Learn About: 20th Century Design

Learn about 20th Century Design, and the history of it, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how it developed over the years.

20th Century Design

In the years between the First World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, design of furniture, ceramics, glassware, sculpture, domestic-ware and lighting changed totally. The transition over the ‘short 20th-century’ from Art Deco to the Mid-Century Modern period and culminating in Post-Modernism was arguably the most revolutionary in the history of design with a near constant cycle of reaction to contemporary trends.

Art Deco

Art Deco was the first true 20th century design movement, with its defining moment coming in 1925 in the form of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes from which the movement derives its name. Although the movement is heavily associated with the American ‘Jazz Age’, the US chose not to contribute to the exhibition. The US is recognised primarily for its contribution to ‘modernist’ Art Deco; where many designers in Europe used stylised and abstract versions of traditional motifs such as flowers or animals, the ‘streamlined’ style, pioneered in America, was just one distinctly modern American invention. In Europe, the modernist strand was represented by Bauhaus, an iconic German art school that heavily influenced later movements.

Mid-Century Modern

Although generally associated with the post-war period, the Modern movement in design had its roots firmly in the work of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and other pre-war designers. This said, the Second World War was important to the movement because it introduced new technologies and production methods as well as high demand for refurnishing, particularly in areas of heavy bombing, and stimulated egalitarian ideas about design and living. Wood was originally the dominant material in Modern furniture but was soon superseded by plastics as mass-production took hold of the industry.

Modernists derived their designs from the idea that form should follow function, and with this, threw out most ideas of ornamentation, opting instead for plainer designs where shape and functionality were key. As a result, many of the designs from this period by the likes of Arne Jacobsen and other designers of Danish modern furniture have become ubiquitous or instantly recognisable such as his ‘Egg’ or ‘Swan’ chairs.


Post-Modernism differs from previous design movements in its diversity. Post-Modernist pieces may, stylistically, have very little in common but are connected by their intentional rejection of previous ideas such as the functionalism of the Modernist style. They are by nature new, avant-garde and often deliberately shocking or ironic. American architect Robert Venturi, perhaps the first Post-Modernist furniture designer, used distortion, ambiguity and ironic historical references in his designs.

Fundamentally artistic and expressive, Post-Modernist design places style ahead of function. The Studio Alchimia, formed in Milan in 1976, attempted to create furniture with an emotional relationship, instead of a functional one. This sometimes rendered pieces completely impractical. Possibly the most famous Post-Modernist group, also located in Milan, was Memphis which, despite its links with Alchimia, created very different pieces featuring bright colours and inexpensive materials. Ultimately, as with many Post-Modern fashions, Memphis lasted only a short time and quickly became seen as dated.

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