This month’s article outlines the modern styles that have combined to give us today our thoroughly modern look. Modern is back in full force in all its originality, and with good reason.
Modern interiors are frank, open, clean, and lend themselves to
technology and information-based work, which forms the age in which
we live. Modern also supports our complicated lives without demanding
more of our time and resources than we are willing to—or can
afford to—give the finished interior. With these factors in
mind, modern offers a “less is more” theory of design:
less pattern; less stuff; less to worry about maintaining, repairing
or being stolen; less to clean, which in turn yields more mental
freedom, more creativity of thought, more space in which to work,
more focus on a few wonderful items rather than a plethora of mediocre
or busy ones. It is the look of a new generation of sophisticated
consumers and members of the technology workforce.
Modern is a specific group of styles. Let’s review them.
Organic Modern (1908 to present) includes the work of Frank
Lloyd Wright—especially his prairie style, which is the basis
for many organic homes today. It also includes architecture by Greene
and Greene, brothers and partner architects, who pioneered the Craftsman
Style bungalow house, often filled with Gustav Stickley furniture.
Once again popular, this style will be the focus of an upcoming
Design Perspectives article later this year.
International Modern (1932 to present) is a style that evolved
in Europe and then came to America after World War II. The Bauhaus,
the German architecture and design school, brought together talented
architects and designers with the challenge to create “excellent
design for the machine.” Notable contributors whose names have
become synonymous with the clean, stark lines of International Modern
include Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Ludwig Mies van der Rhoe (1886-1969)
and Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). These men founded the international
lines of skyscrapers as well as the clean, simple glass-and-steel
box homes of the post WW II era.
An influential French architect who also established this style
was known as LeCorbusier. Swiss-born as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris
(1887-1965) LeCorbusier’s design motto was, “A house is
a machine for living in.”
These architects pioneered a lifestyle as well as exteriors and
interiors with these characteristics:
• Open floor plan
• Simple, logical, rectilinear structural forms
• Generally flat roofs
• Asymmetrical designs
• Large areas of glass (often arranged horizontally)
• Frank use of concrete, stucco and metal
• Long uninterrupted white wall planes
• Contrasts with setting
The interiors of International Modern homes have the following common
• Floors: hard and smooth—marble, smooth stone or tile
• Walls: plain plaster with steel-framed windows
• Windows: large areas of glass with simple, minimal structural
• Window Treatments: simple, structural treatments: blinds,
shades and casement draperies
• Doors: flush and plain
• Chimneypiece: simple rectangular opening with no trim
• Ceiling: plain plaster
• Stairs: open risers with no embellishment
Art Deco (1918 to 1945) is a phase or movement in the chronology
of the Modern era with strong tentacles reaching into International
Modern design. This style, tucked between and including both World
Wars I and II, embraced the mechanics of the Industrial Age with
a touch of the Beaux Arts traditions of excessive ornamentation.
Obsessed with machinery, industrialization, airplanes, locomotives
and automobiles that traveled at unprecedented speeds were the shapes,
forms and motifs that represented this thoroughly modern look. Stepped
pyramid or ziggurat building, interior architecture, furniture and
accessory forms with rounded corners are a hallmark of this era.
• Gazelles, lizards or other stylized animal forms, (sleek
and quick movement)
• Cogs, as in machinery or other mechanical forms
• Lighting bolts, suggesting power and speed
• Billowing clouds of a new horizon, or of dust as a car speeds
into the distance
• Zigzags, chevrons or sunburst designs
• Sleek human forms such as seen in Fred Astair and Ginger
Rogers posters and flapper girl motifs.
Furniture design was sometimes sleek and sometimes bulky, a heavy
mass with fat, rounded corners. It was the reigning age of Hollywood
and the Silver Screen. Marble or tile floors, glass and steel were
celebrated as icons of this thoroughly modern look.
Post War and Scandinavian Modern are two more factors culminating
in today’s contemporary modern look. Great Scandinavian furniture
designers such as Alvar Aalto (1899-1976), Eero Saarinen (1910-1961),
Hans Wegner (b. 1914) and American designers Charles (1907-1978)
and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia, to mention a few, have created
modern furniture classics that influence the style. So stunning
are their designs that they become as useable sculpture set before
a backdrop of plain, real materials. In modern design, shape is
combined with materials of the Industrial Age including steel, glass,
leather and sturdy simple textiles.
COMMON WINDOW PROBLEMS
In most modern architecture, expanses of glass windows beckon the
exterior to become part of the interior. The term “curtain
wall construction” was used commonly in the early days of modern
design because the room commanded screening against the harshness
of the sun, the insecurity of the nighttime and the lack of privacy
Today we have a much wider selection of manufactured alternative
and custom window treatments that meet the demands of contemporary
lifestyles. We no longer are tied to the three original choices
of the early modern era: casement draperies, vertical louvers or
Venetian two-inch metal blinds.
What is in interior design style today is often termed Contemporary.
Any style that is popular and interpreted according to today’s
trends can be called contemporary (as in Contemporary Traditional,
Contemporary Country French, etc.). Contemporary Modern often embraces
the philosophy of International Modern, adds some of the curves
and glitz of Art Deco and the beautiful forms and quality construction
of the Post War and Scandinavian designs.
Each interior can be skillfully created with common “bones,”
(structure, material and often classic modern furniture), albeit
with unique individuality. Herein lies much of its appeal. No longer
a cookie-cutter style, and much more open to interpretation, today’s
thoroughly modern look also embraces a touch of historic period,
a bit of ethnic design, a slice of the hand-made and a healthy dose
This is the key to making today’s modern design livable. Unwilling
to live in a machine, we want our interiors to accommodate our machines
and let us feel human. This is best accomplished with color, texture,
form, art and accessories. Each item must be carefully scrutinized,
kept within the spirit of the interior in quality and integrity
(the best design, the best quality). The finished look is uniquely
ours, a one-of-a-kind, a look that will serve needs and efficiency,
yet be handsome to live in for many years to come.
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window
Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.