Friday, February 8, 2008

Style Guide: Modern

The Modern Movement from 1920 to 1950 explored forms and materials of mass production in the machine age to fashion interiors that are functional and beautiful in their simplicity. Most influenced by the German Bauhaus design school and French architect Le Corbusier, the style uses plain and neutral-colored walls, geometric shapes of primary-colored accessories, streamlined space-saving modular furniture, vibrant polychromatic textiles with geometric designs, and materials such as glass, metal, concrete and steel. The look is of the moment, yet classic, the feel bright and spacious.


Like textiles, accessories are often vibrantly colored. With undulating curves or geometric patterns, such as amoeba, boomerang and kidney shapes, they provide a perfect antidote to the plain neutral-colored walls, streamlined furniture and linear architecture of the Modern style.

Modern Variations

  • Accessories should be used sparingly for effect. Clutter is a no-no.

Painting and Sculpture
Modern Variations

  • Abstract paintings are distinctive of the style. Look for prints by Cubist painters. One key period figure is Dutch modern painter Piet Mondrian, who created black, white and primary-colored grid-like paintings.
  • Consider period sculptures, too. British interior decorator David Hicks produced distinctive marbleized or Plexiglas obelisks for desks and mantels. Alexander Calder's mobiles made of steel wire and colorful aluminum sheets would capture the eye as well.

The era's huge explosion in glass production opened up experimentation in shapes. Foot-long ashtrays adorned coffee tables. Art glass from Italy, Scandinavia and Czechoslovakia was blown into unusual forms and sported wild tones.

Translucent glass vases and bowls of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto are still produced today.


Modern Variations

  • Search out Fiestaware, kitschy colorful dishes in reproduction now, or Russel Wright's spun aluminum torchéres, a design produced by many different companies as well as his own label.

A Modern-style home would not make the grade without American architect and designer George Nelson's ball clock.


Main Color
White – bright, reflective and clean – accents light, airy, spare Modern architecture.

Accent Colors
Gray, taupe and chrome add a slight contrast to white for a subtle dimensional effect on curtains, other textile accessories and furniture. Primary colors of red, blue and yellow are used sparingly on lighting fixtures, tableware and paintings.

Upholstery, often leather, is black, white, gray or brown with, occasionally, stark primary colors for a lift. Most furniture is framed by chrome. Wooden tables and cabinets carry neutral tones of medium to light brown to blond.


Space-saving, efficient, streamlined and light, durable industrial materials of tubular steel and chrome all define Modern Movement furniture.

Many pieces bear tubular steel frames or legs and are upholstered with neutral-colored fabrics or leather. Teak wood is fashionable for tables, shelving and dining room sets, especially by Danish designers.

Furniture also fits the movement's creed "form follows function." Living space is as uncluttered as possible with built-in furniture. Backs and bases of couches become part of walls or room dividers, if placed in the middle of an open space.

Other fitted designs resemble a ship's cabin with fixed seating around the fireplace, shelves beneath built-in beds and built-in bookshelves, cupboards, cocktail cabinets and spaces for radios and record players in walls.

Modular Furniture
Modular furniture, with inherent flexibility and efficiency, extends the built-in concept. Floating shelves can be on one wall one day, another wall the next. Storage shelves do double-duty as room dividers.

Marcel Breuer's Laccio side table, produced in different sizes, can be used separately or stacked together for a striking look. Arne Jacobsen's stacking chairs also provide versatility. George Nelson's platform bench works as seating, a coffee table or the base of a media center.

L-shaped sofas come in two parts, the short side as a chair by itself and the long side as a sofa without arms when separate.

Classic Pieces
For greater authenticity, search out designs by the period's best-and-brightest architects and designers.

  • Le Petit Confort chair – by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret (still in production today)
  • Marcel Breuer's Bauhaus chair
  • Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair, leather day-bed and Brno chair (mass produced in 1960)
  • Arne Jacobsen's Ant, Egg and Swan chairs
  • Eileen Gray's Bibendum chairs
  • George Nelson's Marshmallow sofa
  • The Butterfly chair by Argentine architects Jorge Hardoy, Antonio Bonet and Juan Kurchan
  • Josef Hoffman's steam-bent wood chairs
  • Eero Saarinen's Womb chair
  • Designs by Charles Eames – the Shell chair or rocker, the leather and rosewood lounge chair and ottoman, surfboard-shaped coffee table, and molded plywood chairs


De rigueur white walls complement the clean lines and open space of Modern architecture. Also characteristic are floor-to-ceiling windows with sunlight streaming through to cast abstract patterns.

Flat untextured, unpatterned plaster is the optimum covering. White tiles substitute for plaster in kitchens and bathrooms.

Mirrored walls increase the depth of horizontal space. Exterior walls of glass bricks let light in and enhance the open, transparent and fluid feeling.

Varnished plywood can dress up dining room and study walls. Partitions – of wood, though sometimes of thin prefabricated material – function as space dividers in open-plan layouts, as do cupboards and shelving systems, especially as designed by George Nelson.

Modern Variations

  • For a little pizazz, paint one wall a bright color or apply a plaster relief of an image. Or follow the trademark flair of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi and apply sinuous plaster curves for an organic balance to the straight-line furniture and architecture.
  • Consider murals in vignette style, including trompe-l'oeil surrealist styles, but use sparingly so they stand out. Hang period wallpaper in the same way, with vivid colors like orange, mustard and sharp green in splattered dots, narrow stripes and checks.
  • Go out on a limb yet stay within the style's minimalist parameters with walls of raw concrete, one of architect's Le Corbusier's tricks. Alternate sheets of glass, canvas and wood, a unique feature of architect Rudolph Schindler's house in Los Angeles. Use strands of bamboo to create a space divider, as used by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Or create the effect of a Scandinavian forest by putting the bamboo against a floor-to-ceiling window.

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