Modern Design

In the history of art, architecture, and design, Modernism typically refers to the period between the early 1920s and the outbreak of World War II, even though its influence is present both before and after this time, especially into the middle of the century. The most well-known principle of Modernism, coined by American architect Louis Sullivan, is that form must follow function. Modernism and Modern Design arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th century to early 19th century, when the mechanization of mass production made these works cost efficient and therefore widely available to a growing middle class.

During this time, interior and furniture designers attempted to recast the world in modern form, embracing the machine and mass production. Furniture design evolved to fill Modernist architectural spaces with furnishings that harmonized with the built environment. Silhouettes were restrained and machine-fabricated, ornament was eschewed, and references to historicism or decoration were studiously avoided, as seen in Verner Panton's mid-century modern classic Stacking chair, or S-chair (1989.74).

An example of the International Style and iconic Modernist architecture is found near Paris: Le Courbusier's Villa Savoye (1928-31). Dubbed a "machine for living in," its invocation of the aesthetics of the machine, as well as its rejection of classical symmetry and applied ornament, best embodies and fully realizes the ideals of Modernism. The International Style was made possible by the availability of modern materials and new construction methods. With walls freed of their load-bearing role, interiors could be contiguous volumes, uninterrupted by ceiling-high divisions. As seen on Villa Savoye, curvilinear forms were not entirely abandoned, but rectilinearity was the preferred geometry.

The second World War marked the great divide in 20th-century design, and the decades following saw the emergence of several centers of style and many, often competing, arbiters of taste. In the post-war period, optimism and prosperity ushered in a wave of postwar Modernist construction by Mies van der Rohe (1990.130.1) and his contemporaries, celebrated as fine art and masterful design. In America, the most up-to-the-minute new suburban homes were furnished with designs by Charles and Ray Eames (1988.48), George Nelson (2008.44.1), and others. By 1970, artists, architects, and designers pushed back against the spare designs of Modernism by embracing color, decoration, and historical reference in a movement later dubbed Postmodernism.

Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2017.

Drawn from

  • Paola Antonelli, ed. Objects of Design from The Museum of Modern Art. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2003).
  • Judith Gura. Design After Modernism: Furniture and Interiors 1970-2010. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, DMA. Decorative Arts; Design; post-modernism; chair; conceptual furniture; modernism; mass production; "form follows function;" Memphis Design Group

Web Resources

  • You Tube
    Watch this short cartoon for a succinct explanation of Modern Design.
  • Khan Academy
    See the masterpiece of Modernism, Le Courbusier's Villa Savoye.