If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing with my time: I have a full-time job and I’m transposing Dead City into past-tense. So I’m busy. And bored.
If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing with my time: I have a full-time job and I’m transposing Dead City into past-tense. So I’m busy. And bored.
"I’m a simple man like that. I don’t make a fuss, I try to respect people, and I try to drink lots of water."
“I don’t want to lose you again,” she said through quiet tears, a slight shivering the only sign that she was weeping. After a few minutes she was breathing softly, her hand clasping his, and he thought that was just fine.
As he walked further into the cave he looked above him at the towering missile, far up to the warhead at the top. It really made up so little of the whole; it was strange that the little bomb needed such a big body to carry it. He related it to the way the human body carries around our little heads, and it was in that moment, struck by epiphany, that he sensed an intelligence from within the vast metal canister. Those shadows, whatever they were, were in some way manifested by this missile, though they were not his observer. Instead it was the missile that had been watching him, not through seeing eyes but some other way, tracking his movements through the bunker from the moment he entered. Here in this bunker was a little world of its own, and the missile was the Authority.
She wasn’t listening, her mind was absorbed in ill-thoughts and old gossip.
With the sunlight washing over it the field became the image of a haiku, green grass waving in summer. On the face of things it was a beautiful place, but its span made it daunting, especially in the colder weather. Many thought it a marvel that this piece of green life had survived so long without development and minimal farming. Stories there were of old gods that protected the grasslands, and here and there you might see totems to these ancient deities, but those stories were older than old and no one believed in fairy-tales about ghosts and ghouls anymore.
Dead City has reached the conclusion of its first (bad) draft and now it is with four people who should be reading through it - though I’ve a sneaking suspicion at least three are not. All I can do is wait. I’m working on The Temptation of Adam, but I don’t want to because Dead City is unfinished.
Rick had loved Joy from the moment he set eyes on her, plain and simple. Never a doubt in his mind, on moment he wasn’t in love and the next he was. It was as if someone had stepped from nowhere and struck him across the face with a frying pan – bang, you’re in love. She didn’t know, of course. Or if she did she didn’t let on.
Once they had met proper – over the stale meals their school served – they had become fast friends, bonding over their general apathy of the whole school “thing”. In Joy’s opinion it was just a group of boys and girls thrown together trying to sleep with each other, Rick would have agreed with anything she thought.
He loved to watch her eat. She had a strange consideration over which order to eat things, and it often formed in her mind in the moment. Her food would move rapidly over her food as she decided what to attack first. Often she would stop and hover over a morsel, as if engaged in an intense contest of chess, only for her hand to reach quickly for something else.
She had little moments like that; idiosyncrasies that no one but Rick picked up on: flicks of the hair, curls of the lips, and identifiers of subtle changes in emotion that only the most attentive can pick up. He logged them all in his mind, careful to differentiate between them, to learn what each meant and what to do with each. Joy never understood how he was so in tune with her emotions, but she was always grateful that he could seemingly tell what she was feeling before she could.
As time went on she became more interested in joining in with that great game, and time and again in his jealousy Rick considered telling her how he felt. But he always refrained, he didn’t know how and it was never the right time. He enjoyed her trust and her friendship too much to compromise it with what he viewed as meaningless feelings. He liked the idea that, once all the boys were gone, he would still be there; the last man on earth.
Instead he just watched as boy after boy strode through her life and ended up leaving her behind. Innocence had turned to darkness as they grew older together, no longer a child her relationships had become more intense, more passionate, and more painful.
She never forgot him, she always made time for her friend Rick. The man that had stayed. Joy made sure to see him at least twice a week. After all, he had pulled her through the procession of heartbreaks with his undying fidelity and his honesty. Sometimes she hated it, but he was always right in the end. He had no ill-designs on her, he wanted the best for her, that was all. His love, in its way, was that pure. He simply longed for a chance to be the best.
As they walked slowly, arm in arm, across the vast field that bordered one half of their town, she told him of the last man to leave her. He was a man, much older than her, as usual she thought she might have loved him. Rick questioned whether she knew what love was, so often had she been in it. She was silent a while after this.
The field was known to stretch for miles in either direction, coating the landscape in a great green swathe like the warmest of winter blankets. They never ventured far, always keeping the town in sight. Today, however, Joy wanted to go as far as they could. Rick guessed she just wanted to put as much distance between her and her latest lover, physically and emotionally, so he just looked ahead, glancing at her now and then to catch glimpse of her hair glittering in the sun.
Someone had told her that there was an old uncovered well far out into the field, next to the borders of the old forest, over the train tracks. “Wouldn’t it be incredible to sit in there for a while, in the black silence?” she had told him as she packed her rucksack.
Joy had always been adventurous.
Years of nothingness had left Rick numb to wanderlust, he just liked to be where things were pleasant and comfortable – often this was his own bed. But he agreed to come along anyway. She would have gone without him, and perhaps she would have preferred it that way, but he was too loyal to let her run off by herself. Besides, things were better with her, everything was brighter, the grass much greener, and the breeze much breezier.
There was this certain way the sun hit her sometimes, as if it were under the command of a portrait artist, that made her look other wordly. Not in a sense of “so beautiful she’s out of this world”, he loved her but he wasn’t a hippie, but rather like she was here with him and somewhere else at the same time. Ethereal is the way a normal person might describe it. She wasn’t a strikingly beautiful girl, her features were instead soft and welcoming. She had wide sweet eyes and a way of tucking her hair behind her ear that was enchanting. But otherwise, she was average: average height, average size, average shoes size, average bra size.
With the sunlight washing over it the field became the image of a haiku, green grass waving in summer.
A sneak peek at a draft of my Henry van de Velde article.
Looking out at the Brussels skyline, there is barely a modern building that doesn’t resonate with the echo of Modernism, grand twenty-plus storied Bauhaus monolithic symphonies of glass and girders. From the Charlemagne building to the Berlayment to the Brussels Events Building, you can see reflected the influence of one man. But you wouldn’t know it. One of the last great polymaths and a man that played a large part in changing the look of the world around us, and a man that can be – and has been – credited as the inventor of Modernism as we know it.
It sounds a bold claim but it’s not without foundation. It would be debated, of course, we each have our own idea of where Modernism came from, and when. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that this one man was responsible for the whole thing. But there is certainty in one thing, he served as a vital cog in the unstoppable machine of pre-Bauhaus Modernism, functioning as a very real stepping stone between Ruskin and Morris’ Arts and Crafts, in which one can see the beginnings of Modernist typographic thinking, and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus; two movements that are often seen as separated by some impassable gulf but are in fact two carriages on the same inexorable train: destination Modernism.
But that gap needs filling, noticeable as it is. So, how does one get from a movement steeped in traditionalism that railed so heftily against the machine to the reactionary clean slate of post-war Bauhaus that tried to wipe away that bitter taste of conventionality? With one looking back and another looking to the future, how are these two schools reconciled? The answer lies in the figure of Henry van de Velde.
Last year saw the 150th anniversary of van de Velde’s birth. To mark this a retrospective was opened in Brussels, welcoming home one of Belgium’s lost sons with an exhibition of his work from its beginnings to final work. It demonstrated his truly impressive range: he was a painter, an architect, a furniture designer; he worked with metal and glass, and as an illustrator. Henry van de Velde dipped toes in many pools, in many countries, and yet most of us scarcely know his name.
In a demonstration of his dedication and his, sometimes startling, energy, after Van Gogh began exhibiting, van de Velde threw himself into adopting the Van Gogh style, to the point that some of his paintings could easily be mistaken for the real thing, others could be mistaken for Seurat. Had he not abandoned painting he could have made an excellent career as a forger.
Yet abandon painting he did in favour of the applied arts, influenced by the utopian ideals set down by William Morris and his band of socialists. Like Morris, van de Velde wanted to make objects that were both beautiful and functional and, like Morris, most were only affordable to the upper class. But in those beginnings it was the ingenuity with which he approached his work that stood out. In the early 1890s he finished a design for a dining table for his first marital home (which he built himself in Brussels) which came complete with its own hotplate.
Such was his work in Belgium, but it was once he moved to Germany that he began to make his name, and it is in Germany that the narrative that concerns us most – that of Morris, van de Velde, and Gropius – begins. Upon his move to Germany in 1900 van de Velde set about creating a new aesthetic, branching out into ceramics and textiles, even leatherwork and wickerwork.
Yet, while he was associated with Art Nouveau he found an inspiration from the machine. Van de Velde recognised a potential in its social value and had a great respect for the idea that the machine, properly used, could bring about a revolution in design. Seeing that, by rejecting the machine, the English Arts and Crafts had produced work that only the rich elite could afford (and in following that accord that he was doing the same) he recognised that the machine was capable of producing work of a high quality that could be affordable for the working man. He said,: “Beauty is the result of clarity and system and not of optical illusion.” – advocating the system, now a cornerstone of Modernism ninety years later.
In 1905 he established the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar with the Grand Duke of Weimar, where students were encouraged to develop a new approach in order to create new forms, rather than relying on traditional solutions. It is here that van de Velde moved away from the traditional Arts and Crafts and began to set the stage for the Bauhaus to appear.
His influence on Bauhaus should not be underestimated, for the debt to van de Velde was huge. First and foremost, it was van de Velde that recommended Gropius to the Grand Duke as his successor at the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts. After all, in the beginning, the Bauhaus was little more than a continuation of the school of van de Velde, trying to keep his ideas alive. More than this, he described his Arts & Crafts school as “a kind of laboratory where every craftsman or industrialist could be given free advice, have his products analysed and improved” – van de Velde had realised an idea of co-operation between artist, craftsman, and industrialists six years before the Werkbund, and a full twenty before the founding of the Bauhaus.
Van de Velde’s ideas were notions that Morris may have dismissed, given his social and artistic hatred of the machine, yet he surely would have found some respect for Bauhaus’ founding ideals, laid down by van de Velde, as a social unification of creators. Morris sought to unite all facets of art and design, and while he may not have factored the machine into these ideals, it might have pleased him that van de Velde still sought to bring together the artist and craftsman, even if they did sit together at a machine-produced table.
Henry van de Velde’s legacy is not simply a litany of influence, though. He was a fine designer in his own right, with a staggering range. His chairs and desks came with sweeping curves that flow like water, often elaborately supported with legs of several struts and curves, his ceramics are infused with swirling patterns as if he dropped ink and let it spin out its own natural texture. In his products, especially his many kettles, there is a significant touch of modernism, but in the handles and the shapes you see the artistic shades of art nouveau: flowering motifs and sumptuous curves . His buildings can range from the strictly modern, such as the Boekentoren in Ghent, all geometry and glass and edges, to the sublimely innovative, like the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands, a glass and brick monument to open space and the outdoors that looks more like a beautiful landscape than a museum. Then there are those buildings that owe more than a little to the influence of William Morris’ Red House, even van de Velde’s own homes were designed with an artistic edge, wood panelling, gables rounding almost impossibly to a point. His energy, his diversity, and his artistic individuality make you giddy.
It’s that individuality that set van de Velde apart as a designer of real functional products that didn’t lose anything in the way of ingenuity or identity. There is a balanced unity between construction and ornamentation in his work, in which structuring form takes precedence over decorative effect. Yet, van de Velde recognised that flair did not have to be sacrificed for the sake of functionality; individuality did not have to be sacrificed to the machine. So he reconciled the two.
Legs and handles were van de Velde’s specialty; his signature. Beyond the functionality, as long as a leg was stable and a handle fundamentally retained its use as a handle, they were fair game for ornamentation. A kettle handle may feature a decorative motif that otherwise does not appear on the rest of the product. On a table you may see an unbroken, flat functional surface un-tampered and yet some decoration in the legs. Neither seems out of place.
Maybe it was that style that was the problem. Once the Bauhaus had adopted the style, albeit without the flair or individuality of van de Velde, his work became lost amidst the sea of anonymity that was Modernism. Only little identifiers, a handle, a leg, the curve of a gable, remained for those who knew where to look.
It was the idea of individuality, however, that would cause the first conflicts in early Modernism, and ultimately cost van de Velde his place in the Deutscher Werkbund. Van de Velde, despite his support for industrialisation, was intent on a commitment to preserve artistic individuality; somewhat echoing Morris’ idea of the satisfied craftsman, in saying that freedom of expression and artistic creativity were paramount in retaining aesthetic quality in manufacture. This view, however, was openly criticised by Muthesius, another Werkbund member heavily influenced by Morris, who supported standardisation instead, feeling artistic individuality would restrain the progress of German industry. This came to a head in an open debate at the 1914 Werkbund Congress. It was a conflict that would reappear many times in the Bauhaus, Morris’ artist clashing with the new industrial worker, and in the end, Muthesius won out.
That was really the end of van de Velde’s active contribution to the Bauhaus, and to the timeline of Modernist development. After the outbreak of the First World War he moved to Switzerland and then took up a teaching post at Ghent University in 1920 – much to the umbrage of Horta, his founding rival of Art Nouveau. Then, in the Thirties he re-emerged, becoming Belgium’s pre-eminent architect, his creative mind remaining undimmed, and permanently made his mark upon the Brussels cityscape.
However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, working in Nazi occupied Brussels, van de Velde was compelled – like many of his countrymen – to help the Germans which led some to brand him as a collaborator. It was a wounding accusation, and after the war he retired to Switzerland once more, before his death in 1957.
Noting van de Velde’s influence, one can see that far from a reaction against the established Arts and Crafts, the Bauhaus was merely a continuation; an evolution on the inexorable march towards Modernism. During his time in Germany van de Velde left a huge mark, as a leading member of the Deutsche Werkbund which directly influenced the Bauhaus, the look and feel of which he played a large hand in creating. It was van de Velde that developed the unique style so adopted and copied by the Bauhaus after him, Gropius owed his very position to the man, and all of us owe him, at the very least, the courtesy of remembering his name. And not just as an important figure, but as a designer and an artist in his own right.
But there is perhaps the rub. Whereas other designers and artists are remembered for their stylistic signatures that are easily recognisable, van de Velde somehow is so influential; his style so replicated that, in a sense, he has become invisible. His functional aesthetic is now part of the modern landscape, and that his sparse designs of the period are so familiar to the eye is a testament to his lasting influence. It is ironic that a man that regarded the individuality of the artist so highly, is so little known.
And perhaps there needs to be a reconciliation, a forgiveness for what his alleged sins in the Second World War. For this is a man that has influenced anyone that has come into contact with Graphic Design, and anyone who reveres the Modernist style and implements it has been touched by him in one way or another. Perhaps without him Modernism still would have happened, it may have come later, and it may look a lot different, but it was inexorable. But without van de Velde this Modernist would look very very different.