V&A exhibition to rebuild Modernism's crumbling reputation

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When the concrete tower blocks of Sixties social housing decayed into Britain's graffiti-ridden sink estates, Modernism earned itself a bad reputation.

But an exhibition opening tomorrow shows how the sleek aesthetic championed by architects such as Le Corbusier in the first half of the 20th century had its roots in an upbeat utopianism that thought design could improve the world.

More than 300 objects, ranging from teapots and chairs that would thrill the contemporary fashionista to rotary engines and a Czech Tatra car, have been gathered at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in the biggest show ever dedicated to the defining movement of 20th century design.

In its black and white cool and with an accompanying shop packed with modern consumer desirables, the exhibition, Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939, is set to be one of the hits of the summer.

In its display of items from countries including much of eastern Europe and Russia, the exhibition is also a significant scholarly examination of the movement which revolutionised the way we live. An international conference is being held at the museum in July.

The key difference from previous attempts to examine the achievements of pioneers such as the Bauhaus group in Germany or Berthold Lubetkin in the UK is that the V&A is putting the politics back in.

Christopher Wilk, the V&A's keeper of furniture, textiles and fashion, said the exhibition showed Modernism was "a great utopian project which, at its core, had a social agenda intended to change the world by improving the lives of the mass of the population". One major exhibit, for example, is an early example of a fitted kitchen, originally installed in a municipal housing project in Frankfurt between 1925 and 1930 and rescued and restored for the show.

Other exhibits illustrate the period's fascination with using machinery to improve the human lot, so that even artists such as Ferdinand Leger produced paintings such as Still Life with Ball Bearings as a paean of praise to new technology.

The modern obsession with gyms and sunbathing stemmed from the same socialist desire to create fitter, healthier human beings in the wake of the devastation of the First World War.

But even when Modernism was at its peak, in the 1930s, its political agenda was being downplayed by some.

Mr Wilk said: "In 1932, the first show in America on Modernist architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York dubbed it 'the international style' show. In the most intensely capitalist society in the world, the socialist and communist origins and politics of Modernism were completely jettisoned." The same happened in post-Second World War Germany, where Modernism was discussed in terms of "good form" and "good design" but nothing else. The movement's formal characteristics were stressed. "Modernism became a style choice. But we're trying to put the politics back into Modernism," Mr Wilk said.

Modernism emerged after the First World War and the Russian Revolution when the artistic avant-garde dreamed of a new world free of conflict and social inequality. It was not originally a style, but a loose collection of ideas underpinned by a rejection of history and applied ornament, a preference for abstraction, and a belief that design and technology could transform society. Most of its champions leaned to the left. Hitler and the Nazis condemned it and closed down the Bauhaus school, though the movement was embraced by Italian Fascists. In Britain it arrived somewhat late as a nation traumatised by war clung to its past. Only with the arrival of emigrés fleeing fascism in Europe did Modernism manifest itself here, in buildings such as the old Daily Express offices in Fleet Street and the iconic Isokon flats in north London. Mr Wilk said the movement remained the dominant aesthetic of the 20th and 21st century. "It defines our era. It's the entire context for our visual culture."