Technology is so prevalent in our lives that it's easy to forget how almost all modern elements of design were dreamt-up before the second world war. It's more than likely that the designs of your favorite app, your yoga mat, and your nail art all have their roots in the graphic, analog art movements of the Twentieth Century. In fact, almost everything we see has been influenced by the original cool kids of the Bauhaus and the resurgence of Memphis Style (think roller rink carpet) proves it's lasting impression on our culture. Let's #tbt with writer Angella d'Avignon as she helps us get lost in the minds and optical illusions of these design pioneers.
So many of the aesthetics that our generation gravitate toward are actually super old. Even though they seem super fresh and hip, it's far more likely that they've been recycled and updated over time - sometimes they're filtered through and come out relatively untouched, that's how classic and just plain good they are. Three particular styles - Bauhaus, Op Art, and Memphis Group flowed through the decades in succession (Bauhaus of course, stands alone and has arguably influenced literally everything in visual design, if we're being honest). Even though these styles were active for stunningly short amounts of time (fifteen years each at most!), their impact continues to infuse contemporary aesthetics.
Somewhat utopian, but completely groundbreaking at the time, the Bauhaus was the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century. Their approach to teaching and assessment of art's relationship to technology and society has had a long lasting impact on the western world. Based in the Weimar Republic of Germany in the early twenties, the Bauhaus mission statement was radical and reimagined art as all-encompassing. Here, design, craft, sculpture, and painting were all part of a single system.
Founder Walter Gropius called this idea creating a "total work of art" in which all mediums and styles come together as one. Through a workshop-style education (instead of traditional studio art training), the Bauhaus focused on a craft-based curriculum which emphasized functionalism (among plenty of other things). A focus on experimenting and problem-solving at Bauhaus lead fine arts to be considered the visual art, not a huge difference but one with lasting significance. The Bauhaus moved three times between 1919-1932 before it was completely shut down by the Nazis in 1933.
Despite striving for a "universal aesthetic", Bauhaus still had a distinct visual style which was dictated by the concept that "form follows function" and characterized by crisp geometric graphics, attention to color, and strong typography. Most of what is commonly understood as design, modern or contemporary, has in some way been influenced by Bauhaus.
Examples of Bauhaus:
Op Art (short for Optical Art, duh!) is a sliver of art history tucked into the 1960s near Hard Edge (Abstract Expressionism), Pop, and Minimalism. Both abstract and geometric, Op Art challenged the role of illusion in art by playing with visual effects and distortions. Op Art painters were masters of visual systems, characterized by technical proficiency and expert understanding of color. Compositional patterns were meticulous and done by hand, mapped out and rendered with airtight precision. Remember, these were the days before digital anything!
In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a watershed exhibition titled, "The Responsive Eye" which solidified Op Art as a major style. The black and white works of British painter Bridget Riley were perhaps the first that created the illusion of movement, (you know, the ones that make you feel dizzy or look like they're moving) and because of this, her work became ubiquitous. Op Art and Riley's work in particular created the iconic aesthetic that accompanied the dizzying vibe of Swinging London during the 1960's (think Austin Powers). Her work became culturally ubiquitous, but she never achieved much notoriety. It makes you wonder if she would have become famous had been a man.
Examples of OpArt.
When you think of the splashy graphic design style of the 1980's, it's likely you're picturing Memphis Group whether you realize it or not. An Italian design firm mostly famous for its furniture and named after a Bob Dylan song that was playing on repeat during their first meeting, Memphis Group culled inspiration from Pop and Art Deco, affecting a fun but sharp "futuristic-kitsch" aesthetic sensibility that was severely geometric and with a loud color palette.
In their day, Memphis style was not the most popular as their bizarre style went against the slick minimalist style that had dominated the 70's. In the mainstream, their furniture designs were considered tacky, once described as "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price", ouch. (Not everyone hated them, Karl Lagerfeld notoriously collected Memphis Group and had an entire apartment decorated in the style.) Although they disbanded in the late 80s, Memphis style continued to impact fashion design and has recently made a comeback: Christian Dior's 2011 Fall Couture line was inspired by Memphis, and American Apparel commissioned member Nathalie Du Pasquier to make a custom-made collection of her patterns in 2014.
Examples of Memphis Group:
Feeling stuck in a California dream this summer? Learn more about the origins of west coast art here.