The Lecture Series: Modernism 1851 – Present.


In a nutshell, the war to end all wars, WWII, didn’t end war at all, but influenced change. A world traumatised by the horrors of the war was now ready for modernism. Modernists wanted to forget history, modernism didn’t just apply to design but to all forms of creative expression. Influential and honoured artists such as Escher and Picasso all wanted to start recreating the world and looking at it differently. This was the age of the ‘Ism’s; modernism; Dadaism; expressionism; futurism; symbolism; impressionism; cubism; constructionism, fauvism; and so on. These were all new modern ways of looking at the world after the war. Modernist architects were interested in emerging technology I.e. the use of concrete, glass and steel, modernists wanted to design a better future. Modernism was arguably the most prominent movement of the 20th century, from tables, house music and graphic design, all created by the aesthetics of modernism.

(Fig.1) Gerrit Rietveld. Modernist Childs wheelbarrow. 1923. Designed with simple shapes incorporating the early idea of modernism.


Along with radical changes in politics, technology and daily life influenced by the Industrial Revolution came a fundamental shift in the world and attitude of design. This revolution transformed the way we would think, work, and play forever, and it started here in Britain. As the 18th century progressed, new ideas, technological inventions and designs transformed our use of energy, creating an increasingly industrial and urbanised country. Prior to the ID revolution in the 1700’s, many people used DIY manufacturing methods of individual products in their own homes, however industrialisation influenced mass production. The iron and textiles industry saw a huge leap during the ID revolution with the development of the steam engine. Before the influx of the industrial revolution many citizens resided in small, cramped rural communities where their daily lives revolved mainly around agriculture. Daily life was difficult, income was low and malnourishment and disease was common. Overall the ID revolution improved peoples standards of living and provided an increased variety of consumable goods for the contemporary world.

Postcard of Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant
(Fig.2) An Assembly Line of the Ford Motor Company. – Image by © Rykoff Collection/CORBIS

Although the ID revolution and modernism for most people was seen as a good change and a step up in technology, ‘Luddite’s’ opposed to the technical change. These were a group of English workers from the early 19th century whom attacked factories and destroyed machinery to protest. Workers didn’t like the thought of machines doing our jobs for us, and felt like they were taking away the labour and work ethic especially in the industrial sectors. The struggles for workers of the ID revolution is highlighted tremendously in the film Billy Elliot.

The ‘1893 Locomotive’

(Fig.3) The John Bull 1893 Locomotive, a revolution in the iron and steel industry.


This was one of the biggest inventions of the iron and mechanical industry during the  ID revolution, this became the fastest vehicle of its time hitting a record speed of 112.5mph. The locomotive was displayed at the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposion in Chicago to be show for the A-Century of progress worlds fair. The Locomotive was a monumental design in history which was used up until its retirement in 1952.

World Fairs

Influenced and inspired by new designs and movements of the ID revolution, people and businesses from all-over the world were keen to showcase their ideas. The very first world fair show was the great exhibition in 1851, the exhibition, held in Hyde Park, London, brought together the works and designs of the industries from all nations. Notable figures such as Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll attended the exhibition, as well as sir George Thomas Smart whom directed the opening music for the fair. Great Britain excelled all other countries with the strength, quality and utility of our works in the fields of iron and steel, machinery and textiles. For Great Britain the exhibition advertised the transition into a better future, the EU had just recovered from the social and political struggles and now was the perfect opportunity for change, and through design and technology we accomplished this.

(Fig.4) The crystal Palace exhibition, London, 1851. The coming together of modernism from all industries.

Great Britain were the leaders of innovation throughout the great exhibition, until exhibits became international due to the moving power of civilisation. After this came the Paris fair, gaining attention from their Eiffel tower, France called this the “Belle Époque” meaning “The beautiful era.” This was the beginning of a new style of art, architecture and design called Art Noveau, or otherwise known as Jugendstil, popular between 1890 and 1910. The art was inspired by natural forms and structures, where architects tried to harmonize with the natural environment. Many wealthy Europeans were so inspired by the movement that the incorporated Art Noveau throughout their households, buying Art Noveau furniture, fabrics, silverware, ceramics etc.

(Fig.5) Custom designed and built Cherry and Walnut Art Nouveau sideboard. Just one example of an Art Noveau furnishing. Many Art Noveau pieces incorporated floral decoration within their design.
(Fig 6.) Antonio Gaudi – The Criterion Collection (1984)
(Fig.7) Art Noveau jewellery. Antique Art Nouveau Amethyst Lorgnette in 18K

Soon after the 20th Century, Art Noveau was replaced by modernist styles, however this transition highlights the fundamental evolution amidst eclectic historic revival styles of the 19th century and modernism. Industrialization was moving so fast, the US soon became the worlds leading industrial nation. Some very early designs influenced and created within the ID revolution were:

Herman Hass’ stoneware tableware, tea and coffee service and children’s play set

(Fig.8) Herman Hass tableware set


 designed for Villeroy Boch, showcased at the Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition at Cologne, 1914. The tableware was made from simple forms with modest decoration, however the pieces highlighted the plurality of styles which can be achieved even using the simplest most inexpensive design techniques. The stoneware was a new modernist design favoured by women and families, these historical items are a favourite for collectors today.

In the same year Fritz Helmut Ehmcke designed the Deutscher Werkbund cigar box which can be purchased today at a staggering price of $6,495,000, but of course it is history, and much more than just a cigar box. The cigar box prided itself for the typographic design. The front dictation of the box reads “To our comrade Hermann Göring, in remembrance of the National Socialist Party Congress – Nuremberg 1929”. The signatures of notable figures such as Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Julius Streicher , Jakob Grimminger, Heinrich Himmer, Franz von Epp, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Rosenberg, Goebbels, Horst Wessel, etc. read around the sides of the cigar box.

(Fig.9) The historical Fritz Hellmut designed Cigar Box

The list of incredible innovation and design as a result of modernism and the influence of the industrial revolution goes on and on, after the horrors of WWII people wanted to recreate the world, design would change and harmonize the views on society and drain people of their shock and hatred. People finally had the opportunity to open their minds and have a bit of fun.

Following the hugely enlightening discussion of the benefits of industrialization and modernism on Britain and the world, Chris went on to talk about the effects which the great war 1914-1918 had on Europe, casting a dark shadow over the beneficiation of the ID revolution and being a drastic cause of the great depression following a decade later. He went over the socio-political history of the 20th century and used a toilet seat example to explain the division of political groups  and the effect their power had on society. The power of supremacy groups and leaders made it easy to manipulate countries into left or right wing thinking.

Left wing ideology is interested in the sharing of resources amongst all, and believes that the state rules over all aspects of life. Left wing thinking is associated with communism and socialism, parts of the world such as Cuba, North Korea, USSR and the Eastern Bloc were on this side. Leaders such as Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao-Tse-Tung were major left wing thinkers.

Right wing ideology promoted capitalism and fascism, the most extreme way of thinking with the ideology that ‘only the powerful survive’. Right wing thinkers were racists, elitists, white supremacists. Extremist groups such as the BNP, KKK, and the Nazi’s were all strong believers of right wing thinking, along with leaders such as Mussaini and Hitler.

Then we have the moderate way of thinking at the top of the toilet seat, this is where the labour party would sit, and we have to thank them for their founding of the NHS after the war. In the centre of the toilet seat sits despotism, which means one person rules with absolute power.

How Dadaism and Punk was influenced by modernism

I just want to highlight how Dadaism and punk was influenced by the war horrors and both movements became so well known due to their belief that “nothing is true, and everything is permitted” the attitude of both was hatred, and disbelief. Both movements of Dadaism and punk were a social outburst frustration, and a fight against stereotypical art and traditional beliefs.

“The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the war and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidy in both art and everyday society..” –

To delve deeper into this relevant comparison visit Punk is Dadaism.



  1. Gerrit Rietveld. Child’s wheelbarrow. 1923. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Beeldrecht, Amsterdam

  1. Industrial inventions, the ford motor line,
  2. John Bull locomotive
  3. Crystal palace exhibition, London,
  4. Custom designed and built Cherry and Walnut Art Nouveau sideboard with Cala Lily Marquetry panels, carved walnut skirt and feet, and Claro Walnut curved top. Interior, behind doors, are two curved front drawers, and shelves for storage.
  5. Antonio Gaudi – The Criterion Collection (1984) The great innovator of the Spanish Art Nouveau movement, architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudi left an indelible mark on artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali — and on the city of Barcelona, where the bulk of Gaudi’s distinctive work still stands.  Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara guides viewers through the achievements of the playful, Gothic surrealist.
  6. Art Nouveau design encompassed many distinct features including a focus on the female form and on nature. Common motifs included orchids, irises, pansies, vines, swans, peacocks, snakes, dragonflies and the female silhouette. Antique Art Nouveau Amethyst Lorgnette in 18K


8. Herman Hass’ stoneware tableware,


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