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The Modern Movement – which unhesitatingly removed all ornament and permitted a constructional form to emerge emancipated from petty structural conceits, paying full attention to the qualities of the material and honesty in the use of it – no less than the movements that preceded it, came into existence in response to certain definite problems, starting as a protest against the intolerable ugliness of the nineteenth century home. The objects made at this time are an expression of a mode of thinking and feeling – an essential part of the age itself.

Some designers, awakening to the potentialities of the twentieth century and the marvels of modern industry, shared the feeling that industrial design and the products made by the machine might be as legitimate a form of artistic expression as those made by human hands. Hand in hand with a strong belief in the machine was an appreciation for designs of a classically pure perfection – to simplify or eliminate decoration and to preserve the qualities inherent in natural materials.

In the immediate years before World War I, modern designers were becoming increasingly aware of the challenge of an industrialized society and the vivid beauty of engineering, whose celebrated monument was the Eiffel Tower. The War brought dynamic changes in people’s lives and thoughts. Hence, by 1920, a new, very powerful synthesis of modern design ideals sprang up and became embodied in the work of artists’ groups in various European countries, as in Holland, Germany and France. In 1919 the Germans opened a new school under the tutelage of Walter Gropius to teach experimental methods of designing for the machine. This school, whose influence has been pre-eminent, was called the Staatliches Bauhaus. The students were urged to explore industrial materials and processes, to experiment freely and boldly, but always to keep in mind the purpose their design should serve; that is, form should follow function, creation for use.

One of the great innovators of chromium-plated steel furniture was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who succeeded Walter Gropius as director of the Bauhaus. His sleek Barcelona chair, which entrusts the sitter’s weight to cantileverage, has become a classic. The best qualities of Mies’ work – economy of line, beauty of proportion, and extreme precision – are revealed in this chair.

It was at this period that the tide of functionalist modern reverencing the influence of Germany – that is, all this geometric purity in design, which has in it something abstract, something purely rational – had its brief moment. It was inevitable, however, that a reaction set in against the cold simplification of forms of the 1920s, which only admits as much comfort as is compatible with its abstract notions of pure beauty.

In France a quarter of a century had elapsed since Art Nouveau, and the French realized that the time had come to conform to the requirements and conditions of present-day life, to harmonize the decorative arts with current tastes and new architectural concepts. The outcome was the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs covering more than seventy acres along the right bank of the Seine, which opened in 1925. Furniture showed by many designers merely took up the old French classicism, but it was interpreted according to the ideals and philosophy of the twentieth century – a whole new attitude of mind.

Ruhlmann, whose work exercised a wide and beneficial influence on interior decoration in France, was one of the first with the courage to conceive and carry out works that were entierly rational in construction, relying for their beauty mainly on the general harmony and balance of lines. But furniture so conceived required beauty of material, beauty of execution. Ruhlmann appreciated these values from the outset. He was especially fond of exotic woods – macassar, ebony, and amaranth – from which he obtained exquisite effects, ornamenting them with ivory marquetry which never wandered beyond the limits of good taste.

The progress made by the Modern movement is clearly portrayed in chairs, which reveal the character of a period more fully than any other piece of furniture. The chair has always been, if only by reason of necessity, the undisputed queen of domestic furniture. But now in this age of simple interiors, of disappearing wall space, built-in storiage cupboards or furniture that behaves as if built-in, such as sectional storage and seating units, the chair has become even more important. All ingenuity is brought into play to design chairs having agreable silhouettes, relative transparency, portability, durability, and confort.

Learn about each era:

> Middle Ages

> Renaissance and Louis XIII
> Louis XIV
> Régence
> Louis XV
> Transition and Louis XVI
> Directoire
> Empire
> XIXth century
> Art Nouveau
> The Modern Movement

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