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The following article was originally presented as an invited lecture
at the conference of CUMULUS (The International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media)
in Bratislava, Slovakia, on October 12, 2007 under the title
“Am I just seeing things – or is the modernist apartheid regime still in place?”
The text below has been partly reformulated, slightly expanded, and equipped with footnotes and bibliography.
For the original shorter version of the text, see here.
For the Slovak translation of the text below, see here.

A case against
the modernist regime
in design education

jan soucek: the bridge

Written by Jan MICHL

ABSTRACT The article argues that the present dominance of the modernist design idiom, and the general aesthetic inferiority of existing non-modernist stylistic alternatives, is a consequence of the fact that design schools have for decades banished non-modernist visual idioms from their curriculum. The author discusses original arguments for the single-style modernist regime of contemporary design schools, and contends that the modernist vision of a single unified style, which prompted the banishment, was rooted in a conservative, backward-looking effort to imitate the aesthetic unity of pre-industrial, feudal epochs. Against the received view of modernism as an expression of modernity, the author argues that modernists were on the contrary geared to suppressing the key novel feature of the modern time: its pluralism in general and its aesthetic diversity in particular. It is further asserted that the design philosophy behind the modernist regime was largely self-serving, aimed at securing the modernists an educational and aesthetic monopoly. The author pleads for transforming the modernist design education into a modern one, where pluralism of aesthetic idioms and positions replaces the current one-style-fits-all approach.

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the modernist visual idiom in architecture and design has been a spectacular success – so much so, in fact, that the word design has now come to stand for a definite visual style. Terms such as design sofas, design fireplaces, design apartments, design boutiques, and many other design-branded things, obviously refer to the modernist minimalist aesthetic the media and public have come to associate with the word.(2) But this identification of the word design with a particular stylistic idiom is not only a sign of the success of this idiom, but also, at least to my understanding, a sign of a major problem; I contend that the focal point of the problem are contemporary design schools.

Let me add that this talk relates mainly to the world of three-dimensional design, and not so much to graphic design or textile design where the situation has always been different. Although I have in mind European design schools in general, I am aware I may be speaking from a limited North European perspective. So please judge for yourself the validity and topicality of what follows in your own context.

Now the magisterial position of the modernist visual idiom, that has made the term design synonymous with modernist minimalism, is obviously related to something hardly ever mentioned in explaining the present modernist dominance. Namely, we take it for granted that during the past 50 years or so, design schools produced almost exclusively designers trained solely in the modernist idiom. The omnipresence of the modernist aesthetic therefore cannot be explained only by the fact that the idiom proved fit in many fields.(3) At least as much is explained by the fact that an absolute majority of designers and architects, who graduated from the modernist design schools since the 1950s have been neither able nor willing to design in any other stylistic idiom practiced during the same period. The omnipresence, in other words, is probably as much a result of restricting design education to the modernist idiom.(4) This modernist education monopoly (5) is the problem I want to discuss.


WHAT AM I SAYING – other stylistic idioms? I suppose you would immediately object that things like present day versions of stylistic historicisms, the anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and other kinds of figurative design, as well as various decorative and ornamental schemes, are nothing more than fringe phenomena, not worth taking seriously. But wait: if we see designers as a profession vitally related to the mechanism of supply and demand, what are we to make of the fact that things dressed in non-modernists styles are still very popular, and that, in fact, they never really disappeared? Although almost entirely ignored by design historians,(6) these non-modernist idioms have existed all the time alongside the modernist aesthetic for one simple reason: there has always been demand for them. And they have always been in demand because they have given pleasure to many people. As design teachers, you may deplore the fact, but that does not make it go away. Whether you like it or not, we have been living in a situation of stylistic pluralism.

But even if some of you would acknowledge the fact of demand and popularity of various non-modernist stylistic idioms, you would probably point out that examples of those idioms, as embodied in concrete products are, aesthetically speaking, mostly mediocre or worse, compared to the majority of modernist objects. Sadly, it is true. But again: is the often low aesthetic quality a sign of an intrinsic inferiority of these non-modernist idioms as such, or rather, is it a consequence of the refusal of design schools to offers instructions to those who would like to meet that kind of demand and design in one of the non-modernist idioms? Those who practice the non-modernist visual design are usually not schooled designers, and this is telling. As a rule, educated designers come out of schools without practical knowledge of any non-modernist visual idioms, equipped in addition with strong bias against practicing that kind of design. Extremely few of them are able to overcome the prejudice, knowing or suspecting they would risk subsequent ostracism of their own professional community.

Once you start thinking of it, it is certainly odd, that design schools have largely ignored the full scope of aesthetic demands in society, and that only one particular type of aesthetic, to the exclusions of all others, is chosen to be imparted. To limit the scope of instruction to a single aesthetic idiom would be surely less baffling and much less problematic in private design schools, which naturally follow aesthetic orientations of their owners. But an overwhelming majority of design schools are state-run, public institutions, financed via taxes exacted from all citizens – not only from the modernist buffs. Besides, the governments which finance architecture and design schools are neither autocratic, totalitarian nor authoritarian regimes; they belong to modern democratic states, where the plurality of political, cultural, and religious positions, as well as the resulting diversity of lifestyles in their populations, is accommodated as a matter of principle. One would then expect that, being run by modern democratic governments, the design schools would feel obliged to cater not only to the style popular with designers, architects, and art people themselves, but also to other categories of existing stylistic and taste preferences popular among those that do not happen to be, or aspire to be, designers or architects, or design historians or art critics. This is, however, not the case. I would therefore argue that design schools have for years failed to do their job properly. As a consequence, we keep letting down huge numbers of ordinary, non-art people, who live outside our little ghetto-like art world. Why this apartheid-like approach to design training? (7) How come all state run design schools appear to practice a single-idiom aesthetic monopoly? How did we get here?


THE DOMINANT REASON for this state of affairs is that modernism is by its very nature a monopolist ideology. Majority of present day design schools still seem to be wedded to the more than one hundred year-old modernist idea of one true, all-embracing, authentic, historically necessary, modern style. Since the end of 19th century, modernists argued that in contrast to previous epochs where each epoch had allegedly produced its own typical stylistic idiom (Classicism and Gothic would be the chief examples), the present time, although enormously different from all previous epochs, had failed to bring about a style of its own. Designers and architects were allegedly reduced to repeating the idioms of the past, recycling both Western and exotic historical architecture and design. According to modernists, it was imperative to bring about the absent, purportedly innate aesthetic unity the modern epoch was supposedly entitled to. (Let me stress here that it is not the modernist aesthetic, born from this effort, that I see as a problem here; the problem is the educational monopoly of this aesthetic, and the ensuing near-monopoly of this idiom in the design practice.)

Now, in their effort to create a new authentic modern idiom out of the means of the present, modernists allegedly turned their backs on the past. But did they really? True, they categorically refused the use of historicist formal vocabulary, but in doing so they succumbed to a tyranny of history(8) that was far more overbearing than anything ever seen in the previous history of design or architecture: instead of imitating particular historical forms, they now set about imitating the notion of historical epoch as such.

To exemplify the backward-looking, past-dependent, and imitative nature of the modernist vision of a single unified idiom, let me give four quotations from leading 20th century modernists.

The Swiss architect Hannes Meyer expressed succinctly, though unwittingly, this conservative aim of modernism back in 1926 in his article “Die neue Welt” (“The new world”) when he wrote: "Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today. But our knowledge of the past is a burden that weighs upon us, and inherent in our advanced education are impediments tragically barring our new paths. The unqualified affirmation of the present age presupposes a ruthless denial of the past."(9) The supreme modernist ambition, as the quotation reminds us, was to do at present what craftsmen, designers and architects of the past allegedly always did: to generate an authentic, i.e. historically correct, expression of the new epoch. Several years later two American architectural writers, affiliated to an influential museum, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, formulated the past-dependent modernist ideal with even more clarity when they stated: "Now that it is possible to emulate the great styles of the past in their essence without imitating their surface, the problem of establishing one dominant style, which the nineteenth century set itself in terms of alternative revivals, is coming to a solution."(10a) In 1964, in discussing the educational aims of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius stated his continued hope, that "we could gradually develop an art form that expresses the times, [an art form] such as existed in strong cultures of the past." (10b) In 1967 the Danish designer and critic Poul Henningsen claimed in his article “Skal vi oppgi nutiden?” (“Are we to renounce the present time?”)(11), discussing two new restaurants in a peasant hut style, built on each side of the motorway out of Copenhagen, that although cozy and popular, they were “devoid of architectural quality”. His only support for that claim was that they had allegedly no chance of ending up once in the future (he mentioned explicitly year 2100, i.e. in some 130 years hence) in an architectural museum, as representatives of what Danes of the 1960s achieved. Henningsen takes it here completely for granted that the architectural quality of a building consists in its future museum potential, as a representative of its historical period. Quotations of this sort could fill several pages. Now, who were really the servile slaves of history: the 19th century historicists, or rather the 20th century modernists?(12)

The modernists demanded that the modern epoch have the same stylistic unity as the pre-industrial, feudal epochs – that is, historical epochs, where whatever aesthetic unity they possessed,(13) was a result of small exclusive groups of rich and powerful elites (courts, churches, aristocracy) in positions of supreme control in things aesthetic, with hardly any challenge from the rest of the society. When the new religious, political and economic liberties of the late 18th and 19th century unleashed brain power of common man, and led to what came to be called industrial revolution,(14) the ensuing growth in the standard of living made the stylistic diversity more and more manifest.(15) The early modernist architects and designers, fascinated by novel forms and shapes of the modern industrial means of production, came to see the utilitarian principles behind them as key precepts for building the new modern style. Metaphorically speaking, modernists were spellbound by a pointing index finger, while paying no attention to what the index finger was pointing to. What they failed to see were the pluralist ends the new machines and industrial constructions were devised to serve. Now, with the rising standard of living (that the index finger really was pointing to) many more people than before – both the expanding bourgeoisie and the growing working classes – started to have an aesthetic say in how things were to look. While buyers and users themselves greatly enjoyed this new empowerment, gradually a growing number of architects, designers and art people came to consider the more and more visible stylistic diversity a Babel-like confusion.(16) In their nostalgic obsession with aesthetic unity of the preceding aristocratic epochs, the modernist proponents completely missed what was truly modern and really epoch-making in the new industrial development – namely the dawn of a radical diversity of lifestyles and of plurality of aesthetic styles, vogues and trends that was arriving with it.(17)

After the Second World War the new one-idiom-only design pedagogy, modeled on the 1920s’ Bauhaus curriculum,(18) was, with some delays,(19) successfully implemented in practically all industrialized countries. The modernist design education monopoly was seen as the key step in the effort to eradicate the modern stylistic diversity and replace it with a modernist, aesthetically unified epoch.(20a) In this effort two different measures can be distinguished.

One was to impart, sustain and reinforce in the student the belief in a single, true, and only moral expression of the modern epoch, and to prevent backsliding. Students, who began largely open-minded about the pluralism of stylistic positions, were taught to respect only one taste culture. It was the culture identical with the less-is-more aesthetic preferences of their teachers, who considered themselves to be representatives of the aesthetic truth of the epoch.(20b) Students were induced to see the current non-modernist styles in contemporary use as ridiculous, inane, and morally repugnant. The deal was that in repudiating pluralism, the students too would enter the elite (i.e. the avant-garde), and partake in giving collective birth to the aesthetic truth of the time.

The other ubiquitous feature was promotion of the so called critical attitude to capitalism. Although many aspects of the market economy do invite legitimate criticism, the wholesale modernist cultivation of a negative view of the market has been hardly more than a self-serving measure, aimed at denigrating this prime generator of aesthetic pluralism. As suggested earlier, market economy, by empowering not only the tastes of the richest and most powerful elites, but an increasing number of potential taste cultures, kept undermining the modernist project of a single style of the epoch. Market mechanism can be seen as a permanent ballot, or a referendum, about what at any time is in demand, based on consumer responses to inventive experiments of businesses.(21) Modernists wanted to do away with this ballot system, because it kept providing non-modernist idioms at the expense of their own, allegedly historically necessary style. It was therefore considered a historical necessity to eliminate market mechanisms. In this context it is not surprising that most of inter-war modernists were strongly attracted to various forms of socialist, collectivist ideas, as socialism promised to abolish the market system through monopolizing all means of production in the hands of the government. In the eyes of modernists, this represented high hopes for realizing their vision of the single all-embracing aesthetic expression of the epoch.

All this, the one-style-only pedagogy, imbued with the concept of design as an aesthetic truth, as well as rejection of market mechanism, were measures devised to bring about the past-inspired modernist goal: the true, unified, “authentic”, historically necessary visual expression of the new epoch. When contemporary design schools still cling to teaching a single aesthetic idiom, they in effect still gear their students, for five or six long years, to what amounts to simulating a non-existent aesthetic unity in face of the modern epoch’s unredeemable stylistic diversity. This may sound like too absurd a procedure to be true, but how else can one understand the modernist education monopoly still firmly in place?


SOME GENERATIONS AGO modernists developed a novel, fresh, matter-of-fact, naked-like stylistic idiom, an elementarist kind of aesthetic, until then largely missing among the traditionally established visual sign of status, prestige and wealth. Developed in the 1920s, mostly from achievements of post-cubist abstract painters and sculptors,(22) the new idiom was for quite some time enriching the aesthetic alternatives open to consumers at the time when diverse stylistic competence still reigned supreme. Today, with modernism for decades completely dominating design education, as well as the design scene, the erstwhile liberator has turned into a new oppressor. Perpetuating the modernist aesthetic monopoly keeps impoverishing the aesthetic means that could have been available at the designer’s hand. This in consequence impoverishes our aesthetic environment. The minimalist idiom itself, although admittedly refined and sophisticated as an aesthetic, seems to most people to be able to communicate their present day wealth – wealth in a broad sense of that term – in only one particular manner: through sophisticated signs of fictitious poverty. One problem with this inversion is that its enjoyment tends to be limited to well-to-do people with abundant cultural capital.(23) The inversion might be amusing if it was consciously intended and played with, but is it? As long as designers see their idiom in terms of aesthetic truth, the results tend to be rather humorless.(24) As schools refuse to teach, cultivate, refine and fine-tune any non-modernist aesthetic strategies, and limit innovation possibilities to the minimalist style alone, they indirectly encourage only one kind of innovative direction: to proceed further away from the heteronomy towards more and more autonomy, i.e. closer and closer to fine art, appealing more and more to art insiders only. If such a direction looks like a cul de sac, what else to blame than the single idiom monopoly of the design schools?

That the modernist victory was bound to end up like that is hardly surprising taking into account that the rationale of the modernist design theory was predominantly strategic: it was about winning a war. It aimed, in the first place, to deride, disgrace, and disqualify the very idea of historicist and eclectic, i.e. pluralist approach to design,(25) and, second, to promote modernists’ own strikingly new visual idioms as historically inevitable, and therefore the only acceptable aesthetic expression.(26) In other words, the key modernist tenets – such as the claims that the new epoch demands its own historically predestined aesthetic expression, or that functions contain their own preordained aesthetic solutions (as the form-follows-function slogan suggested) – did indeed a swell demolition job, and did secure modernists the coveted monopoly position. But as practicable, day-to-day design guidelines, the tenets proved entirely empty. To the modernist designers their own theory was helpful only as pep talk.(27)

The above diagnosis, however, is neither new nor unknown.(28) Why is it then that the majority of design schools still practices the same anti-modern apartheid-like stylistic regime devised some 90 years ago? This has probably to do with the mentioned emptiness of the modernist tenets. The modernist designer, in accepting the idea that it is his personal duty to take part in generating the historically necessary aesthetic expression of the modern epoch, ceased to consider himself in the service of common people. In his mind he now became a member of the avant-garde, i.e. he became an employee of that most desirable, and most honorable of all possible clients – the History itself. But since History has no mouth of its own, and speaketh only through the medium of its prophets, and since the modernist designers saw themselves as such prophets, the brief they formulated on History’s behalf boiled down to a carte blanche. The modernist act of espousing History as the Ultimate Client implicitly redefined the time-honored notion of design: what was traditionally considered a heteronomous activity, was now essentially seen as an autonomous one.(29) What was earlier done for the sake of concrete markets, particular institutions, and flesh-and-blood clients, was now done for History’s sake – which meant, in effect, for its own sake, which meant, in turn, on the designer’s own aesthetic terms. The modernist program, in inviting designers and architects to enter into the service of the fictitious client called “History”, was offering them, surreptitiously, freedom to act and behave as autonomous artists. Here, in this carte blanche brief, probably resides the lasting allure of modernism.


THE MAIN REASON WHY it is important to part with the wishful thinking behind the modernist idea of a single stylistic idiom, as well as that of design as an autonomous activity (two sides of the same coin) is that they still gear students to the anti-pluralist program of the 1920s’ and 1930s’. In many ways, this makes design schools maladapted to the pluralist reality outside these institutions, and maladapted institutions necessarily produce maladapted students. That design schools go on offering their single visual idiom in a modern world of increasingly rich, pluralist societies, would make some sense if anybody at least subscribed to the original totalitarian idea of a culturally and aesthetically unified society. However, nobody is apparently defending such a vision any longer nowadays. But as there are no fresh ideas to replace it, the old regime seems to carry on by its own momentum.

I believe strongly that we do our students a disservice by continuing to condition them to make light of all other stylistic idioms in use today except for the modernist one, instead of offering to teach those who are interested, to respect, appreciate – and tackle – other idioms as well. I believe also that it is possible to teach students to exchange what is left of the illusory moral gratification of pleasing the “Epoch”, or “History”, for a non-modernist moral satisfaction of giving pleasure to consumers and users through making their preferred aesthetic idioms richer, more refined, more inventive, more up to date, i.e. more satisfactory. I am convinced that the possibilities are vast, but they have been largely left lying fallow, almost entirely undiscovered, because hardly anybody has given them a serious try. (This is, surprisingly, not the case in the field of contemporary architectural theory or practice; here one can find vibrant, interconnected groups of vocal non-modernist practicing architects and theorists, both in Europe and in the US; cf. note (30).)

There is also a case for not only criticizing, but also for admiring the capitalist system, and the consumer society, without which the design profession would not have come about, and without which visual design would tend to be considered an unnecessary waste of money – as it indeed was the case in the pre-1990 socialist alternatives to capitalism.(31) We should go beyond the predictable, ritualized critiques of the capitalist society, and conventionalized attacks on the consumer culture, but also beyond limiting the notion of creativity to its private, personal, exclusively individual dimension. This may open for discovering, understanding and appreciating the enormous creativity of the free market framework, including the fact that creative designers are in reality coasting along on the back of the novel, only two or three hundred year-old political and economic arrangements, enabling the individual innovative contributions of designers to materialize.(32)

I believe that ditching the modernist vision is central also for the all-important contemporary focus on the environmental impact of design. Modernists, just as many earlier utopists, seem to have gone in for the possibility of wasteless society.(33) This is suggested by their already mentioned belief that there is an intrinsic aesthetic expression pertaining to the new epoch, and that there are innate, inherent forms pertaining to every function, material, or production process. Choosing those foreordained, resident, intrinsically right solutions, would mean avoiding mistakes, and avoiding mistakes would entail avoiding waste, including the wasteful irrationality of fashions – a modernist would say. We should, however, start from an opposite thesis: that it is impossible to eliminate waste, and that the notion of wasteless society is a dangerous because a totalitarian delusion – but that it is all the same possible to limit the harmful effects of waste through clearer awareness of the unintended consequences of the solutions designers choose from among practically endless number of different possibilities. As the wealth of societies both inside and outside the Western cultural sphere is all the time slowly on the rise, there is no doubt that more and more goods will be produced, with burdensome environmental consequences. Therefore a highly realistic, non-modernist, non-utopian view of waste is imperative.


AM I PERHAPS KICKING an open door? It seems that nobody explicitly promotes the modernist vision any longer. Two decades ago there was a school of post-modernism, which even attempted to replace modernism altogether.(34) Both before, during, and after post-modernism scores of bright architects, designers, writers and critics have been pointing out various problems with modernism, as well as developing alternatives to modernism,(35) and as a consequence, reality has made inroads into the educational practice of design schools. We speak for example of product semantics, and emotional design, and we teach students the marketing aspects of design. All this can be seen as signs of departure from the previous monopolist modernism. But still: design semantics is mostly limited to the modernist abstract aesthetic, as if visual culture has commenced only in the 1920s with the abstract-art-derived aesthetic and the Bauhaus.(36) The notion of emotional design is often discussed as if non-modern design or pre-modern idioms never existed.(37) Marketing courses run in parallel with the standard "critical" platitudes about the consumer society still at home in other courses. The schools still largely keep to their one-style-fits-all modernist ideal. And one still feels that the users who prefer some sort of non-modernist, traditionalist look of things, tend to be treated as if they were somewhat retarded. The modernist design ideology seems to be fully internalized now, running imperceptibly in the background like the air-conditioning system of the school’s infrastructure.


LET ME SUMMARIZE: I have argued that the principal reason why almost all contemporary design objects and solutions that show palpable aesthetic qualities are executed in the modernist idiom, while examples of the non-modernist styles are often less than impressive, is embarrassingly simple: it is because the professional training possibilities available to students at the schools of design and architecture in several past generations have been limited to the modernist visual idiom alone. Most of contemporary schools of design and architecture still run under the modernist apartheid-like regime that excludes the non-modernist idioms from the curriculum, branding them as inferior by definition. Furthermore, in refusing to provide training in non-modernist idioms, design schools confine the privilege of innovation to the modernist aesthetics alone.

However, the schools themselves cannot be blamed alone for this state of affairs. As the absolute majority of Western design and architecture schools that practice the aesthetic monopoly are run by the state, the ultimate responsibility for the modernist regime must be seen as resting with the governmental departments in charge of these institutions. The departments, in accepting such regime, practically acquiesce in mandating a definite aesthetic style, to the exclusion of other idioms. Is this a conscious policy on their part, or only a sin of omission? However it may be, the question is: have design schools or governmental departments in a pluralist, democratic society any business promoting a definite design style? In the end will only a departmental decree, explicitly aimed at injecting diversity into the curriculum, abolish the present monopoly?

Still, the chance that design schools’ curriculum will offer other aesthetic idioms, in addition to the modernist one, depends on how clearly decision makers see that the picture of modernism and functionalism which the one-idiom education still takes for granted, is almost entirely false. Contrary to what modernists claimed, modernism was not about modern time, and functionalism was not about functional performance. Modernists radically rejected the very heart of modernity – its growing diversity and pluralism, while functionalists, consumed by formalist passions, kept sacrificing functional solutions on the altar of aesthetics. Far from turning their backs on the past, modernists and functionalists were its captives. As to their thinking and their attitudes, they were a distinctly pre-pluralist, pre-tolerant, and in many ways a pre-modern crew. Their nostalgic hankering after a stylistic unity of the modern world, modeled on the imagined oneness of the past historic periods, was, at a time of explosively growing diversity, a self-serving affair, aimed at securing a design monopoly for themselves. For if a modernist insists that the new epoch is longing after its own modern aesthetic expression, then only the modernist himself, and nobody else, can be entrusted with the delicate task of meeting that longing. Unsurprisingly, in spite of their novel visual idiom, modernists failed to come with any new, modernist design method. The claimed radical distinction between the historicist and modernist design process never materialized. The modernist theory about starting from “problems at hand”, meant in practice starting from yesterday’s solutions. In this sense, modernists worked exactly like historicists before them did. The explanation is simple: there has never been any other way of doing design than starting from a yesterday.(38)

We should then see, and teach also the students to see, the modernist aesthetic for what it is: a strikingly novel and highly inventive contribution to the stylistic pluralism of the modern time. It is the reality of this pluralism, not just its latest manifestation that design schools should embrace. Offering an aesthetically pluralist curriculum would abolish the only thing that is wrong with the modernist idiom: its monopolist pretensions. Espousing stylistic pluralism would at any rate open for modern design schools, as against the old modernist ones.(39)



The illustration: THE BRIDGE, etching 1976, by the Czech artist Jan Souček (1941-2008)

(1) The article above was originally presented as an invited lecture at the conference of Cumulus / The International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media in Bratislava, Slovakia, on October 12, 2007 under the title “Am I just seeing things – or is the modernist apartheid regime still in place?” The present text is partly reformulated, slightly expanded, and equipped with footnotes and bibliography.

(2) The fact that the term design entered the non-English European languages only after the Second World War, i.e. at the time when the modernist aesthetic began to dominate both design schools and design landscapes, probably explains the later metamorphosis of this technical term into a style term. In today's use the term design has come to stand either for "aesthetic" in general, or for "the minimalist modernism" in particular; for the latter use see for example the homepage of Christofle, the French manufacturer of silver flatware and home accessories, who divides its flatware production into three expressly stylistic categories: "Design"; "Timeless"; and "Heritage", where "Design" is reserved for the modernist ... hum ... designs. (Go to , then click OTHER COUNTRIES / English, then under COLLECTIONS click FLATWARE / BY STYLE. The term "Design" is used in the French language version of the homepage as well.) As the technical term design has morphed into a style name, there is an apparently growing tendency among manufacturers of consumer products such as luggage, sport shoes, backpacks and travel paraphernalia, to avoid the term design altogether in their marketing information, and replace it with the verb engineer, as in: “engineered for maximum performance”, or “engineered for your comfort”. Incidentally, the word design is not the only term which metamorphosed into a synonym for the minimalist aesthetic; it seems that the same process goes on outside the English speaking world as well. For example, the Norwegian adjective “stilren” (literally: “stylistically pure”) referred originally to purity of any style, as in “stilren klassisisme”. In today’s media and popular usage, however, the term has morphed into a definite style name: “en stilren sofa” means simply “en minimalist sofa”. Hardly anybody would revert today to using “stilren” in its old sense, i.e. as description of a style quality in a piece of historical, or historicist, design.

(3) In household appliances, power tools, electric and later electronic products, office machines, office furniture, as well as in domestic wares, the modernist aesthetic was embraced early, both by designers and the public. In transport design the three-dimensional formal possibilities developed earlier in the “organic” abstract art of the 1920s and 30s, were fully exploited only since the 1980s, with launching of multiplatform CAD/CAM/CAE computer software, such as CATIA (Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive application). Automotive design of the past twenty years or so, with most cars looking like a continuation of abstract art experiments now on wheels, represents perhaps the greatest public success of the modernist idiom.

(4) The present paper does not address the issue of architectural education (on this see for example the critical reflection by Cooke 2002), even though the problems discussed here are in my view as topical there. All the same, it was necessary and natural to refer now and then to the modernist architecture, its theory and its criticism, since modernists made practically no distinction between architecture and design, as their slogan, “from spoon to city” suggests; many European modernist architects also doubled as designers.

(5) In economic terms, a monopoly is defined as “a market in which there are many buyers but only one seller”, or as “exclusive control or possession of something” (WebWord Pro v. 5.2 / 2007). Both meanings cover the case of the modernist design education monopoly: there are obviously many types of buyers of the aesthetic expertise design schools are expected to provide, while by and large only one type of aesthetic expertise is provided.

(6) More noticed by sociologists and cultural anthropologists; see for example Gans 1983; Rolness 1993,1995; Miller 1987; or McCracken 2005. A design history book in which the diversity of the modern design scene is acknowledged, albeit not without some uneasiness, is Woodham 1997; see especially ch. 9 on nostalgia and “heritage industry”.

(7) The apartheid metaphor here and elsewhere in the text refers of course to the policy of racial segregation, established and officially practiced by the South African regime between late 1940s and 1990s. While not wanting to make too much of the metaphor, I do believe the segregation analogy is useful in describing the character of mainstream Western design schools of today. The modernist abstract art based aesthetics that started to dominate design schools since the late 1940s is still considered the historically necessary and therefore obligatory kind of aesthetics, while non-modernist idioms are relegated to a bantustan-like existence. The few design schools offering either other formal languages in parallel with the modernist aesthetics, or specializing in non-modernist, traditional aesthetics, tend to be considered with condescension at best, and contempt at worst, emotionally similar to the disdain often felt by members of one tribe or race for those of other tribal or racial background. (There are exceptions, though; cf. Cramer 2007.) Tongue-in-cheek web definitions of modern architecture, such as “Buildings designed with no reference to the past except to other buildings of the past that have no reference to the past”, summarize well how non-art people tend to perceive contemporary architecture (see Brussat 2004).

(8) Cf. 2003.

(9) Cf. Meyer 1975:107.

(10a) Cf. Hitchcock and Johnson 1932:19.

(10b) Cf. Neumann 1970:19.

(11) Cf. Henningsen 1967:170.

(12) If we use the term historicism for the pre-modernist 19th century imitation of historical forms, what to call the modernist effort “to emulate the great styles of the past in their essence without imitating their surface” ? A super-historicism perhaps? The idea that History has a plot, running as if on rails through pre-destined historical stations, had its most influential proponent in the 19th century German philosopher G. F. W. Hegel (Hegel 1881). The idea was resolutely criticized, among others by the British philosopher Karl Popper (Popper 1969 [1957], 1985, 1995) under the term Historicism, and by the American philosopher Eric Voegelin (Voegelin 1997), under the term Gnosticism. The Popperian position was discussed in relation to the modernist architecture and design in, for example, Jarvie 1968; Watkin 1977; O’Hear 1993; and again in Watkin 2001. Is there any alternative to the modernist deification of “History”? One possibility may be an open-ended, evolutionary position, which not only does not presume to know where “History” is heading, but which denies the very meaningfulness of the notion of “History” as heading anywhere. Such view of history was in my opinion strikingly summarized by the economist and political philosopher Friedrich von Hayek in his dedication of his 1960 book Constitution of liberty; the dedication read: "To the unknown civilization that is growing in America." (Hayek 1960:v). Cf. also Postrel 1998. A pluralist approach to the philosophy of history is discussed in Popper 1969, reprinted in Popper 1994.

(13) The claims of stylistic unity of earlier art historical epochs have been repeatedly questioned. The traditional sequence of stylistic periods such as Romanesque – Gothic – Renaissance – Baroque encounters problems already at the level of geography: Gothic architecture, for example, is a Transalpine rather than Mediterranean phenomenon, while there is hardly any Renaissance in the 15th century north of Alps; also Baroque is a predominantly Italian and Catholic rather than a French and Protestant phenomenon. To complicate the matter further, we find Gothic style architectural designs in 17th century Italy, and buildings in the Gothic idiom in 18th Britain and Bohemia – in addition designed by architects who sometimes worked in Gothic and sometimes in Baroque styles! Rather than a palpable reality out there, the notion of a stylistic epoch turns out to be more of an auxiliary idea helping historians to order their material and make their life easier. Cf. illuminating critical comments in Boas (1950; 1953); and in Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth (1977; 1985; 2003); see also Nygård-Nilssen 1948.

(14) Cf. Bernstein 2005.

(15) Cf. Bell 1979.

(16) There are interesting parallels between the professed modernist search for a non-arbitrary, natural, authentic language of design, and older theological speculations about the nature and implications of the allegedly non-arbitrary kind of language the biblical spoke in Paradise. The speculations are discussed in Eco 2000 [1998] and Eco 1995.

(17) Design-related literature seldom mentions the phenomenon of growing diversity as the key feature of the modern epoch. One exception was the seminal article of 1973 that coined the notion of “wicked problems” in design and planning (Rittel 1973). The authors saw the main reason for the “wickedness” of design problems in the growing heterogeneity of the Western societies, something they accepted as a historical fact. They claimed that “It was pre-industrial society that was culturally homogenous. The industrial age greatly expanded cultural diversity. Post-industrial societies are likely to be far more differentiated than any in all of past history.” (167) Another exception is Virginia Postrel's book The Substance of Style of 2003 where modern stylistic pluralism is a central theme. - Incidentally, the first theory of politics said to take account of the fact of modern pluralism and heterogeneity was (according to Crick 2002:ch.4) launched already in the 1830s by a young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, after his stay in the USA, in the two volumes of his Democracy in America (Tocqueville 1835, 1840).

(18) Walter Gropius promoted already in the mid-1930s, in his book The new architecture and the Bauhaus, the Bauhaus school as the model of any future design education (Gropius 1935), on the account of its position as a spearhead of a historically necessary development. The Swiss architectural and design historian and theorist Sigfried Giedion attempted shortly after the WWII, even though unsuccessfully, to promote a world wide reform of architecture and design education on Bauhaus lines via United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), established two years earlier in Paris; cf. Giedion 1949. The subsequent modernist monopolization of design education was undoubtedly helped both by the status quo dislocations that come in the wake of every war, and by the widely popularized claims that the new modernist aesthetic was the historically necessary idiom the Modern Man has been waiting for. The general acceptance of the latter claim may explain why there has been little research interest in following the concrete steps that led to the establishment of the modernist education monopoly, and the modernist aesthetic dominance.

(19) Exceptions to this trend were the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries, which after the Second world War followed the Soviet 1930’s interpretation of the modernist aesthetic as an expression of the crisis-ridden, historically doomed bourgeois society. In all these countries the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, with its preference for classicist heritage in architecture and design, was the official doctrine until the late 1950s (Åman 1992), while modernism, under the name of functionalism, was criminalized. By the early 1960s, with the political thaw, however, the modernist design education took slowly hold in the former Eastern Europe, and in the USSR as well. Some aspects of this development in the USSR in relation to design are treated in Azrikan 1999: cf. also Michl 2003.

(20a) Modernism was not only contemporary with the totalitarian political movements of the interwar period that emphatically rejected the idea of political diversity. In its equally emphatic rejection of stylistic diversity, the modernist program in architecture and design can be seen as an aesthetic analogue to these movements: the aim common to each of them – whether Communism, Fascism, or Nazism – was a unified, i.e. non-pluralist society, in each case modeled on the imagined unity of a past epoch or epochs.

(20b) The Bauhaus-developed Vorkurs, embraced since the 1950s by practically all West-European design schools (and later on by the East-European ones too), was instrumental in instituting this one-taste culture of contemporary design and architecture schools. Catherine Cooke, in her strongly worded 2002 article about the sorry state of contemporary architectural education, wrote in that context the following: "By now the Vorkurs model inherited from the Bauhaus is not so much a course as an attitude, which determines the whole shape of what follows. It assumes that highly schooled young adults are best inducted into this new world of 'architecture' by being artificially returned to childhood. In a process that is quasi-religious in its self-confidence, they must 'forget everything' and become resensitized through a new kindergarten of 'basic studies' whose roots go back everywhere to the Arts and crafts movement and its European equivalents. In various forms, this gratifies teachers because 'things' are produced yet it imparts almost no understanding of architecture as either social product or collective process." (Cooke 2002:272)

(21) Cf. Gilder 1981, ch, 4.

(22) As to the origin of the modernist idiom in post-cubist abstract painting and sculpture, see a modernist interpretation in Hitchcock 1948, and a non-modernist one in Michl 1996.

(23) The notion comes from Bourdieu 1984.

(24) Humor in design seems to be a result of a keen awareness that one deals in visual conventions rather than in aesthetic "truths". Since humor is related to skepticism, it has difficult times coexisting with ideologies of truth, authenticity, etc. This may be one reason why the general public sometimes perceives the modernist design objects as dull, and the modernist architecture as contrived and arrogant. It certainly does not help that the modernist abstract idiom is almost exclusively self-referential.
[Added August 2010:] The situation seems to be rather different in the contemporary fashion industry; cf. this TED-video with Johanna Blakely, filmed in April 2010:

(25) See for example Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1931 lecture, “The Passing of the Cornice" (Wright 1931), for the violent force with which he attempts to demolish the historicist position. Wright is also said to reply to a student who asked the master how he should respond if asked to design a non-modernist building. “You have the mind of a prostitute,” replied Wright, “to even consider the question.” (Brolin 1981) See also the uncompromising statement in 1947, of a two generations younger Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck: “CIAM refuses to overhaul outworn values that belong to an outworn world by giving them a new dress straight from the laundry of commonsense.” (van Eyck 1947:37). For a recent comment on the modernist effort to secure a permanent aesthetic monopoly through labelling, via various official policy documents, all contemporary non-modernist architecture as "pastiche", see a short article by the British traditionalist architect Robert : "The idiot's guide to architecture" ( 2008). For a spirited defence of the historicist position, and a pellucid argument against the modernist rejection of historicism, see Adam's earlier article (1988) on “The paradox of imitation and originality”. (More of Adam's texts and publications on his website here.)

(26) Cf. Walter Gropius’ assessment, in mid-1930s, of the new modernist architecture: "It is now becoming widely recognized that although the outward forms of the New Architecture differ fundamentally in an organic sense from the old, they are not the personal whims of a handful of architects avid for innovation at all costs, but simply the inevitable logical product of the intellectual, social and technical conditions of our age.” (Gropius 1935:18)

(27) Cf. Michl 1995.

(28) For a long list of earlier critical discussions of modernism, see note 34.

(29) For a hilarious fictional depiction of what tends to happen when a heteronomous professional is overcome by an autonomous temperament, see Woody Allen’s "If the Impressionists had been dentists" (Allen 1976) presenting ten anguished letters from an artistically ambitious dentist named Vincent to his brother Theo. (I used one of the fictional letters as the motto to my article on the form-follows-function slogan; cf. here.)

(30) Besides penetrating and lucid criticism of the modernist ideology – see for example 1988, 1991, 2003; Salingaros 2002, 2004; Mehaffy 2003; Kellow 2005 – there have been proposed explicit theoretical alternatives to the modernist design theory and pedadogy (cf. Alexander 1977, 1979, 2002a, 2002b, 2004; Krier 1998, 2008; Salama, 2007; Salingaros 2005, 2006, 2013). Also, a fairly great number of buildings in non-modernist visual idioms have been built in the past 30 years or so: please, google names of contemporary non-modernists such as Robert , Leon or Rob Krier, Demetri Porphyrios, Robert A. M. Stern, or Quinlan Terry. For more names and texts, visit the website of International network for traditional building and architecture, at: Probably the only architectural school that has systematically embraced stylistic pluralism as the foundation for its curriculum is the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, USA, headed by Robert A. M. Stern; cf. Ned Cramer, “I want to go to Yale” (Cramer 2007). In Norway was the position of stylistic pluralism in architecture cogently argued by Thiis-Evensen 1997. Cf. also Brussat 2009a and 2009b.

(31) Cf. the woeful story of the Soviet “design think tank”, known as VNIITE (active between 1960s and 1990s), described by Dimitri Azrikan (1999). There one can read the author’s following series of complaints: "State companies ... were not eager to use most of the VNIITE projects: No market - no interest to improve quality, no competition, and no reason to address new problems with new ideas. (…) Soviet industry had no motivation to bring design into its products. There were no economical, social, or any other reasons. The only leverage was governmental decrees." (53, 68). The author summarizes the frustration of offering design services to state companies that had no use for them with the metaphor of “an insane actor playing alone in front of a blank wall." (73). See also Michl 1998 (in Czech), and Michl 1999.

(32) Here is a selection of mostly recent books discussing, and defending, various creative aspects of the capitalist economy: cf. Bernstein 2005; Brown 1974; Cowen 1998; Cowen 2002; De Jouvenel 1954; Friedman 1971; Gates 2008; Hazlitt 1979 [1947]; Glaeser, 2008; Hayek 1954; Hayek 1967; Mises 1981 [1922]; Lepage 1982; Mises, 2006 [1956]; Mises 2007; Norberg 2001; Norberg 2008; Postrel 1998; Postrel 1999; Postrel 2003; Rand 1967; Read 1958; Rosenberg 1986; Seldon 2004; Simon 1996; Sowell 2004; Sowell 2008; Stigler 1967. – The sample could be narrowed to one short article and two striking books: Read 1958 (a discussion of the inventiveness and skills exemplified by simple products such as lead pencils, written by a male economist and writer); Rand 1967 (an unusually articulate exposition and defense of capitalism as a moral, political and economic system, written by a female philosopher and novelist); and Postrel 1998 (an impressive, wide-ranging discussion of the capitalist system and its recent critics, by a contemporary female economist and journalist). For a one-volume, comprehensive (and comprehensible) pro-capitalist exposition of the free market economy (1046 pp.) see Reisman 1990

(33) For a surprising discussion of waste seen as an asset, see Hardin 1959; chapter 13, ”In praise of waste”, pp. 259-297, especially 280-282.

(34) Perhaps the main problem with post-modernism of 1970s and 1980s, as promoted by Charles Jencks (1977), was that it tended to be sold the way modernism was sold before: as a new all-embracing stylistic period. As to the prefix post- in the term post-modernism, the US architect and critic Brent Brolin remarked at the time, wryly and presciently: "Various claims have been made about the death of modernism over the past two decades, but it seems to have evaded the grim reaper thus far." (cf. Brolin 1985:xi)

(35) See for example Muthesius 1964 [1927]; Barnes 1938; Ames 1949; Mumford 1964; Pye 1964; Norberg-Schulz 1977 [1966]; Jencks 1969; Lloyd Jones 1969; Tzonis 1972; Allsopp 1974; Brolin 1976; Posener 1976; e 1977; Watkin 1977; Bonta 1979; Scruton 1979; Asplund, 1980; Hubbard, 1980; Jencks 1980; Wolfe 1981; Herdeg 1983; Lloyd Jones 1983; Zeisel 1984; Brolin 1985; Rybczynski 1986; Norman 1988; Lawson 1990; Ackerman 1994; Petroski 1992; Krier 1998; Watkin 2001; Lawson 2004; Lewis 2004; Norman 2004; Salingaros 2004, 2013; Silber, 2007.

(36) Michl 1992

(37) Yagou 2006

(38) This is the indirect message of the British architect and design theorist Bryan Lawson’s research (1990; 2004). Especially his 2004 book amounts to indirect pulverizing of the whole edifice of the modernist approach to design. However, Lawson proceeds in such a carefully inoffensive manner – and with almost no reference to the modernism or functionalism as the background for his analyses and critique – that it can easily escape the reader how radical his conclusions are. Cf. also Petroski 1992, on permanent failure of existing artifacts to function as satisfactorily as we want them to, which Petroski sees as the starting point of every new design process; see also my article on seeing design as redesign (Michl 2002).

(39) Thanks to Trygve Ask; Kjetil Fallan; Carsten Loly; Regina Loukotová; Ole Lund; Jiří Pelcl; Martin Roubík; Astrid Skjerven; and Artemis Yagou for their valuable critical comments to the first draft of the manuscript, provided on a very short notice, and to Anna Daučíková and Peter Moshus for their support.


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Online since February 8, 2009
Text modifications:
  • November 6, 2009: the term apartheid deleted from the title and several other places in the text; some references updated, a number of formulations made (hopefully) more articulate.
  • November 12, 2009: References to, and a quotation from, Cooke 2002 added; se note (20b).
  • January 23, 2010: Endnote nr. (2) expanded and somewhat reformulated.
  • November 27, 2013: Several minor improvements in wording.
  • January 31, 2015: Reference to Postrel 2003 added to note (17) and to bibliography.

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