The History of Modern Design

The article gives an overview of design in an historical, cultural and technological context. It covers a wide range of subjects that relate to design and designing from the designers' perspective. This background is an important basis for understanding t

The article gives an overview of design in an historical, cultural and technological context. It covers a wide range of subjects that relate to design and designing from the designers' perspective. This background is an important basis for understanding the practice of design within a social and cultural context.

A general survey of the historical development of architecture and design in the twentieth century should include:

The phenomenon of stylistic revivalism in architecture and design from the late 19th century to the present. Victorian Design is often characterised as having no style of its own. The styles of earlier periods were married with wider ideas on nationhood and industrialisation to produce 'High Victorian Design'. Why have designers continued to engage in dialogues with the past? How have representations of the past been used to structure national identity?

The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the spread of industrialisation and the division of labour inherent in the factory system. As much a social as a design movement, it sought to revive traditional craftsmanship and skills, while at the same time evolving principles of good design such as fitness for purpose and truth-to-materials. The Arts and Crafts movement contrasted with Art Nouveau, a fin de siècle style that pervaded architecture and interior design in Europe.

The role of technology was crucial within the development of architectural design during the 20th century. As architects and designers came to terms with industrialisation and urbanisation, how were images of technology and the machine used in design?

Modernism embraced concepts of the machine and design for mass production. It represents the culmination of the proceeding century and a half of aesthetic, cultural and social development. The removal of ornamentation and the rationalisation of structure in pursuit of the ‘type-form’ became a revolution in architecture and design.

Art Deco was a modern style that drew on a range of historical and contemporaneous influences. Self-consciously modern, luxurious and exotic, this style became emblematic of the ‘Jazz Age’. Art Deco designers created pieces using the finest materials, highly skilled craftspeople and time-consuming processes to produce ‘the finest furniture in the world.’ Art Deco became a hugely popular and mass-produced style which provided a glamorised visual language for cinemas, advertising and electrical products.

The forces of consumerism and Americanisation transformed the domestic interior and the face of corporate capitalism. American design of the 1930s and 50s were dominated by industrial designers like Loewy, Bel Geddes and others. Engaging with styling as a means of increasing desirability, streamlining became the symbolic language of American modernity.

Emerging from the ‘Age of Austerity,’ post-war British designers created products that were charged with optimism for the future. Various approaches to post-war reconstruction were carried out within the ideology of the Welfare State, and design for a newly-affluent consumer society.

In the 1970s cultural theorists began to sense that the Modernist project had been replaced with something else, an evasive and protean phenomenon that came to be known as postmodernism. Can postmodernism be defined as a style? Does it represent a logical adaptation of Modernism or a decisive cultural break?

The emergence of giant corporations exercised a powerful influence on design in the post-war period. In the US, city centres were dominated by architecture that embodied corporate ambition. Marxist writers have argued that consumerism perpetuates capitalist society and subjugates the consumer. Others have argued that individuals use consumption to construct and represent identity.

How the emergence of global corporations, cheap air travel and the mass media has altered our perception of time and space. Global products, logos and brand names have become part of visual culture. What are the implications of globalisation for designers and consumers of tomorrow?

The 70s were characterised by ‘alternative’ interpretations and agendas for design that questioned the progressive, technological and macho emphasis of Modernism. The Anti-Design movement emerged in Italy and questioned the fundamental nature of the design process.

Recent design has engaged with the concept of use in a far more radical manner than its antecedents, focusing on the wider social and environmental implications of design. A new concern with sustainability and the impact of design on the environment has given rise to the concept of ‘Green Design’.

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Francois Hagnere
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Posted on Apr 22, 2010