Postmodern Design & Style – Out of Control Consumerism

They say that nobody is perfect; then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they would make up their minds*. Perhaps perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away**

Memphis Design - The New International Style 1981

Postmodernism (1970 – 1990) ranged from fashion to folly, from luxurious to ludicrous, from theory to theatre as it spawned out of control consumerism. It grew its own corporate design culture, which became encircled by money, wealth and power. Stylistically and realistically it all had to come to an abrupt end. It finally it collapsed under the weight of its own success. For over two decades Postmodernism was about an all-new approach to life and cultivating an attitude of mind, not just a ‘look’, although that helped too. Style was re-invented for a brand new day, one that enjoyed a new freedom of expression. It lasted only two decades as economies boomed around the world, at least according to the internationally renowned V & A Museum at London when it hosted its first Postmodernism Exhibition – Style and Subversion during 2011. The show was billed as the first-in-depth survey of art, design and architecture of the 1970’s and 80’s and was helpful for a contemporary age self-aware generation seeking a way forward.

They had reached a stage where they are trying to find out what their parents  and grandparents were on about by embracing 50’s fashion passionately. The exhibition provided food for thought for the new generation as they sort out their career paths and began to work out what their own art, design and style will be.

They passionately want to know about the development of Pop Art and find out why Andy Warhol’s elevation of the commonplace was so innovative and, completely mind blowing. They want to be emboldened by the divine aspects of the Art Deco style between the wars and also find out why the Italians created Memphis Design. Once they have found that out though they will want to reach further back.

It was musicians such as Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley who unwittingly helped to inspire this crazy design style, which grew out of a conscious movement in Milan founded in 1981. It had a goal of re-invigorating radical design by creating shocking pieces. Its creators meant to offend with products designed to laugh at human folly and those who slavishly followed fashion.

The Memphis Design people were not about good design, but about producing pieces that scoffed at those people lacking in personality and individualism. This included bagging man made materials like laminate, which made family life easier. They saw it as lacking culture. They endeavoured to take the mickey out of contemporary culture and when it all came to an end in 1988 and they became passe, there were those who mourned their passing.

The original term Modernism represented a diverse range of architectural and interior decorative styles, as well as applied and graphic arts created between 1880 and 1940 on an international scale. The various stylistic movements involved were Arts and Crafts 1875-1915; Art Nouveau (1880-1910); Wiener Werkstatte (1903-1933); Bauhaus (1919-1933) and Art Deco (1920-1940).

Being ‘modern’ demanded a distinction between interior architecture and its decoration.

A preference for open planned living was clearly defined by painter, sculptor and tireless missionary of modernity Swiss born visionary architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), known as le Corbusier. He led the way to an international architectural style that was all about the art of space, already a luxury in the overcrowded cities of Europe.

Modernist interiors were meant to be devoid of applied decoration, seeking to concentrate solely on geometry, uninterrupted lines and form. It was about creating Utopia, a visionary system of political and social perfection.

This was hopefully a place where life could be lived on its highest possible plain. Le Corbusier’s austere, white-walled villas, completed after World War I in and around Paris, are memorable for both their cool beauty and airy sense of space inside and out.  “A house is a machine for living in,” he wrote.

Ironically it was the machines of World War II that destroyed it all.

Perfection once attained is a very empty place. After the Second World War when people began picking up the pieces of their shell-shocked shattered lives asking them to become optimistic again and to help re-invent the future was a big ask.

It took two decades of flower power, including a sexual revolution, a decade of national irreverence, lots and lots of flowing hair and free loving to bring about a continuing evolution of art, design, music and style. The new generation let their hair down all the way by filling it with flowers and covering themselves in caftans.

They sought to live a Bohemian life nearby the beach where they bathed nude. They lifted the tin off boarded up tenements and painted them colourfully. They bought a beetle (Volswagen) or van and covered it in flowers too.

They drove Highway 1 and Route 66 in America, nicknamed the Mother Road.

They lay about tripping playing with a Rubric’s cube, while listening to the all-new musical rhythms of life.  By the 70’s they found out finally that they needed to grow up and get real.  When they did they looked back, as each new generation does, to the immediate past style of their parents to sort out what to do. In this case, the style was Modernism. However many reasoned that it was its lofty Utopian ideals that had caused the chaos the world had survived.

And so they decided that they must delve deeper.

With international travel expanding entrepreneurial types going overseas on business discovered the pinnacle of London chic, designer John Fowler of the newly established Colefax & Fowler.

Previously he had worked with Nancy Lancaster and was now aligned with Lady Sybil Colefax. This was significant.

Following World War II John Fowler re-invented the country house style of eighteenth century England for his country house and city clients, but in an all new completely contemporary idiom.

It suited a house in the suburbs or an apartment in town, a mansion or small house in the country and a cute cottage set quaintly in an old English village. The bonus was that it shored up the faith and hopes of his countrymen and women.

It was an easy style to live with, all at once relaxed, colourful, clever, witty and filled with light and love. It especially loved the use of yellow and blue, with a mixture of antiques and, deep soft sink into sofas.

With a dash of Louis XV or Louis XVI, some makeshift Ming or the real thing, lots of vases filled with flowers and racks of magazines it was very pretty, extremely comfortable and stylishly chic.

It was also a non-stressful, reverent interior, one in which you could read a newspaper or a book and leave it on the table or chair. You could also make toast and leave it on a board on the kitchen bench and miraculously they did not look out of style or place, but brilliantly integral to your grand design.

If you had kids their box of toys could stand in a corner of your sitting room and look like it belonged. Fowler’s country house look was rich in symbolism and it meant a great deal to the English who were revitalizing and restoring bomb torn buildings. However it did have a downside. By looking like old money it basically and gradually undermined the whole British class system that existed before the war and helped bring about a leveling of society.

It welcomed in a whole new age of people with a very different attitude to life. They didn’t wait for it to come to them they set out to find it. After spending time in the trenches twice with their betters, they did not see that their blood lines or their ancestry should be a barrier to them at all. They wanted to enjoy success in the all new corporate world to come. It only took money to buy the look and that was in plentiful supply.

Fowler’s new style allowed anyone to look solid and sincere even if they weren’t. It respected tradition, although it was much much more. It said a great deal about contemporary times and how through imagination and an acquisition of knowledge these ‘postmoderns’ could help re-invent the future. And they did.

They packed into the universities and colleges, took small business classes and looked to self-improvement on every level. They shook off the bonds of class and custom and reached out to shake hands across the world. They walked about with books on their heads and learned that a loo was a toilet.

They broke down barriers and attitudes, that had existed in other people’s minds and actively encouraged everyone else to also ‘rise above their station’. No more working class, no more leisure class, everyone would now work and be entitled to enjoy their leisure.

This all-new style of Fowler’s transposed itself brilliantly internationally by being culturally adaptable for those who didn’t travel but learned about it in magazines. Many were inspired by its imagery and it helped them to re-invent their own national past.

Americans were particularly inspired by their First Lady’s revamping of the graceful and elegant classical White House. Jackie Kennedy based her refurbishment on a deep respect for the traditional roots and cultural heritage of her country.

Likewise Canadians and Australians sought solace in their own colonial positives, while countries all over Europe looked passionately to their own past glories and empires. They were all spurred on to restore and renovate their heritage by the most amazing amount of funds being produced by a whole brand new economy booster, travel and tourism.

The French, who couldn’t have cared less about the Versailles of the Ancien Regime, spent millions and 25 years weaving the silk furnishings Marie Antoinette had rejected. Voyeurism was getting ready to be taken to a whole new level.

Strada Novissima, 'a presence of the past' at the Venice Biennale 1980

There was an alternative to all this ‘kitsch’ and throughout the 80’s there were plenty of those still inspired by the sleek perfection of early modernism, i.e. minimalism, before it had all got completely out of hand.

Many however in the end found the style’s perfection just too exhausting. Striving hard to keep their houses clean, tidy and looking like the pages of a glossy magazine, while bringing up kids with a pile of paraphernalia just about, and in many cases did, break the bank and their backs. The 90’s saw a whole rash of people moving out of soulless contemporary buildings and back into traditionally designed houses they believed would give them back their sense of place, comfort and ease. Peace of mind had become important.

In 1980 at the Venice Biennale a cardboard street became a ‘presence of the past’, a display directed by Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi. He collaborated with 20 participating colleagues to produce a representation of the ruins of antiquity and their relationship with modernity.

It was all about asking people to recognize the value of knowledge about architectural history and to embrace its underpinning philosophies, that included being green.

This philosophy behind classical design of the past was all about concerns of economy, utility, durability, arrangement, comfort and proper management of materials and the site.

As well it was concerned with the thrifty balancing of costs, displaying common sense in the construction of works and reducing the overall impact of the built environment on human health and the natural environment.

Knowing about the art, design and style of the past can help imagine the future.

Today Postmodern design, art and style stands as a reminder to this new generation that their design and style movement of the future must be one in which man and nature comes together. They need to make mature decisions about the future of the world’s built environment. The design must include environmentally responsible and resource-efficient solutions while passionately pursuing the merits of sustainability.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle October 2011-2013

* British Orator, Author and Prime Minister during World War II Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
** French Writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 – 1944)

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