At the beginning of the 20th century, the world of design began to make a significant shift. Moving away from pre-industrial methods of producing unique and hand-crafted objects, designers adopted an approach reflecting new techniques in science and engineering. The Industrial Revolution enabled designers to reconsider the ways that form, function, and materials applied to everyday objects. The emergence of new tools and the aid of machine-assembly techniques meant that designs could be mass-produced, reaching a wider audience at a lower cost.
There was a growing ethos that aesthetically pleasing, functional objects should be available to everyone, not just an elite few. Designers began to reject excessive ornamentation, instead shifting toward more simplified and geometric shapes, some of which were evocative of organic forms found in nature. Some of the most significant objects developed at this time were simple machines that addressed complex problems.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
A rendering of the basic elements of a composition, often made in a loosely detailed or quick manner. Sketches can be both finished works of art or studies for another composition.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A person who conceives and gives form to objects used in everyday life.
The production of large amounts of standardized products through the use of machine-assembly production methods and equipment.
The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.
The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.
Accessories, decoration, adornment, or details that have been applied to an object or structure to beautify its appearance.
Having characteristics of a biological entity, or organism, or developing in the manner of a living thing.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.
The shape or structure of an object.
Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).
Machines in the Museum
In 1934, MoMA organized an exhibition titled, Machine Art, surprising visitors with a three-story display of machine-made objects such as springs, laboratory appliances, tools, and furniture. These functional objects were placed on pedestals just like sculptures, highlighting them as exemplars of modern design.
MoMA’s collection includes the Slinky, a spring toy designed to stretch, bounce, and travel down a flight of stairs with the aid of gravity and its own momentum.
Questions & Activities
The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 424–348 BCE) said:
“By beauty of shapes I do not mean, as most people would suppose, the beauty of living figures or of pictures, but, to make my point clear, I mean straight lines and circles, and shapes, plane or solid, made from them by lathe, ruler, and square. These are not, like other things, beautiful relatively, but always and absolutely.”
Philip Johnson, MoMA’s first curator of Architecture and Design, used Plato’s philosophy in the 1930s to explain his inclusion of machine parts in museum exhibitions. Read Johnson’s recollection of organizing the Machine Art.
Reflect: Pick one of the objects discussed in this section of MoMA Learning. How do Plato’s words apply to this object?
Show: Write your response in a 1- or 2- paragraph essay.
Tools as Solutions
Identify a problem you encounter in your everyday life. What about this problem frustrates you most?
Design a tool that can help to alleviate this problem. Your solution could be one tool or a combination of several. Outline your process, name your tool, create a sketch, list the materials, and write instructions for how to use it. Document your process by scanning or taking pictures of your annotated sketches.