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Phillip Johnson

Modern Tastes in a Post-Modern World: 5 Reasons Why Modernism Will Never Die


Not to be confused with contemporary design, the modern design aesthetic (aptly termed Modernism) was first popularized in the mid-1940s by design greats like Richard Neutra, Phillip Johnson and Charles and Ray Eames.

Since its inception, modern design has been the champion of creating balance between the user and the furnishing. “Form follows function” is the modernist’s mantra, and unless the design is expertly crafted both visually and physically, then it cannot be classified as good design. To quote Dieter Rams: “Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better—because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”

This pure simplicity that Rams refers to is found in modern furniture design, architecture and product design. Clean lines, industrial materials and functionality are the three elements of Modernism that designers strive to share with the world: Modernism is truth.

Why is it that after seven decades Modernism is still such a powerful force in design? We can barely count the reasons on one hand:

1)  Modern design exemplifies the phrase, “what you see is what you get.” Looking at modern architecture as an example, we can see that modernism is about the integrity of the materials and structural elements of the design. Freshome shares that this is why most modern designs “eschew unnecessary design details” and focus on “featur[ing] elements of wood, steel and glass in order to show-off [the] industrial materials.”

2) By stripping objects of their unnecessary weight (such as with non-functioning design flourishes) designers have brought home dwellers closer to a more organic way of living. Living organically was championed by many modern designers. Living organically through open floor plans and with clean-lined furniture pieces was believed to help inhabitants live better, less stressful lives. In part, this is true: people do feel better when there is no clutter.

3) The sculptural simplicity of modern furniture design (just look at the Eames lounge chair) is enough to “decorate” a space. Interiors are completed by the modern design of the furniture. As the architect Louis Kahn put most eloquently, “Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration [and] love.” The beauty of the furnishing is the furnishing. Modern furniture is not about showing off. Modern furniture is about creating balance between form and attraction, between function and ease.

4) Modern design pieces can fit into any other type of design aesthetic. Because modern furnishings are so simple and pure in form, they can help to anchor a space that would, without these pieces, fail. An interior cannot and will not work if there is nothing to ground it. Modern design elements help the eyes to focus on simple forms and brings the user into the space gracefully and slowly. A jarring space made up of loud colors and coarse textures is unwelcoming. A space grounded by familiar shapes and surfaces tells the user they are safe.

5) Despite modern furnishings and accessories being one of the more expensive retail products, people are happy to spend the money because they know the products they are purchasing are long-lasting. Modern furnishings are made with industrial materials and are tested to last. In essence, modern design is an investment: modern design is aesthetically pleasing and functionally superior.

There’s a reason the Eames chair and Wassily chair are still manufactured today. There’s a reason why modern architecture continues to be built. Modernism is a design movement that bares it all, without being nihilistic.

Leave the nihilism to the post-modernists. For a sharp interior and thoughtful living, look to Modernism.