Art-furniture collector and dealer Guillaume Cuiry, director of La Galerie Nationale, walks Selections through the birth and development of modern design

More than ever, we evolve in a world surrounded by aesthetics. So it’s not unusual for a particularly well-conceived and executed object to qualify as “design.” Beautiful is not always design, however, and design is not always beautiful. To truly understand what qualifies as design, it is necessary to study the etymology of the word, as well as its recent history. Design as we know it today has a story – and it’s a great one!

The term “design” is a 19th century Anglicism contracting both French and Latin origins. The word first appeared in its modern form in 1849, in the first Journal of Design and Manufactures, edited by Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave. Its nascence thus coincides with the end of an era of swift and significant change – that of Europe’s Industrial Revolution.

At that period, particularly in France and England, new materials and production processes had completely changed the relationship between object and function. The period marked a distinct shift from antiquities – exquisitely decorated artisanal objects that were very expensive, and thus elitist – to a culture of mass-produced objects targeting a larger and more diverse consumer base.

During the second half of the 19th century, political and philosophical notions were evolving very swiftly. Those ideas being hatched were to last until the inter-war period, which in turn gave birth to humanist movements like Bauhaus in Germany, or communist designers and architects such as Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer.

American architect Louis Sullivan’s dictum that “form ever follows function” is associated to this day with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century.

This revolution of the relationship between function and aesthetics is at the origin of a precise definition of modern design that encompasses multiple considerations.

Creation: new aesthetics, shapes and colours
Project: to realise with a particular purpose
Innovation: the use of new technologies
Functionality: to keep the goal in mind
Production: to target the largest possible number of people
Cost: to produce as economically as possible
People: to think always of the human being
Aesthetics: to embellish
Designer: a clearly identified creator
Editor: a clearly identified manufacturer/supplier
Timeless: to produce for an indefinite period

In design, and elsewhere, as soon as a movement appears, another appears to oppose it. Opposing Henry Cole was the Arts and Crafts movement, under the aegis of the art critic John Ruskin and decorator William Morris. They promoted the artisanal, rationalism and the simplification of shapes. They denounced the alienating and inhuman side of the industry and rigorously promoted the decorative arts.

The 20th century therefore had its bases: originality (creativity), technology (use of new materials or techniques), functionality (rationalisation and optimisation of usage) and aesthetics.

Furniture promoted by Henry Cole immediately had an icon – German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet. With a revolutionary wood-bending manufacture process, Thonet created the famous chair No. 14, the “bistro” chair, which sold more than 50 million units between 1859 and 1914 and is still in production today, having been reissued in 1950.
Furniture promoted by Ruskin and Morris had its own early icons, like the Scottish architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh who, with unflagging energy, created the famous high back chair.

This period marked the beginning of a distinction between “author design,” or artisanal work, and “industrial design,” or mass-produced work. These two classifications are still in common usage today. Their common characteristics are creativity and quality – their divergence is the means of manufacture; artisanal for one, industrial for the other.

Post-war designers began to propose objects especially conceived for specific buildings. Le Corbusier, Breuer, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Jean Prouvé, Alvar Aalto and George Nelson were among the architects of this period for whom furniture became an extension of their architectural creation – the only form of art where function cannot be excised.

“Ugliness does not sell,” French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy noted in the 1930s. This post-war period marked the true onset of design as a career, in the modern sense.
During the 1950s, modernist furniture responded to the needs of a troubled period, with the emergence of a new generation that was both more technologically minded and more extroverted.

Cars, houses, offices, tools, furniture – the 1960s marked the abandonment of tradition and a thirst for bright colours, vegetal and mineral shapes and modified materials: a plastic utopia. The decade’s ostentatious zest for life was in stark contrast with the traditionalism of previous generations.

Let’s draw and the consumers will follow. They did – and vintage design was born.

by Guillaume Cuiry

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 120-121.