Modernism, Modernisation and Modernity in Australia, 1919 –1939

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Modernism, Modernisation and Modernity in Australia, 1919 –1939 Lighting the Way: New technologies, new materials, new cities. Modernism transformed life in Australia across five tumultuous decades from 1917 to 1967 , it spans all aspect of Australian culture including art, design, architecture, advertising, film, photography and fashion. The process of modernisation has had a profound affect, changing our perspectives and the course of our everyday living.

Change is inevitable, man-made environments are changing all the time, people are getting higher, living in apartments and skyscrapers, human subconscious perspective is changing the world. Towards the end of the 19th century, newly creative forces were emerging, which looked forward and sought after innovation and originality in design. Seemingly endless reworkings of decorative design was overused and unambiguously discarded as fresh ideas along with new technologies and materials began to saturate into the beginning of the 20th century.

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The developed western world was seeing a new age and the birth of modernism . The term modernism and its meaning has formed much debate but it widely regarded as a shared aesthetic or ideological manifesto. As an interpretive concept, it may be applied to art, music or cultural and scientific expressions, not just design . Characteristics tend to be anti-ornamental, anti-historicism, simplistic, that form should be derived from function and use new technologies and/or materials.

Modernity marks the move from feudalism and the move towards capitalism and industrialisation. Classic Modernity started in Paris, it was a machine driven society, mass production was everywhere and when the Eiffel tower was built in 1889 to mark the 100th anniversary of the French revolution, it was a true embodiment that symbolised change and the beginning of an era. It was one of the first structures to use steel; its grand height allowed people a new perspective.

Society went from being nature based to man-made, coal powered steam engines allowed transport and production factories, which allowed substantial growth for Paris, which had many departments stores and is renowned as the fashion capital of the world4. Laszlo Maholy-Nagy states, “ The forces of modernity instigated a shift, almost imperceptibly towards colourlessness, to match the grey of the big city, of the newspapers, of the photographs. Perpetual hurry, fast movement, cause all colours to melt into grey” 5

During the 1920’s and 30’s, Australia was experiencing the impact of modern technologies and idea’s from Europe and America. The emergence of the modern movement was the most significant architectural development during the inter-war period, “Styles of this period included Art-Deco, Moderne, Functionalist, Spanish Mission, Chicagoesque, Commercial Palazzo and the Classical and Georgian Revivals”6. Buildings were being constructed to heights that Australian people had never seen before.

The inter-war Art Deco style also celebrated the exciting, dynamic aspects of the machine age, but in a more toned down, easy to approach way that appealed to a larger group of people on an emotional level, with the use of graphic decorative elements and modern, eye-catching materials. So while not strictly a style of modernism, there are similarities in influence that make this a style worth including as it fuses modern technology and trends and the representation of dynamic progress.

Melbourne and Sydney embraced the style as the inter-war Art Deco style came to be favoured for two distinctively twentieth century building types: the cinema and the skyscraper. In Australia, the style was also frequently used in commercial and residential interiors and shopfronts. “Modernism, modernity and modernisation would rarely coincide as complementary phenomena in the development of the city (Melbourne and Sydney) before WW2”. Stephen, Goad and Mcnamara (2008)

The early industrialisation of the late 19th century led to an expansion into the outer suburbs of the main coastal settlements, creating thousands of new jobs for boilermakers, engineers, iron founders and brickmakers. The decline in goldfields activity earlier in the century, which caused to an immigration boom, had now left many English immigrants unemployed. At the end of the century, despite rapid industrialisation the manufacturing sector was still dominated by many smaller factories.

The older trades in small workshops, such as saddlemaking, coachbuilding and dressmaking still outnumbered the new engineering trades; however growing tram and railways industries would soon change that. By 1929, 440,000 people were employed in Australian manufacturing. The previously dominant clothing and textiles industry had steadily declined in employment, while the metals and machinery industry emerged as a major contributor to both employment and production. In particular, the new motor vehicle industry of the 1920s strengthened this sector.

With Holden already well established, Ford soon followed with a large motor body assembly plant in Geelong, in response to the exponential growth in demand for motor cars. Melbourne and Sydney embraced the fact that the world was getting more technologically advanced, that new styles and movements were emerging and that experimentation was everywhere. Australia was not in a time lapse during this movement and followed closely behind American and Europe with use of technologies and trends.

Australia being very rich in its minerals, allowed easy access to develop modern materials such as polymers and plastics, rubber, plywood, aluminium, steel, glass and reinforced concrete. Australia’s city skylines began to grow to new heights, transforming cities like Melbourne into Metropolis powerhouse’s, buildings were being constructed with steel frames, elevators and escalators allowed easier travelling between floors. New tram and railway systems were being put in place and cities were moving faster than ever.

The Commercial Palazzo was the most common building type, combining Italian villa’s, Paris and the height limit of Chicago, its prominent features are its general shape and design, slim and neat vertical windows and smoothly finished stone work facade. Buildings such as the Capitol House and Theatre feature truly magnificent architecture, taking on a modern chicagoesque design. Known for its spectacular ceiling, which is based on organic design principals of natural orders and are composed in a way, which is both vocative and modern, thousands of lamps with varying colour hues are hidden amongst the plaster panels, creating a crystalline cave affect. It should also be noted for a number of pioneering concepts such as early use of reinforced concrete and stained glass details. City road’s were taking on more and more punishment from increased traffic, and so binding of local gravels with tar and bitumen, produced asphalt, which was introduced the 1920s to provide a durable, less dusty surfacing suitable for motorist’s.

Transportation in Australia was changing. Moving forward is a key element in the modern movement, from carriages drawn by horses, to the beautifully designed and crafted model T by Ford, cars were quickly revolutionising the way people were living. Henry Ford’s factories could produce thousands of cars every day and was the first to introduce mechanical machines and moving assembly lines to speed up production. “In 1921 there were approximately 99,270 motor vehicles and 37,580 motor cycles registered.

The size of the fleet increased steadily to reach 562,271 motorcars, 258,025 commercial vehicles and 79,237 motorcycles in 1939”. An updated railway system was required and so the entire network became electric between 1918 and 1923; the conversion of cable trams to electric trams commenced in 1925 and concluded in the late 30s, they were reaching speeds of up to 30km/h. The 1920’s and 30’s were import decades for aviation, early planes were made from wood and canvas, but by the mid 20’s experimental streamlined alloy called duralumin was used for the ‘skin’ of aircrafts.

In 1921, Australia already had its first Airline, Qantas. These new flying machines could fly across the country or the world in a fraction of the time. What used to be a trip on the rough seas turned into a pleasant flight above the clouds, something that was new to everyone and gave everyone a new perspective on the world. The Australian populace was coming to grips with the new modern world, and what it was made from.

New materials were seen as innovative wonders that bought more consumer goods within the reach of greater numbers of people. Industries invested in ways to mass-produce objects cheaper and more efficiently. Steel, chrome plating and plastics were in high demand for use in architecture and homeware. Mass marketing modernism became apparent and inevitable during the 1930’s, it is stylistic, tasteful, modern and new, free from the past and so everyone wants a piece.

My examples express the doctrine of modern design and its mass marketing potential, the examples are different from tradition and so by human mentality, if it’s different it will catch peoples attention, it engages them and their curious nature and I think that’s why modernism is such a formidable force. Perhaps the most iconic chairs of the modern movement is the Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe, a Bauhaus-era classic that is one of the first designs to a tubular steel frame.

Today it is hard to imagine that the now-ubiquitous tubular-steel style of furniture was once at the fore-front of modern design. In the mid 1920s tubular steel furniture had developed from purely utilitarian use in hospitals and transport to the domestic environment. Aalvar Alto’s Paimio Chair (made from plywood however) was originally used in the patients’ lounge for his hospital, and the angle of the back of the Paimio armchair was designed to ease the breathing of the patients, encouraging them to lie back instead of having to sit upright.

Today the Paimio Chair has inspired countless chair designs across the world. A designer’s role is to convert new technologies and materials into meaningful objects and experiences, often re-designing objects. The streamline design which came about in the late 20’s became a very popular design, used in architecture and transforming many products and in particular machines, such as cars, trains ect. Raymond Loewy is credited with originating the style.

His words of the concept were “beauty through function and simplification”. Steamline gives an aura of progress and the fascination of speed, and made possible by the new technique of body pressing metals, creating smooth contours and new shapes. Prominent Australian modernist designers tried to develop a style to cater to the Australian people, Fred Ward led the charge so to speak, setting up a store in Collins street, Melbourne, which sold furniture, glassware, fabrics.

He produced a wide range of units and favoured using Australian timbers for his furniture pieces quite passionately; leaving them unstained became a notable trait of his works and straying away from European trends. Margaret Preston was an Australian painter and printmaker who was also a leading example of early Australian modernism; her works included aboriginal styles and symbols. In the 1920s she campaigned for Aboriginal art to be considered as a form of Australian modernism and that the boomerang, with its geometric symmetry, is particularly suited to modern design.

Her works often infused modern western structures with aboriginal artistry. Modernism has shaped the 20th century and forever changed the course of humanity, the movement has influenced nearly all of life as we know it in the western world. Thanks to people who dared to be different and experiment in times when all people knew was to follow the norm, their pioneering brilliance radically shifted humanities development. No other century before that had mankind made so many advances with technologies and materials and how we live our lives.

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Modernism, Modernisation and Modernity in Australia, 1919 –1939. (2016, Sep 18). Retrieved from

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