maria a. day

"The Ideal Home Rumpus": Disputing Modernist Design in 1913

In 1913 two groups of English artists parted company because they disagreed in their approaches to modern design. The dispute was significant enough to be given a name, "The Ideal Home Rumpus." One group in the dispute was the Omega Workshops, a London design studio established in 1913 by painter and art theorist Roger Fry. Fry managed the workshops along with his chosen co-directors: painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. The purpose of the Workshops was to offer financial support to participants' fine art careers, while permitting artists the freedom to experiment with techniques of modernist art. This studio, existing from 1913 to 1919, was an egalitarian commercial enterprise, encouraging both women and men to join. The Omega produced hand-painted, uniquely-designed furniture, ceramics, textiles, clothing, and interior design ensembles for middle- and upper-class clientele. Artists did not sign their works, but rather marked them with an Omega symbol: . This anonymity encouraged experimentation and discouraged consumers from focusing on a personal style. The Omega artists dedicated themselves to creating art for domestic spaces. They encouraged patrons to place their paintings and sculptures side-by-side with Omega decorative furnishings and textiles in the home.

Just as the Omega was preparing for their debut at a national interior design exhibition, four artists left the studio to form a separate group. Calling themselves the Vorticists, these artists believed that the machine defined modern life and that interior design should show technology's impact on our culture. Painter and provocateur Wyndham Lewis was the Vorticists's leader. Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth departed the Omega Workshops with him. During 1914, the Vorticists set up a rival studio to the Omega called the Rebel Arts Centre. The Vorticists and Omega artists held opposing views of modernism and disagreed on the importance of the decorative, a term that the Vorticists despised. I will use their formal dispute, "The Ideal Home Rumpus," as a case study to reveal how our current use of the term "modern design" was in flux from the end of the nineteenth century through the 1910s. In fact, artists disputed the meaning of modern design in both England and Europe during this period. Several current meanings of the terms design and decoration can be traced to this period. For example, when modernist design is discussed today, one might immediately think of works by the Bauhaus School in Germany or by Russian Constructivists. Designers in these movements espoused a machine-oriented, functional aesthetic and specialized in prototypes for industrial purposes. This construction of modernism conceals the existence of alternatives. It also suggests that "modern design" rose to prominence in the early twentieth century unchallenged. However, many artists were in competition for patrons and public recognition at this time. Artists challenged each other for the right to define modernism and to shape the significance of design or decoration for their audiences. I define modernism broadly in this essay, while I consider the ways in which modernism is an artist's self-conscious blending of art with contemporary life.

I will first outline the two sides to an international debate over modernist design. I will introduce proponents of the decorative and design who formed the two sides of this debate. Then I will return to the debate between the Vorticists and Omega Workshops in England at the London Ideal Home Exhibition in 1913. My approach to this topic has been influenced by Peter Wollen, who argues that the significant role decoration played in the development of modernism has been obscured through language that creates a series of binary cultural opposites: "function/decorative, useful/wasteful, natural/artificial, . . . machine/body, masculine/feminine, west/east." Dissolving these cultural and gendered hierarchies within the early twentieth-century design community permits an expanded understanding of modernism. Many artists on both sides of this debate contributed to the development of modern design. Yet, some artists whose works have been labeled merely "decorative" have been marginalized or overlooked in design histories. The following examples will make clear that the terms decoration and design could have different meanings in this period depending upon the aesthetic preferences of the speaker.

Several modernist groups such as the Symbolists and Fauves in France constructed the decorative in positive ways, choosing to define the "decorative" as the creation of pattern upon the flat surface of the canvas. Henri Matisse, for example, painted Harmony in Red of 1908-9, merging wall patterns with objects in the room. Matisse explained in his 1908 essay "Notes of a Painter" that "composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings." Designers and architects in Europe who supported this positive view of decoration included artists of the Vienna Workshops (Wiener Werkstätte) and Art Nouveau. Belgian designer Victor Horta felt that decoration enhanced architecture by helping the viewers' eyes to notice features and contours in a space or building. Elegant curves and twisting railings at right in the entrance hall for the Hotel van Eetvelde, in Brussels (1895) are typical of Horta's Art Nouveau designs.

There were also modernist artists, designers, and architects who held a negative view of decoration during the same period in the early twentieth-century. They criticized decoration for adding complication, unnecessary fussiness, and distraction to interior spaces. They argued instead that a designer should create simple, rational, and easily machine-made designs. They argued that designers would have a better chance to compete on world markets if they did not waste time producing delicately hand-crafted objects or surfaces. Debates over design and decoration were heated during the period prior to World War I, when nationalism was at a peak.

Austrian architect Adolf Loos was one of the foremost critics among these rationalist moderns. He was outspoken against Vienna Workshops and Art Nouveau designers. In the same year that Matisse explained the importance of the decorative surface to painting, Loos wrote an essay entitled "Ornament and Crime." In it, he labeled the decorative arts as "degenerate" and "unmodern," accusing decorators of stalling the progress toward modernity. Loos also viewed artistic creation as sexual fetish. Lines, he said, were "smeared on the wall" by prehistoric artists to relieve themselves of sexual urges. Further, Loos explained that "the man of our day who, in response to inner urge, smears the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or a degenerate."

The imagery in Loos' essay casts decoration as both primitive and potentially subversive to modern culture. Loos categorized works produced by decorative artists, including textile works by peasants, Africans, and Persians, as inferior to those "designed" through the use of industrial technologies. These ideas were an extension of his earlier thesis that "the lower the cultural level of a people, the more extravagant it is with its ornament, its decoration." Additionally, these comments came at a time when male designers faced increasing competition from women entering the design profession. Further, European woman grew increasingly independent and more powerful in society with the rise of the suffragette movements. Loos proclaimed his sexist and nationalist views of modernist design as the norm, while positioning the decorative as "other." He identified decoration and ornament as potential threats to the future of modernism and masculinity.

Artists' debates over decoration and design in England during the same period reveal similar issues to their continental counterparts. The Omega Workshops supported hand-painted decoration such as the painted wall surfaces shown in an interior sketch by Nina Hamnett. The Vorticists' designs, on the other hand, increasingly focused on abstract linear patterns inspired by the machine such as the frieze and mantel in the dining room of Lady Drogheda at 40 Wilton Crescent, London. The Vorticist critique of decoration employed similar language to Loos and other advocates of rational design.

The "Ideal Home Rumpus," erupted in the autumn of 1913 over the commission for this delightfully innocent, so-called "Post-Impressionist" sitting room. The Post-Impressionist Room is an installation for an exhibition, not an actual home interior. The Omega Workshops were commissioned as a whole to design the room. Wyndham Lewis and several supporters argued that the commission belonged to them. From this point in time forward, Lewis was an outspoken critic of the Omega Workshops. The debate arose because these groups competed for the right to receive critical endorsement for their particular brand of modernism at the Ideal Home Exhibition's annual venue.

The 1913 Ideal Home Exhibition was sponsored by the Daily Mail newspaper, a journal still existent today. The Daily Mail 's Special Publicity Department began holding annual Ideal Home Exhibitions in 1908. The first exhibition advertised that the ensembles would "conduse to the comfort, convenience, entertainment, health and well being of home life." The newspaper continues to stage these exhibitions in Kensington in the 1990s, and has been influential in shaping the British public's taste in home interior design throughout the twentieth century. According to historian Deborah S. Ryan, the exhibitions serve a "quasi-educational" purpose, to inform consumers about the most current household appliances and the latest fashions. The displays also contain large-scale, furnished interior ensembles by well-known commercial designers and department stores.

Ryan argues that the Daily Mail commissioned the Omega Workshops for their October 1913 exhibition in a calculated move to cash in upon "shock-value" of the previous year's second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, organized by Fry. The inclusion of an "Art Furniture" section at the Ideal Home Exhibition allowed the Daily Mail to generate sensation with modernist designs that seemed radically informal compared to more traditional views of domestic respectability. The modern designs were also abstract and simple in contrast to typical Victorian ornate furnishings. The Omega had just opened its doors in the Bloomsbury District in July 1913. The Ideal Home Exhibition of that autumn, then, gave them the opportunity to promote their vibrantly-colored decor and abstract designs to a wide sector of the British public.

It was this opportunity for large-scale publicity, however, that became a divisive moment for the Workshops. The dispute between Omega and Vorticist artists centered around the strong personalities of Roger Fry and Wyndham Lewis. Each thought the Daily Mail newspaper had contracted him to design a Post-Impressionist room for the exhibition. Several scholars have since established that neither artist was present when their colleague Spencer Gore came to the Omega to arrange a meeting with the Daily Mail's agent. When it became clear that Fry had taken charge of the design and installation of this interior, Lewis circulated a letter among Omega stockholders and published it the newspapers. In the letter, Lewis denounced Fry's usurpation of the commission and the Omega Workshops' aesthetic in general:

As to [the Omega's] tendencies in Art, they alone would be sufficient to make it very difficult for any vigorous art-instinct to long remain under that roof. The Idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck, and its skin is 'greenery-yallery,' despite the Post-What-Not-fashionableness of its draperies.

Lewis' letter received the backing and signatures of Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Edward Wadsworth, who departed the Omega with him to prove their aesthetic point. Importantly, Lewis explained that this new group, the Vorticists, were prepared to do "the rough masculine work" of modern art, something he claimed was impossible for "this family party of strayed and Dissenting Aesthetes," as he called the Omega.

Notice that explicit, gendered language underlies Lewis' biting sarcasm and obvious frustration in losing a potentially lucrative commission. He categorizes the Omega's aesthetic as "prettiness," relates its members to decadent Aesthetes of the previous generation like Oscar Wilde, and contrasts himself and his followers as "vigorous," "rough," "masculine," and modern artists. When Lewis decried the Omega Workshops' profusion of ornament, his language contained gendered definitions of the decorative. His language recalls Adolf Loos' criticisms of Vienna Workshops and Art Nouveau designs.

Fry, who was in France when Lewis' letter circulated, remained unprovoked by the internal revolt, despite the urging of some colleagues to charge libel. Fry's biographer, Virginia Woolf, surmised a reason for the calmness of his response: "No legal verdict," she wrote, ". . . would clear his character or vindicate the Omega. Publishing correspondence would only advertise the gentlemen, who, he sometimes suspected, rather enjoyed advertisement." Vanessa Bell, in Fry's absence, appealed to Special Publicity Department Director, Frederick Bussy. Bussy reported that his agent had spoken with Fry and had commissioned him and by extension the Omega Workshops as a whole, and not specific artists in the studio.

It is important to view this dispute at a level beyond that of Lewis' personal attack on Fry's aesthetic vision. As I have demonstrated, Lewis' criticisms must be viewed the larger European debates over the definition of modern design. In order to bolster the Vorticists' position in the modern art world, Lewis characterized their machine-inspired aesthetic as modern and masculine, while simultaneously implying that the Omega artists' aesthetic was both old-fashioned and feminine. A glance through today's surveys of modern art will confirm that Lewis' argument was largely successful. Although both the Vorticists and the Omega Workshops produced hand-painted decorative objects and interior schemes after 1913, Lewis' group achieved a place in modernism beside the Italian Futurists, while the Omega Workshops artists have been overlooked. The Omega's works are indeed very distinct from the modernist values espoused by the Vorticists, however, their domestic interiors reflect an aesthetic that resembling works of some well-establish modernists. These English artists were not the only modernists whose work features the home as both a subject and intended setting. In France, the Fauves regularly included domestic settings within paintings. Just one year prior to the Post-Impressionist Room in London, artists and designers including Jean Metzinger, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Marie Laurencin collaborated to install a Maison Cubiste at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. Like these French artists, Fry decided that a collaborative effort among Omega artists to create interior decorations would simultaneously encourage a "modern" visual language in design and art.

The Omega Workshops' showrooms were arranged to attract the art-buying public's eyes to Post-Impressionism. One way in which the studio represented the artists' embrace of modernism, however, was in the overt abstraction of the human figure seen clearly in a screen painted by Vanessa Bell called Bathers in a Landscape. Additionally, Omega artists self-consciously evoked the "other" by appropriating from African or Oceanic traditions, engaging in primitivist modernism and the decorative in a manner similar to Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, whom they admired. Using patterns favored in France by both the Post-Impressionists and Cubists infuriated Wyndham Lewis. He found works by Synthetic Cubists by Picasso and Georges Braque to be "the opposite pole" to his notions of modernism He criticized the Cubist works for their obsession with flat spatial arrangements. Such concern for the potential superficiality of surface continued well into the twentieth century. In the 1950s, critic Clement Greenberg asserted that "decoration is the spectre that haunts modernist painting, and part of the latter's formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself." These debates have altered the way we now distinguish between the terms "design" and "decoration" and the choices of which groups to include in design histories.

How then, can we begin to interpret the charges of "prettiness" and feminine decorative effect leveled by Lewis and the other Vorticists during the "Ideal Home Rumpus"? The Vorticists believed that the definition of modernism itself was at stake. Lewis defined modernism as a nationalist enterprise practiced by English, civilized artist-heroes, the Vorticists. He deemed it the Voriticist's mission to rescue English modernism from artists whose behavior and values represented traditions in British art he wished to eradicate. Particularly, he prescribed that English artists should not be heavily influenced by international trends and should avoid sentimental subjects and decorative still lifes. Clearly, Lewis' Vorticist values rejected art's universal potential for communication as espoused by Omega theorists Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Equally, Omega artists' self-identities opposed the Vorticist hero-artist, since many were gay men and professional women artists. As the division between the Omega and Vorticists widened, the latter increasingly allied themselves to the machine while the Omega remained focused on hand-painted decoration. Like the Italian Futurists, the Vorticists not only painted in machine-inspired abstraction, but also chose subjects that reflected masculine pursuits such as machinery, war and sports. Lewis celebrated the triumph of the machine in modern life as the most significant achievement of England and the resulting industrial culture as natural to contemporary life.

Despite the canonical prescriptions that the machine and technology dominated modern design, I would argue that Omega's designs are no less modern than works by the Vorticists. Beginning at one of its first public venues of expression, the Post-Impressionist Room, the Omega Workshops artists committed themselves to modernism. The abstract movements of the dancers in the mural and dynamic textile patterns departed from western traditions and evoked contemporary life. They also hand-painted their objects so that the artist's gesture is visible in the work. Finally, like other European modernists, they appropriated sources from outside western culture such as non-western textiles. The Post-Impressionist Room represents an alternative statement of modernism, one that threatened the values of other artists enough for them to denounce it publicly. In order to legitimize a machine-oriented rational aesthetic and to protect design as a civilized, manly profession, the Vorticists constructed an artificial opposition between design and the decorative.


to the editor