own solitude and separateness.” pg. 182

‘We could say that the langue of architecture is in some ways no different from the ordinary language: no single individual can alter it at his or her own will; it embodies certain culturally accepted values and meanings; it has to be learned in some detail by users before it can be employed effectively.’ pg. 183

‘The architecture of the 1970s and 1980s has been marked by a deliberate challenge to the conventions and underlying assumptions of that langue, but it is a self-conscious challenge offered from within those very conventions and assumptions.’ pg. 183

‘The social failure of the great modernist housing projects and the inevitable economic association of ‘heroic’ modernism with large corporations combined to create a demand for new architectural forms that would reflect a changed and changing social awareness.’ pg. 184

“No alterations, special orders, or loud talk from the clients permitted. We know best. We have exclusive possession of the true vision of the future of architecture.” Quoting Wolfe pg. 187

‘The clients - even if they did foot the bill - were still considered the “bourgeois” to be despised and, if possible, confounded by the architectural clerisy’s elitist, esoteric theories.’ pg. 187

‘it must have been tacitly assumed that the intellectually underdeveloped would allow the architects to arrange their lives for them.’ pg. 187

‘those so-called non-bourgeois concrete and glass skyscraper apartment buildings and hotels became the housing of the bourgeois - the only ones who afford to live there.’ pg. 187

‘One position is what George Baird has called that of the Gesamtkünstler who took for granted an ability to enhance the lives of the future tenants by dramatically heightening their experience of their environment. This position is one OVER and ABOVE them; the attitude is a paternalistic one towards the tenant/child. On the other hand, some modernists saw themselves as, in Baird’s terms, the “life conditioners.” Not ABOVE, but now OUTSIDE the experience of the tenant, the scientistic architect regarded the tenant as object and the building as an experiment.’ pg. 187

‘The lessons of the past were rejected in the name of this new brand of liberal elitism or idealistic paternalism.’ pg. 188

‘Although Le Corbusier saw himself as the apolitical technocrat, the ideological assumptions behind his aesthetic theories of purist rationality might be see to have played a role in his collaboration with the Vichy government and the failure, in practical terms, of his rather simplistic theory of social good through our form.’ pg. 188

‘The naiveté of modernism’s ideologically and aesthetically motivated rejection of the past (in the name of the future) is not counter here by the equally naive antiquarianism.’ pg. 192

‘What starts to look like naive is this reductive notion that any recall of the past must, by definition be sentimental nostalgia.’ pg. 192

‘To disregard the collective memory of architecture is to risk making the mistakes of modernism and its ideology of the myth of social reform through purity of structure.’ pg. 192

‘hermeticism of modernist intellectual and aesthetic elitism.’ pg. 200

‘Like all parody, postmodernist architecture can certainly be elitist, if the codes necessary for its comprehension are not shared by both encoder and decoder.’ pg. 200

Exploring brutalism’s identity crisis as an architectural movement: is it an ethic (as the Smithsons certainly claimed for it) or an aesthetic (as most architects/individuals quickly and almost exclusively ascribed it to)?

Modernism moved from being a social movement into an elite style, and part of appealing to the elites is being inaccessible to the rest.

Wealth and power were often distributed among the artistically ignorant, whose tastes more accurately reflected those of the public as a whole. Royals - from Napoleon III to Prince Charles - have been blessed by a lack of artistic training that helped their aesthetic judgements better match public sensibilities.

‘Probably the most general complaint, against modernist design has been that it has made everything look the same; it has suppressed difference.’ (Forty 1991) ‘what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ (HRH The Prince of Wales, 1984) ‘Virtually every strain of modernism has been plundered in the past two decades’ Meades (2014)

From a Cause to a style - Nathan Glazer ‘Both modernist architecture and modernist city planning had been very successful in Britain - as indeed they have been almost everywhere - in shaping new towns and rebuilding the centres of old cities and towns. But ordinary people often looked on the results with dismay. The prince’s interventions and criticisms received wide publicity, and were effective in derailing some high-profile projects by modernists architects.’ pg. 1 ‘They had been criticised before; but never by someone whose comments had such resonance in the public media’ pg. 1 ‘The architects, to their disgruntlement, were portrayed as arrogant, unresponsive to what ordinary people wanted, indifferent to their interests, as they pursued their own visions as to what was appropriate and suitably contemporary or advanced in the design of major structures and in the shaping of town and city.’ pg. 1 ‘Some of the architects who launched modernism were socialists, close to the movements of the working class. Modernism in architecture and planning spoke for the people and their interests…an urban environment adapted to their needs and interests - and against the interests of princes, or merchants princes, or profit-minded developers.’ pg. 2 ‘Something odd and unexpected seems to have happen to modernism in architecture and planning: it had broken free from its origins and moorings, drifted away from the world of the everyday life, which it had hoped to improve, into a world of its own. From a cause that intended to remake the world, it had become a style.’ pg. 2 ‘more and more people wondered whether what they had lost was matched by the new world being created by modernism.’ pg. 3 ‘less is bore’ pg. 4 ‘Why did so many buildings, specifically designed to meet the functions which those who were going to use the were going to perform, end being inhuman?’ pg. 6 ‘It represented a rebellion against historicism, ornament, overblown form, pandering to the great and rich and the newly rich as against serving the needs of society’s common people.” pg. 7 ‘Modernism called for “the machine for living”’ pg. 8 ‘the city was also to be a machine, in which all these forms of action were to be efficiently and directly accommodated.’ pg. 8

‘When modernists thought of the city, they envisioned ideally an empty expanse of space on which a new conception of the city could be erected without the hindrances of the past. And if that city already existed, the first step was to efface a large stretch of it.’ pg. 9

The Utopian Failures of Modernism ‘The fact that modernity is shaped by the changing world in which is exists and seeks to explain what is going on in society sheds considerable light on the subject. Modernism is both a rejection of the old world and a response to the turn-of-the-century Europe. Thus, it is contingent upon the politics and culture, and it can be explained through both.’ pg. 54 ‘Contingency is undoubtedly an excellent characteristic to give modernity. However, this was the very cause for modernity’s unstable nature and short lived dominance. pg. 55 ‘Granted that modernity did provide a much more receptive environment for scientific progress and development, its goal to elevate culture seems to have failed.’ pg. 56 The fact is that to be up-to-date today condemns us to being out-of-date tomorrow, or, as C.S. Lewis liked to say ‘fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going.’ To worship the spirit of our own age is to condemn ourselves for looking very silly to future ages. The test, therefore, is not to be in step with our own times but to be in step with all-times, the latter of which is to march in time with that which is always timely because it is perennially timeless. Josef Mueller-Brockmann - Making and Breaking the Grid pg. 10 ‘Constructive design which is capable of analysis and reproduction can influence and enhance the taste of society and he way it conceives forms and colours.’

‘Modernism, rebelling against the ornament of the 19th Century, limited the vocabulary of the designer. Modernism emphasised straight lines, eliminating the expressive S curve. This made it harder to communicate emotions through design.’ Eva Zeisel Some even argue that modernism in literature and art functioned to sustain an elite culture which excluded the majority of the population. ‘Modernism felt old and sad. I had seen so much of it that I was fed up.’ Paul A. Cantor quoting Odd Nerdrum. The importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum’s Challenge to Modernism.

5. Became Modernism Linda Hutcheon - The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History ‘postmodernism is a fundamentally contradictory enterprise: its art forms (and its theory) use and abuse, install and then subvert convention in parodic ways’ pg. 180 ‘the contradictions of modernism in an explicitly political light.’ pg. 181 ‘Just as modernism (oedipally) had to reject historicism and to pretend to a parthenogenetic birth fit for the new machine age, so postmodernism, in reaction, returned to history, to what I want to call “parody” to give architecture back its traditional social and historical dimension, though with a new twist this time.’ pg. 185 Hutcheon defines parody here as ‘repetition with critical distance that allows ironic singling of difference at the very heart of similarity…this parody paradoxically enacts both change and cultural continuity.’ pg. 185

“history proves that forms and models survive the type of power that produced them, and that their meaning changes in time according to the social use that is mage of them.” Hutcheon quoting Ibid pg. 188 ‘And such was indeed the case with the modernist premise which postmodernism used - but transformed.’ pg. 188 ‘he knows he cannot totally reject modernism, especially its material and technological advances, but he wants to integrate with these positive aspects of the immediate past the equally positive aspects of the more remote and repressed history of forms.” pg. 189 ‘Postmodernism attempts to be historically aware, hybrid, and inclusive; the architect’s new motto might be “responsibility and tolerance.” Hutcheon quoting Baird pg. 193 When I think of modernism, I think of cutting edge, new, fresh and original… When I think of postmodernism, I think of all these things, but with also an added element of irony and/or deeper meaning such as a radical political statement, deconstruction of historical benchmarks, or socioeconomic commentary, not that modernism can’t contain these things, but I believe it is more pronounced in postmodernism. Some consider postmodernism to be a movement against modernism. While modernism was more pure, rational and truthful postmodernism was more chaotic and stylised, it no longer had such deep meaning behind the designs. Postmodernism uses symbols, images and typography as simple stylistic devices. Unlike the structural and simple modernist designs, postmodernism design is obsessed with with style and creativity, basically looks. The technical aspects of postmodernist graphic design were very different from those of modernist design despite having some similarities. Postmodernist design included collages, photography, some hand-drawn images, and in general more chaotic and improvised arrangements. The postmodernism period also witnessed the dawn of a new age. The developments, particularly in communications also brought forth the possibilities of mass media and culture. Graphic designers were now able to apply their craft to television, radio, print, mass marketing, advertising and eventually the internet.

6. Modernism Today Graphic Design For… by Andy Cooke Peter Chadwick ‘People in general the world over react to ever changing trends and often align themselves to the hottest or coolest brands. It is important for me as a designer to both acknowledge these in the form of reference and mood boards during design development and then to look ahead in order to create something that goes beyond a current passing trend’ pg. 113 ‘While it is important to be aware of the zeitgeist, trends come and go very quickly. It is risky to relay visually on what is happening right now. You should be looking ahead , be aware of now and delve into successes of the past for new creative clues.’ pg. 115 ‘I see the role of graphic design as one the needs to consistently evolve while supplying solid foundations within a given creative process.’ pg. 115

Clara Goodger ‘There are layers of meaning (to good design) that we’ve come to understand over years and years of cultural conditioning, and there’s a responsibility to communicate this to whoever your client is.” pg. 147 ‘To be a designer means you have to be curious about the world around you. It’s a huge source of inspiration for me to see how other people work. Bruno Munari has a great motto to live by: ‘Let us get used to looking at the world through the eyes of others’.’ pg. 151

Ben Crick ‘If you’re overly response to the design domain, you will end up doing lookalike work and your own voice can get lost.’ pg 170 ‘The true value of graphic design is not just aesthetics, but insight and the creation of meaning.’ pg. 170

Andreas Friberg Lundgren ‘The basic principles stay roughly the same but the circumstances change, and as result graphic design must remain in a state of constant adaptation.” pg. 25 Many aspects of modernist design still persist within the mainstream of contemporary architecture, though previous dogmatism has given way to a more playful use of decoration, historical quotation, and spatial drama. Modernism has survived for all this time and still remains a powerful force of the design world of today. I prefer modernist design only because of the outcome of a particular design, I guess I am attracted to the way they are composed together and in order, I generally like the fact that I need to work towards some sort of order/grid/rule but only to a certain extent.

Linda Hutcheon - The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History ‘The act of designing and building is an unavoidably social act.’ pg. 180

7. Conclusion Did modernism fail?

New cop 2 working document modernism  
New cop 2 working document modernism