LONDON — Changing the world might sound ambitious for a design movement, but a new exhibition charting the history of Modernism, at the Victoria & Albert museum, shows that the genre’s influence stretched far beyond the art and design-loving elite.

The first fitted kitchen, designed for an Austrian housing project; a Bakelite radio, and an ergonomically designed and mass-produced chair are among the everyday items that are part of the huge show “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939,” which runs until July 23.

Christopher Wilk, the show’s curator, said Modernism was not a style but a collection of ideas that were, in part, a reaction to the enormous scale of death and destruction during the First World War. “After the outrage and horror, Modernism was set on a path to reinvent society and turn its back on the past,” said Wilk during a walk-through of the show.

Rethinking accepted ideas about aesthetics led architects such as Le Corbusier and artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian to reject historical, decorative design and produce works that championed clean, sleek lines and block colors. The exhibition shows a model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, which is supported by concrete pillars that allowed for huge windows spanning the entire building and giving it a futuristic, space-age feel.

“The idea was that if you wanted to build a new world, buildings were a pretty good place to start,” said Wilk, adding, though, that since it was easier to construct a Modernist chair than a building, the former were more widespread.

The exhibition gives a wall to a display of the popular “floating” chairs that instead of having legs are made of a single frame that bends under the seat.

Many of the pieces in the show are instantly recognizable as modern design classics, such as “Mondrian’s Tableau No. 1” and Marcel Breuer’s “Club Chair,” made with tubular steel and bands of leather.

While utilitarian values were at the heart of the movement, the exhibition also shows Modernism’s ability to communicate with large sections of society, via bright colors, geometric shapes and simple slogans. Advertisers quickly cottoned onto the myriad uses of these images. One poster, by Francis Bernard, advertises a Paris household goods exhibition in which a white silhouette of a female robot, complete with broom, towers over a dowdily dressed couple, urging them to embrace advances in housekeeping.

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The images make it clear that there is no denying the enduring power of Modernism. “Our world today was fundamentally changed by Modernism,” Wilk said. “It was the key point of reference for art, design and architecture in the 20th century.”

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