Design in a New Age: Our New Exhibition, around 1914, Explores the Transformation of Architecture, Decorative Arts, and Design at a Time of Revolutionary Social and Industrial Change

By Little, Robert | ROM Magazine, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Design in a New Age: Our New Exhibition, around 1914, Explores the Transformation of Architecture, Decorative Arts, and Design at a Time of Revolutionary Social and Industrial Change


Little, Robert, ROM Magazine


The years leading up to 1914, when the Royal Ontario Museum first opened its doors to the public, represent a pivotal moment in human history. It was a time of change accelerated by industrialization, of new modes of manufacture, communications, and transportation that were shrinking the planet, a time of radical experimentation and changing mores and values. Even before the storm clouds of a first "world war" were visible on the horizon, humanity's outlook was changing as it entered the 20th century.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of design; it was a time of bold experimentation and vigorous questioning that challenged tradition, rejected conventional ornamentation and historical precedents, and laid the foundation of the movement to "modern." It was at this time that a new concept emerged called "industrial design." The trajectory of the time was moving from the Arts and Crafts Movement to "Art and Industry."

From the contemporary perspective, at a time when computers build computers and newer is almost always synonymous with better, it is hard to believe that only 100 years ago, when the application of the management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford's assembly line had already become a reality, debate still raged about the merits of mass production. Designers were attempting to reconcile high-quality design, traditionally associated with craft or handmade objects as propounded by William Morris and Arts and Crafts Movement followers, with the possibilities of mass production, and the new materials made available with technology. The question persisted about whether machines could produce attractive, useful, and desirable consumer goods.

The designers of this period forced significant change in the approach to design that would bear fruit subsequently throughout Europe and America. Some of these craftsmen-artists, designers, and architects are household names still (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Carlo Bugatti, Walter Gropius, Georg Jensen, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright) while other are less prominent now but were profoundly influential and renowned and admired at the time--figures such as Charles Robert Ashbee, Christopher Dresser, Emile Galle, Edward Colonna, Taxile Doat, Archibald Knox, Louis Majorelle, Galileo Chini, Chris van der Hoef, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Gustave Siegel, Josef Maria Olbrich, Peter Behrens, Max Laeuger, and Richard Riemerschmid. The ROM is drawing on its collection (considered to be the most important in Canada) of significant works by these key designers to capture this fascinating era.

Around 1914 explores how these designers and craftspeople attempted to respond to the broader ideological and social challenges of their day through the disciplines of art, architecture, and design. Moving through the years and across the European continent (indeed, across the ocean), the exhibition takes as its point of departure the Arts and Crafts Movement in England and America. Its adherents exposed the social and economic ills they blamed on poorly produced industrial design and proposed a return to handcraftsmanship as a means of counteracting this decline. Although they produced high-quality works, their inherently high costs made them available only to a limited market.

At the time, artists and designers in Europe were gradually turning away from the historicism and the misuse of historical precedents that had dominated much of 19th-century design and architecture. Instead, they were attempting to develop wholly new art-forms that together created a more organically coordinated approach (or aesthetic unity) in the interiors for which they were intended. This was seen in various artistic manifestations in France and Belgium in the movements known as Art Nouveau, in Holland as Nieuwe Kunst, in Italy as Stile Floreale, as Skonvirke in Denmark, and Jugendstil in Germany and Austria.

By the early 1900s, the functional qualities (though not the expensive handcraftsmanship) of much of English Arts and Crafts design began to profoundly influence German design reformers. …

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