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Industry insights

The Fundamentals of Modernist Design

7 minute read time

Transformative, one word that describes society at the turn of the 20th century. It was a tumultuous period like no other in history, marred by cataclysmic events which changed society considerably.

Prominent between the two world wars and on to the 1950s, modernism was the all-encompassing name for a collection of ideas, influencing the arts; from literature to furniture design, through to art and architecture. Its roots can be traced back to the European block, pioneered in Holland and Germany, spanning towards Paris and East to Moscow. It is a movement that shaped much of the world around us today.

Why now?

As with most societal shifts, there were two major factors at work, socio and economic. The 19th century had been witness to the industrial revolution. The turn of the 20th century saw the dispersion of these new technologies and manufacturing methods far and wide. With the introduction of the production line in 1913 by Henry Ford, the era of mass production had begun. Traditionally handcrafted pieces made n a workshop were replaced with large scale production pieces at a smaller cost.

This growth in efficiency worked symbiotically with a social desire for democratic change. Reeling from the First World War and the Russian Revolution, paired with the wide-reaching female suffrage movement, signified that the autocratic bubble civilisation had once known had popped. Modernism sought the beginning of democratic design. The world was in a state of total reinvention, it needed healing yet propelling into the future too.

At the time it felt like every country had its own take on modernism. Their values stemmed from the same place and their aesthetics had similarities but every country took a slightly different slant on executing their ideas. Russia had Constructivism, the Dutch had De Stijl and Germany lead the way with Bauhaus. But below are the three common fundamentals of modernist design, each still echoes in society today.


Design matters and this was a period of time that was truly dedicated to this philosophy. The collapse of repressive political structures meant the inequality between the classes was strikingly clear. Architects wanted to pour their efforts into bridging the gap, with a focus on social housing. Aided by innovations in technology, architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, were able to find building solutions, that were faster to produce and cheaper to procure.

Steel, glass and concrete became the tools of the trade. Tell-tale signs of modernist architecture were white exteriors, constructed of rectangular, cylindrical and cubic shapes. Modernist buildings often displayed their structure, with visible pillars and exposed structural steel beams. Such buildings had large banks of horizontal windows across their length.

Bauhaus Building by Walter Gropius image via Landscape Architecture
Bauhaus Building by Walter Gropius image via Landscape Architecture

Power to the machine

The machine was the catalyst and the icon of the modernist movement, it in itself was considered to be a piece of art. Offering invention without limitations machines provided a cure to the ills of society- making everything purposeful and efficient. Even the home was considered to be a machine for living, its purpose was functional, it needed to make life easier.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion image via Wikipedia
Mies Van der Rohe Barcelona Chair Available from Knoll
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion image via Wikipedia
Mies Van der Rohe Barcelona Chair Available from Knoll

Furniture design

The lace frills and heavy fabrics of pre-war design were replaced with machine printed cotton devoid of embellishment. Famously ornament was seen as a crime by modernist designers such as Adolf Loos. The aesthetic became clean, simple and geometric, functionality and comfort came before form.

Mass production led to an increased sense of democratic design and affordability for the many, not the few. Fewer materials were used to make each item for this reason, and new materials were explored such as steel, moulded plywood and plastic. The colour palette was refined to just a few primary colours, and there was a predominant use of black and white.

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