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The Twentieth-Century Style

( Original Published 1935 )

The style that we call modern, contemporary, international, engineers', or functional might best be known as the twentiethcentury style because probably the historians will call it that. The terms contemporary or modern would naturally have applied to any style at the time when it first appeared, and, therefore, are not definite enough. The term international applies very well, but it does not make this style distinct from others because the important styles of the past were also international. The term modernistic is now properly applied to that eccentric, exaggerated form of modern that is perpetrated by untrained designers.

There should no longer be any doubt that the modern movement has produced a definite style. It has reached a stage where it shows clearly its relation to contemporary life, as well as to new materials and new methods of construction. This new style is a product of the machine, and also of the questioning attitude of a scientific age. It would be strange indeed if there were not now a revolution in style, when there has been a revolution in our manner of living, in our ethical standards, and in our social attitudes. The speed and directness of the spirit of this century are expressed in the lines of the automobiles, speed boats, airplanes, buildings, and furnishings of today. The arts of music, literature, sculpture, and painting also take on new forms in this thrilling twentieth century. Those who contend that a new style can not be arbitrarily created with such suddenness, but must grow gradually through many years, fail to take into account the fact that our tempo of living is such today that we change about as much in ten years as our ancestors changed in a thousand.

It is of course impossible to evaluate the twentieth century movement at this stage in its development. It is still young and is growing and changing swiftly.


The modern style in architecture is a reaction against the slavish imitation of traditional styles that has now persisted for centuries. It is very strange that architects failed to shake off the yoke of the past much sooner than they did. It seems as if their faith in their own creative ability must have been killed by the kind of training they went through, based on worship of past achievements.

The world was looking backward in architecture and saw chiefly revivals of the Classic with occasionally a Gothic or Romanesque interval. Accordingly the aged acanthus continued to decorate the buildings of Iowa because the Greeks used it twenty-three hundred years ago. Corn motifs would have some significance in the corn belt, but the acanthus plant is a stranger to America. In much the same way the lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago usurp places that belong to our picturesque pensioners the buffaloes, or to the oxen, or plowhorses that have had a share in the development of the Middle West.

It was a young American architect and philosopher, Louis Sullivan, who first realized the falsity of using architectural forms based on the past instead of on the present. For an appreciation of Sullivan's contribution to American culture see H. O. Rugg's book "Culture and Education in America." Louis Sullivan led architects to create buildings that expressed their function. He wanted a bank, indoors and out, to look like a bank, not like a Greek temple. Frank Lloyd Wright and other followers of Sullivan have helped to carry on the work he began, both in Europe and America.

Since 1900 many changes have taken place in the architecture of America and Europe. There was a transitional stage, half modern and half traditional, which lasted until the World War. This stage produced some very strange combinations, among them several skyscrapers with walls of modern plainness, but with thoroughly antiquated protruding roofs and cornices, like a woman in a smart, tailored suit wearing an old-fashioned flowery picture hat.

Since the World War the modern style has clarified itself. Many American architects are now building in the twentieth-century style, avoiding nearly all nonessentials. Holland and Germany have produced excellent work that was designed to meet the requirements of function. The more radical builders claim that beauty as a separate consideration has no place in such scientific work as building has come to be. They say that any beauty that happens to develop should grow merely out of the materials used and the forms that function best. They claim justly enough that the very best American architecture consists of warehouses, grain elevators, and silos, in which beauty was not deliberately planned. They ignore the very important fact, however, that any builder must constantly make choices as to space divisions, and that his choices can contribute toward or detract from the beauty of a building.

The leaders in modern European architecture are generally considered to be Le Corbusier of Switzerland and France; Lurcat of France; Oud of Holland; and Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Mendelsohn of Germany. Current periodicals on architecture indicate the leaders in the United States, the large cities having their own favorites. America leads the world in architecture today.

Materials. The new building materials now available have made a change in style of building inevitable. Metal, glass, and reinforced concrete are taking the place of wood and stone. It is important in considering the new architecture to realize that the steel framework carries the weight of the building, the walls being merely shells to provide shelter and privacy. The steel framework might be compared to the ribs of an umbrella and the walls to the cloth. A thick stone or brick facing outside the wall proper and serving no purpose can hardly justify itself merely for the sake of appearance. Thin walls with windows flush are the logical development of modern construction.

Metals, of course, are the materials that express the machine age better than any others. Our buildings, transportation, and machines depend upon metals for their success. Glass too has come to be an important building material, but its great possibilities have not yet been explored. Factories, office buildings, and shops have benefited from its use in a new way. It has excellent qualities, as it protects from dirt, noise, and bad weather, without shutting out sunlight. Glass that admits the healthful ultra-violet rays is a feature of modern architecture.

Many remarkable new synthetic materials also are used today, which anyone who is building a house or buying furniture should investigate. Some new exterior building materials are hollow glass building blocks and composition blocks. For interiors there are the numerous plastic compositions such as Vinylite, Carrara, Vitrolite (glass), cork plate, linoleum, Bakelite, rubber, Masonite Prestwood, Celotex, Incelwood, and Sheetrock.

Design of Houses. Twentieth-century houses emphasize horizontal lines. These give a feeling of stability, and of unity with the ground on which they stand. Horizontalism also expresses speed, as in the lines of motors, trains, and boats. This is a quality of the present century, and seems appropriate in our buildings. The elimination of attics and basements adds to the horizontal appearance of houses. Pointed roofs that were originally intended to encourage the snow to slide off are no longer necessary, since our building materials are now stronger. The attic is unnecessary as protection from heat or cold if the temperature in the house is controlled. Flat roofs are very useful as porches. The furnace can be placed on the first floor, with laundry and storage in the same room. Some modern European architects consider the furnace entirely too interesting to be hidden away. It is, therefore, sometimes placed in the corridor of an apartment house or in some other place where it can be seen.

In designing the arrangement of rooms in a house the modern builder plans the rooms according to function and lets the exterior design be as it may. This is very different from selecting a period style house and then fitting the occupants and their needs into the house. The modern builder often likes to place the service portion of the house, such as the garage, kitchen, and furnace room, towards the street. He then locates the living room and dining alcove so that they face a garden in the rear. In general, fewer partitions are used in the new houses. Since it does not weaken modern structure, windows are often placed at the corners of the house, as this is a desirable place for them. In the interests of health more windows are used than formerly, unless air-control systems are installed.

Although these houses are planned with great care for the convenience of the housewife, it seems at the present time that American women are slow in accepting modern houses, because they consider them too severe. When people become more accustomed to the seeming bareness of the modern style it will be more appreciated. Since modern furnishings are well received, and since it is difficult to use modern furnishings in a traditional type of house, it probably will not be long before modern houses too are generally accepted.


The modern movement in decoration and furnishing as well as in architecture has developed since iqoo and has spread over the Western world. The use of this style is here considered in those countries which have contributed most to the development of the modern movement.

Austria. In the decorative arts the modern movement was started by Gustav Klimt and his followers in Vienna. It was developed further by Joseph Hofmann and the Wiener Werkstatte. The influence of this group spread to other countries, Joseph Urban bringing it to New York City. The modern movement in Austria affected first small accessories and was later extended to furniture and interiors.

Germany. The German development seems to have been simultaneous with the Austrian, beginning in the artists' colony in Darmstadt under the leadership of Olbrich. The German articles were larger, more solid, and more restrained than the rather sophisticated Austrian things. The fine modern work of the German architects encouraged the development of modern interiors, in fact very often the architect also planned the built-in furniture.

Sweden. In the first modern international exposition of decorative arts, held in Paris in r9a5, the Swedish exhibition was outstanding in artistic merit. At the exposition in Stockholm in 1930, Sweden exhibited more simple, functional furnishings. She has not only produced these artistic things cheaply by machine processes, but has also taught her buying public to appreciate them. The Kungsholm, a Swedish liner, has the most artistic decoration and furnishing of any of the great ships. It has retained a native flavor that makes it a significant achievement in the contemporary mode of decoration. For a more complete account of the Swedish contribution to modern art see an article, "Why Sweden Leads in Design," in the American Art Magazine for April, 1933, written by the author of this book.

France. France was somewhat slow about accepting a style that she did not create. Not until her famous dressmakers came to realize that modern gowns look best against modern backgrounds, did her revolution of style begin. The first international exposition of modern decorative arts was held in Paris in 1925. Most of the things exhibited were sophisticated and highly ornamented. The French liner, the Ile de France, is an example of French achievement in the earlier, more elaborate type of modern decoration, containing individual productions of special beauty such as La Lique glass, Rodier fabrics, and Paul Poiret decorations. French designers handle the modern style with spirit and gayety.

The United States. In 1925 the United States was invited to exhibit in the Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Paris, but had nothing to send. Now, only a few years later, we have constructed the World's Fair at Chicago, Rockefeller Center, and hundreds of smaller projects in the contemporary style. Strangely enough, modernism has been received with some hostility in this country, except by people who have been trained in design. The best designers feel that this functional style is peculiarly expressive of the twentieth-century American spirit. Since America has been subsisting upon borrowed styles, it should be cordial to this new arrival which belongs to America as much as to any nation, because it is so closely related to the modern architectural developments which began here and spread to Europe.

Paul T. Frankl is one of the outstanding modern designers and decorators in the United States. His books, "New Dimensions" and "Form and Reform," explain the aesthetics of modern decoration. Joseph Urban was a pioneer in the modern movement. Norman Bet Geddes, who has succeeded in many fields of design, explains his beliefs in his book "Horizons." Donald Deskey is doing outstanding work in design and interior decoration. A few of the other skilful modern workers are Gilbert Rohde, Eugene Schoen, William Lescaze, Russel Wright, Winold Reiss, and Pola and Wolfgang Hoffman. On the West Coast, Kem Weber and Douglas Donaldson in Los Angeles, and Rudolph Schaeffer in San Francisco, are teaching and practicing modern interior decoration.

Recent Developments in the Twentieth-Century Style. There have been two distinct phases of the modern movement. The first one, which came to a close with the Paris Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in 1925, produced forms that were very individual. They were often eccentric, over-adorned, and very costly to produce. The second stage of this movement is now well advanced and seems to express the essence of the machine age. The aim of the designers is now to create simple, beautiful, functional things, suitable for mass production by machinery, at such low cost as to be available to all. This stage is developing slowly here as compared to its growth in some European countries. When it is fully developed we may have standardized furnishings that will be cheap enough so that many more people can have them than now do. With mass production a wide variety of choice will still be possible, so that a woman can still express herself in her surroundings. The most important thing about the modern style is that in using it we are expressing the age in which we live instead of copying the work of past generations, who were expressing the times in which they lived.

Materials. Both the use of marvelous new materials and a more dramatic use of old materials are typical of the twentiethcentury style. This is as true indoors as it is outdoors. There is at present a preference for hard, shiny, metallic materials, with reflections, so that the effect is bright and piercing. The spirit of the machine age expresses itself best in metal and glass; these materials and not wood are the materials of the future. Metal furniture will eventually replace wooden furniture, as it is stronger and can be equally light in weight. It will withstand the heat and dryness of our apartments. It can be molded into any form and can be as beautiful as wood if properly designed. In the past, too often manufacturers tried to imitate the grain of wood on metals, even using a photographic process to get natural-looking grain. When real artists are invited to design metal furniture, it will lose the coldness and impersonal quality that are now resented by critics of the modern style.

Aluminum is one of the metals that serves in many new ways. Chromium is valued for its extreme hardness and also because it will not rust, stain, or corrode; its alloy, stainless steel, has become indispensable. Monel metal, an alloy of nickel and copper, is valuable for its durability and resistance to corrosion and chemicals. Therefore it is used on sinks, drainboards, and tables. Metal fireplaces are logical and are often handsome.

Metal tubing is not generally liked for the frames of indoor furniture as it resembles plumbing. It looks better in gardens and porches, and is very suitable for beauty parlors and public places where serviceability is stressed. Flat metal bands are much more desirable than tubing for the frames of furniture designed for home use.

Glass is one of the most valuable materials for interiors as well as exteriors. It combines very well with metals, having the same clean precision of planes. Naturally it is hardly the material to use in a home where there are children, but it is remarkably strong. A mirror top on a low table is an endless source of interest, as the effect can be changed daily. Glass table tops also provide sparkle and interest in homes. Glass may be decorated by sand blasting, etching, or cutting. It is to be hoped that kitchen and bathroom walls of glass will, through mass production, become reasonable in price, for they are highly desirable.

Among the favorite exotic woods used for modern furniture are the tulip, lemon, palissandre, ebony, rosewood, satinwood, amaranth, and mahogany. Some of these woods have a red, purple, or yellow tinge. Harewood or sycamore, dyed gray, is a favorite again, after having been in retirement since the time of Louis XV. Surfaces that are not decorated have to be made of beautiful materials in order to be interesting to most people. Therefore the grain of exotic woods is now highly esteemed. All woods, however, are appreciated more than formerly and are often left their natural color.

One outstanding new synthetic material is the remarkable Cellophane, made from wood pulp which is treated until it becomes liquid. When poured through a narrow slit into a chemical bath it forms the familiar film. When poured through tiny holes it produces threads which are practically like those that are woven into Rayon and Celanese. Cellophane is now used for upholstery and curtain material, and its possible uses are numerous. Fabrikoid is another cellulose product. It is a coated cotton cloth that is tough and waterproof and is a fine substitute for leather. It is used for upholstering porch and garden furniture. Lacquer fabrics are made by the application of the so-called lacquers with hot rollers.

Form. Modern furniture forms are noted for their simplicity, unusual shapes, and low, horizontal effects. Seats of automobiles perhaps first made us aware of the desirability of low chairs. Tables, lamps, bookshelves, dressing tables, beds, sofas, and other articles are also made low in the modern style. The design of modern furniture is based on the fundamental forms, rectangles, triangles, and circles. The curved lines used are always big curves freely drawn, never small finger-movement curves. The measurements of a piece of modern furniture are often planned according to some geometric scheme. In some respects this is better than designing in a more personal but haphazard way as it is more likely to produce unity through a relation of spaces.

One of the most significant requirements of modern furnishing is that it must function. Any decoration or material that interferes with function is not permissible. Function is not enough, however, as there should be beauty too, although often perfect functionalism produces beauty.

Decoration. In the twentieth-century style there is little or no ornamentation. With the machine as a model, the tendency is to strip off everything superfluous. When one becomes used to plainness, it seems as appropriate as the smart simplicity of expensive clothes. Unfortunately, many women feel that an article must be ornamented to be beautiful. This is the notion that has made the era of bad taste last so long, and which today still makes it difficult to find plain home furnishings in the shops.

If pattern is used to decorate modern furnishings it is almost entirely abstract. No naturalistic and very few conventional designs are used. Shaded stripes are favored. In general, decorative patterns are larger than formerly and seem to be more freely drawn.

Color. With clear-cut modern lines it is natural to use clean, direct color. Dingy or anemic colors do not belong with the modern style. Some decorators think that the modern style is expressed best in steely, metallic colors, and use nearly all neutral colors, silver being a favorite. The modern Tavern Club in Chicago decorated by Winold Reiss shows standard red and blue used in connection with neutral colors, so that the total effect is positive-a desirable result in a man's club.


1. Independence of past traditions.

2. Furnishing and architecture in perfect accord.

3. New materials, and dramatic use of old materials.

4. Functionalism required first of all.

5. Simplicity, absence of all non essentials.

6. Honesty in treatment of structural elements and use of materials.

7. Impersonality.

8. Horizontality in the interests of stability and unity.

9. Low furniture for comfort.

10. Built-in furniture.

11. Design often based on a mathematical system.

12. Design based on fundamental forms: the square, the circle.

13. Sharp angles expressing keenness.

14. Designs suitable for machine production.

15. Exclusively geometric textile designs.

16. Little ornamentation and no carving, molding, or paneling.

17. Pure color.

18. Neutral colors and silver (featured by some designers).

19. Indirect lighting, architectural or portable. No visible fixtures.

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