Design Through the Decades: From the 1900s to the 1950s

Design Through the Decades: From the 1900s to the 1950s

Take a look at design through the decades from the 1900s up to the present-day in the first of this two-part series.

marker-of-time-and-taste-the-20th-and-21st-centuries-have-been-formative-and-fascinating-eras-for-the-design-industry-with-graphic-design-becoming-professionalized-and-industrial-design-enjoying-a-golden-era-of-innovation-and-creativity">Design is an omnipresent and ever-changing marker of time and taste. The 20th and 21st centuries have been formative and fascinating eras for the design industry, with graphic design becoming professionalized and industrial design enjoying a golden era of innovation and creativity.  

In this two-part series, we’ll delve into design from the 1900s to the present. day. In this first part, we’ll explore how different movements across architecture, graphic design, and industrial design shaped a collective modernist attitude in the early 20th century, and look at some of the individuals and creations that propelled design forward to the middle of the century.

1900s-1950s: The Age of Modernism 

The 19th century was a time of huge change in human societies. The Industrial Revolution had transformed urban spaces beyond recognition, and science and engineering knowledge were developing at an astronomical pace. This context of industrial innovation paved the way for designers in the early 20th century, who were inspired by new technology, materials, and social outlooks.  

Over the course of the early 20th century, there was a general movement towards new, urban-focused design, which broke away from what was seen as the traditional and lethargic craft styles of the 19th century. In their pursuit for something radically different, a large variety of groups and artists contributed to a larger Modernist movement—an exciting and innovative approach to art and design that would define the next century of creative output. 

Infographic TimelineInfographic showing the different major design movements and schools of thought over the first half of the 20th century.

Modernism wasn’t an overnight reality. Rather, it was the product of many different sub-movements around the world. The development of Modernism was also heavily influenced by the two World Wars, which brought both horrific realities as well as industrial and social innovation to designers working during these periods. 

Below, discover the movements, individuals, and designs that shaped the design world from 1900 to 1950.

1900s: Art Meets Design

1900s: Art Meets Design

Design, as a formal discipline, was still in its infancy at the start of the 20th century. While architecture and art were widely practiced, “design” as we know it today either fell under the umbrella of artistic practice or linked with engineering and architecture

Many of the great design pioneers of this period would have described themselves as artists or architects. The Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh is one such individual, credited today with his significant contributions to both design and architecture. 

Chair Design by Rennie MackintoshA chair design by Rennie Mackintosh. Image by contributor Gardens by Design.

The early seeds of Modernism were sown in this decade. Mackintosh and others, such as textile designer William Morris and architect Baillie Scott, strove to simplify the ornate forms of 19th century decorative arts and furniture. Many British creatives were drawn to the Arts and Crafts movement, which aspired to raise design to the level of art. The simplicity and function-form balance of some Arts and Crafts output, such as the chair designs produced by Mackintosh, are often held up as the starting point of Modernism.     

Alongside this, Art Nouveau was still widely popular with artists in European cities. And, while the style was ornamental in nature, its emphasis on individualism and organic forms gave an expressive beauty and visual strength to buildings and décor. The graphic emphasis of posters produced in this period by artists like Alphonse Mucha laid the foundations of commercial advertising design for the coming decades.  

1910s: Art Deco Is Born

1910s: Art Deco Is Born

As decorative arts became more formalized, thanks to the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, furniture designers, textile artists, and other craftsmen were increasingly regarded as artists, particularly in France, which became the center of a new design movement, Art Deco

Taking its name from arts décoratifs, the style emphasized geometric forms and straight lines, inspired by the increasing industrialization of Paris.

1910s: Art Deco Is BornFrom left to right: The Art-Nouveau-meets-Art-Deco style of the Koruna Palace in Prague, constructed in 1911-1912. Image by contributor Linda_K. An Art Deco door in Paris, France. Image by contributor And, the iconic image of Uncle Sam created by U.S. illustrator James Montgomery Flagg in 1916. Image by contributor Scott Cornell.

Art Deco was gaining ground in Europe when the First World War broke out in 1914. During the war, the talents of many graphic artists were channeled into producing propaganda, with posters designed to bolster the war effort and morale. The spirit of wartime propaganda even filtered into commercial advertising, with products marketed using appeals to patriotism, national pride, and duty. 

1920s: The Deco Boom

1920s: The Deco Boom

The post-war years represented a time of radical innovation in design, architecture, and art. The Roaring Twenties saw many of the great masters of modernist architecture, including Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, formulate their most revolutionary and pioneering ideas. 

In Germany, architect Walter Gropius founded a radical art school, the Bauhaus, whose students and teachers created early Modernism as we recognize it today. The school became one of the most influential keystones for the design industry in the 20th century, inspiring generations of graphic designers, architects, and artists to work within a modernist framework.  

Bauhaus Wassily ArmchairWassily armchairs on display at the Bauhaus. The chair was designed by Marcel Breuer, modernist architect and Bauhaus student. Inspired by bicycle frames and constructed using tubular steel, Breuer reduced the form of the classic club chair to its elemental lines and planes. The aim to simplify and abstract was an aspiration of the modernist movement as a whole. Image by contributor Cinematographer.

Outside of Germany, Art Deco was burgeoning into a truly international style, with a lavish and glamorous form of the style defining the face of booming New York, characterizing the interior and exterior of its aspirational skyscrapers.

1920s Architecture and DécorFrom left to right: Detail of gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, which began construction in 1928. Image by contributor EastVillage Images. The Chrysler Building’s iconic Art Deco tower. Image by contributor Joseph Sohm. The Bauhaus school, designed by architect Walter Gropius. Image by contributor NKR Factory. And, the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Image by contributor Olga Popova.

While the International Style, spurred on by the Bauhaus, inspired architects in the 1920s, and Art Deco continued to dominate most other areas of design, an artistic sub-style, Surrealism, was also providing novel inspiration for artists and designers. While relatively short-lived, this cultural movement had a lasting influence on design. Product designers such as Giovanni Alessi (who established the homeware brand Alessi in 1921) and later Philippe Starck used elements of surrealism in their design approaches.

1930s: Subdued and Streamlined

1930s: Subdued and Streamlined

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the glitzy mood of early Art Deco was replaced with a more subtle and streamlined take on the style. Designers stripped away the ornament and excess, creating a new form of Art Deco inspired by aerodynamic and industrial design. 

This forward-looking international style, Streamline Moderne, came to define the style of architecture and design over the decade. Curves were introduced into the once-rigid Art Deco formula, creating sleek buildings that used modern materials like steel and concrete to achieve an aerodynamic effect. 

1930s Architecture and ArtFrom left to right: Sleek locomotives in the Streamline Moderne style. Image by contributor Everett Collection. Pastel-colored Art Deco architecture on Miami’s South Beach. Image by contributor lazyllama. A plane with a streamlined style typical of the 1930s. Image by contributor Fotoluminate LLC. And, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942). Image by contributor spatuletail.

Although the Great Depression slowed the progress of design and art in some areas, artists like Tamara de Lempicka and Edward Hopper enjoyed success with their depiction of a glamorous, Art Deco-inspired fantasy life (Lempicka) or the melancholy realities of the economic downturn (Hopper). Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, painted in 1942, features many of the hallmarks of late 1930s design—the diner in Streamline Moderne style and a cinematic atmosphere inspired by the growing popularity of movie culture and film noir

1940s: Design as Propaganda

1940s: Design as Propaganda

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, creative attention shifted once again to propaganda and industrial innovation. 

Although propaganda was created for wartime purposes, this context produced some exceptionally creative poster work, particularly amongst Soviet designers who were inspired by Constructivism—a Russian movement which argued that art should have a social purpose. 

1940s Wartime Art and DesignFrom left to right: An American wartime poster supporting the Russian war effort. Image by contributor Everett Collection. The Lincoln-Zephr, manufactured between 1936 and 1940. Image by contributor Fernando V. And, a 1940s-era Pepsi-Cola can. Image by contributor Zety Akhzar.

This extreme form of Modernism, characterized by graphic red and black palettes and impactful type, influenced graphic designers working in the International Style (later known as the Swiss Style), and helped to shape the style of print design for the next couple of decades.

By the late 1940s, war-weary consumers were desperate for change and optimism. It was in the final years of the decade that a new design movement started to develop—Mid-Century Modern. 

1950s: Optimism and Commercialism

1950s: Optimism and Commercialism

After the war, an economic boom and growth in home ownership laid the foundations for new design movements that reflected the optimistic mood of the 1950s. 

At the start of the decade, the influence of Streamline Moderne can still be seen in posters and advertising. Individuals aspired to own motor cars, electrical appliances, and televisions, and editorial designs from the period aimed to entice consumers with images that are energetic and cheerful, featuring technicolor palettes and smiling representations of idealized men and women.

Furniture designers, architects, and product designers also began to create work that we now recognize as Mid-Century Modern. This movement looked to combine sleek lines with organic shapes, balancing modernity and naturalism. Designers like Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, and Verner Panton embraced the optimistic Mid-Century Modern style wholeheartedly, bringing out a more humanist and whimsical side to Modernism’s hard edges. 

1950s Advertising and Futuristic DesignsFrom left to right: Energetic advertising from the early 1950s. Image by contributor Billy Watkins. The iconic Cherner Armchair designed by Norman Cherner in 1957. Image by contributor lynnette. Signage in California with space-influenced styling. Image by contributor cdrin. And, an Atomic Age floor lamp. Image by contributor Studio Light and Shade.

Later in the decade, increasing public interest in space travel resulted in more futuristic designs, with Atomic Age furniture and architecture featuring space-inspired colors, materials, and shapes.

For graphic designers, the most influential movement of the decade was the International Typographic Style (also known as the Swiss Style), a style that evolved in Russia, the Netherlands, and Germany during the 1920s and was further developed by Swiss typographers in the 1950s. Ultra-modernist in spirit, the Swiss Style laid down many of the foundations of graphic design as a discipline, emphasizing grids, sans-serif type, and restricted, strong color palettes.

From Art to Ads

At the start of the 20th century, design didn’t exist as a stand-alone discipline. But, with the development of modernism and the industrial influence of two World Wars, a new place was forged for graphic, product, and industrial design. In the first half of the century, societies experienced extremely rapid change, with new materials, technologies, and ideologies opening up novel avenues for a growing body of architects, graphic designers, and industrial designers. 

Design Through the Decades

Commercialism and capitalism were clearly major driving forces behind the evolution of design, but these economic backdrops didn’t dampen the level of creativity and innovation across the design of print, furniture, interiors, and buildings. If anything, modernism facilitated the merging of form and function that had been lacking in previous decades, with design playing a central part in integrating art and style into everyday homes. 

Of course, this is only the beginning of the story. The latter half of the 20th century saw some of the most revolutionary developments in the design industry, inspired by space travel, globalization, fashion, and computer technology. Recent decades have seen web, app, and UX design transform the face of design almost unrecognizably. 

Delve into the history of photography, art, and design with these in-depth reads:

100 Years of Art Deco: The Enduring Appeal of Jazz Age DesignThe Legendary, Influential Bauhaus Movement Turns 100Reinventing History: How Old Trends and Tech Inform New DesignsFrom the 1800s to Present Day: The History of Food PhotographyMinimalism vs. Maximalism in the Graphic Design World

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