Talking Shop

Modern & Contemporary

Wava Carpenter

Two contemporary design exhibitions mine the best of modernism

This summer, two galleries—Galerie Maria Wettergren in Paris and R & Company in New York—have organized contemporary design exhibitions that respond to the legacy of modernism. Given that its critiques began percolating through the Western zeitgeist more than a half century ago, discussions of modernist design, whether for or against, haven’t felt au courant for quite some time. The coincidence of these beautifully executed, modernist-themed projects is intriguing. Why now?

Modernism Crystalized: A Family Affair at Galerie Maria Wettergren. Photo © Gregory Copitet

Modernism Crystalized: A Family Affair at Galerie Maria Wettergren features a new body of work produced collaboratively by European designers Boris Berlin, Daniel Berlin, and Germans Ermičs. Including seating, tables, and lighting, the collection is framed as a 21st-century interpretation of modernism’s fixation on material reduction and innovation. At the same time, the designers undermine the modernist form-follows-function ethos by creating objects that seemingly dissolve away or self-replicate within their surroundings, playing with perceptions of light and space.

The idea to create this new collection by engaging modernist approaches began with Boris Berlin, who launched his studio in 1983—at the peak of postmodernism. “Modernism is the tree on which I grew up,” he explains. “There is a duality in reacting against anything. It is impossible to be rebellious against your parents if you do not have them. The rejection of heritage is the best proof of its presence. Ironically, unlike the great apostles of modernism, I feel myself to be a part of the continuously evolving historical narratives of all isms.”

City Light Pendant by Boris Berlin & Daniel Berlin, 2020; Black Mirror Table by Boris Berlin & Germans Ermičs, 2020. Photo © Galerie Maria Wettergren

Boris invited his son Daniel Berlin and his son’s friend Germans Ermičs to collaborate on the project, bringing together multigenerational, nuanced views on modernism’s legacy. “I think its influence is unavoidable, even if I don't think about it,” Germans says. He adds: “The underlying principles are well alive in my practice, such as experimentation with shape and color and a great emphasis on material and manufacturing methods.”

Daniel, in contrast, doesn’t see much of an ongoing dialogue between his work and the principles that defined design for most of the last century: “I am not sure humanity has ever been modern. Any replicated pattern of practice becomes a style—and honestly style does not really interest me. I think architecture flourishes in the fecund perversion of rules and principles.”

Modernism Crystalized: A Family Affair at Galerie Maria Wettergren. Photo © Gregory Copitet

The varying perspectives of these three designers highlight the fact that, even with the benefit of a century of hindsight, the definition of what modernist design was and what it was meant to be remains elusive. Utopian ambitions certainly played a powerful role in the movement. Reducing designs to their most essential forms wasn’t meant to be a mere aesthetic choice; it was meant to make design more suitable to mass production, which in turn would make life enhancing designs more affordable to more people, thereby raising standards of living for societies around the world. The vision, however, didn’t turn out exactly as planned. Mass production led to rampant consumerism and, among other fallout, the consequent environmental catastrophe that we all face today.

Even so, Maria Wettergren and her designers aren’t alone in thinking that multiple aspects of modernism remain relevant today, since many of its most fundamental expressions continue to define what it is to be a visionary designer. When asked about the positive side of the legacy, Maria says it’s vital to forgo the movement’s dogmatic and arrogant ideas of functionalism while keeping this compelling list of approaches intact: “the idea that the world has to be fundamentally rethought; rejecting stale norms and traditions; interdisciplinary processes and solutions; empirically driven experimentation; and striving for a better life through creative production.”

Modern in Your Life by BassamFellows x R & Company. Photo © Michael Biondo

Across the Atlantic, R & Company has mounted two exhibitions dedicated to BassamFellows, the well established, Connecticut-based studio of Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows. Installed in the New York gallery is Carve, Curve, Cane, a selection from the studio’s latest body of work that embodies the rich materiality and “craftsman modern” aesthetic, as it’s called, for which BassamFellows is known. The second exhibition, Modern in Your Life, presents BassamFellows’s contemporary works alongside iconic designs of the modernist movement, installed at the 1952 Philip Johnson-designed Schlumberger Building that the duo restored in 2018 to be the their headquarters.

“BassamFellows is defined by the simplicity and clarity of modernism combined with the warmth and comfort of contemporary craft and an obsessive study of the emotion found in inspirational architecture,” the duo explain when asked about their overt alignment with the historical movement. “To us, the defining principle is as little design as possible... Form and function have equal emphasis. Structure is honestly expressed, and materials are rationally used, eliminating unnecessary weight and ornament. This approach results in designs that are long lasting and beautiful; everything is resolved and nothing is left to chance.”

Modern in Your Life by BassamFellows x R & Company. Photo © Michael Biondo

There’s no arguing that modernist design has endured the test of time. Just look at the soaring sales for the mid-century works of committed modernists like Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand, as well as the unending demand for vintage mid-mod furniture and lighting at lower price points. For BassamFellows, these stats are no surprise: “Simply put, modern design sits well with contemporary architecture and contemporary art.” The iconic works of modernism from the R & Company collection exhibited in the BassamFellows office—by the likes of Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, and Poul Kjaerholm, to name a few—do converse comfortably with contemporary design. “In our increasingly chaotic lives,” the duo theorize, “simple, functional objects that are well made provide a sense of calm and comfort, especially in these uncertain times.”

One of the major critiques of modernist design is that its formal language of minimalist, functionalist, geometric order was deemed by its proponents to be universally rational and appealing—and was therefore forced upon the world in a way that ignored the specific needs of distinct communities, erased cultural differences, and damaged the vitality of landscapes. Since people are not all the same, there can’t be just one way to design, as last century’s modernists liked to think. This may be a key reason why we don’t talk that much about modernism anymore—even if its formal expressions continue to have wide appeal. As Maria mentioned, it's the controlling dogma behind the look that had to go.

Modern in Your Life by BassamFellows x R & Company. Photo © Michael Biondo

When asked what they see in the contemporary design landscape that they believe to be the most long lasting—the most timeless—Maria Wettergren and BassamFellows offered compelling answers, both of which find the best in the legacy of modernism. Craig and Scott cited the uptick in using minimally processed natural material and the resurgent interest in craft—a counterpoint to modernism’s “drive for efficiency without an equal drive for beauty,” which led to “objects and architecture that were deemed cold and unrelatable.”

Maria takes the idea further: “There seems to be a growing tendency towards hand-crafted, time-consuming productions, in which you can literally feel the days, months, or years spent in the making of an object—a solace to our own craving for time. In our fast-paced world—in which time has become a luxury and mass production has become a problem—I believe that this tendency has come to stay.” ◆


BassamFellows: Carve, Curve, Cane is on view at R & Company in New York through August 27th.

BassamFellows: Modern Your Life is on view at the Schlumberger Building in Ridgefield, CT through September 4th.

Modernism Crystalized: A Family Affair is on view at Galerie Maria Wettergren in Paris through October 24th.