Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set

Virginia Smith

Modernism is a period in design history that transcends normal evolutionary development. The 20th century brought form based on function, asymmetry, and a new purity of design.The idea for this book is wonderfully simple: compare type forms with their contemporary architectural and furniture and clothing styles in order to reveal a “visual landscape of periods of design, where we can detect a common impulse toward form creation.” Smith calls these groups “visual sets.”Modernism began with the search for universal purity of form – typographically, this can be seen in Herbert Bayer’s 1925 Universal Alphabet that has only a single case – and ended somewhat before the conscious destruction of such purity beginning in the late 1980s. Smith writes in her Preface, “Typography throughout most of the twentieth century can be seen as a lengthy response to principles stated by early European Modernists such as Erbar, Koch, and Renner, whose typefaces set the direction in the 1920s… A century-long variation on those early principles of typography followed, with designers on both side of the Atlantic imitating, elaborating, attacking, and, finally, ignoring them.”


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.”



The contents listing with featured types and selections of architecture, furniture, and other examples of the arts.



.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.



Whitehill’s illustrations show formal similarities among the arts.

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.

Alex W. White is the author of five books including Advertising Design and Typography (2007), Thinking in Type (2005), and The Elements of Graphic Design (2002), as well as numerous articles on typography and visual communication. His consultancy works with ad agencies and their clients to improve the visual power of their messages. White is an award-winning designer and has spoken professionally and taught for twenty-five years, currently at Parsons and City College of New York. He is a past president and chairman of the TDC.