A couple of weeks ago I was in London on a sort of designerly vacation, and one of the things I took in while there (one of the two “must do”s I’d actually planned ahead for) was the exhibit “Modernism: Designing a New World 1914–1939” at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is surely one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen, particularly in its ability to transport the viewer into another time and another way of thought.
Today, the word “Modernism” primarily evokes an aesthetic idea: we imagine architecture, furniture and graphics on the basis of form and perhaps function. But what I loved about the V&A exhibit is how well it explains the social and political ideals of the early Modernists. Because really, it all started as a utopian dream for the future of mankind. The precise beliefs of the Modernists varied depending on the group and orgin of the designer, but all were focussed on a need for social change, addressing social inequalities and reacting to the traumas of the First World War. The rejection of ornament was a rejection of excess and luxury. Embracing mass production and the machine was an embrace of equality. Machines were considered models of “unselfconscious design”; they were egoless, and both the systemization of manufacture and the standardization of product was appealing from a socialist perspective.
From our 21st-Century, fully capitalist perspective, to talk about “the people,” “workers,” and “socialism” brings a knee-jerk assumption of something that failed—and to many, something that deserved to fail. So it was interesting to me how easy it was to get wrapped up in, and very enthusiastic about the Modernists’ ideals. The optimism was very real, and while we admire the form, it’s the idea of accessibility that is so appealing. Judging by the comments of people around me, I was not the only one at the exhibit who became enraptured with this earnestly hopeful outlook for the future (a future that is, of course, already long past). While the striving for efficiency in all things, and the concept of the machine being the great equalizer brings a horror of factory labour and anything but what we perceive as “freedom,” it was still possible to see where they were coming from and be completely uplifted by their good intentions.
Viewing familiar graphic artefacts, industrial design and architecture from this immersed perspective was refreshing. I’ve often been annoyed to hear of design students who are asked to emulate Constructivism or the Bauhaus style for their classes, without any understanding or appreciation for the original context, and this exhibit underscored my feelings about this. For several years I’ve been mulling over the concept of an immersive experience for design education, and at the V&A I got exactly what I’ve been wanting. Not only is the material presented in its historical, social and political context, they extended our preconceived notions of Modernism-the-aesthetic to include a number of other apsects of the movement: notably, fashion, dance, theatre and health. Ultimately we get a sense of the revolutionary aspect of Modernism and how it affected every aspect of art and life.
For instance, Modernist fashion tended toward the concept of a uniform; usually some sort of cassock, suit, smock or coverall. They were usually monotonal, and all had pockets. The concept of everyone wearing the same thing in the same colour is somewhat horrifying, unless you live in New York, but interestingly it is employed in private schools across North America. The school uniform is often evoked as a device to equalize the outward appearance of social class. In an age where kids apparently mug each other for sneakers and jackets, there’s something to be said for that.
For all my emphathy, the one that I just couldn’t get my head around was a recreation of a Modernist kitchen, designed so that the worker (wife) could get as much possible done with the least amount of effort and time. It was kitchen as factory, and a vintage film showed the efficient woman peeling potatoes, putting things in the oven, washing dishes and ironing from the position of a rolling stool in a kitchen the size of a small train compartment. The feeling was one of a creature in a cage performing assembly-line household tasks.
Despite these amusing, head-shaking moments, it was difficult not to feel a kind of sadness for our knowledge of what happened to the world in the following 80 years. While I am grateful not to be dressed in a cossack, working on an assembly line and retiring to my efficient house on an efficient street of similar houses, I can’t help but see the irony in where Modernism led as an aesthetic. For surely, over time, the Modernist ideal, far from becoming accessible to all is now one of the most elite expressions of taste and wealth that you can have. Admittedly, its influence has filtered down, and the ultimate contemporary Modern experience is probably IKEA, with its low-cost, efficient pre-fab furniture available in a variety of Modernist-influenced styles. But if you want to build a Modernist house, and fit it out with either original or reproduced Modernist furnishings, be prepared to lay down the cash. In 2006, the pure Modernist aesthetic exists only for the elite.
The exhibit at the V&A touches on the change from social ideas to commodification, beginning in the late 30s or 40s, as various members of the movement began to make a living manufacturing objects for or taking commissions from those with money. But it was still rather a shock, my head still full of the workers’ utopia, when I was ejected from the exhibit directly into the exhibit shop.
I’ve complained about this before, but this practice of building a makeshift shop as essentially the last gallery to any exhibit is one I find increasingly offensive. Must every experience end in commercial exchange? Is this the only way we have to express our appreciation of an event—to buy something? Never, however, has the shock of this transition seemed so extreme than at the close of “Modernism…”. All of those hopes and dreams, those deep concerns for the fate of humanity rendered down into … soap? “Modernist soap” packaged with the graphics for the exhibit—I kid you not. And however intriguing the brilliant 360-degree continuous profile of Mussolini is (with its ingenious reference to all-ego prescience combined with the machine-made turning of the lathe), it just seems wrong to turn it into a tchotchky for the home.
If you happen to be in London before July 23, 2006 (or if you live there and haven’t yet seen the exhibit), I hope you’ll go to the Victoria & Albert Museum, and I hope you’ll take away something other than a poster, a teapot, or a bar of soap.
Images courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum.