A 21st Century

An Introduction

Inside a special 53rd edition of the Berlin-based Lodown magazine, one of the designers interviewed suggested that our generation would never experience a movement as profound and influential as the Bauhaus.1 At the time of publication back in 2006 they were probably correct. But just over ten years later, newer developments would begin to suggest we could be on the verge of something altogether different, and much, much more exciting.

The Bauhaus began in 1919 as an art school in Weimar, central Germany. Founded by Walter Gropius, it sought to unify the arts, design and architecture under one philosophy and style. The school placed its emphasis on the harmony between form and function, rejecting further embellishments as unnecessary. Through this simple, unadorned style, the Bauhaus had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture and design throughout the entire 20th century.

By 1933 the school was under pressure from the Nazi Party to close. But in just over a decade, it had already travelled to three different locations under three different leaders. The Bauhaus doors may have been pulled shut, but the mind-shifting ideas the school seeded were alive, and began to thrive elsewhere, as both students and teachers were pushed to different corners of the world, filled with a desire to design a completely different kind of future.

Why start this journey together towards theories of a more sustainable future with the Bauhaus? Well, as arguably the most influential Modernist art school of all (and also the first), it was an important foundation for the whole Modern Movement. As such, it had a profound effect on the philosophy, culture and products of the whole 20th century. Everything from the standardisation of paper sizes and motorway signage, the reimagining of common household objects or everyday furniture, through to masterpieces such as the Barbican and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House, can all be traced back to those first classrooms in Weimar.

Since then, we’ve been rolling around pretty much with what the Bauhaus kicked off. But eroded by time, and filtered of meaning, a lot of the Bauhaus’ original values have been lost or clouded. In the same Lodown interview, the designer Matt Irving spoke of the dilemma faced by more recent times: ‘These days, almost everyone is marching to the beat of their own drum, so the world is quite eclectic.’2

For the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve been bathing ourselves in this warm and comfortable eclectic pool which Matt mentions. Today’s most enterprising generations (namely X,Y and Z) were brought up during a period where the direction offered by Modernism was lost, and we began a new era, commonly referred to as Postmodernism.

As the clock has kept ticking, we’ve been busy designing buildings, furniture and products, in fact all the artefacts of our everyday lives, largely pulling influence from every other movement that has gone before. We dress ourselves in a mixture of the old and the new, the vintage, rehashed and recycled. And whilst jumping between these styles with flippancy, what’s most apparent is that we’ve not really been designing a completely relevant or more secure long-term future at all.

It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault that a new unified collective vision hasn’t emerged sooner. The changes in technology of the last 30 years have been just as tumultuous as those witnessed during the Agricultural or Industrial Revolutions of centuries past. The Digital Revolution has changed how we’re employed, how we share information, interact, trade, distribute and how we socialise; and it continues to disrupt our daily lives in unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways.

In much the same way that Modernism didn’t really begin to emerge as a large-scale movement until the biggest upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution had already taken place, we’ve been forced to wait patiently again for the latest transformations to settle, and for at least some of the dust to clear.

It’s also not necessarily that we haven’t been trying. The last 20 to 30 years have seen us dealing with this tricky conundrum: Where do you go from here? When you’re busy pulling inspiration and practices from everything and everywhere, the natural tendency, as we’ve been following, is to start to spiral inwards. Modernism’s relationship with Capitalism has, from the very beginning, been delicately intertwined. As the two have danced together on an increasingly downward trajectory, the culture too has gravitated ever inwards. Largely towards the self, and away from the needs of society or those of nature as a whole.

Big movements, new values and new direction only really emerge with strength once the defining tools and products from the latest bursts in technology also become established. The things we make, are of course only as effective as the materials and tools we use to make them with. Likewise they only prove as useful as the tools we employ to measure them against. Within these constantly spinning cycles, one detail which becomes ever more apparent is that whatever it is we make, these things will only be as valuable as the principles we use to also define the ways we live.

Thus Modernism didn’t even begin to come to fruition until new industrial processes had already led to significant breakthroughs such as the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, or Henry Ford’s first production line motorcar in 1908. It’s no coincidence that soon after, one of the first Modernist definitions sprang to life in February 1909, when a Futurist Manifesto was published in Le Figaro. It launched an art movement that rejected the past, and celebrated instead speed, machinery and industry.

History shows us that no major cultural or artistic movement has ever happened without a whole series of external forces coming together. Leaps in technology combined with political and social change, advances in engineering and environmental factors – these become the influencing factors, the kindling wood and the sparks for a clarity of new ideology to take shape. Here a contraction in thinking around a simple set of new rules helps provide vital oxygen. Like any human project, cultural movements need people to physically bring new ideas together in the just right proportions, and distil them in a such a way that they make a convincing enough set of principles to work within.

The key to any successful new recipe relies just as much in the ingredients that you choose to leave out, as those you decide to include. And of course, in order to convince enough people to join you in the process of making, the secret to conversion does not necessarily lie in the list of ingredients, or in the manifesto. The conversion of minds is often a gradual process which only gains traction once the fruits of a new blueprint begin to emerge. The proof of the pudding, as your Mum might say, is in the eating. This applies as much to apple tarts as to the making of artistic or cultural movements that have the power to shape and define the course of an entire century. So let’s begin by taking a closer look at the eclectic trap, from which we’ve been so desperately trying to escape.

Next ︎
Chapter 2 —
The Rise and Fall of the Eclectics

Credits & Notes

1 – 2
Matt Irving
‘On the Bauhaus Issue’
Lodown Magazine No.53
(Sep 2006)


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