Modern vs. “midcentury modern” vs. Modernist vs. neomodern vs. contemporary: a primer on designspeak (Part I)

So, I’ve decided to do a multi-part entry on design styles and terminology, which is superconfusing (even lots of those in my field don’t get it right!). I’m going to start with 1929 and work my way up to today, and by the end you’ll be an expert in designspeak and pretty much 20th century architecture in general. READY?

So. We begin with the father of “modern” design, a Mr. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (commonly shortened to Mies, phew!). Now, the reason I’m putting “modern” in quotes here is because it is not referring to “modern” in the adjective sense, meaning contemporary time (that is, in 2012). The problem with the word “modern” is that every period has a time when it is, in fact, modern! But no time is modern forever, hence the confusion.

Here, the term “modern” is used to describe a particular style (that was modern at the time of its inception in Germany in the 1920s). We still call it “modern” because that has now become the name of the style. So that’s really the source of the confusion: the fact that you have to think of “modern” as a name of a style (it should almost be a capital “M” in Modern) rather than an adjective to describe the current day. For this reason, it would clarify things if everyone would call it “Modernist” architecture, and refer to the style as “Modernism.” If I were Queen of the World, I would make it so. Alas, I am just one blogger, and most people just call it modern and expect you to be able to understand the difference.

This is important because the furniture and architecture that is being created today (in 2012), is not, in fact, Modernist. In other words, the stuff that’s being done right now, in 2012, by leading contemporary designers is not in the Modern style. (What it is will be the source of later blog posts…. but hold your horses, we’re not there yet!)

So what was the dawn of Modernism? Well, the key moment was an International Exhibition held in Barcelona in 1929. Mies designed the German Pavilion of the exhibition, and after that nothing was ever the same.

Just to contrast, the reigning style at that time in the U.S. was Art Deco, defined by stylized ornament and streamlined curves, like the Chrysler building (also built in 1929), with its elaborate (but now dated-looking) top:


Curves galore, elaborate triangular windows, gargoyles, zig zags, fancy metalwork, et cetera, et cetera… and check out how detailed the interior was:

Metal ornamentation on the walls, angular panes in the doors…

…super elaborate elevators…

and loads of decoration, included painted ceilings with more details at the border.

SO, now onto Mies. You can see what a difference his pavilion, showing the same year at the Barcelona Exhibition was:

Everything was flat, flat, flat. Flat floor, flat roof, flat water in the pool. Simple rectilinear construction with narrow steel framing. Zero ornament, zero painting, zero fancy metalwork or inlaid wood. The only ornament is from the materials themselves (the floors and walls are made of tumbled marble).

Yes, that was 1929, and yes, that’s a curtain wall. A flat one, of course. Here’s one thing the Modernists love(d): erasing the barrier between indoor and outdoors. So the interior floor keeps continuing beyond the curtain wall. Also in this picture you can see Mies’ iconic x-base chairs, now known as Barcelona chairs.

A view showing the marble room divider. Again, the only ornament was from the materials themselves, so color of the space was determined by material selection.

Look contemporary? Could this have been built in 2012? Of course. You only have to open Dwell Magazine to see that the ripple effects of this are still being felt. Tons of people want their house to look like this right now (whereas Art Deco looks like a blast from the past). That’s why even though there was a Postmodern movement in the 80s (a reaction against Modernism that attempted to return to ornamentation), we still have designers designing in the Modernist style (although if they are doing it now, it is technically called NeomodernΒ to show that it’s a throwback).

Mies went on to design a bunch of Modernist buildings, like the notable Seagram Building built in 1958 in NYC…

…a simple rectangle built from right angles with zero ornament (and in my opinion, zero fun). This building spawned (and is still spawning) 60+ years of building glass boxes.

Here, the Modernist interior became even more pared down, more geometric, more colorless…

as seen in the above elevator lobby.

OK that’s about it for one day. More installments to come!



4 responses to “Modern vs. “midcentury modern” vs. Modernist vs. neomodern vs. contemporary: a primer on designspeak (Part I)

  1. Susan Bassman

    Susie, I love your blogs but especially this one! I’m looking forward to more lessons! Sue

  2. myra kurkowski

    Very interesting

  3. are there other installments to this subject, or just the part 1? i searched and could not find any other than part 1…loved this one…

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