Modernism's Traits

Modernism's Traits

Patterned Building FacadeBy looking at past design styles, we find connections to our current styles and trends along with wide-reaching influences into our own ideals of space and ways of expressing design and showcasing materials.  With traditional design having once been the norm, once the introduction of modern design in the mid 1800’s started, it attracted fans and recruited architects world-wide and brought concepts to life through the construction of modern buildings and interiors.  By now you are most likely thinking, the mid 1800’s?  Surely, isn’t modern design a more present-day style?  Let’s go with yes for the answer to both questions—for now.

Though it may seem like styles appear overnight, they always have roots and inspiration on ideals and concepts that have been developing in a particular area for some time.  The area may be geographic, cultural or maybe even just specific to a particular designer—nevertheless, a new style is always something that has been “brewing” somewhere with someone for quite some time before going mainstream.  In the case of modernism, while reviewing the massive amounts of projects attributed to the style, one can make the conclusion that what we recognize as modernism today can look very different to what was known as modernism when it first originated.  In other words, the early aesthetic of modernism that originated so long ago was very modern then, when compared to the popular, more traditional and heavily ornamented styles of that era, and when compared to our present day modern style we may at times have to dig a little deeper to recognize the traits and value of the early modernism style in an interior.

I found myself this week re-reading about modernism during the 1950’s, specifically excerpts from the book “What is Modern Design?” by Edgar Kauffman Jr., who was the Director of the Museum of Modern Art’s well-known exhibition of home furnishings titled “Good Design”, among many other notable accomplishments.  In his book, Kauffman surveys modern interior design’s development from 1850 to 1950.  The reason why this stands out so much is because of the 4 main traits that he identifies as the main traits of modern rooms:  the traits of comfort, quality, lightness, and harmony.  As we look closely into these ideals and traits of a modern interior as outlined by Kauffman, we begin to realize that modernism is not just a design style, it’s part of a thought process and becomes a way of life.

The 1850’s brought us the first examples of what a modern interior should look like and how it should feel.  Though as we look back at the interiors of the era, at first glance our reaction may be to think that they are not interiors designed in a modern style, for the materials, ornamentations (even as simple as they may be,) are not the mainstream modern that we know today.  However, the definition of what makes a modern interior are there.  When analyzing an interior we must put it into context:  what is the time period, the current styles and trends, as well as the material technologies available during that era.  We must train our eye to look for the ‘traits’ in those designs to help us decipher true modernity.  We must look past the rush and the thrill of a beautiful photograph and appreciate the traits of the design for what it really is.

Comfort, quality, lightness, and harmony.  These traits go hand-in-hand, for one encourages the next, ensuring an interior that is not only suited to our way of life, but also to our abilities and ideals.  We each will have our own individual style which will be based out of our own personal circumstances, that is, what informs the design that we know and gravitate towards.  Time periods march on, technology evolves, and needs change, so in order to maintain true to the style and identify with modernism, we can stay true to these traits to provide a framework from which to formulate our design.

“The very grain & nature of a thing is its quality”
-Edgar Kauffman Jr.


A main feature of a modern interior is quality.  We find quality with the utilization of good materials and the employment of good production methods.  If a material or object is of poor quality, it is not going to last.  Material failure compromises the functionality of a space by shortening its life span, and crippling its ability to adapt to the needs of its occupants.


When we speak of comfort, visual cues might automatically come to mind, however, comfort cannot rely solely on visual signs, for we must also have practical comfort throughout.  Providing comfort to a space includes stepping back and analyzing the needs and wants for a well-functioning space.  We must take into account special circumstances and make adjustments for proper use.  Good design honors the user.  It finds a way to provide a bigger benefit that could not be had without it.

It is interesting how some design developments that were originally formulated for functionality became trends overtime.  For example, as France’s King Louis XIV grew older, he required more comfortable ways of carrying out his duties as King.  As he received people from a propped up position in bed, relaxation became the model of general comfort, making a way for new styles of seating in public comfort that originated from a development that was formulated for functionality with a means to honor the user and make it better for them to carry out their tasks. 


Lightness has long been regarded as a problem, but today’s designers are well qualified to deal with this issue.  Lighting levels affect the comfort of a user—employing too much light in a space and you suddenly become self-conscious, over-react and hesitate to act your normal self.  In contrast, with an absence of light you feel lost, insecure, out of place and unsafe.  With many successful projects capitalizing on the use of natural light as a way to provide a feeling of lightness—not only in terms of quantity of light, but also as lightness of space by providing views and a connection to the outdoors—a major element to modern design employs a sense of lightness expressed through comfortably lit interiors.  The selections of interior elements and furnishings should also be carefully considered compositions to further enhance the feeling of lightness.


Harmony can sound like the most ambitious of the traits of modern design as it controls many diverse elements in a room.  However, with each trait in balance, harmony will be present in the end result.  A true modern interior will result in harmony with all the elements of its traits—balancing a sense of lightness, quality and comfort in an interior that embraces the dweller and expresses modern style.

Though the modernist design movement that originated in the mid 1800’s may look different to what we recognize as modern design today, the traits and practices that it established are still relevant today and transcend the modernism that we now identify with.  The modernist movement has since evolved and inspired a variety of styles and trends, at times in reaction to and other times in response to the style.  Whether in a residential interior or a skyscraper—comfort, quality, lightness, and harmony are all desirable traits in an interior and relevant to good design.


Photo by Verne Ho

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