20th Century Design Movements to Remember

November 14, 2016

Responding to the major society shifts, aftermaths of wars, and technological innovations, 20th century design movements were defined by upheavals. Art, design, theater and performances were all affected by the changes happening in the world. Painters, sculptors, and designers used their skills to document such events and to implement new aesthetic ideas and styles which began to treat form, material, and technology in a completely new way. As recorders of time, 20th century design movements responded to the machine age of the 1920s society and started to produce design pieces influenced by the invention of mass-produced materials. After the wars, the need for a more humanist approach to the world influenced the embrace of natural materials and handmade objects. It became visible, very early on, that design was not only beautiful pieces decorating the homes but an important archive for the understanding of the time and its changes.

designs inspired by modernism referenced also nouveau visual style and free american spirit.
Newcomb- Pottery Plate. Image via widewalls.ch

What Factors Influenced the Innovations of the 20th Century Design Movements

In a similar manner as it influences artists, the past, and its characteristics helped to influence and inspire major designers and visual communicators. The periods of major conflicts, which have built the history of the world, have also helped build visual languages across design and art disciplines. The time of the early 20th cenutury design movements was full of scientific and technological advances.[1] The world was forever changed by the innovations of the steam age which brought revolutions to the transportation, agriculture, and industry. The scientific advances influenced the mass production which was quick and fairly cheap. To understand the production of the early 20th century design movements one needs to bear in mind that economic and political factors played a major role in its definitions. The movements, such as Arts and Crafts, along with Bauhaus, responded to the mass produced objects. Led by the artist and designer William Morris, Arts and Crafts movement attempted to rise beyond the machines by promoting the return to the past to the period craftsman took their time to produce delicate furniture and wallpaper designs. The Bauhaus school embraced the technology and innovations by attempting to re-define the notion of art schools. Taking away the boundary between art and design, the teachings and products of Bauhaus still influence the design today.

the age of modernism adored the free american culture
Left: Joost Schmidt, Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar, 1923 / Right: A. M. Cassandre - Normandie, 1935. Images via widewalls.ch

The Different Roles of 20th Century Design Movements

In the second half of the 20th-century major social factors continued to influence the innovations in design. The period of the 1960s and 1970s were decades of major political and social changes. The student protests, the new demands of women, rise of consumerism, and the demonstrations against the Vietnam war influenced the communication of design works[2]. As these events were global events, designers needed to be aware of various cultural sensitivities when designing their works.

The use of propaganda, that had became popular during the period of the war, had put in focus the national pride and political views in early poster design works. During the 60s, the hippie movement not only influenced the fashion and wearable art pieces, but it also helped to shape the psychedelic style of poster and painting pieces. The use of provocative language, the shift in the presentation of women, along with the use of the anti-war slogans, were all consequences of the demonstrations and the changes in the world.

Shepard Fairey - Obama Posters - Progress (Left), Vote (Center), Hope (Right). Image via widewalls.ch

20th Century Design Movements Timeline

1850-1914: Arts and Crafts Movement

1880-1910: Art Nouveau

1897-1905: Vienna Secession

1907-1935: Deutscher Werbund

1909-1930: Futurism

1916-1923: Dada

1917-1935: Constructivism

1917-1931: De Stijl

1919-1933: Bauhaus

1920-1980: International Style

1920-1939: Art Deco

1945-present: Contemporary

1958-1972: Pop

1965-present: Post Modern Design

1981-1988: Memphis

Peter Keler - Bauhaus Cradle, 1922 - image via bbc.co.uk
Peter Keler - Bauhaus Cradle, 1922.  Image via bbc.co.uk

The Glue Which Holds the Design Together

Art and design are both influenced by the politics, rise of technology, and the atmosphere of various periods. The produced pieces, poster works, or even the innovations of typography are all linked to the thoughts and challenges the various societies face. The economical, social, political, and cultural factors need to be understood as guides which help designers produce pieces which communicate with its public[3]. Understanding aspects of the history of design assists us not only in the analyzing of both the historical and contemporary context but as an inspiration for future designers as well. The reference to the past and some of its revolutionary ideas gives depth to the piece. At times, the past may be on purposely challenged by new and progressive thoughts that are in constant demand.

  Editors’ Tip: Century of Design, A: Design Pioneers of the 20th Century

This volume tells this fascinating story, combining the history of modern design movements with a chronological review of 80 top designers, from Otto Wagner at the end of the 19th century to Jasper Morrison, a young designer making an impact today. In between you'll find profiles of some of the most influential creative minds of the 20th century, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, and many others. The book is as beautiful to look at as it is exciting to read. It contains more than 580 full-color photos covering a wide range of objects that include furniture, glass, ceramics, metalware, industrial products, and household appliances. For anyone loving the 20th century design movements, this book truly is a must-have.


  1. M.Woodham, J., Twentieth Century Design, Oxford University Press, 1997
  2. Fiell, C., Fiel, P., Design of the 20th Century, Taschen, 2005
  3. Sparke, P., A Century of Design: Design Pioneers of the 20th Century, Mitchell Beazley, 1999

All images are used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Koloman Moser - Pattern Design. Image via definepattern.tumblr.com