Modernism in Design

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The advent of the machine in the nineteenth-century was to have such revolutionary significance that the subsequent years can legitimately be termed the Machine Age. Among the great number of cultural changes engendered by this new era was the installatio

The advent of the machine in the nineteenth-century was to have such revolutionary significance that the subsequent years can legitimately be termed the Machine Age. Among the great number of cultural changes engendered by this new era was the installation of a machine aesthetic in the fields of architecture and design. This was of central importance to the Modern Movement as it provided a means by which its practitioners could engage with what they regarded as the spirit of the age. The machine aesthetic can be discerned in the work of each major figure of the Modernist pantheon, it therefore conditioned the entire range of Modernist activity.

Despite this uniformity, the reasons why individual Modernists employed the aesthetic varied greatly, and to conclude that they did so only to evoke the current zeitgeist would hardly seem satisfactory. Instead, the aim of this essay is to analyse the various uses made of the machine aesthetic in order to determine why it was so central to Modernist theory and practice. Since the particular character of the aesthetic varied according to the nature of the interest in it (e.g. political, economic), the reasons for its use are fundamental to any understanding of Modernism.

Firstly, the idea that Modernism embraced the machine aesthetic in order to give tangible form to the spirit of the age, though not the sole motivation behind Modernist activity, is valid in itself and deserves to be elaborated. The Industrial Revolution precipitated a series of immense changes which can be understood to have genuinely transformed the world. These include industrialisation, the rise of the metropolis, an accompanying decline in ruralism, and rapid technological progress. In being plundered for their natural resources, even Third World countries felt the impact of the new era.

For many these changes threatened to create an environment that was both alien and hostile to humanity and nature. In the cultural sphere, the nineteenth-century design reformers John Ruskin and William Morris attacked machine-production for undermining the craft skills and individuality of the worker. Since the machine usurped both tradition and individual endeavour, it would become impossible for the artist or craftsman to take pride in their work, and the consumer, in turn, would suffer the spiritual disadvantages of no longer living in an environment that had been lovingly crafted.1 As a countermeasure, Ruskin, Morris and others proposed a return to traditional craft processes and sources of inspiration that were primarily medieval.

In other sectors, this reactionary measure was felt to be unrealistically traditionalist. Since the machine was, as Ruskin and Morris had argued, inept at emulating traditional craft processes and designs, those who recognised that the machine was an indisputable reality were aware of the need to evolve a new aesthetic that it was suited to. This would re-establish a high standard of quality in design and ensure that designed goods were attuned to the age, rather than being hopelessly revivalist. One such figure was Adolph Loos, whose essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908) argued that applying decoration to a designed product was both uneconomical and criminal, because ultimately it resulted in the exploitation of the craftsman: ‘If I pay as much for a smooth box as for a decorated one, the difference in labour belongs to the worker.’2

Instead, the new aesthetic was to be derived from the new processes of mass production. The result was a simple, essentialist style that was based on geometry (especially the straight line and the right angle3). Geometry became a model, not only because geometrical forms were theoretically easier for the machine to execute, but also because of overtones that Plato, amongst others, had invested it with. In Plato’s philosophy, geometrical forms were beautiful because they were elements of the eternal and immutable ‘world of ideas’ that existed beyond material reality. This appealed to Modernists, whose works and writings revealed a desire to transcend the morass of temporary solutions and preoccupation with styles that had characterised nineteenth- century design. Paul Greehalgh has written, ‘In the way that Plato sought to replace the Heraclitean flux he found all around him with an Order based on rational, eternal ideals, the Modernists hoped to create a new world from the disastrous mélange of the old.’4 The aim of Modernism was to achieve the ideal solutions to each design problem in works that would be styleless, timeless and possess the same purity and clarity as geometry.

To some extent, this simultaneous striving for eternally valid forms and the desire to embody the prevailing zeitgeist is an example of the many contradictions fundamental to Modernist theory. On the other hand, Christopher Crouch has shown how the use of geometry relates back to the machine aesthetic and the spirit of the age: ‘The language of geometry was seen as totally appropriate to the new machine age . . . Machine-led production was seen as possessing a sort of clarity and purity of form,’5 in the same manner as geometry.

Given the widespread belief that the machine symbolised the new century, it was perhaps inevitable that certain Modernists should embrace it entirely for its own sake - purely as a metaphor, and with no concern for its practical applications. To some extent at least, this tends to be the case for most canonical Modernists, but this approach is exemplified by the Italian Futurist movement.

Led by the poet F. T. Marinetti, these professed to be opposed to ‘all that is old and worm eaten’6 in both art and society. Their work therefore had a dual purpose: to refute moribund traditions, and to create a new art that would encapsulate the mental and environmental changes of modernity. In Marinetti’s words, ‘Nothing in the world is more beautiful than a great, humming power station … synthesised in control panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.’7

These intentions were propagated by a series of aggressively worded manifestos that openly celebrated the various ‘miracles of contemporary life,’8 such as industrialisation, the dynamism of the city and scientific progress. In this last field, new discoveries about x-rays and the persistence of vision inspired a new way of perceiving the world, which found expression in their concept of ‘universal dynamism’ as the defining reality of the age. Objects were no longer considered in spatial and temporal isolation, but were integrated with each other and their environment in dynamic interpenetrations suggesting speed and energy. In Umberto Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House, universal dynamism is expressed in the use of web-like diagonal lines of force and plastic forms which seek to engage the spectator in their violence and confusion. The merging, protean forms and splintered vectors replicate the effects of the fast-paced, rapidly evolving Machine Age.

As this brief analysis indicates, Futurism was primarily a literary and artistic movement. It was characteristic of its paradoxical nature that a movement initiated as a response to the changing environment should possess no means of expression in the art form that most directly conditioned the environment - architecture. This was the case until 1914, five years after the publication of the first Manifesto, when Marinetti was finally able to welcome Antonio Sant’ Elia into the ranks.

Sant’ Elia recognised the metropolis as the environment of the new age, and accordingly pioneered designs that were replete with intimations of the machine aesthetic. In Sant’ Elia’s Messagio (1914), Marinetti wrote: ‘We must invent and rebuild ex novo our modern city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard . . . mobile and everywhere dynamic, and the modern building like a gigantic machine.’9 Such lofty intentions are evident in Sant’ Elia’s designs: his perspectives for La Città Nuova (1914) emphasise the geometry and verticality of his vision by juxtaposing stepped-back sections with sheer verticals. The interaction of diagonals and verticals this produces invests his works with the same energy and dynamism to be found in exemplary Futurist paintings. In addition, his buildings are frequently surmounted by features resembling industrial chimneys or radio masts (e.g. Casa gradinata con ascensori,1914), thus making perhaps slightly picturesque use of an iconography derived from machines.

This is compounded by his device of incorporating tramlines and roads into buildings, in a way that always enlivens the design and suggests that they are used primarily for visual rather than practical effect. These, and his trademark external elevators and interconnecting bridges constitute an architecture, which, as Penny Sparke has written, ‘proselytises a cult of the machine,’10 that celebrated the excitement of machinery, speed and even war. The lack of substantiation in reality is indicated by the fact that Sant’ Elia built only one house in the course of his entire, admittedly short, career. This is partly due to the fact that his vision far exceeded the technological capabilities of the day.

In other words, Futurism’s interest in the machine aesthetic arose from a naïve and romantic celebration of the machine for its qualities of energy and dynamism. The machine was therefore valued solely for the expressive potential it offered. Since they failed to grasp its practical aspects the Futurists neglected to adapt their aesthetic to technological limitations. For this reason Sant’ Elia’s designs remained on the drawing board.

A deeper engagement with the realities of the machine was demonstrated by those who embraced the concept of ‘functionalism’. This idea played a significant role in most forms of Modernist design and theory. The central contention was that the form of an object should be dictated by its function. The Bauhaus, for example, aimed to ‘derive the design of an object from its natural functions and relationships,’11 so that they could be used effectively and were rationally related to each other.

Of course, the pursuit of functionalism complemented the Modernists’ aim to arrive at ideal design solutions – unless objects fulfilled their purpose they could scarcely be ideal. This led to the notion that a designed object could be beautiful if, and only if, it functioned perfectly. Function therefore replaced appearance as the prime criterion of aesthetic quality. Artistic embellishment was eschewed in favour of clear form that both expressed its purpose and ensured that this purpose was fulfilled. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, in their discussion of ‘European functionalist’ architects (i.e. canonical Modernists), wrote that, ‘If a building provides adequately, completely and without compromise for its purpose, it is then a good building, regardless of its appearance.’12

Justification of this somewhat radical view was found in the machine. Since the machine’s appearance was derived entirely from its function it was both morally and economically admirable, which made it beautiful. Karl Ewald’s text The Beauty of Machines (1925-6) contained the axiom, ‘A good modern machine is … an object of the highest aesthetic value – we are aware of that’.13 For evidence of this the Modernists looked to the USA, where an unselfconscious functionalism had been put into practice by pioneers like Samuel Colt and, in particular, Henry Ford. Ford brought the concept of standardisation to his car plant, with results that were seen as almost miraculous. His moving assembly line system, which involved specialised stages of fabrication and interchangeable parts, had enabled him to dramatically increase car production. His success was such that industrialists and manufacturers across the world were adopting these methods. Theoretically, their goods were now readily available and continually depreciating in price, even as profits soared. Paul Greenhalgh has observed that Modernists recognised the need to embrace technology for these reasons of economy and availability. It was the means by which Modernism could be promoted worldwide. In addition, the standardisation advocated by Ford would facilitate rapid construction and maintenance.14  Therefore, the example of Ford and others encouraged the Modernists to view the machine as the absolute ideal of functionalism. This can be confirmed by reference to Le Corbusier.

Much of Le Corbusier’s manifesto Vers une architecture (1923) is dedicated to promoting the architectural virtues of the machine. His famous declaration, ‘The house is a machine for living in,’15 often misunderstood, meant that the guiding principle for architects should be to make the house as well suited to its purpose as was a machine. This reiterated the argument that functionalism was more important than appearance. In order to progress, he believed, it was necessary for architects to abandon the notion of traditional styles and decorative effects: ‘Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’…[they are] sometimes pretty, though not always; and never anything more.’16 This implies that he saw the aesthetic, not as just another style, but as the very substance of architecture. Instead, he drew parallels between architecture and the ‘Engineer’s Aesthetic’, arguing that engineers were to be praised for their use of functionalism and mathematical order. As a consequence, architects were encouraged to emulate engineers and adopt these principles in order to attain harmony and logic in their designs. To reinforce this argument the illustrations of Vers une architecture celebrated the functional and architectural unity of Canadian grain stores, ships, aeroplanes and automobiles.

From a present day perspective his principles are better illuminated by his architecture, since these illustrations (e.g. the Caproni Triple hydroplane) seem rather archaic. The Maison Dom-Ino (1915) was an early example of his Engineer’s Aesthetic: three identical planes are suspended above each other by steel columns, a method of construction that frees the walls of their load-bearing purpose, and allows his concept of the ‘free façade’ to be introduced. An external staircase communicates between each level, and its location permits an unprecedented space and clarity in the plan. The components were all to be standardised and pre-fabricated, which would allow for rapid construction. This house was therefore a product of Le Corbusier’s intention to apply the principles of mechanical mass production to domestic architecture.

However, a substantial body of criticism (e.g. Greenhalgh, Sparke) has argued that this functionalism of Modernist theory was not based in reality. The machine aesthetic remained just that, as few of the designs were capable of being standardised. For example, the Grand Comfort chair by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand was neither functional nor standardised. It required no less than eighteen welds and three materials, making it expensive and capable of production only by craftsmanship. Le Corbusier’s pavilion L’Esprit Nouveau featured door handles supposedly derived from car or aeroplane handles. These were not standardised but had to be made individually.

At the Bauhaus, Marianne Brandt’s tea service (1928/30) embodies the machine aesthetic with its geometrical, angular forms, but, again, these features made it unsuited to machine production. For this reason, virtually no products of Modernism were mass-produced, at least until the style was modified and practised on an international level in what became known as the International Style. For the pioneer phase, mass production remained a metaphor that could not yet be emulated.17

A further dimension which has not yet been discussed is the political function of the machine aesthetic. This was hinted at in Loos’ belief that it alleviated the subjection of the worker, but here the emphasis was on the labour-saving potential of the machine. Loos celebrated the aesthetic because, theoretically, it reduced the hours of labour required of the worker by eschewing unnecessary ornament. This line of reasoning even occurs in the theories of the politically ambivalent Le Corbusier, whose Freehold Maisonettes of 1922 used mechanical appliances and ‘good organisation’ derived from machines to reduce the need for human labour, and thus alleviate the workloads of servants.18 It did not necessarily follow in either case, however, that the machine could serve as an instrument for social liberation.

This possibility was not fully explored until the influence of Modernism had spread and produced a diversity of practitioners. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a master and later principal of the Bauhaus, was one such figure. As a Constructivist (see page11) Moholy-Nagy was naturally more receptive to the ethic of geometry, structure and function than was Johannes Itten, his predecessor on the Bauhaus foundation course. Itten had been dismissed by Gropius, who had grown dissatisfied with the former’s mysticism and interest in Mazdaznan. To the increasingly machine-orientated Bauhaus Moholy-Nagy imparted his belief that the machine was inextricably linked with socialism because it was an absolute. He wrote: ‘Before the machine, everyone is equal – I can use it, so can you . . . There is no tradition in technology, no consciousness of class or standing. Everybody can be the machine’s master or slave.’19

This belief was widespread amongst Modernists, with Theo Van Doesburg being another notable exponent. Van Doesburg lauded the machine as a medium of social liberation, and denied that handicraft possessed this capability, since handicraft, ‘under the supremacy of materialism,’20 reduced men to the level of machines. But as Charles Jencks has observed, Van Doesburg’s enthusiasm for the machine went beyond its labour-saving potential, it was also based upon its ‘universalising, abstract quality.’21 In Jencks’ synopsis, the machine’s impersonality enforces equality between its users, which in art would lead to the universal and the abstract. The result would be the realisation of a collective style that was universally valid and comprehensible, based as it was upon the abstract forms of the machine.

Paul Greenhalgh suggests that such an internationalism was central to Modernists’ theory and was an inevitable condition of their quest for a ‘universal human consciousness.’22 In order to achieve this, national boundaries had to be disposed of, as well as those between disciplines (such as fine art and design) and political classes. Greenhalgh confirms that the abstract, geometrical aesthetic appealed to Modernists because it could be used as a common language through which different nationalities could arrive at uniform solutions, thereby dissolving national boundaries. ‘In its exclusion per se of language, abstraction was the aesthetic which enabled the ethic, internationalism, to be realised.’23

Though he does not use the term, the aesthetic Greenhalgh refers to is that of the machine, since it is derived from and (theoretically) tailored for machine production. I would therefore argue that Modernists associated the aesthetic with internationalism, not only because of its abstract quality, but also because its origins in the machine imbued it with the universal quality that Moholy-Nagy and Van Doesburg recognised in this source.

The practical use of the machine aesthetic’s political function is best illustrated by the Russian Constructivist movement. It is perhaps surprising that an aesthetic deriving from the machine - the foundation of capitalism - could flourish in the political climate following the Communist revolution. Loos’ idea of the machine as labour-saving device was, of course, central in resolving this dilemma, as was the social liberation and classnessness revealed by Van Doesburg and Moholy-Nagy. Also instrumental, no doubt, was the fact that, in this era, Russia was still largely a rural, peasant country possessing no heavy industry. The negative aspects of the machine would therefore have been less obvious than the myths of its glorious effects.

In this climate of rural poverty and political fervour, the machine seemed capable of transforming society, and the aesthetic became the perfect metaphor for revolution and nation-wide progress. Since this made the aesthetic an invaluable resource for Communist propaganda, many of the leading designers were commissioned to create works that mythologised the revolution. For example, Kotscherguin contributed a Communist poster to an issue of The Red Worker in 1920. Here, an army of revolutionaries is matching with red banners held aloft. The skyline is composed entirely of the dynamic shapes of factories, while the vast sun is drawn as a whirring cog. Penny Sparke has observed the widespread use of the cog and wheel as ‘graphic icons to suggest how the machine would transform society.’24 Further examples include Vavara Stepanova’s dynamic textile and clothing designs, such as those completed for LEF magazine in 1923. In the same issue, her husband Rodchenko exhibited logo designs which invoked the iconography of airplanes.

The propaganda function was soon recognised by the government, and agencies were set up to cultivate it. Proletkult, or the Organisation for Proletarian Culture, had been founded in 1906. Now, in the post-revolutionary era, Constructivists were recruited to create the Agit-Prop propaganda trains and boats that toured the country. These were adorned with Modernist graphic design that could spread the revolutionary message to Russia’s largely illiterate population.

Significantly, this situation did not only involve the government manipulating design to its own ends; many of the artists and designers were equally committed to the idea that they could serve the new society. The Constructivist movement was so named because its members saw it as their task to ‘construct’ the environment for a new society in the same way that engineers constructed bridges and so on.25 Proletkult promoted the unity of science, industry, and art: Vladimir Tatlin, for example, believed design was linked to engineering, and saw the designer as an anonymous worker building for society.26 Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-20) reflects this ethos.

This projection for a 400m tall tower (only a scaled-down model was built) clearly represents the union of art and construction – its sculptural form of two intertwining spirals and a soaring diagonal component is rendered in a lattice construction suggestive of engineering. As well as resembling a machine, the tower actually functioned as one: it featured four transparent volumes that rotated at different speeds (yearly, monthly, daily and hourly). These were intended to house government offices for legislation, administration, information and cinematic projection.

It should be pointed out that none of these reasons for interest in the machine aesthetic were mutually exclusive, and individual Modernists did not adhere to it for any single reason. Each partook, to some extent, of most of them. The enthusiasm of the European Functionalists also involved the political interest observed in Constructivism. At the same time, an element of the Futurists’ romantic fascination can be detected in the thinking of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and all those for whom mass production remained out of reach.

In conclusion, as case after case demonstrates, the Modernists’ enthusiasm for the machine aesthetic continued to be of an ideological rather than a practical nature. The machine was embraced as an idea by designers who failed to grasp the realities of mass production. Since their aesthetic was therefore inspired by the machine but not adapted to it, in many cases this actually impeded its realisation. This is highlighted by the examples of Futurism, Constructivism and even aspects of the Bauhaus, where numerous schemes could not be put into practice.  However, the importance of the machine aesthetic within Modernism should not be underestimated; it was practised so widely, indeed constituted an International Style, precisely because it was deemed to be the ideal and most logical way of realising the central tenets upon which Modernism was founded. These included truth, internationalism, function, attunement with the age, and so on. The belief that the aesthetic was universally valid is reflected by the great variety of uses to which it was applied, such as Utopian, political, economic etc. For this reason it is no exaggeration to say that, for the Modernists, it was not a question of aesthetics at all, but of a Machine Ethic.


1. Frank Whitford Bauhaus p16

2. Adolph Loos quoted in Frank Whitford, Bauhaus p20

3. Christopher Crouch Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture p66

4. Paul Greenhalgh Modernism in Design p15

5. Christopher Crouch Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture p66

6. Marinetti quoted in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism p31

7. Marinetti quoted in Kenneth Frampton Modern Architecture: A Critical History p86

8. Marinetti quoted in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism p32

9. Marinetti quoted in Kenneth Frampton Modern Architecture: A Critical History p87

10. Penny Sparke Design Source Book p74

11. Paul Greenhalgh Modernism in Design p10

12. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson The International Style p36

13. Karl Ewald quoted in Paul Greenhalgh, Modernism in Design p11

14. Paul Greenhalgh Modernism in Design p11

15. Le Corbusier Towards a New Architecture p95

16. Ibid. p37

17. Paul Greenhalgh Modernism in Design p11

18. Charles Jencks Modern Movements in Architecture p35

19. Moholy-Nagy quoted in Christopher Crouch, Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture p69

20. Van Doesburg quoted in Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture p33

21. Ibid. p33

22. Paul Greenhalgh Modernism in Design p12

23. Ibid. p13

24. Penny Sparke Design Source Book p75

25. Ibid. p90

26. Ibid. p91


Le Corbusier Towards a New Architecture (2000, Architectural Press, Oxford. Translated by Frederick Etchells)

Crouch, Christopher Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture (1999, MacMillan Press Ltd. Hampshire)

Frampton, Kenneth Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1992, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London)

Greenhalgh, Paul (ed.) Modernism in Design (1990, Reaktion Books Ltd. London)

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Johnson, Philip The International Style(1966, W.W. Norton and Company, New York)

Jencks, Charles Modern Movements in Architecture (1973, Ancor Books, New York)

Pevsner, Nikolaus Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (1991, Penguin, London)

Sparke, Penny Design Source Book (First published in 1986 by Macdonald & Co Ltd, London)

Tisdall, Caroline and Bozzolla, Angelo Futurism (First published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1977)

Whitford, Frank Bauhaus ( 1994, Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London)

Woodham, Jonathan M. Twentieth-Century Design (First published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997)

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