The History of Modern Furniture
Out with the Old, In with the New
Before the modernist design movement in the 19th Century, furniture was designed to be ornate and complicated with little or no regard for functionality. Furniture was mostly intended for design and aesthetic appeal, being constructed out of dark, gilded woods and expensive fabrics with rich, often arabesque designs. The amount of hours that went into creating a piece of furniture determined its value.
With the coming of the 19th Century, the modernist design movement introduced different, more advanced methods of manufacturing furniture as well as new materials which completely revolutionized home furniture. The style of furniture went from being very visually heavy to visually light instead.
During the first half of the 20th Century, the emphasis switched from furniture being an ornament and focused instead on making furniture more functional and accessible. Previously, the idea was to keep true to lineage and tradition. The focus of the design, both in architecture and in furniture, was on the past. Modern furniture changed the whole idea of focus by embracing the idea of the new and original, rather than the tried and true. It sought to embrace the present and the future, as well as the idea of free thinking, independence, and practicality, rather than the stuffy views of past.
Additionally, there is no single influence that spurred the modernist movement, but rather, it evolved out of a combination of different influences, not the least of which were the new, unique materials that hadn’t yet been tried, as well as innovative methods of manufacturing. Plus, the revolutionary philosophies that came from the Werkbund and the Bauhaus Schools played a large role in contributing to the change in design. Other influences include exotic designs from other countries, Art Nouveau, and of course, the immensely creative artists and designers from that time period.
Instead of the old-fashioned gilded wood and sculpture, designers turned instead to different materials to construct their pieces. Many different forms of steel emerged in various designs, as well as molded plywood (the kind used by Charles and Ray Eames), and different types of plastics as well. The idea was to create the ideal balance between aesthetics and practicality, and while it is true that function stayed at the forefront of the designer’s plan, they still wanted to create strong pieces that were easy to manipulate. Because of this thinking, new colors, textures, and shapes were used as well.
Such blatant disregard for the traditions of the past would very likely have been considered shocking to many, but the way the materials and the methods blended together to create new designs produced an innovative blend of art and technology. This blend started a new philosophy with the members of the Deutscher Werkbund.
The Werkbund is an organization, sponsored by the government, whose mission was to promote German art and design to the rest of the world. A considerable amount of people involved with it, such as Mies van Der Rohe and Lilly Reich, were also a part of the Bauhaus School later on. Their main idea was to allow the use of the new materials to be mass produced in order to make them more accessible to the general populace.
The desire to use complex, baroque designs in furniture had many challengers, among them the use of new materials, the drive of the wave of designers, and also the fact that Asian and African design were much more accessible than they used to be. More particularly, Japanese design was revolutionary in its influences on the modernist movement. Because when Japan’s isolationist policy began to soften toward the end of the 19th Century, they began to trade with the west most enthusiastically.
Because of the Japanese styles, which featured simple designs and shapes that still managed to be elegant and beautiful due to their use of solid colors and little embellishment, the trend took Europe by storm. It is believed by some that the western Art Nouveau movement is the direct result of the Japanese design wave. Notable designers—Charles Rennie MacIntosh, Eileen Gray, and Frank Lloyd Wright—are well known for not only their modern and Art Deco work, but for their unique method of creating a new blend of the two styles.
The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer
Arguably, the Wassily Chair symbolizes all that modern furniture was meant to represent. Also known as the Model B3 chair, the Wassily Chair was designed by Marcel Breuer around 1925 during the period that he was working as the head of the cabinet-making workshop in Dessau, Germany.
What makes the chair most remarkable is the fact that it’s an abstract design with symmetrical, thin, panel-like shapes. The overall effect of its design is that the chair almost appears to be hovering in the air. Breuer’s remarkable design is attributed to his incredible use of tubular steel and minimalist leather straps.
The Eileen Gray Side Table
The Eileen Gray Side Table was originally designed in 1927 for use in a guest room in the home she designed for herself in France. It’s an asymmetrical piece that epitomizes Gray’s “non-conformist” style, and it was inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments done by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus School at the time. It does, however, have a useful function in that it can be adjusted in such a way to allow it to be used to eat breakfast in bed. Gray’s sister liked the side table so much that she always requested the use of the table when she visited E-1027.
The Barcelona Chair
The Barcelona Chair is quite possibly the most famous of all modern chairs. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, it’s a unique, ever-present classic that was designed in 1929 for the German Pavilion in the Barcelona Exposition. Possible sources of inspiration for the chair include the folding chairs that the Pharaohs of Egypt used and the ‘X’ shaped footstools the Romans used. In 1953, Mies van der Rohe sold the manufacturing rights to Knoll.
The Barcelona Chair and its matching ottoman are completely hand-crafted crafted from leather with a hand-buffed frame. It also features Spinneybeck volo cowhide panels. The Barcelona Lounge Collection was awarded The Museum of Modern Art Award in 1977 and as such, the chair is considered functional art, and not just furniture.
The Tulip Chair by Eero Saarinen
The Tulip Chair was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957 with the setting in mind, rather than the shape. The chair features a single leg which is made from fiberglass-reinforced resin. Saarinen realized that all furniture from the past had a holistic design and so he wanted to craft a new piece of furniture that didn’t. With the Tulip Chair, he succeeded, and his efforts were recognized by many, especially when the Tulip Chair won the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1969, as well as several other awards.
The design of the chair is, in some ways, customizable. The chair itself is available in either black or white, with optional arms, and it also features an optional cushion that comes in many different colors. Even today, some fifty years after the Tulip Chair’s original construction, it remains one of the most popular items in modern furniture stores.
Noguchi Coffee Table
Designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the Noguchi Coffee Table is an incredible blend of wood and glass, which is elegant in its simplicity. The table’s balance of aesthetics and functionality has made it a staple of modern furniture ever since it’s creation in 1948.
The Noguchi Coffee Table came into being when one of Noguchi’s designs was used as an example of “How to Make a Table.” Noguchi had always been well-known for his love of experimentation with materials (which included anything from bones to paper), as well as his love of simple beauty.
Looking to the Future
While it is true that the idea of modern furniture may wax and wane as time goes by, it is quite likely that ‘modern’ is a concept that will remain popular for a considerable time to come. Modern furniture features pieces that are portable, useful, durable, and practical, and for that reason, many people will continue to prefer these types of designs in their homes.
Not only that, but today’s designers are continuing to experiment and create new pieces with more functionality. They’re still trying out new materials, new shapes, and new manufacturing techniques. Plus, true to the modernist movement of the 19th Century, they’re still embracing the ‘now’ in their efforts to keep the pieces simple and maintain the ideals of independence and free thought.
Even though the designs that are considered to most represent the concept of modern furniture were crafted during the middle of last century, they are still considered the most applicable symbols of the modern age. And while the future is largely uncertain, it’s likely that they’ll maintain their iconic status even among the designs yet to come.