Dissertation Draft


The chair that changed Design

\ Modernism in design and how it evolved

\ Mass-Production and the involvement of design

\ A history of the chair

A Chair to sit in

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a creative revolution, which rocked the world of art, design and architecture until the present. This revolution enabled the designer to be a major influence on society, through the designs that we create and release. One particular design that was created during this time of creative turmoil and turbulence was the Barcelona Pavilion chair, created by Ludwig Miles Van De Rohe, as part of Germany’s entry to the 1929 Wolds Art Fair, that was to be hosted in Barcelona. The chair was created for one purpose, to add to the space inside the pavilion and through its design supplement the interior of the Pavilion which was decked in three types of marble, Van De Rohe knew that he would have to create furniture that would stand out yet, compliment the building itself. He then created the Barcelona chair, which echoed back in time to Roman and Egyptian designs, bringing a modern sense of ergonomics and comfort into the design. This chair was created with design at the forefront, rather than a need for somewhere to sit and something being created quickly and cheaply for the end user, this chair was made with elegance and beauty, something that not only fulfilled the brief that all chairs must, but something that could be looked upon with reverence in regards to its shape and form. The 1920’s were a tempestuous time, economically, socially and politically, times were changing everything was being brought forwards at a rate faster than had been seen before, this was the time of modernism, modernistic values were ever more present on the minds of the creative’s, politically fascism and communism were marching with ever increasing support in Europe, technologically since the war Germany and England were competing to be the most advance industrial country in the world. Through this race was born an industrial technique that plays a massive role in the story of this chair and is the reason for the way we design today, that industrial practice is, mass production.

Mass Production and the Designer

Everything around us in the 21st century is mass produced, from the clothes we wear to the tools we use, our lives are made upon the conveyer belt of production that constantly churns out the products we need to make our lives what they are; lavish. Before this method of production, items that were sold were unique; either hand made or produced using old archaic methods that were time and energy consuming. It is at this juncture that I would like to point to the chair, the chair that was designed for the very purpose of mass production, yet retain style and elegance, there were many other items at this time which used the same process but they lack the iconic status that came along with this chair. It was a change, the beginnings of hope for the proletarian, who was now able to purchase an item, which was identical to the one that a Royal was using. “Miles displayed his famous chair as thrones for the Spanish king and queen” McDermott, C [2001:115] Before mass production no item was the same, the maker’s mark was unique to each item he made, unique to each wealthy owner that it was made for, now there was an item that the wealthy had and an equal item that the middle class man could own. The customer knew that the item they were buying was the same as the original, this was revolutionary this was modernism and everything it stood for, simplicity and beauty in the homes of the people. This wonderful technique that allowed good design to spread into the homes of the people was refined in the most negative of places, in the foundries of war. It was mass production that was the beating heart of war and ultimately was the key to success in the theatres of war during World War 1 and World War 2; the techniques that were used for every day items were refined through the production of munitions, machine guns and tanks. How far do we find ourselves today, where every item is made using this method of production? It is clear that it was war that drove technology to the point it is today, without it I feel it would have taken much longer for man to discover many of the great inventions of the 20th century.  I find it very interesting that Walter Benjamin made the observation in Illuminations, “Only War makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system” [1992:234], it strikes me that he was aware of the pace and effect that technology had at that time, even as he wrote the Fascist party in Germany was gaining political ground and taking control of systems, pushing towards the Second World War.

The technique of mass production comes in itself with many pro’s and cons, like any technology it’s birth was one of helping mankind to better it’s self, but through the walk of time it has come with many associations of greed, enslaving and ecological destruction. When mass production was created it was seen as a positive, emancipating the public and offering them with products and items that they never before would have dreamed of having. In relation to the Barcelona chair, we see that such items would have before been unattainable by the proletarian, but after this process they were able to own their own, well-crafted items. It was Serge Chermayeff who wrote ”Mass production and maximum prefabrication are the good result of the machine” [1994:23-24] he was wrong, this process opened up products to the home in a way that never before could have been accomplished for companies. It’s certainly true that the benefit of mass production is priceless for the company, but what about the negative effects of society? To make a product on mass requires incredible amounts of energy; it produces incredible amounts of waste and ultimately puts the craftsman and artist out of work as Chermayeff summarizes “on the other side we find that profit-making has been responsible for the commercial expedient of turning the machine into competing with the artist and craftsman by reproducing hand-work.” [ibid]This is a very true observation and we can see it all around us, as the small businessman suffers the giant cooperation grows, take for instance the situation of the local small food shop being shut down by the large Tesco’s, just one example of a plethora of similar cases. Regardless of these facts, we still need and will use mass production forever, it was truly a revolutionary discovery that enabled and advanced mankind, what more of a great example of this advancement is that of the Barcelona Pavilion chair, a piece of design that’s simplicity and ergonmic design enabled it to stand out amongst all others, a design that even to this day is still marked for being great, but above all a design that was created so that it could be produced for all to have. I think this highlights the importance of a designers work, the importance of a designer’s impact upon society and our role as caretakers of good design, we have the power to create trends and destroy them, to make statements and influence the public. When looking at the chair, we see the impact of Van de Rohe just through the simplicity of a chair, he played a massive role in the modernism movement, a movement that shaped our entire world as we know it, is there a greater claim than that? Chermayeff explored how we as designers can snow ball our work into the public realm, “the responsibility of the designer who’s design will be mass produced by thousands, tens or hundred’s of thousands whether it be a piece of furniture or an advertising layout, as compared to the very limited production of an eighteenth century chair maker” [1994:247] Chermayeff is stating that before mass production, a craftsman or designer would just create one thing, one item that would go into the clients home, or office, now as a designer our designs can be placed in hundred’s of thousands if not millions of homes. A good example might be the Apple iPod or eMac, items that were fantastically designed but so functional, so ergonomic that they became instant hits with the public, and became centrepieces of the home. There are certainly specific requirements that are put down on a design, that must be essential for it to work, again Chermayeff states “…the furniture for today and tomorrow must be strong, cheap and mass-produced, of good, simple and machine-indicated design. To serve the special and peculiar needs of our time, a new style is evolving.” [1994:230] Even though he refers to furniture I believe that he is making a statement here that spans more than that specific field of design, all design must be simple, and it is the simply designed items that work and are still remembered, like Van De Rohe’s chair, we celebrate the mass produced designs that take pride of place in our lives. We owe much of our principal in design to the designers and architects of the early 20th century, their methods and philosophy has enabled an evolution to take place of the last decade, above all it is mass production that plays a vital role in our position as designers and our influence on the world around, it is the doorway that gives our work access to society.



The Chair That Changed Design

\ Design and the effect on society

\ Political design how has design been used to influence

\ Focus on a case study of a design that effected society politically

\ Use the chair as a reference

\ Values of design within the social atmosphere

Design, society, trends and our effect on them.

Every person is unique every person is an individual, in the 20th century the ideal of individuality is promoted, we are constantly told we are unique, that we are special individuals. But are we truly able to be individuals in this culture? It was Edward Bernays who identified that we cannot be targeted in mass media as individuals but as a whole, appealing to our desires as a group. This is summarised in the film Edward Bernays On Propaganda and Public Relations, “it was a form of Democracy, that depended on treating people not as active citizens, as Roosevelt did, but as passive consumers, because this, Bernays believed, “was the key to control in a mass Democracy”” [2007: 7.00] in regards to the mass media we are most certainly treated in a blanket way, whilst the message is one that seems specifically targeted to us. When we look at the method of mass production and products such as the Barcelona chair, we see that there is no individuality involved in it, it’s just an object, which can be replicated over and over, enabling the consumer to enjoy the same item that everyone else is enjoying. There is no uniqueness within our society, in regards to consumerism. Walter Benjamin sums this up in his book of essays, Illuminations where he states, “That which has withered in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” [1992:215] I think this statement can be applied in a wider statement, to the point of saying that which has withered in the age of mechanical reproduction is the individual.  I actually find it interesting now that many people I see, trying to be individuals, actually look to the past, and seek ‘vintage’ items, as these items are rarer and therefore if you have one, you establish yourself as individualistic. In a way I believe that is how the Barcelona chair still holds a large amount of acclaim among designers and architects today, as it is fairly hard to come across the chair now, and they have to be specially made for order. So by owning one, you are setting yourself higher than others; Tom Wolfe describes this process in 20th Century Design “When you saw that Holy object on the sisal rug you knew you were in a household where a fledgling architect and his wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home.” [2001:115] The mass media has a large part to play in this mass deception of society. “The sociologist Michael Schudson has argued that the opposite is true, that advertising fails to persuade the American public. Instead, he claims, advertisers merely follow and encourage existing buying trends. Additionally, we can recognise that advertising is not able to simply celebrate individualism. For it’s primary task, the promotion of products on a mass scale, is not always congruent with the promotion of individualism.” Lavin, M [2001:73] but can it be said that rather than the media forcing fashions upon people it’s just the celebrity culture, where the masses just sway to the trends that are laid down by the rich and famous? I find the above observation by Maud Lavin really interesting, that it could just be everyone wanting to fit in with everyone else that drives the values of consumerisms. It reminds me of the famous quote “everyone belongs to everyone else” that we all instinctively want to be the same. It becomes ever clearer then that our role as a designer becomes far more complicated than when we first thought about it. If the consumer only wants one certain style then how as Designers can we influence that social group.

Lavin continues and explains the example of Ivan Chermayeff who designed the logo for Mobil, he was happy to design their company image, but when probed about the company and what they do as a cooperation, he “…grew uneasy” [2001:3] I find this very interesting, that designers can be so cornered by our own profession. When it comes to work that reaches every consumer, on the breakfast table, in the front room on their night out, our work only can communicate what the cooperation dictates, in a sense it is a subdued fraction of the voice that the designer is supposed to have. Lavin goes on “Because graphic design is so powerful and so warped (in most commercial practice) in it’s ability to communicate, it provides an exaggerated model for the same questions that dog other communication fields like photography, film, the Internet, and my own field, writing. Who really has a voice in our culture?” [ibid] This is a very true statement, who really does have a voice in our culture? In the Edward Bernays documentary Steven Pinker states “it’s not that the people are in charge, but the peoples desires are in charge.” [2007:7.10] So the commercial realm only echos what the public want, the designer has to do what the commercial company wants, and the public are only driven by their desire to be the same. Who then has control of what is said?

I honestly believe that it is the designers who have the power to determine this voice within society. As designers we have a financial need to work for the commercial cooperation’s and supply them with their need, but on the side designers will also create self generated projects Lavin, M [2001:3] Within society is an underground movement of early adopters that start the trends that snow ball into the popular cultural realm, items like the Barcelona chair. It is the designers and creative’s who are responsible for these trends and the birth of ideas that channel throughout society. Stephen Heller explains, “design has an important role, and that design practice should be anchored in the very reality of its social consequences.”[2003:26] So designers do have an impact on society, just not through the main commercial channels that are dictated by the client, I believe it is the edgy, self-generated work, which has considerable influence on the social audience.

Political Design, its influence

Graphic design within politics, for me, falls into two separate categories, that of the left, socialism and communism, and that of the right conservatism and fascism.  As I mentioned in chapter 1 the 20’s were an amazing time, the development of technology, sociology and creativity were increasing at an amazing rate. Politically though, the movements of both communism and fascism were forming and taking hold in Germany and Russia. Oliviero noted about political propaganda of National Socialism and Communism, and what a massive affect this had on art, design and advertising. In many ways the creative arts all have a strong rooting in Socialist views and Marxism, with many of the popular forms of art dissecting the establishment and cooperation’s, we see this in image one, where there are the encaged workers on the right trying to ‘break free’ from the cooperation’s and join the free thinking creative’s on the right. The reason for such a strong influence is the ideologies that the Soviet Revolution stated, freeing the working man, creating something better, a new world, a modern world, made by the working and created by those who were creative and passionate, the revolution supposed to be a step in a positive direction. A notable resource, and often regarded as one of the primary statements of the movement was Tarabukins Constructivism 1922 [Hayward Gallery 1971: 9] The graphic styles of communism follow the ideals of freedom and hope, in reality those ideological values were lost to subjection and control.

Fascism had a very strong rooting in the creative arts; one notable example was Hitler’s campaign in the 30’s to take control of Germany. The fascinating aspect of this regime was that Fascism in Germany too had deep creative roots, using new media and advertising techniques to reach the audience. For example; “Hitlers penchant for politics as theatre, his coaching by an actor in how most effectively to strike oratorical poses, and his preference for the stage settings of Wagnerian opera as decorative models for Nazi festivities have often been remarked on. Assisted by the media, Hitler cultivated certain role models in the presentation of his public persona: the lover of serious music, art and architecture, the unsung ordinary soldier of world war 1, the heroic fighter for the ‘decent’ German cause within the treachery of the Weimar party jungle, the deep thinker and instrument of providence as a statesman, and so on.” [Taylor, van der Will 1990: 1] the same can be said again about Fascism as Communism, two ideologically different views, yet so similar when it comes to creative values and actions taken upon those creative’s. Walter Benjamin explains about fascism in Illuminations “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom fascism, with its Fuhrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” [1992:234] I find Benjamin’s analysis of Fascism really interesting, as he wrote this at a time of political turbulence and he could see the forthcoming trials that Germany would face. In a sense I feel that allot of the values that both political views took were taken from the creative explorations of people like Miles Van De Rohe, and the Bauhaus movement. In a way it was thanks to creative projects like the Barcelona chair that helped to shape the way politicians shaped graphic campaigns in the time after. The designer’s role in politics is very similar to that of the media. They have no say, and their message is lost by the needs of the client, i.e the political message. As mentioned above it comes down to the artists self-generated work before their own view can be spread on a social level, for instance Banksy is a great example of a graphic artist who uses his own views as a political device, on a social platform. But I feel that Penny Sparke sums it up perfectly, “The increasing importance of fashion to design means that all new trends, whether they emerge at street level or in the designers studio, are open to commercial manipulation. While many subcultural groups now create their own styles, they are almost always appropriated by commerce and mass production and are thus rendered fashionable.” [1986:121]

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