History of Design
Early to Mid
One of my favorite takes on Art Nouveau is the internet's realization that dwarves are Art Deco—elves are, in fact, Art Nouveau. Tolkein is the progenitor of most modern fantasy, and as such, founded the aesthetics of these fantasy races. (The connection between real-life little people / dwarves and fantasy "little people" is something that deserves an entirely different conversation, as is the complexities of Tolkein's legacy.)
Art Deco, sometimes mistaken for Art Nouveau, focuses more on geometric patterns and cleaner lines. An extremely famous example of Art Deco architecture is the Chrysler building, but Art Deco design is probably most famous through the influence of the film remake of The Great Gatsby. The connection as "the dwarvish style" is exciting for two reasons. One, it denies the later stereotype of dwarves as lacking class or refinement, shifting back towards a much more nuanced idea of two peoples who feud for much deeper reasons than "grungy vs. classy." Two, it shows that pop culture is beginning to acknowledge and celebrate the distinction between the two design movements.
By contrast, Art Nouveau focuses on organic, plant-evoking patterns. Where Art Deco leans into shining, polished designs, Art Nouveau has a softer, earthier feel. It also leans into far more complex adornment than Art Deco, and focuses on asymmetry where its counterpart does not.
In fact, some of the key characteristics of Art Nouveau are dynamism and movement. It was used broadly in all kinds of designs, from interior design to graphic arts and household objects. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements was in glasswork. A stunning example lives in my grandparents' enclosed patio, which features a ten-foot-long piece of glass that used to grace the front of a Tiffany's shop.
Bauhaus makes perhaps the biggest splash of 20th Century design. It took what Art Deco started to an extreme, paring down design to its most basic elements. (In fact, our next historical stop, Mid-Century Modern, is so highly influenced by Bauhaus that scholars struggle to agree on a clear line between the two styles.) Bold typography, primary colors, and basic shapes are key to Bauhaus.
Bauhaus continues to influence modern designs. One of the most interesting examples of this, to me, is in book cover design. While many book covers today use realistic illustrations and photomanipulated scenes, there is a small movement towards Bauhaus-inspired designs. Some examples include this winner of a 99designs contest, or some of Peter Mendelsund's covers, including his redesign of Kafka's The Trial.
40's, 50's, 60's
"…bold or unusual shapes were common for Mid-Century Modern furniture…designers were attempting to redefine the necessary pieces…"
Samantha Pires, My Modern Met
With the light and dynamism of Mid-Century Modern design, it's not difficult to see the effusive hope—and latent anxiety—of the U.S. following WWII. Mid-Century Modern design is minimalist like Bauhaus but also leans into futuristic design, organic shapes, and, in architecture, natural light through large windows. Mid-Century Modern design is closely related to Bauhaus, Minimalism, Scandinavian, Atomic Age, and Space Age design. Imminently practical, Mid-Century Modern design leans on the concept of multi-purpose. Chairs, tables, and more are used for many things and often stackable or moveable, with designs simplifying to capture the object's purpose with as few elements as possible. (For example, chair backs and seats are often combined into one element.)
While designers and historians quibble about the specifics that distinguish the Bauhaus and Mid-Century Modern movements, there are a few things that stand out to me. One, Mid-Century Modern leaned on organic design and fluid lines in contrast to Bauhaus' rigidity. Mid-Century Modern also adds embellishments like purely decorative abstract elements. Two, where Bauhaus delights in graphic contrast and basic, primary colors, Mid-Century Modern often used bright colors in more saturated and secondary tones. Bright white were common, as are teal, pink, orange, and green (often drawing from Atomic Age design). Meanwhile, Scandinavian Minimalism offered materials like natural wood for an earthier counterbalance.
The mid-century years are highly associated with futurism. From Atomic Age to Space Age, design was fascinated with a future aesthetic. After all, one of the hallmarks of the era was the Jetsons. Not to mention the fact Star Trek, which continues to be a conceptual hallmark of futurism sixty years after it began. In fact, people still often see Atomic Age and Space Age designs as "looking futuristic." Take, for example, this image from Meow Wolf of an alien woman offering tours across the multiverse.
At the same time, though, Space Age design is one of a few twentieth-century styles highly associated with nostalgia. A great way of finding it (mixed in with Mid-Century Modern, to be sure) on the internet is by simply googling "retro design," and many brands—especially ice cream stores and diners like Freddy's—lean on the nostalgia for ice cream floats and poodle skirts. Space Age design became popularly commercial, especially for recreational areas like movie theaters and diners.
20th Century Design,
The 20th Century saw massive changes: two world wars, the transformation from industrialism to post-industrialism, and constantly changing technology. Technology often factored into design movements, such as Art Deco using polished materials and Mid-Century Modern diving into plastics. However, just as often, social contexts drove change, such as Mid-Century Modern and Atomic design showcasing the tensions between post-war prosperity and cold war tensions.
Today, 20th Century design continues to play a large role. In Albuquerque, for example, Route 66's Mid-Century Modern and Atomic Age influence can be seen throughout the city. Art Deco has made a recent resurgence through a fascination with The Great Gatsby but can also be seen in skylines and architecture that persists to this day. Perhaps the twentieth century's biggest gift to contemporary design was the rich and varied exploration of minimalism.