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Thoroughly Modern Living

So you finally got your hands on the classic post-and-beam modern house of your dreams. Now you must ask yourself: Am I truly a modernist, or just another modern fashion victim? From L.A. to Palm Springs, one sees house after endless modern house filled with the same Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe leather chairs, Eero Saarinen dining tables, Isamu Noguchi lamps and George Nelson benches — all beautiful objects that offer a blandly unthinking interpretation of where modernism started, not where it can go.

No doubt designer George Nelson would roll over in his grave if he knew the world was littered with his slatted-wood inventions. His 1945 manifesto, Tomorrow’s House, married modernism, mass production, technology and personal vision as a means of exploring new choices for the individual. His writings go on and on about healing society of its mediocrity. He abhorred fashion and sameness, and yet that is what modernism has become. In the past 20 years, the notion of modernism has lost all vision of the future and morphed into a Taliban-like religious cult festered by fanatics who acknowledge nothing of aesthetic consequence having been created since 1967.

Despite what so many shelter mags would have you believe, modernism is not about living in a particular style or following the paths of particular designers. It’s a philosophy that explores new ways of living. I didn’t understand that as a kid growing up in a drop-dead modern house, transformed from a brand-new but quite ordinary split-level into a modophile’s dream by a palette of black, white, orange and turquoise, futurist wallpaper, wrought iron and canvas sling chairs, and a sofa with matching loveseats that my parents found at the “House of Tomorrow” exhibit of the 1939 World’s Fair.

It wasn’t until halfway through art school that I discovered modernism to be a philosophy, not just a style. I met a girl whose mother was a director at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’d spend endless weekends in a concrete-and-glass home just outside Manhattan where her family entertained the likes of Lella and Massimo Vignelli and other second-generation modernists. They filled our heads with stories about Walter Gropius, who, influenced by the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, founded the Bauhaus, the German school of design that in the 1920s and 1930s became the leading intellectual and creative center in the development of modernism. Early modernists grappled with the realities of the early 20th century, such as the politics of communism, a rapidly growing middle class, the machine age and the new nobility of the common man.

The Bauhaus established industrial design, and stripped away the decoration of the Victorian era, leaving the clean lines of form and function. The advent of central heating allowed architects to replace thick, tapestry-covered walls with huge sheets of glass. Lightweight metal alloys like aluminum invited a new sense of structure in furniture fabrication. Scientists turned oil byproducts into plastics and fabrics impervious to moisture and dirt. A new aesthetic world order was born, and, with it, the likes of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Herman Miller, Eero Saarinen, Hans Knoll, George Nelson, and Russel Wright became household names. Each of these artists shared a vision of a near future that was less formal and easier to live in. In spite of the ramifications of mass production, they imbued modernism with a sense of style that invited choices and individuality.

And yet modernism all too quickly became clichéd out. How did this forward-thinking movement become a cartoon of style? In the exuberant peacetime following World War II, America’s brand-new military-industrial complex retooled its factories, creating a mass-production frenzy. Hungry moneymakers rationalized modernism as the production of anything cheap, plastic and disposable, leaving its adventurous aesthetics on the back burner. Were it not for the industrialists and artisans of Milan who joined forces in the late 1960s and installed the awe-inspiring Italian Modernism exhibition at MoMA in New York, the movement would be all but dead in its tracks. In the 1980s, the cartoon image of modernism was re-emphasized by the faddish advent of postmodernism. Except, perhaps, for Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, which still holds its own among East Coast skyscrapers, the postmodernists did nothing more than scar the nation with corner mini-malls that in less than 20 years have come to look more shabby than chic.

These days, the crumbling artifacts of a great design philosophy are bought, sold and prayed over at somber modernist shows and the elitist retail galleries of Beverly Boulevard and downtown Manhattan. Recently, while attending the opening-night modernist pageant at a show in Palm Springs, I entered the display booth/chapel of an effete old queen hawking overpriced midcentury Bakelite drawer pulls. He was waxing on about the Bauhaus movement to a fascinated young couple while riffling through a book of Bauhaus furniture to prove the pedigree of his wares. I couldn’t help but interject myself into the conversation, sharing the notion that these days IKEA was the best example of a company that extolled the Bauhaus philosophy of mass-producing simple, functional, affordable objects for the masses. There was a long silence, a brief snit, and then I was not too politely asked to leave the chapel, since I obviously was some kind of wacko heretic and, perhaps more pointedly, was killing a sale.

But let’s get back to that classic new house of yours. It’s probably got lots of sliding glass that invites the outside in, and an open plan that needs planning. This addresses two major concepts of modernism: how the structure relates to the exterior environment, and how the interior relates to the needs of your existence. Other than the suggestion of form and function, there are — and this can’t be repeated enough — no rules to follow or styles to echo.

The clean slate of a well-sited modern house with good bones insinuates individuality and personal decision making. This is not a Hollywood Hills prefab waiting to be turned into an English country house. Forget about the names of the rooms your real estate agent was quacking about, and make the space yours. One man’s living room with a view is another woman’s indoor-outdoor kitchen. Once you’ve defined the spaces, you can make a list of what objects you need to make them function. Chairs, tables, beds, sofas, desks, lamps, rugs, ashtrays, pot racks, curtains, art — the aesthetics of your home will be created by adding and blending what you need, not by acquiring things you think you are supposed to have. Shop around town, shop IKEA, shop the Internet, mix in old and new, explore Asian furniture (it’s been modern for centuries!). Use your own instinct to create a functioning modern environment.

As for you fashion victims, you have it easy. Just take gobs of cash, attend the next modernism show or promenade down Beverly Boulevard, and you can purchase an exact copy of the museumlike living room you saw at the cocktail party you crashed in Silver Lake last week.

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