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Modernism diluted

von Thomas Edelmann

4/5/2016
Critics can only shake their heads in disbelief: in Milan Cassina is presenting Gerrot Rietveld’s “Red-Blue Chair”, not only in the colored version of 1921, but also with upholstered leather cushions. Photo © Cassina

Die Sehnsucht nach Gestern scheint größer denn je. Der neueste Trend ist die Arbeit am und mit dem „modernen Klassiker“.

Modernist furniture has existed for more than a generation, and it has enjoyed a new, second lease of life as licensed replicas. The trend began with Knoll International and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who from the 1950s produced new editions of furniture that 25 years earlier had been manufactured in small numbers in small workshops. The designs by van der Rohe, fairly often created with the help of Lilly Reich or Sergius Ruegenberg, reflected the architect’s comprehensive understanding of space and material.

In 1962, Dino Gavina succeeded in signing a contract with Marcel Breuer to have the latter’s armchair “Wassily”, his cantilever chair “Cesca” and “Laccio” table set manufactured again. With his contacts to the many Italian furniture manufacturers, who were in the process of extending the international appeal of their traditional business models and creating a stronger client base for the future, Gavina inspired Cesare Cassina to produce re-editions of Modernist furniture. Things kicked off with a license agreement with Fondation Le Corbusier. From 1965, the LC 1 through to LC 4 were all suddenly available again, designs first created in 1927, and furniture items that already looked back on an interesting production story. Today, they are considered the joint work of Le Corbusier, his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. In a second wave, in 1973 Cassina launched furniture by Gerrit Rietveld and Charles Rennie Mackintosh as novelties; further collections followed. They were marketed together as “i maestri”.

Can clearly grow on and with you:
Vitra has long since brought out several versions of Charles and Ray Eames’ legendary Lounge Chair. Photo © Vitra

Veritable treasures in their portfolios
Other entrepreneurs such as Willi Fehlbaum for Vitra acquired licenses to manufacture products that had already been launched, such as the furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, now also available in Europe. Highly traditional manufacturers such as Thonet, once a pioneer of Modernism, had veritable treasures and licenses in its portfolio, but only considered the 1920s’ furniture marketable if it was first adapted to suit the spirit of the post-war era.

What is curious about the re-edition of Modernist furniture items is that their creators designed them for a highly specific architectural setting and chronological context. Doubtless, the one or other protagonist of this era had a teleological understanding of history that persuaded him to expect his particular furnishing solution would remain forever valid, but such beliefs are self-deceptive and indeed might result in our not having as many innovations.

Simply functioning was no longer enough
However, from the mid-1960s onwards it is the prevailing zeitgeist that we have to thank for having ensured these so-called “modern classics” returned to the market and re-established themselves. The phase of experimentation that characterized the post-war period was over, that time when vaguely useful, ephemeral objects were banged together from different materials. Simply functioning was no longer enough. What was now sought was a new ostentatious style, which the new elites of the 1960s and 1970s could seize as their own. As always when the formation of style is concerned major concerns were that the designs be distinct and safe to use. In Germany another factor played a role: namely that furniture could be used to manifest a family’s participation in a modern, democratic and untainted pre-war life. Such furniture effectively amounted to a comparatively favorable statement of moral integrity.

Suddenly the avant-garde was passé
In the late 1970s the pendulum swung back the other way in remarkable fashion. For example, Italian avant-garde groups such as Archizoom or Alichimia pounced on the re-launched furniture and objects. They added applications and frills, even though reduction to the essentials and eschewing decoration had been fundamental to the image of Modernism. Apart from creating a new, post-modern stylistic context, which simultaneously questioned social, political and economic certainties and ultimately eliminated them, this method also amounted to criticism of those furniture makers, who largely or to a great extent simply dipped into the yesteryear of their own archive or availed themselves of licenses acquired. Admittedly, one result of post-modernism is that it made the figure of the avant-gardes obsolete, but as we know today there are also contemporary designers who want to live from their work.

In Germany, collector, architecture historian and filmmaker Christian Borngräber proclaimed: As a social concept Modernism was “untenable and in relation to design, classic, in other words, it was over”. As a champion of New German Design he criticized “marketing of dusty old Modernist items”. It could not be said often enough, he claimed, “that it is completely irrelevant whether you have furnished your home in a fussy Baroque or a Bauhaus style. The two trends only differed superficially, as underlying them both is a yearning for the past.”

Material for experimentation: today and tomorrow
He continued while “long believed dead, historicism was already “more up to date than ever,” and merely complemented by 20th century stylistic elements. What Borngräber, who died in 1992, could not imagine was the extent to which this phenomenon would explode. For the friends of re-edition, progress means an increasing amount of past time. An increasing number of designs by master male (and occasionally female) designers from past decades are being unearthed and adapted to contemporary production and marketing methods. Making them available as material for experimentation now or later. There is nothing awful about this, as an increasing number of designers and manufacturers have long ceased to search for the present-day and future. What counts is the atmospheric sense of “mid-modern”, basing designs on regional or global models of bygone epochs. However, the latest trend is work on and with the “modern classic” and it has has already developed into a broad current.

Can clearly grow on and with you:
Vitra has long since brought out several versions of Charles and Ray Eames’ legendary Lounge Chair. Photo © Vitra

Enhancement through precious materials
Thonet, for example, enhances its furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer by resorting to especially precious materials (or “pure materials”): examples include tubular steel furniture with brown buffalo leather and armrests in oiled walnut. Should designers have been so remiss as to have not included certain versions themselves, decades later the firm’s own design department is happy to help out: Which is why Thonet now also supplies Marcel Breuer’s asymmetrical tubular steel table as model S 285/5 in a symmetrical version. Should not Modernist furniture always be universal objects? At any rate, not many of them were well suited to garden or terrace use. This omission has now been remedied by using plastic fabrics and frames with new coatings and colors.

Not only for Mart Stam’s cantilever-based chair:
For Thonet, “Pure Materials” is the name for the versions of tubular steel furniture that they have enhanced to sport oiled walnut wood and real buffalo leather. Photo © Thonet

Versions based on historical models
And who could blame the manufacturers for tinkering around a little with their creations, the “modern classics”? The current climax of this tendency to re-design familiar objects is supplied by Patricia Urquiola, who has just become Art Director at Cassina. The “Red and Blue Chair ” developed in 1917 is now available in green, black, white, and corresponds to a version from the year 1921 for Wicher Zeilmaker, who moved at that time to the Dutch East Indies. This amount to nothing other than simply producing a version with a historical model. The fact that the chair – which for many people embodied a particular experience of Modernism as a private, copied item – has now been fitted out with leather cushions merely leaves the critic feeling amazed, doubting and shocked.
Would it not be better to design a new model than to alter the historical model in this manner? The “Red and Blue Chair” cannot be said to have been lacking in comfort at all. At most you can say you sense your own physical being and constitution somewhat differently on this chair than you would on a conventional upholstered armchair.

www.cassina.com
www.thonet.de
www.vitra.com

Not only for Mart Stam’s cantilever-based chair:
For Thonet, “Pure Materials” is the name for the versions of tubular steel furniture that they have enhanced to sport oiled walnut wood and real buffalo leather. Photo © Thonet
Perhaps soon they’ll all be height-adjustable?
Suddenly Marcel Breuer’s asymmetrical tubular-steel desk is available from Thonet as a symmetrical version called S 285/5. Photo © Thonet
Perhaps soon they’ll all be height-adjustable?
Suddenly Marcel Breuer’s asymmetrical tubular-steel desk is available from Thonet as a symmetrical version called S 285/5. Photo © Thonet