A visitor to the Yale University Art Gallery’s new exhibit “Livable Modernism” may mistake the display for a collection of IKEA furniture. Though not from the ubiquitous Swedish store, these original furnishings from early 20th-century modernist designers are in fact the inspiration for many of today’s popular furnishings.
Curator Kristina Wilson’s exhibit focuses on designs for the living room, dining room and bedroom.
“In their integration of modern design with consumer desire, the modernists of the 1930s formulated a sympathetic model of domestic design which I call ‘livable modernism,'” Wilson writes in her book, also titled “Livable Modernism,” which accompanies the exhibit.
The term “livable modernism” describes the school of design that arose in America during the Great Depression. The style is marked by pure geometric forms and a rejection of period design. Hygiene was a prime concern in furniture design, and the simpler design also meant dust-free furniture.
Designers hoped that the simplified aesthetic would lead to an enlightened lifestyle and also contribute to the psychological comfort of the user. Other modernist theorists did not believe the appeal to the consumer was necessary.
“The exhibit arose out of my confrontation with two conundrums: the surprising presence of modernist design during the Depression and the Bauhaus critics’ description of objects as ‘not modern enough,'” Wilson said at the symposium held over the weekend to accompany the exhibition. “The exhibit marks the creative expansion of the Modernist project.”
Wilson notes that designs of this era tended to display a commitment to a Utopian ideal, a willingness to create a welcoming atmosphere, as well as a sophisticated market savvy. As modernism progressed, the ornamentation of past eras was obsolete.
“Period styles were an anachronism in the rapidly changing times of the 20th century,” explained design historian Phyllis Ross who spoke at the symposium.
At the same time, many designers chose to reference the past in order to appeal to consumers’ desire for “comfort” furniture.
Designers tried to keep to an industrial aesthetic while incorporating familiar characteristics into a furnishing. Walter von Nessen’s chrome “Diplomat” coffee service demonstrates this incorporation of nostalgia into modernist design.
“Chrome doesn’t require upkeep,” Wilson explained. “It rides a line between symbol of new because of its glaring and gleaming coldness, but also references silver, the past.”
The “Diplomat” coffee set even has a neoclassical reference in its fluted sides, which mimic Greco-Roman columns.
The Russell Wright living-room chair also exemplifies characteristics of Depression-era modernism. While possessing a frame reminiscent in form to the surrounding chrome furniture, the use of wood and “homespun” upholstery, like eating a home-cooked meal, eases the consumer’s mind.
While copies of the chair often sell for hundreds or even thousands in the contemporary market, the chair was rather inexpensive in its day, selling for $19.98 at Macy’s.
Another speaker at the symposium, design historian Marilyn Friedman, spoke extensively about the dissemination of modernist designs.
“Department stores used to showcase designs for the 20th century” Friedman said. “Art could be brought into everyday life without tremendous cost.”
These stores tried to convince the consumer, designer and manufacturer that modern design had staying power.
The glass candlestick/flower bowl on display by Wilbur L. Orme for the Cambridge Glass Co. demonstrates how designers allowed for objects to be multi-functional. The object is an assembly of separate pieces which can be rearranged by the consumer into a desired form.
Overall, “Livable Modernism” demonstrates American ingenuity forced upon designers due to the practicality and simplicity demanded by the Depression. Furniture marked by simple lines, vibrant colors and practicality became the basis for design during the rest of the twentieth century and are still popular today.
“Something of the 20s and 30s has passed forward,” Friedman observed.
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