“Contour and profile are a pure creation of the mind; they call for the plastic art.” Le Corbusier

Retvield- Schroder House.

At the turn of the century, technology and new industrial processes were spreading; and in Europe designers were becoming attuned to the possibilities of mass-produced well-designed products as artists, architects and industry increasingly worked together.
By this time, the British Arts and Crafts movement had reverted to a national style rather than an international one. Designers there retained the hand-made, natural wood look while elsewhere in Europe the materials and processes of mass production being developed in the United States were seized upon and the concept of ‘Functionalism’ was becoming an important influence.

The concept was first expressed in the 19th century by an American sculptor, Horatio Greenough who wrote a book Form and Function which praised the design of machines, and was critical of decorated products and architecture with ornamental facades. His enthusiasm for an ‘engineers aesthetic’ was echoed in the words of Louis Sullivan, an architect who at the turn of the century proclaimed:
“Form follows function”.
At that time in the United States, mechanised mass production was encouraged, because cheap labour was scarce compared to the situation in Europe. Called the American system of manufacture, it had greatly influenced the appearance of products and became known as the Functionalist Tradition, where manufacturing methods determined not only the means of production but also the visual form of the products. A term applied to products designed only for practical use, it became a central theme in Modernism, namely the aesthetic of the machine.

In architecture, Functionalism meant the elimination of ornament so the building plainly expressed its purpose, and the principle led to the idea of designing buildings from the inside outwards, letting the essential structure dictate the form and therefore its external appearance. Functionalist ideas about design became the dominant design philosophy and language of the first half of the century. Also known as ‘the machine aesthetic’, it lasted up to the 1930s. The idea of design expressing the function of the product was followed by Henry Ford whose early cars also featured standardised parts and were made largely by machines.
While the sophisticated production technologies developing rapidly in America became dominant across the world, it was in Europe where art and industry combined to create what we now call industrial design; the design and development of products we can use productively and view also as aesthetic objects.

In 1909 Tomasso Marinetti, an Italian Futurist artist declared, in his Manifesto of Futurism:
“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace.”
(Victory of Samothrace refers to a 200BC Greek sculpture in the Louvre, Paris)

Picasso Guitar sculpture.

Futurism was a movement in Italy which began in 1909. A literary and art movement, the Futurists advocated new forms in art and architecture. They sought the abandonment of historical themes in favour of the new age of machines, particularly machines of speed . . . cars, aeroplanes, even trams. This meant the destruction of past ideas of beauty, in favour of the new world of urban industrial culture. The Futurists combined their preoccupation with speed with their aims to show dynamic multiple viewpoints of the object. Their manifesto of 1910 declared:
“…we proclaim the absolute and complete abolition of determined lines and closed statues. We split open the figure and include the environment within it.”
This paralleled developments in Paris at the time, where artists Picasso and Braque, inspired by the 19th century painter Cezanne were creating Cubism, an art style that would revolutionise the world of art and design, removing naturalism from their work, replacing it with their own coded, almost abstract shapes: spheres, cylinders and cubes, which referred to how they perceived the world in modern times, rather than what the world had always ‘looked like’. They represented the world as an interlocking pattern of geometric units, split views from different positions, simultaneously depicted.
Cezanne had painted contours; not one line but several in parallel as if when he shifted his head the contours shifted relative to other shapes, the result being a dynamic effect to his picture, a three-dimensional recollection, sketched not finished. He achieved it particularly well with fruit.. fragments that were like visual shorthand, his scribbled ‘handwriting’ as it were, recognisable to all; but in the hands of the Cubists almost illegible to outsiders.
Picasso produced his Guitar which displayed multiple views of the object, splitting it open, turning it inside out.

The Futurist architect Sant’ Elia constructed only a few buildings (he was killed on the battlefield in 1916) but his designs remained extremely influential and his ideas for modern cities are still used today. The steeply rising terraces, the balconies, and the aerial bridges in his drawings conveyed the excitement of modern technology.
He said: “..I affirm that just as the ancients drew their inspiration in art from the elements of the natural world, so we – materially and spiritually artificial – must find our inspiration in the new mechanical world we have created..”
He rejected the tradition of adding decoration to structure saying that decoration as an element superimposed on architecture was absurd, and that the decorative value of Futurist architecture depended solely ‘on the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently coloured materials’
Though he died in 1916, his drawings lived on and were picked up, along with Futurist theories in 1917 by the De Stijl group.

Dutch for ‘The Style’ (pronounced the same), De Stijl took its name from a magazine started by Theo van Doesburg which ran from 1917 to 1928. Holland remained neutral during the 1914-18 war and avoided the catastrophic upheavals and production material shortages that brought the development of design to a halt in the rest of Europe.

Theo van Doesberg house design.

In contrast to the noisy and passionate Futurists,
De Stijl were cool…

Rationalist, abstract and enthralled by the machine, they rejected naturalism in place of formal abstraction, and set out to create a universal style in painting, architecture and design. They used rectangles and squares in flat planes of bold primary colors, and black, white and gray – all carefully arranged with straight lines. They were concerned with depicting space, the space between objects, and they gained inspiration from the Dutch architect H.P. Berlage, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, who said..
“The art of the master builder lies in this: the creation of space, not the sketching of facades. A spatial envelope is established by means of walls, whereby a space, or a series of spaces is manifested, according to the complexity of the walling.”

Robert van’t Hoff, a founder member, introduced Wright’s work to the group, particularly his principles of composition, form, and hovering roofs, having been to visit various Wright houses which profoundly influenced his own designs.
Frank Lloyd Wright advocated the abandonment of historical architecture, seeing the need to adopt a new style utilising modern materials, steel and concrete and terra cotta, to create houses as sculpture. To the European avant-garde, seeing the geometric forms and spectacular cantilevers, Wright was a ‘machine architect’.

A protege of Louis Sullivan, Wright was a believer in Functionalism, designing houses at the turn of the century in which large open spaces, light and airy, dictated the exterior shape of the structure. The furniture he designed for them showed Arts and Crafts influences via C R Mackintosh, and this emphasis on the natural was reflected in his aim to harmonise the house with its environment, enhancing the concept of a house as shelter. Decoration was minimal, walls left clear from the base to the eaves, for as he said:
“simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.”
Wright’s strong naturalistic streak was not apparent to the members of De Stijl, who would have rejected it. They saw only the images of his radical architecture which spoke to them of machine aesthetics and geometry, not naturalism.
De Stijl as a movement also rejected the ‘individualism’ of handcraft and decoration, believing these to be associated with closure and limitation. Instead, they sought the opposite. Machine production, abstraction, universalism were the way to achieve clarity and order in design. These they believed could express infinite space and undefined boundaries.

Mondrian’s studioThe prime mover of the De Stijl movement was the radically abstract painter Piet Mondrian. He created an entirely human-made reality and his artistic theories, expounded in the magazine, became De Stijl the movement. To Mondrian, red, yellow and blue were the only colours, apart from black and white.
Yellow was expansive and vertical, blue the opposite to yellow – soft, retiring, horizontal. Red expressed the radiating movement of life, uniting yellow and blue in an ‘inner’ way, unlike their common mixture, green.
Mondrian avoided the use of the colour green, because of its association with nature, and contemporaries recall the painter’s manouverings to avoid having to look out the window at fields or trees. His paintings, with their asymmetrical black lines looked like they were part of a larger environment. In the 1920s he arranged square shapes painted in primary colours around his studio and on his furniture, to extend the boundaries of his picture so it would become an environment to live in, not just to look at:
“The… picture will disappear as soon as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into colour areas.”

The goal of the artist had always been to interpret and reveal a natural order. Belief in a harmony created entirely by the artist/designer, and faith in the redemptive power of technology became the main principles of De Stijl.
The compelling geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian and equally striking furniture of Gerrit Rietveld have become timeless classics of 20th-century design. Rietveld’s buffet from 1919 shows these principles of construction, the prevailing relationship between line and plane, the qualities of lightness, and the use of the module in construction.

Rietveld said, about defining space:
“Scaling of undefined space to human proportions may be achieved by a line drawn on..a floor, a wall,..a combination of vertical and horizontal planes, curved or flat, transparent or massive. It is never a partitioning or closing off, but always a defining element of what is here and there, above and below, between and around.”

Rietveld buffet.

Originally a qualified cabinet-maker, and a fervent believer in prefabrication, he was a member of the group until 1930, by which time he was working as an independent architect. He aimed to design furniture for mass production that was cheap, that anyone could buy. From a social point of view he wanted to relieve the factory labourer from the boredom of hard and repetitive work, by means of machines. His chair, made in 1917 was revolutionary. Rietveld conceived this chair as separate constructions: the seat, the back, and the supporting frame.
“The construction of the Red/Blue chair is based on a module of 10 cm which corresponds approximately to the thickness of three rails and this simple geometric construction is so clear that the chair can be made without using any kind of working drawings.
The rails are doweled together and the seat and the back are fixed to the frame with screws.
…The chair was specifically built to show that it is possible to create something beautiful, a spatial creation, with simple machine- processed parts. I cut a board of wood into planks and squares. I then sawed the middle part into two for the seat and the backrest, and I made the frame part out of the different lengths of plank.
But as I was working on the chair, it never crossed my mind that one day it would become so significant that it would even influence architecture.”

Gerrit Rietveld chair.

Rietveld’s chair, an icon of modern design in its exploration of the nature of space, introduced the most radical change in the language of design for perhaps five hundred years. And its prototype originally had enclosed armrests.
Originally stained a natural wood colour, Reitveld painted his chair around 1923, in primary colours of red, yellow and blue, in the mistaken belief that this triad of colours was the basis of colour vision; the three receptors in the eye, he believed, were sensitive to each of these colours. The painted chair now looked like a painting, a Mondrian painting in primary colours which became three dimensional.

In 1920, he designed the interior of a doctor’s clinic, creating a light fitting that echoed the design principles of his furniture with its intersecting lines. Sculptural in its brevity, it consisted of several light bulbs suspended on their electrical wires that conveyed the effect of mathematical coordinates floating in space.
An architectural commission in 1924, the Schroder House in Utrecht, was conceived in terms of straight lines and rectangular planes, materialized in the form of slabs, posts and beams. In it, Rietveld defined volume by planar, or flat elements which are linked like playing cards slotted at their intersections, but float, due to the separation of the planes. Moving walls made it possible to partition the upper living area into smaller rooms. The inside of the house had planes, painted primary colours that continued the floating effect evident in the exterior of the house, creating an environment that suggested openness, harmony and the elimination of closure.

Mart Stam Cantileve red chair.

In 1926, Dutch architect Mart Stam, an associate of De Stijl and later with the Bauhaus, produced the first cantilevered chair. In this he developed the principle of an upright chair which had a frame separate from the seat and back like Rietveld’s. But it differed in the fact that it was not an armchair, and it simplified the shapes into a horizontal and vertical like the red/blue chair, but eliminated the separate supporting pieces, being a continuous frame with fabric stretched across it. This chair had a major influence and soon these cantilevered chairs were being produced by other designers.
Rietvld produced his cantilevered Zig-Zag Chair in 1934, the simplicity of it marked a radical departure from his earlier furniture. He designed the zig-zag chair so that it would remove a minimum of space from the volume of the room. As with most of Rietveld’s work its spatial characteristics, especially lightness, weightlessness, are its most important feature.

Eileen Grey Transat armchair.

His red/blue chair, as an armchair design was developed in other materials by designers such as Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus, Le Courbusier and Eileen Gray.
Irish designer Eileen Gray met the De Stijl group in 1922. This exposure resulted in a functional approach to her furniture design, in which she concentrated on proportion and symmetry, using new materials in refined designs such as her transat armchair of 1929. Her best work was sparse, with emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines.
“A house is a machine for living in.”
Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier Villa Savoye.

The quintessential modern designer of the period was Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect who, born Charles Edouard Jeannet, became the leader of the Modern Movement in architecture and design. His buildings from the 1920s were typically white and flat roofed in imitation of Meditteranean indigenous architecture , and he achieved a simple purity of form in all his work.

After 1915 he began producing radical schemes for houses drawing on ideas from industrial forms. In 1923 the first villa was created according to his principles of architecture and in 1931 he created the Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier’s early work culminates in this villa. The rectangular house is supported by slender steel columns and the nonstructural walls define the space. Curving walls on the roof create a plastic, sculptural look that contrasts with the floating plane that is the living space, epitomising modern style, while performing the function of shelter over the terrace within.
Like other Modernists he wanted to ‘purify’ architecture of ornament to reveal the hidden structure and function of a building. He made a virtue of simplicity. He designed using basic forms- squares and rectangles, (later on, curves) – and his building materials were concrete and steel.

Le Corbusier Chaise Longue.

In product design he is best known for his furniture, particularly his grand comfort armchair and his chaise longue.
The Chaise Longue of 1928 extended the construction principles of Rietvelds red/blue chair, (its separation of seat from frame) reworking it in metal and soft furnishings. An anti-Functionalist and artist, Le Corbusier considered his creations in the domain of visual arts of primary importance and proclaimed that his architectural creations flowed from them.
“Profile and contour are the touchstone of the Architect.”

Le Corbusier Grand Confort armchair.

In the grand comfort armchair, Le Corbusier created a piece of sumptuous comfort, that at the same time conveyed meanings of home, a house, a dwelling. He did this by enclosing the soft furnishings within a wraparound metal frame, copying the traditional huge Victorian armchair, but creating shapes that referred to his houses.
“The business of Architecture is to show emotional relationships with raw materials. Architecture goes beyond utilitarian needs… Passion can create drama out of inert stone.”
This, he said, is what defines an architect or designer as an ‘artist or mere engineer.’
He was not only one of the three most influential architects of this century (together with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe) but also an extremely gifted artist and designer. Le Corbusier produced a considerable number of paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics, and even tapestries. After World War II, Le Corbusier turned to a building style of organic forms using deliberately rugged, crude and imprecise forms and surfaces. A modernist designer for the luxury market, Le Corbusier represented the visual branch of modernism, where his contemporary designers at the Bauhaus at Weimar continued the thread of Arts and Crafts philosophy of craft and affordable products – but using the new materials, industrial processes and geometric styles of the modern times.


~ by malgodesign on January 27, 2010.

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