We’re finally here, so it would be very hard for me to believe that you haven’t read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three (though it’s totally O.K. if you skipped directly to the mid-century modernist part).
When we left Part Three we mentioned that you should check out the history of the Deutscher Werkbund, one of the most important associations of craftsmen not only in Europe, but the entire world.
It was established in Munich in 1907 after a guy named Joseph Maria Olbrich joined the Darmstadt’s Artists Colony, where he met and worked with another guy that you might already know, called Peter Behrens.
The conflict between industrialization and art in Germany was becoming a little bit too much, at least according to those guys. However, instead of fighting against it, they proposed a truce: a way to bring together the joys of mass production and true artistry.
This was the main ideal behind the Deutscher Werkbund, and it worked. Most of the guys at the DW were very familiar with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and their continued work helped to usher in a new era in furniture design: the modern era.
There’s also another important component to the early works of the Werkbund, and that’s nationalism. The DW artists wanted to showcase, build, and export true German art and furniture. However, please let me clarify that these guys weren’t necessarily Nazis. This was some years before that. Different situation.
While the people at the Werkbund were hard at work under the patronage of German maecenas Ernst Ludwig Karl Albrecht Wilhelm, better known as the Grand Duke of Hesse, other thinkers at the time had some different ideas.
German philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff introduced the concept of Gesamkunstwerk (or “complete work of art”) in 1827: the notion of a piece of art that makes use of every conceivable aspect of artisanship and artistry, becoming virtually perfect in the eyes of the beholder.
Some people outside of the Werkbund were a little enamored with the idea of Gesamkunstwerk, and they felt like they had to do things a little bit differently. One of them was an aspiring German architect who could not draw a building to save his life, a young WWI veteran called Walter Gropius.
Gropius had to rely on other people to help him throughout his entire career as an architect and a designer, but his talent was recognized everywhere in Germany. After decades of study and hard work he was invited to be the director of the prestigious Grand-Ducal Saxon School for Fine Arts, created by another wealthy German maecenas in 1910.
Gropius accepted, but he then proceeded to merge the school with another one, and created a brand new institution, a house for building things, a building house. He then gave that school a one-word name that would transcend the boundaries of art and architecture, becoming a concept in and of itself. He named it The Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus functioned in Weimar from 1919 until 1925, and then it was relocated to Dessau and ultimately Berlin. I’d like to talk about it at length, but since it turned 100 years old this year, we already did a three part series on it that you should check out if you want to learn more. I’ll leave it alone for the time being and move on to Art Deco.
While Germany was occupied with their own modernist way of doing things, some people in France put together the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, or the International Exhibition of Decorative and Modern Industrial Arts.
Unlike the people at the Bauhaus and the DW, these guys were all about luxury and fine art, and they created a brand new style that would simply be called Art Deco (short for decorative art). Their ideals were also a little bit nationalist, partly because they were mad at the Germans for making affordable commodities that France then chose to import.
Art Deco was extremely… Well… Artsy. It was full of bright colors and exaggerated ornamentation, and lots of people in France loved it. It was also very tied to the classics, like a sort of Art Nouveau on ecstasy.
Art Deco started as an artistic retaliation towards the teachings of Cubism (you might have heard of it) which rejected Art Nouveau itself and advocated for a more symmetrical and tame way of doing things.
It was Cubism’s influence, however, what solidified Art Deco as a style, and it quickly went international. You can even see traces of it in many American skyscrapers, like the Chrysler building and the Empire State.
The style started to die down in the 1940s, after it came in contact with the sleeker modernist practices that the Bauhaus was championing. It couldn’t keep up with the times and was quickly surpassed (in architecture) by a new movement called the International Style.
The International Style favored symmetry, functionality, sleekness, and modularity. It rejected the elitism found in Art Deco, looking to bring everything together (yet again) in an accessible package.
The guys from the International Style eventually became the MVPs of architecture, which resulted in (that side of) modernism taking over the design world.
By the time this was happening Scandinavian furniture was becoming popular in Europe, as the Nordic peoples already had that sense of elegance and simplicity in them. Then World War II came along and it changed humanity for good.
Post-WWII years saw an increase in hungry mouths and displaced folks, so people had to come up with ways of building (and rebuilding) faster, better, and cheaper.
Bauhaus modernism became even more important because of that, and its influence in America became more apparent during the late 1950s, when many designers and manufacturers decided to adopt its qualities and turn it into a distinctive way of creating furniture, architecture, and art.
We currently refer to that distinctive way of doing things as Mid-century Modernism.
It’s been a wild ride. And I’m sure there’s a lot I omitted or left behind. For article length reasons I will leave it here for now. But I decided to do another series on the history of Mid-century Modernist furniture itself. Stick around and you might find it published sometime next week. Thank you very much for reading thus far. Cheers!