no.31 vol.8 spring 1999

Sampling the Modern inheritance

Modernism's programme of educating and elevating the masses to a better life is nowadays often ridiculed as the naïve idealism of a thoroughly bourgeois culture. In the end, the critics say, it didn't spark a revolution as much as it served to uphold the status quo by smoothening global capitalism's operations. The once highly moral project of Modern Life after W.W.II became an ideology of mere contemporaneity before dumbing down in the 1980s and 1990s to the hedonistic superficialities of an ever faster-moving cycle of lifestyles.

Modernism, it may be recalled, at the beginning of this century made use of a combination of two, seemingly opposed, strategies for attaining its utopian goals: rationalisation and storytelling. On the one hand it promoted a rational approach to organising information, to clarity and cleanliness, to a kind of design that through its openness and honesty, and its allergy to decorum, would provide the perfect communication tools for a true democracy.

On the other hand the Modernist avant-garde of the 1920’s developed new ways of communicating ‘content’ (be it art or advertising), that aimed at convincing their audience through aesthetic enhancements of the designs. Collage, photomontage and the ‘photo essay’ became powerful accessories to verbal argumentation and storytelling, to the extent that, before long, the visual style of a message was the argument.

Modernism's first programmatic point, rationalism, reached its summit at the Ulm design school that closed in 1968 and it has since definitively exhausted itself in 1960s and 1970s corporate design and architecture, leaving a legacy of Spartan morals from which to design ‘essential’ things. Or so it seems, from a post-modern perspective.

Modernism's other, ‘visual storytelling’, strand lived longer. But gradually, the idealistic – and ideological – ties that bound form and content into one message loosened. In the end, the ethically connotated ‘machine aesthetic’ of the 1920s became aesthetics period. A style to be used to suggest modernity, rather than Modernism. The ethical imperative that was at the root of the ‘Form Follows Function’ idea still lingered in the layered aesthetics of ‘early Postmodernism’, where one could argue that complexities of style reflected newly realised complexities of technology and new insights in the multi-level character of messages. In this light, ‘deconstructivism’ may be seen as a last attempt at making messages, complex as they are, ‘transparent’. Of course, it resulted in being quite the contrary.

And then there was Post-modernism, and then – now what? Strangely enough, Modernism seems to be on its way back in.

Adrian Frutiger, on his 70th birthday last year, was celebrated not so much as a Last Mohican, but rather as a role model and a still powerful source of inspiration, and his typefaces adorn both airport time schedules and house party flyers. The difference is that the recent and hip recyclings of Modernist forms and formats do without the once obligatory reference to a style that would ‘truly’ match the ‘machine aesthetics’ of a technological world. If form follows anything these days, its targets. More likely, it seems that the resurgent interest in Modernism's aesthetic gamut indicates a feeling of exhaustion after the visual abundance of the last decade, rather than a need for ‘rational’ and ‘honest’ forms.

Remnants of the Ulm legacy, however, are revived in booming disciplines such as interface and information design, where they serve to get a hold on the ever growing complexities of ever more intricately mixed messages and media. The recent re-assessment of Modernist aesthetics, thus, frequently shows a lack of understanding for the project that Modernism once was – or a disappointed refusal to think in the all encompassing terms associated with the old ideology.

Visual storytelling’ is alive and well these days, and is increasingly understood as a discerning way to reflect in depth on current affairs as well as the state of the cultural discourse. But although the forms and formats of Modernist visual languages seem to be quite well established, the ethical imperative of matching form, content and intention that inspired it, is all but forgotten. The computer may have short-circuited thinking and doing in design, but all too often in the rapid transition from idea to product the argumentation that should ideally ground the one onto the other is weakened.

And in a large number of today's ‘rationalist’ information design products Modernist narrativity is reduced to its prosaic fundamentals, disregarding the poetics of seduction that was such an inspiration to early Modernists. Re-assessment of Modernism, then, would mean to look at the whole picture, instead of picking the appealing bits out of the heritage. In Kandinsky’s words: “And – and, instead of either – or.” Re-marrying poetry to structure, argumentation to point of view, thinking to acting, ideal to practice, seems to be quite a sensible agenda in our age of integration of technologies, disciplines and discourses.

max bruinsma