Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Postmodern Experience

If I had to choose where to spend the last day of my life I might (depending on my mood at the time) opt for the Victoria & Albert Museum. It contains such a bountiful stash of the artefacts that mankind has contrived to clutter its life with that I could spend my last hours in contemplation of all the artistry, imagination, ingenuity and craftsmanship that have been dedicated to the enhancement of our material comfort. And I would lunch lavishly in the richly ornamented cafe where I would try to reconcile all this extravagance with the teaching from Ecclesiastes that adorns the frieze: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour”.
The V&A is currently hosting the exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 and if, like me, you thought that Postmodernism was all about 1980’s ‘pastiche’ buildings with dodgy decorative features and poorly-executed detailing I can report that those are just a few of the more visible products of the movement. Postmodernism was, more generally, a revolt, by designers, against the prevailing trend of the time - Modernism. Designers started to question the validity of the Modernist design principle – the constant refinement of form to follow function – and to break free from its constraints. Robert Venturi, an architect at the vanguard of the movement, railed against this tyranny, advocating that design should instead prioritise “messy vitality over obvious unity”.
The movement gathered pace quickly and went on to touch most of our lives as it spilled over into popular music (post-punk and new wave), graphics (magazines, posters and record covers), consumer products (furniture and home-wares) and even film (Blade Runner). Sometimes it worked brilliantly, grabbing our attention and startling us into fresh viewpoints: check your record collection for those sleeves from Factory Records. Other times it served novelty at the expense of purpose: check your cupboard for that dribbling teapot in the shape of a Mayan temple.
Designers have always plundered the past for ideas but Postmodernism’s determined adoption of bricolage (or pick ‘n mix) became one of its distinctive hallmarks. The rejection of conventional ideas of ‘taste’ in favour of an apparently random combination of styles and materials flew in the face of accepted norms. The intention, again to quote Venturi, was to include “both/and rather than either/or”. The results of this experimentation were certainly provocative.
I manoeuvred my way around a gaggle of eager, note-taking students and reflected that they had been born at just the time when Postmodernism, according to this exhibition, expired leaving its flotsam and jetsam scattered over their cultural landscape. What would they make of its legacy as they pursued their own design careers? They were currently fascinated by an uncomfortable-looking chair made of transparent acrylic encasing imitation red roses. “Are they real?” said one. “Lush” wowed another.
Around the next corner I came across a product of the offshoot Adhocist movement: a chair made from whatever materials had come to hand. It reminded me of a TV programme I sometimes see at the gym - Scrapyard Challenge - in which teams of blokes with blokish names compete to design and make mechanical devices using only what is available in the yard. I bet they don’t realise they are part of an international design movement.
With time to spare I progressed quickly through the shop (where I heard a man say to his wife “It’s only more clutter for the house”) and made my way to a gallery showing late 20th century design. It was there that I fell in love: the object of my infatuation was a Pye Cambridge radio, model 1108, vintage 1966, designed by Robin Day, in very fine condition for her age and a perfect example of form following function.
Later that day: ebay is full of old radios but there is only one model 1108 – and that was sold back in July.

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