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Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl

Who really bought those modernist fitted kitchens?

  • Paul Mason
  • 18 Apr 06, 11:30 AM

When I idly scrawled about the V&A's exhibition of Modernist Design I bumped into a bigger debate sparked by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, who has taken umbrage against tower blocks. I decided to steer clear of that furore and took refuge in the library on my week off. But you can never escape... while researching something totally different I came across the following: In Germany in 1929 a sociologist called Erich Fromm carried out research into social attitudes among manual and white collar workers....

...About 500 people were interviewed, answering 271questions on everything from Adolf Hitler to the length of women's hair. Question 240 asked:

"How do you decorate your home?"

The answers are obviously of interest to anybody involved in the debate about whether Bauhaus modernist design and technology was any good, or ever appreciated by the "masses" who were supposed to buy it. The thesis of modernism's critics has been that it reflects the growing authoritarianism of society in the 20s and 30s. The results were lost for 40 years, however, because academic differences, Nazism and war got in the way of publication. But they were published in the 1980s.

Here are the results:
When asked "How Do You Decorate Your Home?"
A consistent 40-50% - from unemployed to to skilled white collar - said "flowers and pictures".
Between 6-10% said "bric a brac"
Only skilled manual and skilled white collar workers mentioned "New Realism" - which was the German term for modernist designs like the kitchen on show at the V&A, and then only 4 and 5% respectively.

Tabulated by political allegiance things become clearer:
Social Democrats favoured bric-a-brac over modernism by 10% vs 3%
Communists also, 4% to 2%
Nazis too liked flying ducks better than Mies van der Rohe chairs, by a factor of 11% to 6%
Only one group, left wing members of the Social Democratic Party, were totally sold on modernism: 11% versus a fat zero for 1930s kitsch.

The total sample for "Left Socialists" was 45 people, but that level of unanimity has to be listened to: my provisional conclusion is that it was not the authoritarian-inclined Communists and Nazis who bought and treasured Bauhaus designs but a particular urban clan of left Labourites who had been generally identified as white collar workers or skilled engineers. Modernism never really took off among the "masses", even in its birthplace Weimar Germany. Make of it what you will...

If you want to look further into this survey, one of the first to try to discover the link between occupation and psychological attitudes, it is published as Fromm E, The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study, London, 1984 ISBN 0-907582-09-5

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A truly interesting study, and one which suggests that the cutting edge of modernism - in the 1930s as now - has always depended upon an educated, progressive audience for an appreciative reception. Much of the content of the V&A show flags up this avant garde of design, much more vital and raw to its 1920s/30s consumers than it is to our benumbed and assulted cosumerist society, and it is indeed difficult to visualise the ordinary shopper or home-buyer of the time accepting the new wave of design unconditionally.

I imagine that these leftists quoted in the study were committed to a truly modernist home life as much to make an external political statement and to forge a sense of group belonging as because of their inherent taste for the latest in design.

The true importance of that interwar modernism was the ideas it implanted into design culture. Those ideas bore fruit in the postwar era when a more flexible, diverse and genuinely popular modernist design culture took hold across the West. Your average Nazi may have favoured flying ducks but I can well visulise that his son or daughter, setting up home in the 1950s, would have sought out some Scandinavian-style modern glamour in the living room and space aged, wipe-clean Formica in the kitchen.

The avant garde is just that - out there at the front for the rest of us to follow. And follow we did.

I think gaining understanding for this subject is really important. The more we know the better we deal in different type of situations that we come across. Here is another related page that may be of interest to some, it’s all about designer kitchens, here it is

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