Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set
Review by Alex W. White
Some of the actions taken on form during modernism’s reign include stripping (extreme simplifying), fragmenting, compressing, and elongating, which are all discussed in Forms in Modernism.
Type and architecture have been connected for years. Both disciplines require solving problems on behalf of the user. Both organize and must balance figure/solid and ground/void. Both require similar artistic attitudes and sensitivities in their practitioners, and both are markers for the societies in which they appear. As architect Peter Behrens said, “Type is one of the most eloquent means of expression in every epoch of style. Next to architecture, it gives the most characteristic portrait of a period and the most severe testimony of a nation’s status.”
.Explaining the geometry inherent in early Modernism, Smith writes: “Architects and type designers analyzing the spirit of the new age discovered the engineer. New shapes of airplanes, automobiles, telephones, motorcycles – all mass-produced objects in the new visual environment – resulted from industrial technology. Machines had created beauty… Le Courbusier called the airplane beautiful because it responded to a need for ‘utility, comfort, and practical arrangement…’ Geometric shapes, wrought by engineers for the requirements of machine production, produced honest form, free from applied ornamentation, fulfilling a need. The machine produced clarity and functionalism; the machine rejected attempts at beauty or ‘charm.’”Introducing asymmetry, Smith writes: “In Modernism, according to these two grand theoreticians, Le Courbusier and Tschichold, neither building design nor page design were to be forced into a traditional form; rather, the form would result from the activity of the person, whether moving within the building or reading the page… In the private, small-scale world of personal dress, designers followed principles of asymmetry, as couture expressed the spirit of modern thought. Jeanne Lanvin’s evening coat of 1927 draws the white embroidered stripes to a cluster above the right hip.”
The visuals in Forms in Modernism tend to be separated into spreads about type – both typefaces and designs using type – followed by spreads about architecture, furniture, furnishings, and fashion. The two spreads shown above are not typical of the book in that these samples both admirably show formal similarities. Most of the rest of the book requires the reader to flip back and forth to see the samples in comparative relationship.
Forms in Modernism brings to mind Clayton Whitehill’s 1947 The Moods of Type, in which he compares types to other contemporary artworks (above). Smith’s comparisons are much more precise, parsing movements not in centuries, but in decades. And she shows many, many more examples. Whitehill’s illustrations make their point simply and directly while, in Smith’s book, the reader must build mental bridges between illustrations.Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s 1948 Painting Toward Architecture is another mid-century book that speaks to commonalities of the arts as they pass through historical periods. Hitchcock shows many of the same buildings as Smith, but limits his comparisons to paintings. Nevertheless, if you can find a copy, it is an informative addition to the material covered in Forms in Modernism. This book is a comprehensive recapitulation of essential information.However, given its extensive bibliography listing some 120 books, there is little new material presented. To paraphrase a television network in its summer rerun promotion, if this is your first foray into Modernism, it’ll be new to you.