AGING MODERNISM

08 November 2006
Editorial by Marty Neumeier
Editorial by Marty Neumeier

The aesthetic movement known as Modernism had already begun to erode in the late sixties. But as a young design student, I found its principles fresh, invigorating, even radical. Modernism offered a clearly defined set of criteria with which to judge the worth of any design. Lo and behold-according to these criteria, most of the world's design came up wanting.

For example, when a friend's mother sought my professional opinion of her recently purchased flatware, I pronounced it sentimental and dishonest. When a neo-classical office building rose in our neighborhood, I scorned its pompous facade. When asked to wear a necktie to a social function, I wore a turtleneck shirt instead. The lines were clearly drawn: on one side was cheesy traditionalism, and on the other was the Modernist movement. Even the hippie revolution (of which I was part) seemed sloppy and aimless in the light of my newly acquired Spartan aesthetics.

When it came time for my Bauhaus-influenced friends and I to furnish our kitchens,
we chose Vignelli-designed tableware. Its plates, bowls, and mugs had no decoration. They were made from humble industrial plastic. They were stackable and therefore functional. They came in primary colors instead of fussy pastels. They were designed with the simplest formal vocabulary-circles and straight lines. They reeked of Modernism.

Our living accommodations were tacky and bourgeois by economic necessity, but as Modernists we kept them devoid of-well, everything. If we couldn't afford a chair worthy of the Museum of Modern Art, we left the space vacant. An empty white room with one blue pillow (on a natural oak floor) was considered a dignified response to a lack of disposable income. For the faithful, it was Modernist quality or nothing.

So what did I think Modernist design was? I pictured a Parsons table-a perfect square surface supported by four square legs. The surface represented functionality, while the legs represented clarity, simplicity, honesty, and timelessness. The beauty of these principles was that, once you had mastered them, you could take them to extremes, thereby rendering your output both radical and respectable at the same time.

Against medical evidence to the contrary, my eyesight has improved with age. Now I can spot the cracks in my Parsons table. I can see that the virtues of Modernism, while powerful in moderation, reverse their polarity and become vices when taken to the limit. While the Vignelli plates, bowls, and mugs were intellectually invigorating for a few weeks, their perfect surfaces soon became marred by scratches, burns, and melted edges. Their primary colors grew tiring, and their primary shapes lost their ability to confer individuality as other people bought similar sets of tableware. In short, designs that I had considered timeless turned out to be ephemeral.

A few months ago, while kicking around an antique store, I came across a discarded Mobil sign. Its rusted metal surface nearly obscured the logo designed by Chermayeff & Geismar barely three decades ago. Though oxidation had eaten away at its primary red and blue colors, its youthful soul struggled to reassert itself. My brain contorted as I tried to untangle my feelings. How could this Mobil sign, a sentinel of Modernism, be offered as an antique? Has Modernism become quaint? Or has rust, in and of itself, become a marketable product? When I look in the mirror, will I begin to see patches of rust on me? And what about the unfortunate designers of this sign, my heroes, who are even older than I am?

The answer struck like a Jovian thunderbolt during a recent tour of the excavated streets of ancient Rome. There, in the ruins of the Forum, I saw a fragment of marble signage-water-stained, eroded, encrusted with lichen-that was designed over two thousand years ago. Yet to my eye it still looked beautiful, while the Mobil sign just looked funny and wrong. The reason, I finally concluded, is that the ancients designed their signs to grow old gracefully, while the Modernists designed their signs to look perpetually new.

Now consider the effects of these two approaches. Old marble signs, whose beauty deepens with time, make us feel good; new metal signs, because their beauty deteriorates with age, make us feel uneasy. In fact, the whole Modernist aesthetic makes us feel uneasy, because it asks us to join a desperate battle: maintaining the illusion of perpetual youth. It's part of a culture that encourages us to dye our hair, lift our faces, pierce our skin, and whatever else it takes to appear young. (Those of you who are young can laugh.)

This colossal failure of Modernism is apparent in architecture, too, especially in cities such as London where we can compare the new and old, side by side. Buildings erected hundreds of years ago still look attractive, while post-World War II steel-and-glass boxes look tired and depressed, overdue for the wrecking ball. It's true that in recent years Postmodern buildings have introduced a degree of humanness to the Modernist aesthetic, but many already look dated, and the ravages of time will probably not add to their charm.

So what does this bode for the future of design? Will architects and visual communicators abandon the principles of Modernism and Postmodernism in favor of some new-and-improved "ism"?

Maybe. But even if the names change, the pursuits of function, simplicity, clarity, honesty, and
timelessness will remain priorities, because these qualities are integral to the evolution of our species. The Vignelli tableware and the Mobil sign are important milestones on the road to a mature design aesthetic. We'll either come up with synthetic materials that resist aging, or we'll begin using natural materials that age gracefully, and probably a mixture of both. The design aesthetic that evolves with the new materials will undoubtedly look different than high Modernism.

Just for fun, try this exercise. Picture the minimalist perfection of a Parsons table. Now
picture the natural imperfection of a Japanese tea chest. By combining aspects of both aesthetics-the intellectual appeal of unadorned clarity and the emotional appeal of textural richness-we can bridge the gap between designers and regular folks.

In the meantime, regular folks, unencumbered by the ideals of high design, have taken matters into their own hands. On every Main Street in America, we can see people snapping up country-style furniture which has been "pre-aged" with knots, dings, and gouges-the design equivalent of pre-washed jeans. We can observe the results of "downtown committees" who have mandated that signs be made human-scale and of natural materials. We can even track the humanness trend all the way to Las Vegas, where successful casinos are those that reproduce (tongue in cheek) old-world street scapes. The parade has already begun. We graphic designers, architects, and signmakers need only step in front of it.

Will our 21st-century design still look beautiful in the 41st century? That depends, I think, on whether we learn to combine the intellectual rigor of the Modernists with the emotional resonance of the ancients.




About this article
The above article by Marty Neumeier appears here with permission from Critique Magazine. Marty Neumeier is the editor and publisher of Critique magazine. For more information about Critique Magazine visit their website. Copyright 2000, Critique Magazine.

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