The Meaning of Design Under the Machine Age
While describing any cultural era, both in art and design, it is important to remember that any age has its character. And this character is particular for this age only, though it may certainly have some common features with any other preceding era as art tends to develop spirally. It is also important for any scholar trying to describe a design era to stick to the main representatives whose creativity would embody the character of the era under discussion. David Raizman in the ninth chapter of his book “The History of modern design: graphics and products since the Industrial Revolution” discusses the meaning of design under the Machine Age. Raizman analyses the time offering the opinions of several modern designers of the time. Raizman mentions Herman Muthesius’ advocacy of “more sober, solid and restrained esthetic” as opposed to the Art Nouveau expressive decorations. He also pays necessary tribute to the esthetics of De Stijl, the Dutch artistic movement, which determined neoplasticism (the new plastic art) to be their artistic philosophy. De Stijl’s proponents favored a “principle of balance between the universal and individual” and the equivalency of the former with the elemental geometric vocabulary. To illustrate the concept, Raizman uses Vilmos Huszar’s lettering for the early issues of De Stijl magazine, which included a number of black rectangles of the same width that formed letters using parallel shapes and right angles. He also examines the further findings of Mondrian and Van Doesburg embodied in the new cover for De Stijl magazine.
As an illustration of the furniture field of design David Raizman chooses Gernt Rietvild’s red/blue armchair, which enables to visualize the incorporation of the negative space through the extension of joints beyond the point where right angles meet. Raizman further turns to van Doesburg’s use of color. He discusses the subject in terms of its use in architecture, providing illustrations for J.J.P. Oud’s De Vonk building and Piet Mondrian’s studios that enable the readers to comprehend the basic principles for the interiors in De Stijl style. To be able to illustrate the character of the group’s style, Raizman could not have omitted the most famous project of De Stijl in architecture – the Schroder House. The author offers picture of both the interior and the exterior of the house, which allow seeing the embodiment of the group’s principles in full.
The subject is further studied through van Doesburg’s Café L’Aubette, “Cine-Dancing”. The use of the diagonal in the formed is thought to have alienated Mondrian from the group. The civic projects of J.J.P. Oud differed from the vision of van Doesburg and Mondrian – rejecting color designs and “leaning towards uniformity” with “an increasing emphasis on efficiency, economic necessity and social responsibility”. Oud’s housing blocks in Weissenhof colony of 1927 considerably differs from the illustration of Theo van Doesburg’s Café L’Aubette of 1928-1929. The formed is often referred to as the early example of a functional “International Style”. Van Doesburg’s design was not able to sustain public interest or offer solution to the emerging social problems, and eventually became the object of public criticism and indifference.
David Raizman continues the description of the Machine Age turning to the topic of constructivism. Alexander Rodchenko’s design for the Soviet Workers Club is, according to Raizman, a mature example of the constructivism. The artistic movement of constructivism has been based on the new abstract art, whose most prominent representative was Kasimir Malevich, who favored the concept of Suprematism – the expression of feeling in art and the idea of “collective creative art”, encouraging the artists of the current art group of UNOVIS to exhibit the works of art anonymously. Raizman names Vasily Kandinsky among the pioneers of the analytical approach to abstraction as they have studied and experimented with the psychological effects of the colors and other elements of design. In the Soviet Union the non-objective art was used for propaganda as well as for the universal spiritual expression. El Lissitsky’s most famous poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” as well as his later works (PROUNS) may serve as a curious illustration of the new art. Raizman later chooses Vladimir Tatlin to represent the attempt to reduce the gap between the masses and the abstract art – his abstract collages used ordinary industrial mass-produced materials as the objects of art. David Raizman also draws the reader’s attention to the cover of El Lissitsky’s magazine “Vesch” (“The Object”) as if compared and contrasted to De Stijl magazine’s previous illustration. Raizman then turns to the illustration of Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Monument of the Third international and claims it had numerous symbolic references. Lissitsky, according to Raizman, compared “the strength of iron to the will of the proletariat” and “the glass to the clarity of its conscience”, while Tatlin’s aim was to stimulate artists to merge art and engineering. Practical application of art in terms of collective social needs was Rodchenko’s and INKHUK organization’s efforts. Later the Working Group of Constructivist Artists was formed whose materialist view of culture initiated a growing conflict between the artists. As a result, some of them, who did not support this view of the role of the art and artists, migrated to the West. Among them were Vasily Kandisky and Naum Gabo.
The Soviet group of artists further envisions designers as draftsmen rather than fine artists, however, the designs continued to be utopian to a large extent, meaning the inability to be applied in real life backed by a depressed economy and lack of skill and technology necessary for production. Lack of party or public support made the Soviet designers turn to posters, journals and ads which enabled to apply the Constructivist principles. David Raizman illustrates the main principles via Rodchenko’s, Klustis and El Lissitsky posters. And then turns to the next topic under discussion: The Bauhaus, whose manifesto favored the equality and collaboration between the artists and the craftsmen. The best example of these efforts is embodied in the Sommerfeld House in Berlin. The school further turned to creative solutions for efficient living and the esthetic appreciation of the material’s potential later embodied in Haus-am-Horn. Beyond Bauhaus Trude Petri’s Urbino line of porcelain dinnerware and Mies van der Rohe’s tubular metal furniture emerged (both authors belonged to the Bauhaus to some extent).
Raizman also turns to the Printing Industry with a careful examination of the trends of the Machine Age. The “First Machine Age” of the interwar period was a characterized by “the absence of serifs and other calligraphic features, as well as the use of modular or interchangeable elements”, Raizman claims. He personifies the Constructivist principles with Han Tschichold, who favored clear and direct communication and emphasized the importance of the white space as a part of composition. Raizman also pays tribute to the British graphic design very much connected to the tube and typography and to the “Scandinavian” modernism and the more abstract art of the Surrealism.
The utopian character of the design under machine age, though it tended to combine art and craftsmanship, is an obvious characteristics of the tough times of the interwar period. David Raizman was successful enough to offer a clear illustration of the most particular features of the design under the Machine Age.