Old-Time Modernism: Reduxe

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has mounted an important exhibition titled, Modernism: Designing A New World, 1914-1939. It is not only the first exhibit to offer a comprehensive look at the modernist movement and all its spheres of influence - from architecture, furniture and clothing design to graphics, illustration and fine art; it has reopened the debate on the lasting sway of Modernism and whether or not the movement has truly run its course. As the V&A Museum explains on its informative and beautifully designed website:

“At the beginning of the twenty-first century our relationship to Modernism is complex. The built environment that we live in today was largely shaped by Modernism. The buildings we inhabit, the chairs we sit on, the graphic design that surrounds us have all been created by the aesthetics and the ideology of Modernist design. We live in an era that still identifies itself in terms of Modernism, as post-Modernist or even post-post-Modernist.

Modernism was not conceived as a style but a loose collection of ideas. It was a term which covered a range of movements and styles that largely rejected history and applied ornament, and which embraced abstraction. Born of great cosmopolitan centres, it flourished in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, Prague and New York. Modernists had a utopian desire to create a better world. They believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration. All of these principles were frequently combined with social and political beliefs (largely left-leaning) which held that design and art could, and should, transform society.”

I don’t mean to be disputatious, but I’ve never accepted the term “postmodern” as an accurate reflection or description of our present, especially with modern technology playing such a central role in all of our lives. At a time when nearly everyone is communicating by way of computers, cell phones and satellites; when jet and space travel is the norm and the human genome has been mapped - is it not disingenuous to talk about living in a postmodern world? When the oil has run out and we’re all sitting around a campfire cooking our meals - then we can talk about things being postmodern.

In his article for the Washington Post titled Old-Time Modernism, staff writer Blake Gopnik informs us that the movement “is taking a victory lap.” Everything we deem as the latest in innovative design, from Apple’s iPod to the architectural triumphs of a Frank Gehry, has as its roots the Modernist project that postmodernists have cynically insisted is moribund and irrelevant. Modernism may be faltering and in the doldrums - but it is far from death’s door.

As Gopnik put it, “What’s really being brought within our reach when a successful furniture chain dubs itself Design Within Reach - isn’t design in general. It is specifically modern styling. What’s being hailed is the final victory of modernism as the model for the way good objects should be made.”

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