The Voice | Modernism




Terms To Know: Cubism • Futurism • Marinetti • Vorticism • Ezra Pound • Dadaism • Hugo Ball • DuChamp • Surrealism • De Stijl • Van Doesburg • Mondrian • Bauhaus • Gropius • Mies van der Rohe • New Typography • Ladislav Sutnar • Suprematism • Constructivism • El Lissitzky

While Modernism has a huge influence today, it wasn’t a big hit at the time. It was inaccessible to most people. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) dates the roots of Modernism date to the 1880s, but what most people call Modernist era is roughly 1908, the beginning of Cubism, to 1933, the power of Hitler. This was a time of profound political, social and cultural turmoil throughout the world. All the forms of visual communication: architecture, film, typography, challenged the social systems made obsolete by rapidly changing machine age technologies. Modernism wanted to replace the old language with its own art, architecture and furnishings.
Modernism wasn’t a big, centralized movement but cross-pollinating individuals, all with their own ideas. They wanted to destroy academic aestheism but couldn’t agree how.
Modernism was heavily influenced by the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. It expressed itself in the Futurism and Vorticism, Dadaism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and New Typography.
The Modernist style was perhaps most immediately recognizable in a multitude of graphic communications: posters, brochures, books, handbills, and letterheads. The first substantial change occurred in typography. Futurist label was given only to Italians & Russians, but utopian ethic was at its core. Futura was their trademark typeface. They used modern media, like magazines & newspapers to spread their ideas.

Dada & Duchamp

Dada was invented by German refugee philosopher-poet Hugo Ball and his companion Emmy Hennings in 1916 in neutral Zurich in W.W.I. Ball opened the Cabaret Voltaire as a place where poets, musicians and artists could hang out. It was antiart & politically active. Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Jean Arp, Sophie Tuber-Arp were joined by other émigrés. The name reportedly was picked from the dictionary at random… Dada is a child’s hobby horse.
They experimented with sound poetry and nonsense poetry. Ball was an inventor of Sound Poetry. They rejected boundaries, classifications. Crazy stuff. Antics of Futurists in Italy influenced them. Expressionism had become the “official” style of Germany, so Dadaism hated it. Dada soon joined up with Spartacist, later communist, movement. Published a bunch of satirical magazines, like Dadaosopher. But Dada was in love with itself, not a political cause. However, many of its leading artists espoused political causes, like Heartfield, his brother Wieland Herzfelde and George Grosz.
Marcel Duchamp (& Francis Picabia) joined Dada and became its most vocal leader. Said that art and life were a mix of chance and choice. He started producing “found” art — like a bicycle wheel or urinal, which he turned upside down and said This is not a urinal. He put a mustache on the Mona Lisa, mocking the rigidity and myopic view of the era.

Dada spread from Zurich to Berlin and elsewhere. In 1915, photographer Man Ray met Duchamp and became the official photographer of Dadaism and Surrealism.
Photomontage was developed in Berlin and Moscow at the same time. Photomontage used found art to often create chance montages. Hausmann and Höch were big on it. John Heartfield, one of the founders of photomontage, and others started publishing Communist periodicals in 1917. They had to constantly change names to avoid government intervention.
Kurt Schwitters began the Merz (from Kommerz, “commerce”) as an offshoot of Dada in 1991. He was a one-man gang. Collages made of everything from trash to photos. He instituted a little more design discipline to Dadaism’s randomness. Dada dissed him.
Constructivism began to influence Dadaism in the 1920s after Schwitters met El Lissitzky. Théo van Doesburg invited Schwitters to Holland to promote Dada. They ended up collaborating on many projects, mostly books, where the type became animated figures. Schwitters split from Germany to Norway in the 1930s because of the Nazis, then from Oslo for the same reason. He died in England.
Heartfield, Herzfelde and Grosz tried to use their art to raise social consciousness and institute change. Heartfield’s real name was Helmut Herzfelde. He anglicized it to protest German militarism after serving in the army during W.W.I. One of the original Dadaists in Berlin in 1919. Constantly attacked Weimar Republic and Nazis. He fled from the Nazis in 1933, but continued to mail his work to Nazi leaders. Fled then to London and eventually settled in East Germany after the war, where he finished his days designing theatre sets and posters.

Cubism and Constructivism

Cubism was despised by upper class, but they eventually took its characteristics for fashion. Cubism abandoned decorative tendencies. Cubists blended letters into paintings to influence free-form typography of later movements.

Futurism was coined by Italian poet, writer and critic F.T. Marinetti in 1908. It married Modernism with patriotism. It called for permanent artistic and political revolution. Marinetti thought war would be a cleansing process. He liked the fascism of Benito Mussolini. Saw the car (1895) and airplane (1903) as symbols of modern spirit (speed). Their main journal after 1913 was Lacerba.

Futurists tried to show the energy of the universe. Harmony was out; in was crazy stuff like multiple colors in type and many, many typefaces on one page. Thought that the explosion of ideas shouldn’t be a slave to grammar, but should show their power and energy. He said that a man who’s seen an explosion doesn’t stop to connect his sentences, but yells. Also created pattern poetry, where the verse took the shape of objects. They wanted to renew everything: movies, fashion, etc. Fortunato Depero promoted the Futurist book, edited the magazine, designed costumes & furniture, etc. He represented the 2nd stage of futurism. Did a lot of ads — applied art.
Marinetti dissed the Arts & Crafts movement in England from 20 years earlier:

“… disencumber yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of your deplorable Ruskin … with his hatred of the machine, of steam and electricity, this maniac for antique simplicity resembles a man who in full maturity wants to sleep in his cot again and drink at the breasts of a nurse who has now grown old, in order to regain the carefree state of infancy …” (Given to a London audience in 1912)

Antonio Sant’Elia wrote the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture. He said decoration was ridiculous and diagonals and ellipses had more emotion than verticals and horizontals. He was killed in W.W.I, but his work influenced Art Deco a lot.

Vorticism was a short-lived 20th-century art movement related to futurism. Named by Ezra Pound in 1914 (from the Vortex, center of all energy). Differed from Futurism in that it expanded from just being an Italian movement. But Vorticism & Futurism were basically the same thing. Their main publication was Blast, which was printed in pink or puce. E. McKnight Kauffer was an American expatriate living in England. Its members sought to simplify forms into machinelike angularity. Its principal exponent was a French sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska. The movement’s largest following was in England, where Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot wrote about it.


In Paris in 1920s, Dada became Surrealism. Poet André Breton founded it. His 1924 Manifesto du Surrealisme that he wanted to express thought without reason. They sought to blend the subconscious and dreams with rebellion and mystery.
Breton was joined by Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon and Paul Elard. The surrealists were very rebellious — a way of thinking more than a style. The poets tried stream-of-consciousness.
The surrealist painters were Giorgio de Chirico, German Dadaist Max Ernst, Belgian René Magritte, and Spaniard Salvador Dali. The Emblematics were Joan Miró and Jean Arp. Their organic forms, influenced by automatism, appeared in 1950s graphic design.

Bauhaus was a modern design movement that began c. 1914, Germany. It called teachers masters and students apprentices & journeymen to show that the school was grounded in real world, not academia. Used workshops, not classrooms. No graphic style was evident at first at Bauhaus. Bauhaus exposed artists to many styles and let them develop their own. They moved away from De Stijl look with geometric designs toward semi-Expressionist style. van Doesburg then arrived and pushed Gropius to a neo-Constructivism. Hungarian painter László Moholy-Nagy was also Constructivist. Form follows function was hallmark of school by late 1920s. Despite denial of a “style” by Gropius, it became associated with anything geometric and a rigid grid format.
1914: Art Nouveau architect & designer van de Velde resigned from Weimar Arts & Crafts School to return to Belgium. After W.W.I, 31-year-old Walter Gropius was chosen to run the newly merged Arts & Crafts School with the Weimar Fine Art academy in 1919. Used William Morris’ Arts & Crafts workshops as a model. Gropius had spent three year as an apprentice for Behrens.
Germany was a mess at the time, and there was a thirst to develop a new way of doing things. There were also new materials available especially for architects. Even in the 1890s, van de Velde had called for designs that utilized concrete, steel, aluminum & even linoleum. Even in the Bauhaus’ original mission, it promoted the artisan’s craft over art.
The enemy of Modernists were industrialists, who gave the public what suited their interests. Modernists wanted to break their hold by forming a better relationship between art and industry. The schools and workshops at Bauhaus and in Moscow encouraged students to design everyday, useful items. Then they’d be for the proletariat and not the elite.

Early Years

They really thought they were creating a new, utopian society. Gropius wanted to create a universal design style. Artist Paul Klee joined in 1920 and Wassily Kandinsky in 1922, bringing whole new looks to Bauhaus. Kandinsky’s thoughts about abstract expressionism — paintings with no pictorial representation at all — were influential.

The De Stijl style had similar goals as Bauhaus and began to influence the instructors. 1920, van Doesburg made contact with the school. Lived in Weimar and taught de Stijl classes for three years. Wanted to teach at Bauhaus, but Gropius thought he was too myopic in his style and adherence to geometric layout. Gropius didn’t want to impose a style on the students. 1923 exhibition gave Bauhaus international exposure.
Also in 1923, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy became the instructor for the introductory course. He was a Hungarian Constructivist. He was into everything: graphic design, painting, photography, film, sculpture — but eventually came to claim photography as superior to painting. Started making photomontages.
In 1924, tension that always existed between Weimar & Bauhaus grew until the faculty & students decided to leave. Gropius moved Bauhaus to the small town of Dessau in 1925 and built their new school the following year. It’s during this time that the Bauhaus style that’s familiarly known today came into maturity. They took de Stijl and Constructivism to another level. Product design, furniture, architecture, type all came out of the school.
In 1928, Gropius left to return to architectural private practice, while Bayer and Moholy-Nagy moved to Berlin. Joost Schmidt introduced a larger type vocabulary and helped design exhibitions (booths). Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became head of the architectural program in 1930. He’s most famous for his “less is more” beliefs.
Nazis began shutting down Bauhaus in 1931. Gestapo started purging the school of the “Cultural Bolsheviks.” Faculty soon closed the school. Gropius and Marcel Breuer went to Harvard; Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus (the Institute of Design) in Chicago. Herbert Bayer also moved to U.S. These imports greatly changed American design after the war.
The school only was open for 14 years, 33 faculty members, 1250 students. But influence is far greater. Truly modernist attitude. Broke down barriers between fine and commercial art.

New Typography
The new approaches to type started in Russia with Constructivism & Holland with De Stijl, were synthesized at Bauhaus, then codified and promoted by Jan Tschichold. New Typography rejected the classic rules of type symmetry. El Lissitzky was one of the first to show its distinctive styles of sans serif type, primary colors and geometrical forms. László Moholy-Nagy co-opted his principles in his Bauhaus course.
In 1925, a young professor from Leipzig named Jan Tschichold published Elementary Typography, his analysis of the various kinds of type. He issued The New Typography three years later. Sought to change everything with asymmetric design. He gradually moved away from it, claiming that new typography was good for industrial products and other uses, but wrong for other pieces, like a book of baroque poetry. He eventually led a revival of traditional typography as a designer for Penguin Books.
The Netherlands played a crucial part in the development of ‘New Typography’ and ‘New Photography’. Piet Zwart (1885-1977), Paul Schuitema (1897-1973) and Gerard Kiljan (1891-1968) were its most well-known Dutch pioneers.
Piet Zwart was a Dutch designer and typographer. After working in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he came into contact in 1917 with De Stijl, which fundamentally changed the course of his work. Through Vilmos Huszár and Jan Wils, he met H. P. Berlage, for whom he worked as a draftsman, and international artists working in typographic design, such as Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitsky and Jan Tschichold. His international importance is based on typographical works, such as those he made between 1923 and 1930 for NKF, the Dutch cable works, and for PTT, the Dutch postal service. His advertisements, inspired by Dada, often used a wide range of typography and could be read as messages, poems or advertising slogans, while being appreciated simply as designs. Zwart was also active as an interior designer; his most successful work in this field was the kitchen (1938) that he designed for the Bruynzeel Company.
Czechoslovakia in the late 1920s to early 30s embodied the spirit that discarded preformed layouts. Ladislav Sutnar was design director for a Prague publishing house. New typography was also a product of printing innovations that allowed designers to discard rigid, traditional typography.

Suprematism was developed by Russian writer & painter Kasimir Malevich (1913). It had strong Cubist and Futurist elements.

Russia had tremendous upheaval from 1910-20. Killed the czar, revolution, civil war. Artists blossomed though. They heard Marinetti’s lectures in Russia, saw cubism and futurism, and ran with them. Created the style Cubo-Futurism. Experimented with type and design, which was as much a reaction against Czarist Russia as anything. Collage and photomontage were the two styles rulers and artists agreed on. Montage comes from French word monter, to mount. Developed at the same time in Russia and Germany.
Constructivism was a Russian youth movement at first. They allied themselves with the revolution so they could introduce their own social programs. Tried to rally people, which is typical of Russian art in that it has a social purpose. Typography is commonly associated with Constructivism. In spirit of Constructivism, several people often collaborated on a piece of work, i.e., one for artwork and another for type. Collectivism, not individuals. In 1921, in the spirit of relative political and economic normalcy, Rodchenko & others stopped painting and sculpture and pursued design. Called Productivism — efficiently make items for everyday use — clothes, furniture, etc. Blend of art & commerce in the spirit of communism. Promoted nationalized economy, education, etc. Style was strong colors, bold lettering. Goal of the artists were to create art for the masses, but after Lenin died in 1924, support from Soviet leadership faded. Bright colors were replaced with grays.
Soviet Posters became huge communications medium in the 1920s Employed sans serif type and combo of pictures and painting. Stalin’s brutal crackdown on the arts & culture began to kill the work in Russia by the 1930s. Its influence spread throughout Europe as the artists’ work and the artists themselves relocated to Germany, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, etc.
El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich) permanently altered graphic design. His painting style PROUNS (acronym for “projects for the establishment of a new art”). 3-D look. Use of negative space, i.e., Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. He had a utopian vision that graphic design and industry would wed. 1921, he met leaders of de Stijl, Bauhaus, Dada and other movements in Europe. Germany was the hotbed. They also had the printing presses. He joined with Ilya Ehrenburg to create the magazine Veshch (Object). Also worked on Merz with Kurt Schwitters and Broom magazine. Also designed the important graphic design book, The Isms of Art, with Hans Arp (Dada).
Ended up returning to Russia, did a lot of work for the government, and died of TB six months after Germany invaded. Tschichold called him one of the great pioneers.


Bauhaus was a school and modern design movement born in Germany after World War I, in 1919. As one of the foundations of modernism, perhaps the 20th century’s most pervasive and influential design movement, it is hard to understate its influence. Baushaus designs are reflected daily, from the Formica countertops in half the kitchens in America to the glass-and-steel skyscrapers in cities. The Bauhaus school was only open for fourteen years, with thirty-three faculty and 1250 students. However, the Bauhaus influence is far greater.

Bauhaus means “Building House,” or more accurately “Architecture House.” Think of “House” as meaning “place of”, its focus is clear. Bauhaus’ ripple effects are manifested our lives, from architecture to furniture. Original pieces and reproductions are in museums and stores across the world, respectively, ranging in cost from priceless to a dime a dozen.

After World War I, Germany was grossly unstable and there was a thirst to develop a new way of doing things. New materials such as steel, molded plastic and innovative uses of glass became readily available, allowing for easier construction and artistic vision.

In 1919, 31-year-old Walter Gropius was chosen to run the newly merged Arts & Crafts School and Weimar Fine Art Academy that came to be known as Bauhaus. He was the perfect choice. Gropius had spent three year as an apprentice for Peter Behrens. From the start, Gropius tried to form Bauhaus to be a school that was grounded in the real world, not academia. The school promoted the craft of making product, fitting between the narrow keyhole of fine and commercial art. This merger of art and business is a seminal stream in 20th century thought. Gropius and the other founders created a new design style. They also tried and failed to create a new, utopian society.

Gropius used William Morris’ Arts & Crafts workshops as a model; teachers were masters and students were apprentices. They labored in workshops, not lecture halls. No graphic style was evident at first at Bauhaus. Bauhaus’ method was to expose the students to many styles and let them develop their own. (insert visual of introductory course wheel)

Bauhaus encouraged students to design everyday, useful items for the middle class instead of just the elite. Bauhaus was responsible for the creation of a plethora of items; stools, teapots, lamps, rugs and more were all manufactured within its walls.

Fine Art at Bauhaus

Abstract expressionism was very influential for the Bauhaus students. Instructor Paul Klee had attended Düsseldorf Academy. Kandinsky ended up teaching at Bauhaus until 1933, eleven years, which was longer than any other professor at the school. He, like others, eventually left the school due to the Nazi’s invasion. Upon leaving Bauhaus, Kandinsky settled in France, where he lived the rest of his life.

In 1923, an exhibit allotted Bauhaus international exposure. Also that year, Hungarian painter László Moholy-Nagy became the instructor for the introductory course. He participated in everything: graphic design, painting, photography, film, sculpture, but eventually, he came to view photography as superior to painting. His constructivist sensibilities supported artist Theo van Doesburg, who arrived at Bauhaus in 1920 and began pushing Gropius and the Bauhaus school to follow a new constructivist style. He lived in Weimar, Germany and taught de Stijl classes for three years. Gropius thought he was too myopic in his style and in his adherence to geometric layout. Ironically, despite the denial of a “style” by Gropius, Bauhaus eventually became associated with anything geometric and a rigid grid format.

In 1924, existing tensions between the Weimar and the Bauhaus school grew until both the faculty and students of Bauhaus decided to leave. Gropius moved Bauhaus to the small town of Dessau in 1925 and built their new school the following year. During this time, the Bauhaus style that’s known today came into maturity, taking de Stijl and constructivism to another level. From here, participants developed product design, furniture, architecture, type and more.

Form Follows Function: let the needs, dictate the style, was the hallmark of school by late 1920s. The style is defined by absences of frills and ornamentation, even on the type.

Herbert Bayer was former Bauhaus student and head of the printing and advertising department.

Examples of sans serif type:

– Gill Sans: England, 1928-30. London Underground, BBC, Church of England

– Futura: Paul Renner, 1928. Volkswagen, Swissair

– Univers: (1956-57): The famous Universe type is one of the most versatile and well-known font families of all time. Swiss style of design

– Helvetica: late 1950’s

Less is More In 1928, Gropius left Bauhaus and returned to private architectural practice, while Bayer and Moholy-Nagy both moved to Berlin. Joost Schmidt introduced a larger type vocabulary and helped design exhibitions (booths). Ludwig Mies van der Rohe became head of the architectural program for Bauhaus in 1930, developing his famed through his “less is more” beliefs.

The New Bauhaus In 1931, the growing Nazi Party labeled modernism as “Degenerative Art” and began the ultimate closure of Bauhaus. They even held a Degenerative Art exhibition in 1937 ß counteract or complement? From there the Gestapo started purging the school of these “Cultural Bolsheviks.”

The faculty closed the school and fled to various locations. Gropius and Marcel Breuer travelled to Harvard; Moholy-Nagy led to Chicago to found the New Bauhaus. Herbert Bayer moved to New York City then to Colorado, where he held court at the Aspen Institute. Today this is known as the Institute of Design.

These foreigners greatly changed American design after the war.

Eventually, the new society the Nazi party brought forth was spread Germany; termed “Socialism and the Nazis.” Not that this was any fault of Bauhaus. In fact, the Socialists labeled its work “degenerate” and led a cultural attack on its leaders.

Although the Nazi regime was undoubtedly one of the worth in history, the persecution of the Bauhaus group did the world some good. Similarly, the Protestants were prosecuted for centuries in Catholic France. When King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in the 1600’s, ending the national protection Protestants had, they left France by droves. Many of these Huguenots were the skilled craftspeople and the upper merchant class of France. However, they were met with open arms and set up shop throughout Europe. Their industries and businesses flowered as the commerce matured. There is an old joke that the Huguenots are France’s greatest export ever.

The Whitney Museum in New York City is a clear example of Bauhaus architecture. The rooms on the inside are the same way — many big white boxes. They even managed to make the stairwells boxy.

This boxy format can come off as austere, harsh or cold, like much of modernism. But the minimalism and use of negative space are epochal. They strike at a central human appreciation for minimalism.

The Seagram Building is one of the first and prime examples of Bauhaus in modern architecture. This glass-and-steel skyscraper is a masterpiece. The ground floor has reflecting pools. Walk through to the rear to world-famous Four Seasons restaurant. Even entry-level staffers had beautiful desks and fine art in the halls.

Approximately 2500 Bauhaus-style buildings in Tel Aviv were built through the 1930’s-50’s. This White City of Tel Aviv, as its known, is the signature of the International School, one of the major rivers from the Bauhaus delta. This coincides with the Jewish emigration from Germany and Western Europe. The Post World War II international sentiment to establish a safe, where the tribes of Judaism would always be safe from persecution, played a large role in the political formation of modern Israel.Millions made aliya – the Law of Return that makes Jews a citizen immediately upon returning to Israel.

de Stijl

de Stijl (Dutch for The Style) is the magazine name (1917-31) and graphic design style led by the Dutch painter, writer & designer Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. The style is instantly recognizable, with its rectangles, thick black lines and primary colors, especially red, as it signified revolution. With W.W.I, many leading artists and thinkers felt that excessive ornamentation and design hid the true nature of design. Mondrian said “curves are too emotional.” Though this look is austere and limiting, the thinking of many post-W.W. artists and thinkers is that excessive ornamentation and design hid the true “nature” of design. de stijl is the extreme example of using what the designers thought were the fundamental and unadorned components of design.

Russian Constructivists used revolution red as their “main” color. Constructivist leader El Lissitzky even designed an issue of de Stijl in 1922 —  an example of the cross-pollination and co-influence.
Van Doesburg’s magazine, de Stijl, sought to incorporate art into the buildings, products and designs of daily existence. De Stijl wanted the ultimate in style and spirit. Used rectangles, b&w, primary colors, sans serif typefaces. Sought geometric shape as the hallmark of a new society.

Piet Mondrian was a landscape painter until he saw cubism in 1911. Then, under the influence of M.H.J. Schoenmakers, he gravitated to his mature style of horizontal & vertical lines and primary colors.

Architecture: In 1924, Gerrit Rietveld designed the very progressive Schroder House in Utrecht. His neighbors threw rocks at it and his kids were tormented in school over it. It still stands today — the “only” existing 100% de Stijl house in the world.

De Stijl and Dada actually collaborated for a while, even though van Doesburg recognized they were opposites. He wanted Dada to destroy the system, then have De Stijl build the new one. Van Doesburg organized a Constructivist & Dada convention in 1922 in Weimar that Constructivist designer El Lissitzky attended.