Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.

(Walter Gropius)

Modernism in art during the 1900s to 1930s was a pivotal moment for artists, designers and architects. Tremendously affected by historical events and political conflicts, such as the Soviet Revolution of 1917, the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20, the Weimar Revolution of 1918 in Germany, and the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s, people urged to seek desperate resolutions for the growing dissatisfaction in governments, and pitiful collapse of the economy, society and basic livelihood. Above all, the arrival of the two World Wars froze the progression of human life, not exempting the enrichment of art and design.

Leaders in the arts synchronized their information promptly, working on radical methods whereby a mass consumer culture would emerge across national borders, and placing greater value on enhancing form, decoration and novel styles. They literally reinvented the fundamental concepts of design, which consequently evolved into the Modernism movement.

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum is presenting “The Polyphony of Function and Decoration" till March 5th this year. The travelling exhibition (including the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art in Aichi and Iwami Art Museum in Shimane) introduces the development of decorative arts and modern design in Europe and Japan from the 1910s to 1930s through the genre-crossing interactions of artists. About 400 works from each museum’s distinctive collection display paintings, sculptures, furniture, fashion, product design and accessories. At Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, the collaboration between the exhibits and the Main Building (former residence of Prince Asaka), which was erected during the aforementioned period, is particularly emphasized to provide an in-depth perspective of the flow of the Modernism era.

Several objects reflect the achievements of the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, which was founded in 1903 by architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser and patron of the arts Fritz Waerndorfer. They envisioned the device of all things related to life; from architecture, and interior decoration to cutlery and fabrics, based on the philosophy of “total art”. Sleek-lined furniture and abstract-patterned textile designs by Hoffmann, and an Art Deco-looking armchair by Moser exemplify the workshop's creations, which are aimed at instilling artistic freedom in the superior craftsmanship of aesthetically high-quality products.

Coinciding with the activities of the Wiener Werkstätte or Vienna Workshop, the German Werkbund was formed in 1907, converging local artists, workshops and businesses. It rejected backwards-looking handicraft romanticism, and instead pushed for “standardization” and “industrialization”. German architect Bruno Paul was one of the pioneers of the Workshop who standardized furniture design in 1908. His simple Dining Chair (1908) is tapered with clean, angular lines and a functional seat.

Two sections in the showcase are devoted to French fashion designer Paul Poiret, who adopted the system of the Wiener Werkstätte. Poiret especially took a liking for the Workshop’s textiles and used them in his own designs. He later established the Atelier Martine textile workshop, which was modelled after the Wiener Werkstatte. At the atelier, he commercialized and sold curtains, wallpapers, and textiles. Poiret is said to have played an enormous role in the international success of Wiener Werkstätte. Viewers can admire his elegant white and beige "Garden Party Dress" (1911) with stitched flowers, fashion accessories and pochoir stencilled prints.

French fashion made waves after World War I when people's tastes in clothing changed dramatically. New modes favoured dazzling golds, silvers, and bright colours that simply cherished the present moment. Naturalistic motifs, such as flowers and plants began to illustrate strong tendencies towards geometric and abstract elements. Women's advancement glittered in society with female stylists taking the limelight. Presented, for example, are garments by Gabrielle Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Agnès, and Jeanne Lanvin. Lanvin headed the clothing department at The Art Deco Expo of 1925 and supervised the exhibitions at the Grand Palais and the Palais de Elegance. A fresh sense of opulence and elegance shaped the feminine contour.

The Bauhaus movement was founded in 1919 to build a new society, equipped with a workshop that could acquire artisanal skills apart from basic education. This show certainly offers a wide array of remarkable collections, for enthusiasts of this movement and the Art Deco. The final section at the annexe journeys through outstanding furniture by Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, André Groult, and others. Highlighted also are decorative dinnerware and accessories by Lili Schulz and Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein-Marks, and charming textile motifs by Raoul Dufy, Gunta Stölzl, Lena Meyer-Bergner, and Gertrud Preiswerk; all representing avant-garde ideologies in form and function.

Not to miss is the relevant contribution of Japanese artists and designers to this era, who were, likewise, influenced by the expansion of modernization and Westernization. In 1920, through the guidance of the Ministry of Education, the “Life Improvement Alliance” was established to improve aspects of Japanese culture, from social rituals to clothing, meals, and housing, and adapt them to modern living. Takehiko Mizutani, Iwao and Michiko Yamawaki (who all studied at the Bauhaus), Kazo Saito (who studied in Berlin and also visited the Bauhaus), Nobuo Moriya, Katsuhei Toyoguchi, and others paved the crucial road towards Japanese modernism in art and design brought in from Europe. Two beautiful yukatas (summer kimono) in dyed blue, Expressionistic Yukata and Expressionistic Yukata “Nesting Place for Blue Bird” (ca. 1930) by Saito depict Art Deco-inspired curvilinear and rhythmical patterns.

The polyphony of function and decoration in the 1900s laid the essential foundation for individualistic and unconventional trends in design that surfaced later in the succeeding years.