Modernist Furniture: History & Designers

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the innovative furniture that developed at the beginning of the 20th century: modernist furniture. Learn about its history and discover some of the distinctive designers that represented this artistic movement.

Modernist Furniture

The word 'modern' often makes us think about the present or recent years, but sometimes it actually refers to the past.

Modernism was an artistic movement that started in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and is generally considered to have developed until the 1950s. Many artists of the time believed that the previous styles were outdated and didn't meet the needs of the industrialized world, so the goal of modernism was to define a new aesthetic for the modern world. It touched all forms of art and design, including furniture.

Modernist furniture became known for its sober character and undecorated elegance. Comfort and functionality were often the priority and ornaments were considered unnecessary. Also, the furniture pieces were conceived to be affordable and easily mass-produced.

Modernist furniture actually dates from decades ago and after almost 100 years, many of those designs still have that up-to-date look, as if they had just been designed yesterday. Many pieces of modernist furniture continue to be produced and sold today. Their elegant and modern look make them a frequent choice for the decoration of houses, offices and even film sets.

Noguchi Table (1947), by Isamu Noguchi
Noguchi Table

History of Modernist Furniture

By the end of the 19th century, furniture was elaborate, and items were often regarded more as expensive art pieces than as utilitarian objects. Modernism started as an opposition to those previous ornamented styles, like Art Nouveau, which was considered outdated.

By the turn of the century, the significant technological advances and industrialization offered new possibilities, especially regarding materials and manufacturing techniques. For artists and designers, these innovations provided them with the tools for developing new art objects.

In the first decades of the 20th century, some artistic movements arose with the intention of defining the new aesthetic in arts. Their vision was that furniture pieces should be affordable, functional and highlight the simplicity of forms and materials. Two of those movements were the German Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl, which were both among the main influences of modernist design.

Modernist designers experimented with new materials. Furniture pieces were no longer made exclusively out of wood. Steel, molded plywood, plastic and other materials were introduced. Neutral colors were common, including chromed finishes for metals, black and white leather, and woods with natural finishes.

The peak of the modernist design was in the 1920s and the 1930s, before World War II. After the war, modernism continued, but artists and designers gradually started to explore new and diverse possibilities in materials, colors and shapes, thus starting the postmodernist furniture design.

Famous Modernist Furniture Designers

Many modernist furniture designers were architects who often created the furniture for their buildings. Some modernist pieces are now considered icons of industrial design, representing the artistic and functional vision of modernism.

The following are some of the most famous modernist furniture designers:

  • Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray was an Irish architect and furniture designer. She was a pioneer in the creation of lacquered items and designed some early pieces of Art Deco.

She was also an important modernist designer. Her furniture featured clean lines with an elegant look and neutral colors. Some of her pieces had chromed steel structures. She was innovative in designing furniture that could be adjusted for using it in different spaces and for different activities.

E-1027 Adjustable Table (1927), by Eileen Gray
E-1027 Adjustable Table

  • Marcel Breuer

Marcel Breuer was a Hungarian architect and furniture designer. He lived in Germany, England and the USA and was part of the Bauhaus (a German art school). He designed furniture pieces that featured sober lines and no ornaments.

Breuer often used chromed tubular steel structures and also designed some pieces in molded plywood. His furniture was functional, comfortable and could be easily produced in mass.

B19 Table (1928), by Marcel Breuer
B19 Table

  • Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier was one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. This Swiss architect, artist and writer started working with furniture early in his career. He not only designed furniture but also wrote about how it should be like.

His designs were sober and usually made out of chromed metal and leather. He paid special attention to functionality and studied human proportions to make every piece comfortable. He also considered affordability.

B-301 Chair (1928), by Le Corbusier
B-301 Chair

  • Mies van der Rohe

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