Sunday, November 05, 2006
The Birth of Modernism
Today, when I was waiting for the tea water to boil, I found myself at the living-room bookcase, paging through those big picture books that designers love to publish about each other. After looking at the Tibor Kalman book again and the Alexey Brodovitch book, and after thinking that I should call Sears and ask them if my propane stove should really take this long to boil a damn teapot, I came upon my well-worn copy of the tome of famous graphic designers, one of the big books that tells students in design-history classes about who went before us and about who, therefore, we are. I found myself stuck on the pages that chronicle the work of Walter Gropuis, one of the very first modernists, and that led to my rummaging around for the tome of famous architects, so that I could look at who architects say he was, and meanwhile the tea water boiled, and I absentmindedly turned off the burner. I began to think about Gropuis not as the icon we all studied but about who he actually was before he became an icon. I began to wonder what urged him to design, what drove him to make things. I found myself thinking that since he was in on the beginning of things, since he is such a lauded designer, and since he exerted such an influence on design in its infancy, what urged him to design might well tell us something important about how we design, and how we came to believe what our role should be as designers. If I could figure out the way he looked at the world, I might find a good place to jump into my search for the origins of our design perfectionism. By then, the tea water was stone cold. I had to start all over again, this time holding a tea bag in my teeth so as not to forget my main mission. Here are three important things about Gropuis’ early life. First, he was Peter Behrens’ assistant and shared studio space in that office with Adolf Meyer, Mies van der Rohe, and le Corbusier. Second, he served with distinction as a German cavalry officer during World War I. And third, he founded the Bauhaus, a radical reorganization of the Weimar school of arts and crafts, right after the war. When you read those three facts, you may have skimmed over the second one because it seems to have so little to do with design. But go back: it is the most important fact of the three. The first fact is preamble; the last is response; but the middle one contains Freud’s call to action, the designer’s call to action, the change that insured Gropuis’ everlasting place in the tome. If ever there were an experience that could change a nice, self-satisfied, middle-of-the-road socialist designer into an evangelical utopian idealist, serving at the front in World War I would be that experience. Some people don’t know much about World War I. It seems so long ago, and yet it’s not. My grandfather, the same man who sat and listened to me conjugate Russian verbs when I was thirteen, fought in World War I. But when I look at my students, I know that the war is as far away to them as the Crimean War is to me. It’s history: they recognize the name, it’s dusty and vaguely familiar, but it’s not related to life as we live it now. Yet for designers, that war is very important. It destroyed so much that it created the opening for a basic change in the way life would be lived in the west from then on. Here’s a quick summation: ten million soldiers died and twenty million were wounded in the four years of “the war to end all wars,” which was declared in 1914. The numbers don’t include the civilians who died, the children caught in crossfire. At the Battle of Verdun alone, a “battle” that went on for six months, 350,000 Frenchmen and 330,000 Germans died: 680,000 people. That’s about 3,778 people killed a day – that’s one World Trade Center a day, for six months, in one battle. Verdun – one battle in a long war – killed the equivalent of every single person in Manhattan. Imagine coming back to your nice Victorian home after that. Imagine just having lived through four years of watching your friends die hanging in the tangled barbed wire of no-man’s-land. Imagine yourself, hunkered down in your trench, listening them scream all night until the screaming stopped. Imagine coming home after that, putting on a dinner jacket for mama’s evening musicale, and listening to a matronly soprano singing “the last rose of summer.” how were you supposed to sit on your little gold ballroom chair, wearing your dinner jacket and sipping your digestif, after what you had been through, pretending nothing had changed? The war made Gropuis a reforming zealot. It made his friends reforming zealots. They would do anything not to go through that blood and chaos and futile misery again. And they blamed the Victorians for a lot of what they saw wrong in the world. They hated Victorian sentimentality. They hated the stuffiness and façade of bourgeois society. They hated the falsity of society as they knew it, and they wanted a radical change in the way society worked. They wanted to clear off the table with the sweep of an arm. “Start from zero,” as Gropuis used to say, erase the slate, begin again. Gropuis and his friends fought against anxiety and meaninglessness, fought against the dull, futile ignorance they had seen all around them at the front. But instead of turning to human connection, to love, as a path out of the darkness, they chose to build a new world out of the mud, to build a utopia that did not admit death and disease and rain and trenches and blood, did not admit the primal, brutal, unkempt side of people. They just pretended it wasn’t there. Now, I ask you. This man who started the Bauhaus, this great patriarch, one of the greatest influences on design in our time, did he design from fear or love? Natalia Ilyin is a Washington-based writer, graphic designer and design critic. Her first book, Blonde Like Me: The Roots of Blonde Myth in Our Culture (Simon and Schuster) was published in 2000. This piece is excerpted from her book, Chasing the Perfect (Bellerophon Publications, 2006).