Joy + modernism

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


Another great weekend. Yesterday I took a day trip with my mom to see Philip Johnson’s amazing Glass House, in New Canaan, CT, which sparked some new reflection on a topic I’ve been pondering for some time: is there a relationship between joy and modernism?

In theory, that relationship is antithetical. Modernism strives for ideological purity, while joy revels in the odd, absurd, silly, and cute. Joy is obviously emotional, whereas modern design is guided by rationality — by principles of formal organization, visual proportion, and spatial balance. Joy is ebullient, modernism is restrained. Joy is youthful and lighthearted; modernism is serious and mature. The advent of modernism was really like a repression of joy, which burst forth in a haze of silliness in the post-modern era.

Form and color choices reflect modernism’s sober attitude, with a devotion to angles over curves and a limited color palette. It was interesting to see this study of average color calculated from MoMA’s art collection, the result being #A79F94, a dull warm gray. The study’s creator calls it “the color of art,” but I wonder if it’s more accurately “the color of modernism” — austere and serene.

Of course, this is not to say there are no joyful modernists. I think if you had to pick one, Eva Zeisel would be the obvious choice, but the Eames and the Scandinavians also had a more emotional, energetic sensibility. The movement evolved over time and softened. Still, a certain detachment and reserve is inscribed in modernism, and too exuberant a notion of form would be incompatible with the doctrine.


Yet, I felt joy at the Glass House. Standing in that transparent box, immersed in the fantasy of a home without walls — it was an exultant feeling. Glass becomes wondrous in this context, creating a porous connection between home and environment that is profoundly emotional. From the outside, the home almost disappears, lost in the play of reflections across its surfaces. From the inside, it expands outward. With no walls, the space is voluminous, endless, growing. And this airy expansion is a definitive aesthetic of joy.

Most of the time, if modernism achieves an emotional quality, it’s neutral serenity. More often, it’s an emotionally-detached sense of awe and inspiration. But as my weekend experience showed me, there are exceptions. Perhaps in spite of all the efforts towards rational purity, the modernist spirit every now and then rises up and revels in the joy of light, space, and form.

October 5th, 2009


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