Modern furniture refers to furniture produced from the late 19th century through the present that is influenced by modernism. Post-World War II ideals of cutting excess, commodification, and practicality of materials in design heavily influenced the aesthetic of the furniture. It was a tremendous departure from all furniture design that had gone before it. There was an opposition to the decorative arts, which included Art Nouveau, Neoclassical, and Victorian styles. Dark or gilded carved wood and richly patterned fabrics gave way to the glittering simplicity and geometry of polished metal. The forms of furniture evolved from visually heavy to visually light. This shift from decorative to minimalist principles of design can be attributed to the introduction of new technology, changes in philosophy, and the influences of the principles of architecture. As Philip Johnson, the founder of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art articulates:
“Today industrial design is functionally motivated and follows the same principles as modern architecture: machine-like simplicity, smoothness of surface, avoidance of ornament … It is perhaps the most fundamental contrast between the two periods of design that in 1900 the Decorative Arts possessed …”
With the machine aesthetic, modern furniture easily came to promote factory modules, which emphasized the time-managing, efficient ideals of the period. Modernist design was able to strip down decorative elements and focus on the design of the object in order to save time, money, material, and labour. The goal of modern design was to capture timeless beauty in spare precision.
Prior to the modernist design movement, there was an emphasis on furniture as an ornament. The length of time a piece took to create was often a measure of its value and desirability. The origins of design can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and the birth of mechanized production. With new resources and advancements, a new philosophy emerged, one that shifted the emphasis of objects being created for decorative purposes to being designs that promote functionality, accessibility, and production.
The idea of accessible, mass-produced design that is affordable to anyone was not only applied to industrial mechanics, but also to the aesthetics of architecture and furniture. This philosophy of practicality came to be called Functionalism. It became a popular “catchword” and played a large role in theories of modern design. Functionalism rejected the imitation of stylistic and historical forms and sought an establishment of functionality in a piece. Functionalist designers would consider the interaction of the design with its user and how many of the features, such as shape, colour, and size, would conform to the human posture. Western design generally, whether architectural or design of furniture, had for millennia sought to convey an idea of lineage, a connection with tradition and history. However, the modern movement sought newness, originality, technical innovation, and ultimately the message that it conveyed spoke of the present and the future, rather than of what had gone before it.