Spring 2006

Modernism and me: a survivor’s tale

Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time

By Natalia Ilyin<br>Metropolis Books, &pound;16.85

On reading the first few pages of Natalia Ilyin’s Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time I was disappointed. Rather than incisive analysis, it is a personal memoir that approaches Modernism as a design phenomenon that somehow happened to the author, and I worried that it might be agonisingly self-indulgent. I was mostly wrong.

Occasional excesses aside, Chasing the Perfect, is an entertaining musing about Modernism’s profound influence on everyday life in general, and Ilyin’s practice as a graphic designer, teacher and lecturer specifically. It is also a follow-up to her first book Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture (Touchstone, 2000), a deft and witty examination of another phenomenon that affected her life. Modernism may have more gravitas than blondeness, but the latter may be just as significant (if not more so) to modern Western culture.

Likewise in Chasing the Perfect, Ilyin, who was introduced to Modernist methods as a Rhode Island School of Design graduate student in the 1980s, examines how postwar Modernism, which is rooted in strict dogma and distinct stereotypes, has an impact on everything from aesthetics to behaviour.

While she does not describe her own design style, it is clear that adherence to Modernist principles turned into an obsessive quest for perfection. Although the reader has to wade through a few personal digressions, for the most part Ilyin’s design commentaries will pique the interest of anyone who is serious about design ideology and theology.

Those who lived through the great schism of the 1980s and early 90s, when postmodernism challenged Modernism’s foremost verities, will also appreciate Ilyin’s disquisitions on the rightness – and wrongness – of form, and her critiques of design education.

‘The system of thinking that lies behind the design education of today is a hundred-year-old way of responding to the world,’ she writes, ‘Sometimes it feels like its commandments were engraved on two big stone tablets, but those commandments were just the invention of a small bunch of men who created them in response to the times in which they were living. And though those tablets were thrown over a cliff in 1968, amid much talk about freeing design from Modernism, no one in the next 30 years could find a really new way, a new system, for teaching someone to be a designer.’

For the neophyte, this book offers astute retellings of how Modernism emerged in the early twentieth century and why it devolved into corporate design systems during the 1960s and 1970s. Ilyin also places some key Modern icons in useful context. But these are not this brief book’s primary virtues. After the first chapter, Ilyin settles into a narrative style that explains Modernism as a saviour of Western culture – that is also ideologically misguided. She holds up a Modern lens to view her own, gradually unravelling life. In one gripping chapter, Ilyin owns up to a mental breakdown that sends her packing to Bainbridge Island in Washington, where, true to Modernist principles, she strips away all her material encumbrances for a kind of ascetic purity – Modernism of the mind and spirit.

The memoir form is an unusual way for a design critic to discuss Modernism and a shaky foundation on which to build a design book. Chasing the Perfect is so much about Ilyin’s own experiences that a reader looking for a conventional design critique may become frustrated. Nonetheless, the reader will be totally engaged in Ilyin’s well crafted story, digressions and all.