Friday, 15 October 2010

Henry van de Velde and the Role of the Designer

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

When the Belgian artist, architect and designer Henry van de Velde designed these carpet samples in 1901, he along with many others across Europe were enveloped in a movement that was to see decoration, ornamentation and pattern work in general, take unprecedented steps towards a rational and practical display that was to entail much of the future century. Many differences of opinion were voiced as to how the twentieth century would develop and what role the designer and industry would play in those years. The nineteenth century design philosophers from William Morris to John Ruskin still held enormous sway over many attitudes, and in some respects foresight was just as muddled then as is that of our own interpretation and argument over the coming century.

Many see van de Velde as being, in some respects at least, a second generation William Morris, continuing ideas that touched on a number of aspects dealing with the artistic and creative importance of the designer and the role that design and decoration could play in the lives of every individual. However, where van de Velde and Morris parted company was in the role that industry should play in the creative process.

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

Morris was by no means as anti-machine as some would believe. He tended to see machinery as having a useful but limited, or perhaps more accurately an imposed limitation, within the creative process producing small mindless tasks on the periphery of the creative process. There was little if any room in Morris well thought out though increasingly intransigent plan for the future of the decorative arts, for the large scale standardisation of the product. Van de Velde on the other hand, saw machinery as an integrated and vital element in the production of well designed work that should be available to all, though within limits that he was to set himself, just as Morris had done before him.

With this in mind the seven carpet examples shown in this article give some indication as to van de Velde's ideas as regards both the rationalisation of decoration and design and the role that the machine would take in that rationalisation. By the standards of the day, van de Velde's design work is simple yet effective. Gone are the complex carpet details of the nineteenth century where examples were often multi-layered and multi-toned. These examples have been de-constructed to such a level that the machine could both take on the mass-production of the carpet samples, but perhaps more importantly it could do so at a much reduced cost to the public due to the limitation of processes because of the simplification of both the pattern and the colour themes. Even if these examples were never to see an industrial process, but were to be entirely hand crafted, the point is made that the number of complexities have been limited in order to make them machine-freindly. This is an important point to remember when thinking of twentieth century rationalisation and simplification of products. Although by no means the only reason, the factoring in of the machine process is a vital one.

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

Van de Velde saw the integration of the machine and the simplification and rationalisation of the design work as a winning combination, producing a practical solution that would bring good design to the many rather than the few. However, van de Velde always held that the central partnership of machine and human should fully involve the creative human element as this was the connection between the human being as designer and the human being as customer. It was to give the decorative arts a largely human element that was seen as a vital ingredient. By making the machine master over all, it diminished that human connection and therefore limited the interaction between the decorative arts and the general public.

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

However, it should be noted that van de Velde was also seen by others as a reactionary, just as much as he was seen by some as an unacceptable revolutionary. Some wanted to go much further than van de Velde's seeming compromise of the integration of the machine with that of the human creative process. This particular ambition was to submerge the role of the designer altogether so that machine production would be highlighted at the expense of the designer, who would remain nameless and in some respects disconnected from the customer. The human element would become a small part of a standard model. This standardisation would inevitably dismiss the creative process as just another element of the machine.

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

Interestingly van de Velde saw this as a step too far and had regularly public and increasingly vociferous arguments concerning both the role and place of the designer in the creative process. He saw the designer as an artist and therefore as an individual. In this respect van de Velde truly did share at least some aspects of the philosophy of Morris. Both saw the human element within design and decoration as being vital to the maintenance of an identifiable discipline. By downgrading and limiting the influence of human creativity the two men, though both living in different eras, saw the potential dehumanisation resulting from an overdependence on the machine and its processes.

Illustration: Henry van de Velde. Carpet design, 1901.

Although a generalised statement, there is some truth in the fact that design and decoration has become increasingly remote. On some levels at least a gulf has developed between human interaction and finished product leading to a situation in our own contemporary world where computer aided design, while seeming novel and engaging when first developed, has now reached the stage of seeming both staid and uneventful.

There is a fine balance between the human aspect in design and that of the machine. Where the parameters are placed within the process in debateable. However, at the end of the day it should be remembered that products are made for individual humans so perhaps that human element should at least appear to be somewhat larger than it has been. Standardisation may well make life and profits easier for those involved in industry, but it makes the resulting products lifeless and in the respect of the individual, worthless.

Reference links:
Henry van de Velde/Interior Design and Decorative Arts: A Catalogue Raisonne in Six Volumes Volume I: Works in Metal
Henry Van De Velde
Henry van de Velde in Weimar, 1902-1917: Kunstfuhrer (VDG Kunstfuhrer) (German Edition)
Henry van de Veldes Villa Esche in Chemnitz: Ein Gesamtkunstwerk zwischen Jugenstil und Sachlichkeit (German Edition)
Henry van de Veldes Arbeiten fur Ernst Wittern in Lubeck (European university studies. Series XXVIII, History of art) (German Edition)
Henry van de Velde in Berlin (Gegenwart Museum) (German Edition)
Historic Print (L): [Theater designed by Henry van de Velde in Cologne, Germany: exterior]
Henry Van De Velde
Das Sanatorium in Trebschen von Henry van de Velde
Henry van de Velde dans les collections de la Bibliotheque royale Albert Ier (French Edition)
Henry Van De Velde (1863-1957) : Schilderijen En Tekeningen / Paintings and Drawings
Henry van de Velde in Weimar

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