Monday, September 21, 2009

Design Reform and the Aesthetic Movement

With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, both socio-political and design concerns were surfacing in the early part of the nineteenth century. While the increase in manufacturing productivity had created a new middle class with the economic power to purchase the abundance of products being produced, it had also created an urban laboring class. Laborers suffered from long work days, low wages, and perilous working conditions. Cities became overcrowded, unsanitary and disease-ridden. Working class discontent and labor uprisings pointed to the need for reform.

The glut of manufactured goods created concerns over declining production quality. Beginning in the 1830s, the British government was actively steps toward design reform. The Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures, which was under the Board of Trade, sought to increase manufacturing exports by taking steps to improve manufacturing. During this period schools of design were established. The Select Committee advocated for a "balance between beauty and utility and the use of decoration derived from the study of botanical forms" (Raizman 50). The goal was to apply a common standard of taste.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was much criticised by advocates for design reform, including Owen Jones, designer and an exhibition organizer, who said that many products showed "novelty without beauty, beauty without intelligence, and all work without faith" (Raizman 55). Other advocates of reform of this time period were A.W.N. Pugin who advocated for Gothic Revival and Charles Eastlake who published Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (1868).

Design Reform was an effort to apply a level of order and taste to the overwrought eclecticism and excessive ornamentation of the Victorian Era. In the second half of the nineteenth century these sentiments had gained momentum began to give way to a new approach to design. This age of reform is characterized by streamlining, simplification and lightening of the heavy Victorian style. Elsie de Wolfe, the first woman professional decorator, was an innovator in this way. She "stripped away the many overlays of things that the Industrial Revolution had made possible by 1851" (Tate & Smith 240). A visitor said of her dining room, that it was "a model of simplicity... gold and white" (238). This overriding focus on beauty, unity, and cohesiveness of design became known as the Aesthetic Movement. "Sources of inspiration, materials, processes, and subjective meaning" were critically important in this movement (Raizman 69).

The wealthy began employing design firms to handle the outfitting of their homes. One such firm was that of Tiffany & Wheeler, Louis Comfort Tiffany who would go on to found the famous lamp company and Candace Wheeler who was known for developing a process for simulating embroidery on fabrics. They worked for such prestigious clients as President Arthur and Mark Twain. Tiffany and Wheeler's design for the Veterans' Room and Library at the Seventh Regiment National Guard Armory, New York, was an intricately patterned and textured space typical of the Aesthetic Movement. Every surface was transformed by some detailing (Meikle 71-73).

The call for reform would continue to evolve. William Morris and John Ruskin view of design reform would advocate for a new ethical framework linking craftsmanship, artisanship, and social reform. Their philosophies would give rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Questions: Design is cyclical. The Victorian Era has been called Rococo Revival. The revolt against its excesses resulted in the Neoclassical Style. The revolt against Victorian Style culminated in Modernism. Where on the continuum of minimalist to eclectic do you think we are currently? Where do you think design is headed?


Jenna Martini said...

Currently, I believe design is headed towards a more eclectic era with the pulling from all different time frames and design ideas from many historical paths. In the past (such as in the Victorian era) they were still capturing the fastest and easiest ways to produce design ideas. Today, designers pull from not only new ideas, but also ideas of the past to reinvent them.

For instance, today's design world often pulls sketches from previous designers for a new design. Sure, the modern appeal of tall abstracted buildings with rather large windows can be founded in many big cities. But, this doesn't mean fabrics from the Victorian era, old English and Roman styles, etc. aren't called upon to build design ideas more.

How many projects have we ourselves taken ideas from a previous architect or designer (such as: Frank Ghery or Frank Lloyd Wright or Victor Horta) as a means of our new designs? Present day designers have come up with many new ideas for many different interiors, but not without reconsidering the problems of the past, maybe pulling a few ideas from past success stories, and sure, enduring on the new idea of modern/new design. If you ask me, I'd say we're choosing a more eclectic design era.

meagan_mckee said...

I definitely agree with Jenna. We are headed toward an eclectic era, if we aren't already there. In the design of many of our 'modern' buildings, we're actually pulling designed from the past for inspiration. Roman inspired design is big. We're taking ideas and concepts from thousands of years ago and applying them today, with the help of our new technology.
Fact of the matter is, as one of our professors once said, "you can't reinvent the wheel." This is true in most aspects of design. We can recreate and make better past designs but it is often impossible to completely come up with something new. Because of this, we apply old concepts to new designs and the result is the designs of today.

Melissa Long said...

Design is always about making the next best thing. Whether from an aesthetics, functional, or symbolic stand point as designers we are constantly trying to redefine what design is capable of. While Meagan points out, “you can’t reinvent the wheel,” you can change the wheels shape, material, and function. This is what makes great design, great. The feats accomplished in Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing National Satdium (a.k.a The Bird Nest) do draw upon historic references but applies them in a new way. This application of historic standards creates a design that has never been seen before, and consequently monumental.

Because we are living in the technology era I believe we try to design structures that show off our accomplishments. Technology allows us to create buildings with curved walls and suspended roofs so our public buildings are also constructed in this manner. This can be seen in my home town, were a new museum was just built with intentions of allowing the building to also be art. ( However, from a intimate residential stand point, I believe we have a hard time looking past eclectic standards. I think this is because we draw upon family traditions when creating our home. Rarely do we adventure away from the way mom did it.

Design changes every day, so it is hard to tell where it will be a month from now, yet alone in the future. I believe currently there is a big push for innovative green design that is applicable and functional to its purpose, such as schools. Wow factors will always be critical in design, but we must be careful not to stray away from our roots. Design will always represent the time period and what is important to the people, and whatever that is for future generations will surely be represented in future design.

kengelman said...

I agree with Jenna and Meagan that we are headed towards if we aren't already there an eclectic design. I think today we are bringing back a lot of the styles from the past. Everything in design comes around again. Especially in fashion design. Clothes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are always being tweaked a little and brought back as the newest and hottest styles. Recently I read about how kitchens are being very retro again. They are remaking the appliances from back in the 60s but modernizing them. They will look like a 60s appliance but act like one that was made in 2009.
I think like Meagan said its not always possible to come up with new designs of different things but we can always change the design of things. Once the computer has been invented you can't reinvent it but you certainly can change it over and over and over to make it modern with today's times. This is why we are heading toward an eclectic design because we are taking everything from the past bits of time and putting them together in a new and innovative way.

Robin said...

My guess is that we are headed to a stripped-down eclecticism in the majority of design applications, but that there will also be striking examples of totally new departures from most of what is now recognizable to us. And a lot of clutter and visual noise along the way.

I say stripped down because I don’t think ecological and economic imperatives will allow for as much intensive use of natural resources and materials as has been the case in a lot of the more elaborated design of the last 30 years. Corporations, governments, and non-profits will, on the whole, be less likely to spend a lot for non-functional or primarily statement styles of architecture and design. At the micro and personal levels, the “simplify your life” trend suggests to me a grassroots (sort of) reaction to some of the excessive accumulation of material items in – and on – work, home, and leisure environments.

But I do not think this trend will be a straight line.

For one thing, as the recession lifts, many people will want to celebrate a new start and will re-make their personal environments (sort of like the Victorians did) as expression of their new outlooks and better circumstances. I also see in fall fashion trends a throwback to the 1980s, which were definitely not minimalist.

But more importantly, those very ecological and economic imperatives that constrain spending and material elaboration also drive new thinking, new materials, and new statements in design – as is already happening. Coming up with all this newness requires borrowing from a lot of sources, all facilitated by communications and information generation and sharing. And, I think, there will be a lot of experimentation with the familiar as designers work their way to new designs responsive to new realities.

It seems to me that we are in an important transitional era historically. My understanding of transitional eras is that they are typically pretty eclectic because almost everyone – everyday consumers and the most creative problem-solvers and visionaries alike – recognizes that things are changing in big ways and they try to figure out where we are headed and what it all means. Many people respond to major change by returning to time-honored traditions, others by holding on nostalgically to ideas and approaches that are familiar, and others by striking out in bold new directions. All these responses are important to the mix and help shape what comes next.

It will be interesting to know where we come out as this transition unfolds.

Clay Moran said...

I’ve got to agree a little bit with everyone so far, but I especially thought along the same lines as Robin when this question group was posed. I agree that on the scale of eclectic to simplistic or minimal, we are far closer to eclectic. I may not even have been able to come up with a better name for it myself. However, I think the nature of the eclecticism we are experiencing is far less cluttered and heavy and the like. The goal may be a similar one of creating somewhat of a testament to one’s personal or group eclecticism. By displaying a breadth of styles, one can portray a person of culture and knowledge and worldliness. However, the specific way this is all portrayed seems, to me, to have calmed down a bit. The decorative quality of today’s spaces is slightly calmer. I especially agree with Robin on the thought that to an extent the economy may have played a role in the clearing out of clutter in eclectic style because excess and unneeded material costs excess money, which isn’t necessarily there right now. I don’t think the eclectic style is necessarily seen across the board the way it may have been in the Victorian Era. There is a definite variance of trends throughout the nation and world. And when trying to achieve various purposes or concepts, style norms can be completely disregarded.

I have a somewhat different idea, though, on where design is headed, and I hope I can articulate in a way that makes sense. I think another part of the puzzle we have now that was missing then is a much more thorough design education system. Years have gone by, lessons have been learned, research done, all culminating in today, a day of mind blowing designs. A trend I personally feel I am seeing is one toward design with specific purpose. Not as intense as the frame structure period where the structure was the aesthetic, but very focused none-the-less. I think designers all over the world are pushing for designs with a specific intent of how they want to make people feel in that space, as well as to clearly articulate the function of the space. Although Elsie de Wolfe beautifully tore away at the medieval-like darkness and clutter in favor of a lighter airier way, I feel today we have more control over what exactly we portray through a space, simply because we know more. Design and education have come a long way. It is more clear to us now that the Victorian parlor was “cluttered.” And an ornately carved piano in the parlor may have been unnecessary. Maybe on 50 years a student will write about the utter tackiness of design in 2009, but as for me I think we’re doing alright.

This blog is intended for the interior design students in the college of design at the University of Kentucky. It was created with the intent to present students with information, providing them with a channel for contemplation and discussion.