When given a large enough budget from their clients, Mies and Gropius’ efforts at Starting from Zero could produce some beautiful results. The 1919 building that Gropius designed in Dessau for the Bauhaus was an early landmark of modern architecture. And just check out the block of Park Avenue that contains the 1952 Lever House building, inspired by Mies, and 1958’s Seagram Building, designed by Mies with an assist from Philip Johnson, who had all sorts of socialist-themed “Starting From Zero” moments of his own in the 1930s.
Diapers Gone High
But by the mid to late 1960s, it was becoming increasingly obvious in the modern architectural world that the freedom promised by “starting from zero” has been replaced by design theories that had become as equally stratified in their own right as the Beaux-Arts was before the great Bauhaus cleanup.
For those who didn’t worship at the temple of Mies, this rigid uniformity could at times seem comical. As Tom Wolfe wrote in a later chapter of From Bauhaus to Our House:
Every young architect’s apartment, and every architect’s student’s room was that [International Style glass box] and that shrine. And in that shrine was always the same icon. I can still see it. The living room would be a mean little space on the backside of walkup tenement. The couch would be a mattress on top of a flush door supported by bricks and covered with a piece of monk’s cloth. There would be more monk’s cloth used as curtains and on the floor would be a sisal rug that left corduroy ribs on the bottoms of your feet in the morning. The place would be lit by clamp-on heat lamps with half-globe aluminum reflectors and ordinary bulbs replacing the heat bulbs. At one end of the rug, there it would be . . . the Barcelona chair. Mies had designed it for his German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929. The Platonic idea of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century. The Barcelona chair commanded the staggering price of $550, however, and that was wholesale. When you saw that holy object on the sisal rug, you knew that you were in a household where a fledgling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand. It got to the point where, if I saw a Barcelona chair, no matter where, I immediately — in the classic stimulus-response bond — smelled diapers gone high.
Which isn’t to say that’s entirely a bad thing. The Barcelona chair is beautiful; I don’t own one (or two), but I do own plenty of Mies’s other furniture — in my past, I was as susceptible to the Great Cleanup as anyone, and in a way, I still am. (Two guesses as to what the font on the cover of the annual Christmas catalog put out by the design store of the Museum of Modern Art has been since at least the late 1980s.)
The Great Cleanup Goes Two-Dimensional
With architecture settling on the Miesian glass box by the early 1950s, the Great Cleanup began extending to two-dimensional designs as well. While the Bauhaus experimented with typography in the 1920s, most of its fonts seemed a bit too avant-garde for everyday use.
The real breakthrough occurred in 1957, when Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann invented a font called “Helvetica.” Originally called “Neue Haas Grotesk,” the name was simplified and de-Grotesked, with an eye towards the American market.