I have, most mornings, been keeping track of two construction sites. The Brunswick Centre in WC1 is being refurbished. It opened in 1972 and is the closest thing you will get outside a picture book to one of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Città Nuova projects of 1914. Two of those drawings are to be seen in Modernism at the V&A until 23 July. A couple of hundred yards up the street scaffolding is coming down on the other site: a new block of flats for the Salvation Army Housing Association, done in red brick with stone dressings in a style which matches that of the Edwardian blocks it abuts.

The Salvation Army is not by nature architecturally conservative – quite the contrary. Sheppard Robson’s design for their new headquarters, which you pass as you walk from St Paul’s to Tate Modern via the Millennium Bridge, is a technically advanced and much praised exercise in glass and concrete. But it’s clear that to choose between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, which once put you on one side or the other in a wider debate, is now a matter of taste and manners, not principle. Modernism in architecture and the applied arts had its origins in ideas which were as much about how people would live in a progressive future as about how things should look. It is now a label for a style choice.

In Modernism’s early debates, designers assumed responsibilities which rebounded on them. Ideas (simplicity of form, rejection of decoration and so on) were advanced in contexts that elided the distinction between looking good and being good. The claim was that new buildings would make for better people. Without this link between Modernism and society, the eventual dominance in the boardrooms where architectural patronage is exercised of ways of building that have their roots in Modernist work would have seemed as complete, and on the whole benign, as that of any major style of the past. As it was, Modernism got to be associated with bad things – high-rise public housing, for example – that had little to do with design, good or bad.

But what is, what was, Modernism anyway? The years covered by the V&A exhibition, 1914 to 1939, look back beyond our postmodern present to Modernism’s infancy and early maturity. The range of material on show is formidable: film, graphics, textiles, machines, household goods, paintings, sculpture, clothes, houses, an X-ray machine, an aircraft engine, ball-bearings, toys, dance and gymnastics. It’s odd, given such variety, that it should be so easy to see why the label is applied. Any definition is cumbrous, but describe furniture, art, architecture, dance or music as ‘Modernist’ and most people will have a pretty fair notion of what you mean.

Modernist architecture stripped façades of their ornament. Modernist art theory cut through the historical fabric of painting, even ‘modern’ painting – Cubism, say – with equal ferocity. The way paintings look in the V&A exhibition (there are works by Léger, Le Corbusier, Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky), in photographs of interiors, and in the Albers and Moholy-Nagy show at Tate Modern (until 4 June) implies that for Modernists pictures were on a par with rugs, tables and chairs. It would have demeaned an abstract painter in New York in the 1950s to suggest that his (or her) work was just part of a design ensemble. But for Modernists like Le Corbusier, painting had no special status: Ozenfant and he promoted a style – Purism – which exemplified his belief that all art and design should draw on the same ancient principles of proportion and the same geometries.

The same aesthetic unification of all visual enterprises was implied by the teaching programme at the Bauhaus. The work of Albers and Moholy-Nagy in the exhibition at Tate Modern includes furniture, photography and graphics as well as painting. They both taught at the Bauhaus and both ended up in the US. In Moholy-Nagy’s late work the craft base of early Bauhaus work has disappeared; he became a commercial designer happy to turn an aesthetic developed in various quasi-scientific experiments with light, movement, form and colour to the purposes of the marketplace. Albers’s Homage to the Square paintings, which are refined minimalist stimulants to reflection, can also be seen as part of a lifelong study of colour perception.

These exhibitions make it clear that the look of much of what is around us now was, to a remarkable degree, either prefigured or fully realised by Modernist designers between the wars. The rectangular shape and gleaming metal of the smallest digital cameras is very close to that of the 9cm by 9cm box of the Compass camera of 1937. Light fittings designed by Bauhaus graduates could be slipped unnoticed among those on sale at Ikea. We may not turn on mass displays of gymnastics like those Rodchenko photographed, but health clubs and gyms proliferate. The fitted kitchen designed by Grete Lihotzky in 1926 for a Frankfurt housing project – it’s at the V&A – is, in its essentials, the same item that every new home must have. Metal and bent-ply designs from before 1939 explored the possibility of new relationships between the body and the chair so fully that every innovation in seating since has tended to look like a variation on known themes.

The early Modernists didn’t make perfect guesses about what the future would be like, but they played a large part in determining how it would look. They understood the implications of new technologies for the appearance of manufactured goods and industrially manufactured buildings. Because the look they established for such things is so familiar, because they still feel ‘modern’, you can be taken aback by the way the originals of everyday things have aged. Time adds a glow to old walnut and elegance to faded tapestries, but the discoloured plywood of a Breuer chair or the chipped paint of an Aalto, the yellowed paper of a Le Corbusier drawing or photographic prints which have begun to fade, have the poignancy of wounded veterans at a memorial parade. (Some objects are luckier in their materials: Hermann Gretsch’s white porcelain tableware, for example, or the Tatra T87 saloon car are showroom-fresh.)

Modernism was an expression of faith in the human race’s ability to improve both itself and its surroundings. If you brought back a team of early Modernists and wanted to lift their spirits you could let them glance through the floor-to-ceiling windows into the lobby of any new office block – maybe Mies van der Rohe chairs would set the tone – or show them the domestic appliances in the basement of any department store: the victory of functional design would be there to see. You would, however, do well to keep interior design magazines and estate agents’ brochures out of their hands.

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