Modernism and Design

A poster by Abram Games Design for the Festival of Britain, 1951

Reinventing Britain

The Festival of Britain took place in 1951, with nationwide exhibitions dedicated to design, science, industry, farming and travel. Hundreds of designers and architects presented a modern vision for the future of Britain. The emblem was designed by graphic designer, Abram Games, for which, as described by Sarah Snaith in her article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, Games drew on his own personal philosophy, ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’. Harriet Atkinson explores the impact of the event in her book, The Festival of Britain, and the chapter ‘From the Planning of the Kitchen to the Planning of the Nation’ looks at how achievable solutions to issues related to housing, lighting, space and style were presented to the public. The festival was also a means of expressing a sense of family and ideas around what it meant to be British, and the planning incorporated extensive research into different aspects of society from a number of design teams. Exhibitions also included plans for the reconstruction of schools within communities, which Catherine Burke examines in depth in her chapter ‘Hidden Internationalisms’ in British Design, edited by Christopher Breward, Fiona Fisher and Ghislaine Wood.

Black-and-white photo of Church of Hallgrímur in Reykjavík

Art, Architecture and Design across Scandinavia

In this chapter in her book, Modernism in Scandinavia, Charlotte Ashby provides a critical overview of aesthetic and ideological developments in art, architecture and design in Scandinavia during 1930-1950, highlighting some of the leading Modernist figures across Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. Good quality design for the broader population was a key focus during this period, after rapid industrialization and urbanization in previous decades. Ashby writes about the increasing occurrence of exhibitions as a way of influencing the general public and pays particular attention to the impact of the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition on the history of Swedish Modernism. In decades which saw an increased responsiveness to functionality and simplicity, Ashby notes the persistence of 19th-century craft ideals related to materials and skilled execution through new design initiatives. The chapter also explores key buildings of this period, highlighting the synthesis of National Romantic and Modernist influences in Reykjavik’s Church of Hallgrímur, the symbolic function of Oslo City Hall and its place in Norwegian cultural history, and the Bank of Finland murals and the promotion of public art.

'Twittering Machine', a 1922 artwork by Paul Klee

High Modern Color Theory

In his book, Color Theory, Aaron Fine writes about advances in color science throughout the 20th century and the use of color in what became known as ‘high modern’ art and design. Fine explores spiritual feeling around color and the introduction (and abandonment) of new color models, focusing particularly on the teachings of color theory among central figures at the Bauhaus school in Germany and the New York school of abstract expressionist painters. Examining the work and ideas of Josef and Anni Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hanna Hoch and Giorgio De Chirico, Fine describes how developments within earlier competing art movements had enabled these artists to look anew at the use of color, to shake traditional, dogmatic approaches and to offer counter-narratives around modern ideas about color that influenced art, design and architecture.

Pembroke drop-leaf table

American Modernism at Home

A widely influential design publication in the USA during the mid-20th century was Russel and Mary Wright’s book, Guide to Easier Living (1950), which aimed to create and promote a specifically American design sensibility and offer an alternative to European Modernism. Lucinda Kaukas Havenhand analyses the influence of the publication, which outlined the Wrights’ ideas around domestic design and organization for a new way of life, and traces the trajectory of their impact on the industry in this chapter in her book, Mid-Century Modern Interiors. Elsewhere, in Screen Interiors, edited by Pat Kirkham and Sarah A. Lichtman, Marilyn Cohen provides a case study of mid-century interior decoration and material culture on screen in her chapter, ‘Furnishing I Love Lucy (1951-7)’. Cohen explores how the use of particular objects and furniture on the set of the popular 1950s US sitcom reflected developments in the modern, postwar home and how they aided the representation of domestic life in this era. Highlighting the role of furniture such as the space-saving drop-leaf table, in addition to changing styles and fabrics reflective of prosperity, and seating and positioning indicative of more informal living, Cohen demonstrates how furnishings on set were embedded in the portrayal of ideas related to identity and the political climate.

Photo of Minnette de Silva at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948

The Rise of the Design Professional

Yuko Hashimoto explores the rapid evolution of design organizations in Japan in her article in the Encyclopedia of East Asian Design, tracing the popularity and promotion of design as a profession in the mid-20th century. She examines key figures and groups, such as the Japan Industrial Designers’ Association (JIDA), and their aims to establish a Japanese design industry. D. J. Huppatz looks at the development of the professional status of design in postwar Japan, postcolonial Sri Lanka and colonial Hong Kong in this chapter in Modern Asian Design, by focusing on the careers of three influential practitioners: Kenji Ekuan, who founded GK Industrial Design Associates in Japan in 1952 and designed numerous products, ranging from a soy sauce bottle to a high-speed train; Minnette De Silva, the pioneering female architect in an overwhelmingly male domain in Sri Lanka, who employed a combination of rich traditional architecture and Modernist ideas; and the graphic designer, Kan Tai-Keung, whose ink paintings and refined visual language contributed to the evolution of Hong Kong’s design scene.

Photo of Citroen 2CV, Le Havre, Normandy, France


The Citroën 2CV, or ‘Deux Chevaux’ (two horses) model, was introduced in 1948 and became one of France’s most successful cars. Simply constructed and affordable to buy and maintain, it was popular with France’s rural workers, with its enhanced suspension and small size allowing easier travel across farm tracks and unpaved roads, and through the narrow streets of towns and villages. Kjetil Fallan gives an overview of popular ‘people’s cars’ and their domestication in the chapter ‘Theory and Methodology’ in his book, Design History, and notes that the Citroën 2CV, designed to be able to safely transport a basket of eggs across a ploughed field, became a symbol of a European response to oversized and overdesigned American cars of the period. The Citroën company was initially established as an arms factory in 1919 by the French manufacturer, André Citroën (1878–1935), and then began producing cars after World War I. Paddy O’Shea writes about the founder in his article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design and describes the company’s liberal ideas and aims for social mobility in the early years. As highlighted by Martina D’Amato in her encyclopedia article, the Citroën 2CV was produced until 1990, sold more than five million units, and competed with other popular cars of the time aimed at working class families, such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Renault 4CV.

Image credits:
Homepage: 1955 interior of an American, designer house living room. Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Images above: 1) Abram Games Design for the Festival of Britain, 1951. National Archives/SSPL/Getty Images; 2) Guðjón Samúelsson, Church of Hallgrímur, Reykjavík, 1937–85. Photo by Charlotte Ashby; 3) Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine. Heritage Images/Getty Images; 4) Pembroke drop-leaf table. Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images; 5) Minnette de Silva at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace, 1948. Tomasz Gruszka/Alamy Stock Photo; 5) Citroën 2CV, Le Havre, Normandy, France. Photo by Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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