In the Modernist hall of mirrors
Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set – The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design ArtsBy Virginia Smith
Watson-Guptill Publications, USA, USD 24.95; Windsor Books, UK, £14.99
It is not exactly rocket science, that different creative disciplines interact and affect each other. Gropius wrote of the ‘logical interdependence’ in the modern world of all creative work. So the basic premise in Virginia Smith’s book is that there is a ‘visual landscape’ of periods in design that goes across all design arts to treat form in similar ways.
The author chooses to concentrate on two creative forms that inhabit what might be regarded as two extremes of scale: architecture and typography. This leads to some interesting, and occasionally rather forced, comparisons: between, for instance, the serif and ornamental window pediments, which the Austrian Emperor rather fetchingly regarded as a building’s ‘eyebrows’. Or the comparison between the pitched roofs of German cottages and upper-case lettering: the Bauhaus master Herbert Bauer wished to translate into typography the Modernist tendency to sweep away all such traditional features. The Bauhaus went so far as banning the use of capital letters and, as they surely must, broke the rule constantly.
Other disciplines are referenced: Chanel’s 1926 ‘Dress of the Century’ is compared favourably to a Le Corbusier building. Stripped of all ornament, the dress is made of wool jersey, a material previously found primarily in men’s underwear. Just as Le Corbusier preferred industrial materials in which to house rich clients, so Chanel rejected lace, in what is an essentially practical and functional garment. Le Corbusier, the author tells us, ‘might have recognised Chanel as an engineer in couture’.
Easily overlooked is the point made that the classic New York skyscraper, rising in steps like an elongated pyramid was not so much homage to the Mayan and Egyptian cultures from where so much Art Deco reference hailed, but compliance with the zoning laws introduced in 1916. We never discover whether the decoration applied was an expression of the architect’s concept, or carried out at the insistence of philistine clients. The Fountainhead is not referenced.
Smith rarely refers to literature, cinema or advertising – design disciplines where typography and architecture regularly interacted and clashed, which affected writers such as Scott Fitzgerald more than architecture or furniture.
World War I is briefly mentioned: Gropius had once been buried alive during a bombardment. But the events leading up to World War ii and the diaspora of European creative talent from which the us benefited so much are not acknowledged. Despite the grounding of Modernism on the European continent, this is very much an American book. Eric Gill gets four lines, one of which reads: ‘His ascetic costume of a monk’s habit concealed a randy temperament.’
The biggest disappointment is in the reproduction of illustrations. Compared with Ruari McLean’s 1995 translation of Die Neue Typographie, you are struck by the reproduction quality in Smith’s book. The strength and undeniable power of Tschichold’s early work was in the use of black ink on white paper, and the occasional and telling use of red. Here the reproduction is merely shades of grey. Jacobsen’s Egg Chair of 1957, and countless other buildings, interiors, furnishings and dresses are similarly compromised by this compromise. Which is a shame, for the book remains an interesting and useful exploration and explanation of the development of typefaces against a background of revolution, war and industrialisation, and ever more ambitious architecture.