Lessons Learned: Exploring the Beginnings of Modern-Era Design

By Heather Crane, Historical Architect

Irving J. Gill’s La Jolla Woman’s Club, designed in 1913, was California’s first tilt-up concrete building and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photographed by Marvin Rand, 1971; photo from Library of Congress.

Historical Architect Heather Crane shares a snapshot of the creative minds who broke tradition and launched the world into 20th-century Modernism with a capital “M.” Genres discussed included architecture, music, fashion, and dance.

Southern California is dotted with the influential works of architect Irving J. Gill. I was inspired to research his work, and in doing so, became interested in the cross-discipline parallels of early Modern design. To better understand the early 20th-century design ethos and how that compared to Gill’s revolutionary designs, I took a deep dive into the cultural environment of the Modern era. I wanted to know what the beginning of this era looked like, sounded like, and felt like — and how it has influenced the environment that surrounds us.

Modernism is defined as “a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms.” The beginning of the Modern era is subjective and varies by design field, but the years 1890-1910 are generally accepted, as by the year 1900, Modernism had fully taken root in most design disciplines.

Irving J. Gill’s Walter Luther Dodge House, designed 1914-1916 (demolished 1970) and showing early manifestations of the International Style. Photographed by Marvin Rand, 1968; photo from Library of Congress.

In architecture, architect Irving J. Gill (1870-1936) began his career designing in styles common to the late 1800s: stick, shingle, mission, and craftsman styles. With each design, he eased into the Modern aesthetic for which he became known. His designs would have smooth stucco surfaces combined with the purist expressions of form: the circle, arch, square, and rectangle. Other early Modern trademarks visible in his designs are the blending of indoor and outdoor spaces through use of pergolas, arcades, and vine plants consuming the plain stucco walls.

In music, composer Charles Ives (1874-1958) defied convention to an extreme degree by being one of the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, with musical techniques including atonality, polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, and quarter tones — thus foreshadowing virtually every major musical innovation of the 20th century.

“Les robes de Paul Poiret,” 1908. From Smithsonian Libraries.

In fashion, French designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) rejected popular yet impracticable clothing such as the hoop skirt and bustle dress. Rather, his design ideas began with the flat rectangle of the fabric. He would then drape, not tailor, the fabric into garments with minimal seams that hung from the shoulders. He would often cut fabric on the bias, giving garments more stretch. Poiret was not the only designer producing avant-garde designs, but he is attributed with liberating the female body of the corset.

In the performing arts, actress and choreographer Loie Fuller (1862-1928) was one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. During a time of stiff and highly choreographed dances, Fuller was an early free dance practitioner who developed her own natural movement and improvisation techniques. She experimented with a long, flowing, silk skirts and multi-colored lighting of her own design, playing with the ways light reflected off the fabric.

Loie Fuller, full-length portrait, standing, facing front; raising her very long gown in shape of butterfly
Loie Fuller, photographed by Frederick W. Glasier, 1902. Photo from Library of Congress.

The unifying element between these genres — and really all design disciplines during this time — is simplification. Removal of irrelevant flounce and tossing aside the centuries-old guidebooks, Modernists created a style and movement unlike any other.

Heather gave a 45-minute presentation on this topic to AIA San Diego, where she is a member of the Preservation Committee; the presentation recording can be viewed via YouTube.