Science and technology started to advance rapidly at the end of the late 19thcentury and this brought with it a society that was increasingly keen to improve, reshape or alter its environment in some way. This desire to constantly get away from the old and embrace the new became known as modernism, and furniture that was designed and built in this era and somehow broke away from traditional styles is also known by this term.
The first truly modernistic furniture was imported from Germany in the first years of the 1900s and caused a strong public reaction, being made out of plastic, metal, molded plywood and other revolutionary materials that had never been used for furniture before.
In addition, the styles and shapes of the furniture pieces were totally new and original, which either compounded their appeal or caused your eyebrows to raise, depending on how you reacted to the modernist movement.
The German government promoted world-wide sales of this type of artistically innovative furniture and actually set up a specialized agency – Deutscher Werkbund – after which this furniture is now named and known globally.
Modern furniture has also been inspired by Zen-style simplicity and African and Asian art styles, in particular in the use of contrasting patterns and solid blocks of colour. The simple, uncomplicated styles of many African and Asian art pieces are still considered beautiful and elegant to this day.
The Art Nouveau movement may, in fact, owe its early origins to Japanese and Asian inspired motifs which can be found in the works of such designers as Frank Lloyd Wright, Eileen Grey and Charles Rennie Macintosh.
One of Eileen Grey’s most celebrated pieces of furniture was a 1927-designed side table that can also be converted into a breakfast in bed table. The simplicity and lack of symmetry and the fact that it can be simply adapted for different uses is typical of modern furniture of this era, and in particular encapsulates the essence of Germany’s ultra-modern, avant garde Bauhaus School of art and design.
Many of the leading, innovative artists, architects and designers of this period all trained in the Bauhaus School but were forced to return to the USA in 1933 when WWII broke out and the school had to close.
Lily Reich and Miles Van Der Rohe are other celebrated designers of this period and are probably best known for making the 1929 Barcelona Chair which was inspired by ancient chairs of the Egyptian pharaohs and the footstools used by the Ancient Romans. The Barcelona Chair was in 1929 exhibited at Barcelona’s International Design Fair.
The Noguchi Coffee Table is yet another celebrated piece of furniture from the early modernistic era, designed this time by the now-famous Japanese-American architect, sculptor and landscape designer, Isamu Noguchi. Its simple, clean lines and absolute lack of any type of ornamentation are strongly inspired by Asian arts.
But not all of the furniture manufactured in the early 1900s was purely modernistic. Many pieces reflected a combination of older traditional styles and the new modern motifs, and couldn’t actually be classified in one category or the other. This type of hybrid furniture is known as ‘transitional furniture’ and is visually reminiscent of classical Greek elegance combined with themes that derive from tribal and Asian influences.