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Modernism Essay

Focussing on specific examples, describe the way that modernist art and design was a response to the forces of modernity?

Modernism defines a period of change within the world that took place between the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. The implications of us now living in a post-modern world imply that modernism is something that has happened and no longer represents the now or the contemporary. The ideologies behind modernist thinking were that modern design is an improvement of all that came before it and through experimentation, innovation, individualism, purity and originality we progress forward as a society. The modern movement came as a result of the industrial revolution and urbanisation as the world began to modernise people moved from the rural farming industry and into the social hub of the city filled with factories, new technologies and new forms communication and travel. With modernism came a goal and ‘a vision of how the designed world could transform human consciousness and improve material conditions’. (Greenhalgh, P. 1990:3) Modernism represents a shift in attitudes among designers and artists in wanting to create a universal language for all that could be used and understood worldwide and be socially useful. 

The modernist movement that took place in Switzerland which later spawned ‘the international style’ originated in the early 1920’s and manifested itself worldwide by the 1960’s. Between the two world wars a period of comfortable modern life, filled with new rationales and new possibilities led progressive graphic designers and artists to come together and set about forming a new world with a modern aesthetic of abstract and geometrical style. This period in time ‘saw entirely new and different experiences being made possible’. (Barnard, M. 2005:112) Many artists left their work to become designers and realize the idea of uniting art and industry together. The ideologies of soviet Russia’s constructivism and Germany’s Bauhaus helped form the influence for ethos of the Swiss style – based on geometry and mathematics that informed the design and organisation of two dimensional design for mass communication.

Modernism brought with it a plethora of new technology that changed the way society worked, functioned and lived. At the time of modernism these advancements in technology were extremely radical within society. New technology combined with industrialisation lead the pathway for the mass production of products for the mass population. These products absent of decoration and aesthetically truthful to their materials and production methods created a style that could be understood by all. With new technology came the advent and need for standardisation of components and process which aided mass production as well as allowing for easier repair of products. Mass production created the means by which modernism was made available on the streets, as it made products available to all promoting the theory that everyone can have the same. These aims for standardisation that came with new technology also impacted on the design world. Paper sizes became a standardized series for designers to work with and was adopted by Switzerland in 1924. Standardisation is also reflected in Swiss graphic design through the creation of new typefaces such as Akzidenz Grotesk. This typeface became one of the most common typefaces of modernist design. The typeface represents the standardisation of letterforms with the removal of uppercase letterforms a concept originating from the Bauhaus suggesting that lowercase letterforms are easier to learn and read. In 1925 the director of Bauhaus said ‘we write everything in lower case to save time and besides, why two alphabets, where one will do? Why use capital letters if we don’t use them when we speak.’ (Hollis, R. 2006:44) The typeface was also san serif, with the removal of serif’s reflecting the need for the elimination of decoration which distracts from the communication of a given message. Gerstner writes in his book Designing programmes ‘No doubt the sans-serif typeface does not represent the final stage but...as I interrupt the situation, taking the past as my yardstick, sans-serif no only has a future. It is the typeface of the future.‘ (Murgatroyd, K. 1969:89) Gerstener makes a key statement that reflects the fundamentals of modernist design, that it should be progressive and forward thinking.

Truth became a focus for modernist design all over the world. Truth to the materials of product became an ideology followed by all modernist designers it focused on letting materials ‘speak for themselves’ and not be painted or decorated as this disguises products from their true and natural beauty. Designers believed that by removing decoration and not masking materials, products would become timeless in their dsign aesthetic. This way of thinking is also mirrored in the design principle of form follows function in which the aesthetic design always comes secondary to function of the product and that the product being of the highest quality, function and precision would create aesthetic beauty alone. This approach to design influenced modernist Swiss graphic design which aimed at creating a universal language for all in which the function of communication came primary to aesthetic quality. The avoidance of decorative elements and elimination of ornamentation allowed designers to create purer forms of representation in the communication of a message. These purer forms of communication came as a result of enlightenment when the world began to look at science and philosophy for understanding of the world rather than religion. Designers began to consider the use of mathematics and geometry to create simplified purer forms of communication. Swiss designers had a particular demand for precision and with this came the use basic forms such as circles, triangles and squares to create any two dimensional design. The use of geometry within Swiss graphic design also represents the shift in Modernism from the use of illustration to abstract form to communicate a message. The use of geometry within design can be seen in Max Bill’s 1931 ‘Negerkunst’ exhibition posters in which he has used circular geometrical forms to craft his poster juxtaposed against a square form in which typography is composed. The circular forms created within the posters design simplify the style of work included at the exhibition.

The pioneers of modernism believed they could change the world, they perceived design to have ‘the ability to transform the consciousness of those who were brought into contact with it’. (Greenhalgh, P. 1990:13) This formed the basis behind architecture of the modernist era; it was believed that by redesigning the architecture of a city, the occupants of that city will experience a ‘shift in their psychological outlook’. The movements made within architectural design are mirrored in the advancements made in typographical design of the Swiss modernist era. New practices within typography began to emerge such as breaking text into lines which are seen as units of meaning these lines reflecting such lines seen in architecture. Architecture and Swiss typography shared many attributes such as flat surfaces, asymmetry and anti-decoration. Van Deosburg demonstrated that ‘the horizontal vertical structure of architecture could be opposed in painting by diagonal counter-composition.’ (De Stijl VII, 1926:73) The use of the diagonal line then became used and re-imagined by many designers within exhibition posters as placing text and images in this way attracts the eye as it parallels the straight lines of a printed sheet.

Retrospectively looking at the work of designers from the period of Modernity, the work of Joseph Muller-Brockmann represents the amalgamation of the beliefs and values experimented within throughout the age of modernism. Muller-Brockmann’s later work demonstrates his ‘adhernce to a strict design philosophy. (William Purell, K. 2006:268) Muller-Brockmann created a number of ‘Music viva’ poster which were concerned with the visual interruption of music. The posters use geometrical and mathematical theories to reflect the style of the composer’s music, each of the geometrical forms are positioned within a grid to also express ‘the nature of the composer’s music’ (William Purell, K. 2006:168) Use of a grid within design to form an ‘underlying structure for all layouts’ was first introduced by Karl Gerstner and later perfected by Muller-Brockmann. The grid allowed for strict, rigid structure but also extensive flexibility. These poster’s also featured the ideals behind ‘new typography’, Muller-Brockmann has used the sans-serif typeface Akizdenz Grotesk as it is free from unnecessary decoration, sans-serif typefaces were favored because they are universal, clear and impersonal. These posters are concerned with the ‘reduction of complex forms’ (Barnard, M. 2005:115) in order to achieve universal communication that is transcultural. The music viva posters are also an example or self reflexive design a key principle of modernist design. The flat geometrical forms declare the flat surface in which they are printed on, modernist graphic design hides no truths about it’s construction or production. Muller-Brockmann’s Music viva posters iterate the ‘rejection of ornament and the favoring of clean, simple non-decorated graphics.’ (Barnard, M. 2005:114)

Modernist graphic design can be defined as a period of time within the history of graphic design that was focused around a set of beliefs and values which influenced how they designed there work and for what purposes. During this time the graphic design that was created was aimed at trying to be universal and understood by all and follow a set of specific sets of rules which underpinned the design practice such as geometry, grids and anti ornamentation. Design was about creating something that would become ‘timeless’.

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