C15 Knowledge of history of design

Posted: October 7, 2010 in CORE

Initial knowledge – 1

Current working knowledge – 2

Throughout my education I have always had a love of design old and new.  I have investigated different movements on an individual basis and I have a good knowledge of when the movements took place but for this section I have decided to write a piece of chronological information including some dates and names that shaped the different styles.  I have learnt a lot through its writing and feel that as a general overview of design I can refer back to it in the future as a guide just to jog the memory.


Many people may look back in time and feel design started with the industrial revolution.  However prior to this, designs had begun to be presented in portfolios and pattern books and widely distributed to secure customers orders.  Products had formerly been ordered according to customer specification but were now being standardised.  Furniture for example, was produced in advance and now sold as finished items in larger magazines and sales catalogues so design had acquired an important significance not only for production but for sales.  The training of draftsman became more specialised and industrialisation had begun in England by the end of the 18th century.

In 1765 James Watt invented the steam engine and with it came the industrial revolution, as a result of  Watts’ invention, coal mining, iron and steel production as well as machine production took on new significance.  They were the pre conditions for industrial mass production, a modern transportation system and the growth of cities.  New means of fast transportation were not only useful in steel and iron production and coal mining but also for world trade.  With mass production though came poverty as factories paid less wages as there was little skill needed to operate the machines that were producing items on mass, which some people felt were of poor quality and so there was an upturn in the arts and crafts movement, The Vienna Workshops and the German work alliance to combat these negative effects.

The 19th century was the age of the engineer, with the development of things such as Thomas Eddisons incandescent light bulb, Graham Alexander Bell’s telephone, household sewing machines and even revolvers.  In Europe swivel chairs, adjustable seats and other patent furniture appeared.  The technical advances of the 19th century resulted in new methods of production but around the middle of the 19th century there was almost a backward movement that arose as people looked for styles with a more historical influence.  The romantic era in Germany, France and England in particular sparked a return for styles such as gothic, romanticism, renaissance and baroque and were quite often mixed together and it meant that mass produced cheap lead castings were decorated with extravagant, ornate patterns.

During the second half of the 19th century a reform occurred first in Britain and then in Germany re-introducing commercial art as a way of moving away from modern industrial manufacturing.  This led to amongst others the arts and crafts movement. Perhaps the most recognised pioneer was poet and artist William Morris, his firm Morris and Co were perhaps best known for their solidly and tastefully produced furniture, naturally dyed cloth, hand woven rugs, painted tiles and stained glass.  .  Its preference within design was for its simpler, organic forms from nature and had a big influence on the Art  Nouveau movement.

William Morris bed

Art nouveau was developed on the continent and like the closely related arts and crafts movement introduced simpler constructed forms in the patterns of nature.  ‘Artists’ were not just required to produce art as such, but jewellery, wall paper, fabric, furniture, tableware and more, again it was seen as an answer to industrial mass produced items.

Art Nouveau jewellery

The architects Henry Van de Velde and Victor Horta were amongst those considered to be famous representatives of art  nouveau .  Internationally  art nouveau was a reform movement that some people consider today as a failure.  While the rebellion against historicism and mass production was justifiable, as a movement it is considered regressive and may well have delayed the development of modern industrial design.  While it may have been considered backward-looking, extravagant and luxury orientated it was not dictated by a single style it was also characterized by objective and geometric form that was stripped of all ornamentation.

New objective forms had already come into existence on the back of the art nouveau movement in Great Britain.  The Glasgow school of art were influenced by an influx of Japanese art and the aesthetics it suggested and they developed a new style.  They used ornament sparingly with the exception of minimal pastel tones and preferred to use black and white which became the hallmark of the modern style.  Another breakaway  from the art nouveau movement was the Viennese style, it was based on a concept of the totality of a work of art and was a reform of handicrafts.  A style developed through Charles Rennie Mackintosh a chief figure in the Glasgow school of art and it was highlighted by rectangularity and straight lines.  The founders of the Viennese  style were Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and the architect Otto Wagner.  Wagner often called the father of the Vienna modern was classical in his orientation but his furniture designs were considered as severe as the later Bauhaus movement.

otto wagner stool

In Germany it was primarily the Werkbund that marked the transition into modern industrial design, its goal was to ‘enable industrial work by the cooperation of art, industry and handicrafts’ and it was not adverse to using machine production also.  The Werkbund founding members amongst others were Muthesius, Van de Velde, Behrens and Osthaus and it peaked in 1914 with its famous exhibition in Cologne.  As well as featuring standardized furniture and household objects it featured sleeping car interiors and a model steel and glass factory.  However in the same year an argument broke out within Werkbund.  There was conflicting interests in the group,  Muthesius felt that it was only through standardization of design that Werkbund could create usable, industrial forms that were inexpensive mass-produced products with a long lifespan.  Van de Valde on the other hand defended the individuality of the artists design work, however this debate was suspended as the First World War broke out.

Not surprisingly after the war, design attention was focused on living quarters and inexpensive household fittings for the working class.  The period between the two world wars was marked by huge economical and social changes.  Industrialization had not only brought about mass-production of items for the home  but also established a capitalist society with a large working class.  The economic and political importance of industrial design had already become clear in the 19th century and along with William Morris, many hoped to aid social reform through the intelligent design of goods for the mass market.  The Russian Revolution was supposed to bring about a new classless society for both manual labourers and intellectuals.  In a world dominated by technology the artists of the avant-garde movement in particular saw new paths for art and with them the possibility of social transformation.  A further idealization of technology as well as an abstraction of form were pursued by the cubists and the futurists.


In the Russian movements of suprematism and constructivism, both the technique of construction and the innate properties of the raw materials available were counted amongst the most important factors of product design.  The avant-garde artists celebrated a dynamic aesthetic of the age of machine, which they then reduced to non-objective forms.  They designed posters, book covers, new typefaces, furniture and other utility items.  Many artists of the avant-garde  such as Vlaimir Taitlin, Kasimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky understood their work to be of service to a new society and they produced newspapers, book covers and posters as well as street and theatre decoration as propaganda for the Soviet government.  In addition they also designed utility goods, clothing and furniture through a high degree of standardization which were especially suited to the still primitive Russian mass- production facilities.

Avante Garde. Picasso

Through simple mass-produced goods it was imagined that living standards would be greatly improved and although the designs had to meet the requirements of industrialized production the actual designs tended to arise from abstract geometrical idiom of constructivism and the artists desire to still have creative expression.  Constructivism defined itself as a culture of materials, constructivists insisted on a correspondence between the method of working and the materials used and the object created.  Many rejected some constructivists ideas of using straight lines and right-angles and chose curved lines in both art and practical design, they concentrated on rounded forms that suited the human body and devised clothing and furniture that were meant to be practical, inexpensive and comfortable for the human form.  In Germany, the Bauhaus design became the centre of modernism and functionalism and the Bauhaus school laid down principals that still influence industrial design today.  In 1926-27  despite growing international recognition the Bauhaus was suffering from financial difficulties and internal disagreements about which direction the school should take between art and industry.  Hannes Meyer was appointed director of Bauhaus in 1928 and he demanded the design of standardized products that could be mass produced but would also satisfy the basic needs of the population.  Meyer strove to make Bauhaus more scientific and its students began to experiment with mixed weaves and synthetic fibres.  Bauhaus was closed 1n 1933 due to pressure from the Nazi regime but it had become internationally recognised with new materials such as glass and steel along with typical simple geometrical shapes that became  important influences on an international modern style.

classic Bauhaus chair

In France, where the Bourgeois establishment survived the First World War, a luxurious style of furnishing and decoration reflecting power and a superior lifestyle emerged and was in complete contrast to the goals of modernism presented by movements such as the Bauhaus. It was known as Art Deco.  Art Deco concentrated on exclusive, artfully designed and individually crafted wares made of expensive and precious materials such as snakeskin, ivory, bronze, crystal and exotic woods.  Eventually art deco begun to introduce modern materials such as steel, glass and plastics in extravagant combinations.  The aim however was always to exploit their decorative value and not really explore their functional capabilities.  Art deco drew characteristics from art nouveau, under the influence of cubism, constructivism and futurism, art nouveau’s characteristic curved lines gave way to abstract geometrical stylization, expressive zig zag lines and dynamic streamlining.  Art deco’s favourite forms were geometric ornaments based on hexagons, ovals, octagons, circles, triangles and rhombuses, but it also borrowed from classicism, Egyptian cultures and African art and so developed in diverse directions.  It was viewed as classical, elegant, exotic, expressive and increasingly modern.In England, Germany and Italy, Art Deco design was seen as an expression of modern elegance and in time the manufacture of popular mass wares from new materials such as aluminium and Bakelite became increasingly popular.  Before long, the market offered fashion jewellery, cigarette cases, radio housings and perfume bottles with geometric shapes and expressionist patterns with ornamental synthetic inlays imitating ivory and tortoiseshell.

Typical art deco clock

In America modern designs pursued its own course and although industrial designers may have been affected by European influences it was here more than anywhere else that design was driven by consumer behaviour.  While the First World War  had seriously affected the economical and technological development in Europe the USA stood far ahead of other industrial nations.  In the 30’s most middle-class households had electric equipment such as radios, fridges, toasters and washing machines.  Mass production with new inexpensive materials for mass needs was the birth of modern industrial design.  Unlike Europe with design reforms revolving around social aspects and function the main aspect of American design was marketing. After the Wall Street Crash the government encouraged patriotic design to motivate customers to buy a companies products.  As a sign of progress and dynamism, streamlining was applied to a lot of products ranging from buses to coffee machines.  New materials such as plywood, plastics and sheet metal supported the use of streamlining and created a medium through which American designers created a new direction that had little to do with functionality but was used to install a belief that the country had been steered away from economic depression  it was viewed as a new   ‘American way of life’.

1950s coca cola sign

The post war period and the 1950’s brought big changes not just in politics but also in international style.  In Germany, Italy and Japan the concentration was on basic needs such as food shelter and rebuilding the economy, the USA however survived the war relatively unharmed.  Its mainland and economy was intact and it established a roll as the economic leader.  Representatives of the Bauhaus had fled to the states during the Nazi regime and they pursued the international style in modernist architecture and design.  After the war modernism was exported back to Europe from the USA spreading the American approach to design as a factor in marketing and sales.  ‘The American way of life’ influenced all areas of the world especially Germany and Italy.  By the early 50’s industry found itself having to revive demand through the design of new products and models with technical improvements and the role of advertising increased and with it the role of packaging design.In 1952 polypropylene was invented and it revolutionised furniture making with durable chairs and tables in all kinds of forms produced easily and inexpensively.  Manufacturers were working more on developing foam materials, nylon and polyester. With companies such as Kartell producing house hold goods with improved synthetics.  In the 60’s Kartell became the industry leader of plastic design producing lamps and furniture, they constantly experimented with new synthetic combinations to not only enhance the aesthetics and durability of a product but also the lower the cost of items for the customers.

60's Kartell lamp

The plastic wave hit a high point and also a crucial turning point with the oil crisis of 1973.  From that point plastic was no longer glamorised as modern and ‘high tech’ but it was seen as cheap, tacky, tasteless and with the growing environmental awareness un-eco-logical.  It was still deemed suitable for outside furniture and for commercial and public areas but it wasn’t until the ‘Memphis group’ tried to rehabilitate it with plastic laminates and bright colours that it was brought back inside the home in the early 80’s.Following the oil crisis of 1973 designs and their functionalism ceased, people were becoming more environmentally aware and there was a counter culture of rock music, young people, pop art and films with radical counter movements against functionalist architecture and design as well as against mainstream industry materialising first in England then in Italy and Germany.  In 1974 Jochen Gros and the ‘Desin’ movement started to implement recycling in design and alternative design and production and sales.  Car tyres became sofas, tea boxes turned into closets and more.  British and American pop music as well as the ‘hippie’ movement influenced commercial art, fashion and experimental furniture of a number of designers, the synthetic materials allowed for playful and often ironic and provocative forms and this counterculture was combined with mans actual experiences of space travel and popular visualisations of science fiction as in Stanley Kubric’s film 2001:A Space Odyssey which led to more futuristic designs.

In the 80’s technical, social, ecological and cultural developments as well as those in design accelerated at enormous speed, architecture and design turned away from modernism and functionalism and again the ‘Memphis group’ had a massive effect on this.  Memphis became a catalyst for a range of anti-functionalist developments in European design and in most books I have read is referred to as ‘new design’.  Their thinking was independent of industry and focused more on a metropolitan sense of life incorporating fashions and influences of subculture in their designs.  New design was radical and is categorised as experimental work, own production and distribution, small series and unique pieces, mixture of styles, unusual materials, cosmopolitan feel, irony wit and provocativeness, overstepping the boundaries with art and formations of groups of designers.  Germany, France, Spain, Italy, England all tested the boundaries in an era which is known as post-modernism. 

It is worth noting that when I move into schools it will be worth keeping up to date with new and innovative ideas, designs and materials.  I think children are fascinated by anything hi-tech and can be inspired by seeing the realms of possibility in modern design.  Whilst it is of significant importance that the origins of design and style are recognised.  It is also worth remembering that history in design is being created all the time, even as I speak and in 100 years will be seen as the fabric of an era that helped change the shape of technology and design.

Twentieth Century Design,  Jonathan M. Woodham

A Concise History of Design, Thomas Hauffe

Design and the Decorative Arts, Michael Snodin and John Style

Design History a Student Handbook, Dr Hazel Conway and Hazel Conway


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