When you buy a new outfit what do you look for?
Do you go with boho beach, business casual, the edgy rocker look?
When you look for new curtains, what do you look for?
Are you looking for something country western, farmhouse classic, boho chic, modern simplicity, or classic elegance?
Whether we think about it or not, design aesthetics do not pop fatherlessly into existence.
They evolve over time and there is no current design trend that does not have it’s roots
solidly planted in the filigreed soil of the past.
Patrons up through the 1700 and 1800s loved the ornateness of design. In preindustrial times, the more ornaments a piece had, the more one is likely to have spent on it. Craftsmen and artisans spent countless hours carving, gilding, painting, sewing and sculpting each piece of negative space that passed their workbench with the hope that it would attract the wealthiest of clients.
We can thank these craftspeople for some of the most beautiful artwork humanity has ever produced.
As the industrial revolution shifted the production of luxury items from hands to cogs however, fashions began to echo styles that were more easily mass produced. From the untailored boxy dresses in the 1920s to the sleek chrome plated early autos of the ‘30s, all products were designed around new manufacturing processes that better allowed for an originality of form rather than of adornment. These eras were the foundation for the clean line and geometric shape aesthetics that dominated the design world for the better part of the 20th century.
This boxy babe, hailing from a French fashion mag, is wearing an outfit emblematic of the voluminous clothes that were popular among women in the 1920s. Since women in the UK and US were still on a high from their sufferage victories, this fashion is also attributed to masculinizing the female appearance in order to ease equality along with the menfolk.
(Sorry NBs, no one was designing for you yet....)
A Geometricly Inspired,
This sleek 1935 Chrysler DeSoto is a fabulous example of form over ornament. You can see how the consideration of aerodynamics plays a major role in this design, as opposed to the earlier and incredibly boxy Model-Ts, (which were fashioned after the even earlier horse drawn carriages of the 1800s). Manufacturing improvements enabled this leap in engineering, as mass manufacture of such shapely forms were previously impossible.
Did you know that each decade can be summed up in just one picture?
Well you're right, it can't.
(Never trust an historian, we're all biased. Always do your own research.)
But here are some pictures that prove my original point.
This stunningly sad piece by Pablo Picasso, called The Charnel House, is a very geometric representation of the Holocaust. His art had a significant influence in the development of geometric styles of the 20th century. Although Picasso's style has little to do with manufacturing processes directly, the popularity of clean shapes was something that grew in tandem with his genius. It is the sort of causal loop that perplexes historical philosophers when they attempt to chart the chaotic oceans of 'popular trends'. (Thankfully, I'm already mad...)
I'll bet this GE
C-407 Clock Radio from the 1950s makes you want to go down to the drive in and get a malted. The electric geometry of the '50s is so distinctive it almost transports you...
These striking 1969 designs from Japanese mod designer Tanaka Chiyo are emblematic of the geometric pop patterns that dominated the decade. It's during this period that trends like color blocking, (geometric shapes of color used to break up the background color), rose to popularity. You can still see these trends in fashions today.
Yet thanks to the developments in technology since the 80s and 90s, designers are suddenly finding it possible to delve into the beauty of intricate ornament in ways that haven’t been explored since the sepia days.
From Macy's to dollar stores, it’s hard not to trip over computerized damask patterns, digitally replicated sweater intarsia, or machine embroidered paisleys. But these recreations are not direct copies, and understanding why gives us a clue as to where the future of design is headed.
Here is a picture of a beautifully embroidered, filigree patterned silk stomacher from the 1700s.
Source: The Met
This is a stomacher.
This style of swooping lines and flourishes was popular since the early middle ages and was meant to mimic the intricate lace-like patterns of filigree metal work and the swooping scrolls of illuminated manuscripts.
The antique stomacher shows intricate flourishes and seemingly endless ornament within each individual shape. Handcrafted filigree style patterns often feature such intricacies because in the days before the smooth tool, it was used to cover up jitter, ink blots, dye run over, thread snags and other unavoidable human whoopsies. The more detailed the piece the more our eye is overwhelmed by how the flourishes link together, rather than focusing on the integrity of the lines themselves. The modern pillow displays much simpler, cleaner lines on its flourishes, but notice that it keeps the intricacy of how each flourish intertwines together from the antique piece. Through this the modern piece keeps its claim to the rich, elegant aesthetic of the past; yet each flourish is also far simpler, (notice how each flourish on the stomacher is filled with further detail). This is largely because modern designers are often pressed for time and it is far quicker to create beautiful patterns in Illustrator with cut and paste mirroring of simple calligraphic brush strokes or shape drawing tools to mimic those flourishes, than it is to individually draw in ornaments on each line.
However, practical concerns are not the only reason these modern patterns exhibit simplicity.
If you could put pictures of all of the popular design aesthetics from the 1400s to the 1800s into one coffee table book and flip through it briefly in your mind, (or better yet you can just watch Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast for visual reference of the European version of this phenomena), you would notice that the one unifying factor is the need to cram ornament into every tiny crevice of negative space. As we discussed earlier: the more ornate the purchase, the higher class the purchaser.
If you ask me, the mechanization of industry was not the only reason that the design aesthetic pendulum began to swing toward clean and simplistic.
There were, I believe, two additional factors:
The shift of patronage from the upper to the middle class. Once, the fortunes of the rich and famous were garnered from taxes or land ownership. But the rise of mercantilism in the explorer days of the 1400s-1600s brought wealth to what was then considered the merchant class and would eventually evolve into the middle class. Political revolutions of the 1600 and 1700s also brought feudalism into antiquity: which meant that the upper class underwent a cast change. Suddenly, the richest people in the world owed their fortunes not to land, resource ownership and aristocracy, but to retail. The ‘nouveau riche’ were not kings and dukes, but oil barons and factory owners. They were reliant on a middle class consumer base and often came from humble beginnings themselves, (just ask the unsinkable Molly Brown).
Molly's husband Jim Brown, (a poor miner), engineered a huge upgrade to his employer's process and was given a significant share of their stocks. Molly used the money for a lifetime of philanthropy and later went on to survive the Titanic. Also a socialite, she was often referred to as 'nouveau riche' by the disdainful aristocracy.
Political and economic factors encouraged simplicity. Particularly as the early 1900s saw two major wars and a depression, functionality rather than frippery became increasingly popular up through the 1950s and mid ‘60s. Even if you weren't directly affected by these troubling times in history, to be seen exhibiting wealth was regarded as selfish when the government encouraged you to contribute to both war efforts and poverty was huddled around you in every city street and park lawn.
At the beginning of this process, it makes sense that these ‘nouveau riche’ would both produce and seek for themselves design aesthetics that they grew up understanding was posh. This explains much of the design aesthetic of the ‘Gilded Age’ in the later part of the 1800s. But as the middle class kept growing in population through the advancement of working class members, it makes sense that simpler aesthetics began to become more popular. These new middle classers would naturally be more attracted to aesthetics born of humbler beginnings and ancestry.
And the Pendulum Swings...
So when did we revive the filigreed patterns of old?
In the mid to late 1960s Hippies prided themselves on rejecting everything related to the status quo. They forcefully rebelled against the clean-cut, geometric aesthetic of their parents by bringing back antique brocades and folk art patterns. With this antique nouveau aesthetic they also brought back an interest in pre-industrial crafting techniques and reclaiming ornate objects of beauty from the past, pushing industry to evolve better manufacturing equipment in tandem.
Since then we have swung the pendulum back and forth a couple of times.
The '80s embraced industrial/punk aesthetics and the '90s-'00s migrated back to these classic patterns. But we can clearly see that each pendulum swing builds on another and births the next movement in the design world.
The Power of Nostalgia
We rediscover an aesthetic, get excited about it and then wear ourselves out on it. only to have that something carry forward and evolve into the origins of the next big thing. Take for example the ‘60s/’70s bell bottom jean, which through nostalgia’s eyes, eventually morphed into the bootcuts and flared jeans of the ‘90s/'00s.
Nostalgia is a powerful force, (powerful enough to bring back questionable fashion choices certainly). But as with nostalgic memories, nostalgic design does not and cannot accurately reproduce the past. Instead, nostalgia studies the past and then uses the present as a lense through which it finds a new iteration. In fact, I believe that no new work is created in a vacuum. Creativity always owes credit to its forebears.