“From Bauhaus to Our House” by Tom Wolfe

July 8th, 2010


I never understood the country blue and dusty pink in my mother's house nor the tie-on seat cushions with ruffled edging. The frosted glass bulb shades on the faux-gold chandelier even had a ruffled edge. Everything in that era seemed to be a lie. The linoleum poorly feigned being tile, the hairstyles were unnaturally curly, and the prints on clothing rarely wrapped completely around the shirt. Did that person really think no one would see them from the back much less the side? It's a curious phenomenon that unfortunately continues today. As I take the satirical approach to the era marked in my mind by eerie visits from the Pillsbury dough boy to homes with interiors poorly-mimicking early-American traditional craft through mass-manufactured means, author Tom Wolfe has taken a similarly bitter, yet incredibly informed approach to the architecture and artistic movements of early Modernism. And in effect, he's inadvertently helped me to understand, and possibly appreciate, the post-modernism ideology.

Before I finished the first page, I was struck by what seemed unnecessarily vitriolic criticisms of mid-century design. Then I checked the copyright date: 1981. Oh. Though feeling slightly dismissive, I was intrigued and continued to read. After all, he wasn't wholly wrong. I guess many of our mid-century elementary schools do look like a "duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse," but I don't buy that Modernism took hold in America because the CEO's became "…diffident and reticent….willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one's bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture" – despite how convulsively witty Wolfe states it.

By the Victorian Era, American's had long forgotten the assault of the British on our democracy and shores. Europe was idolized and those who could afford to, went on "the Grand Tour" of London, Paris, and Rome. This idolatry holds true today to some extent, as it did in the early 20th c as well. Americans are practical and hard-working, but Europeans, they're artistic, moody, and they have aristocrats. It was the onerous influence of the bourgeoisie on the arts that originally fueled the avant-garde modernists. Otto Wagner and Joseph Olbrich created the Vienna Secession, being the first to reject the national establishment for the arts and architecture, they created an artistic compound immune to any outside influences of taste. Gropius picked up on this notion, centering his commandments of design around the attainment of a purely non-bourgeois creation. Ultimately, after some fine-tuning, to be non-bourgeois was to be equated with being machine-made. Honest materials, honest construction, and the elimination of expensive and luxurious materials and forms was touted as the pinnacle of design; functionalism at its purest. Yet, as Wolfe points out, these ingenuous architects were designing flat roofs without the least of an overhang on the 52nd latitude – a line also shared by Canada, Moscow, and Siberia. With new eyes, it seems Gropius, le Corbusier, Mies, and the like, had supplemented Functionalism for Non-bourgeoisie to give a necessary base to their anti-establishment manifesto. Whether you adore Modernism or detest it, Wolfe's satirical take is one worth entertaining.

On a relative side note, the MoMA will be opening an exhibit entitled: Underground Gallery: London Transport Posters, 1920s–1940s, on July 28th, 2010. The exhibit features graphic works by László Moholy-Nagy, an instructor at Bauhaus when the school was beginning to fully develop its intentions to meld the arts and industry.

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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