Design Dialectics at the teapot museum

Off to the V&A on another ICA comp, to catch their Modernism exhibition before it closes. It’s big, it’s crowded, and it covers modernism as a phenomenon in the design of graphics, theatre sets, architecture and homeware (rather than painting, poetry or philosophy) between 1914 and 1939.

It starts with Modernism as utopian aspiration: drawings and maquettes of buildings never built. Designs for a ‘flying city’ prefigure Archigram’s  impossible urban interfaces, and I’m impressed to learn that Tatlin’s tower was designed to be 400m high (that’s more than twice the height of the main deck of Auckland’s Sky Tower). Reconstructed models of Russian theatre sets show a radical and dissociative version of modernism, an enemy of false naturalism, an alternative tradition of radical theatre to Brecht.

Between the teens and the thirties we move from aspiration to Actually Existing Modernism, and encounter a few uncomfortable realities of utopia: a kitchen designed for the maximum efficiency in movement of a housewife as if she were some kind of Fordist machine for living off; the brutal inhumanity of Le Corbusier’s boxes; the calculation of smaller and smaller living spaces. Paradoxically, as the utopian imperative to design methods of mass living was realised, modernism increasingly became the lifestyle choice of the elites, bourgeois existence stripped down to unaristocratic angles and planes, and far from a popular choice for a way of life.

The exhibition is predominantly flat: planes on walls (or at least the cases of teapots and cups are easy to ignore). One whole section of the exhibition is devoted to chairs: here is Breuer’s chair, Alto’s chair, all curves and angles, as if chair design were a Modernist rite of passage, a necessary entrance qualification for the club. A large quote is emblazoned above the display explaining that of course it’s easier to get a chair into production than a building. But being original museum pieces rather than production items there’s no way to tell whether reposing on a modernist chair really is like ‘sitting on a cushion of air’ or the pretentious but uncomfortable experience it looks.

There’s lots of moving image, which is good, projected onto large spaces rather than confined to tiny screens walled into boxes below eye-level, which is also good, and the screens are integrated into the gallery space itself rather than confined to dark rooms. But feature films like Modern Times, documentaries like Housing Problems and experimental shorts like Rhythmus 21 all get the same treatment, cut to clips of less than sixty seconds, compiled into very short loops, giving a very fragmentary and fleeting impression of the film work of the period, and indicating contempt for the attention spans of visitors.

The exhibition gives the overall impression of modernism as a European phenomenon, and there’s very little evidence of English modernism: Wells Coates’ Highpoint and Lubetkin’s health centre are lost in walls of photographs of modernist buildings, from Balaton to Brazil. Britain forms one of four ‘case studies’ of late modernism among the USSR, Sweden and Italy. There doesn’t seem to be a single picture of Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion, one of Britain’s loveliest pre-war modernist buildings.

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