postmodernism - RCA Research Online
Edited by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
V&A Publishing
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the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our constantly growing
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that the success of the Friends has enabled us to support
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990.
Published to accompany the exhibition
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –1990
at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
24 September 2011 – 15 January 2012
Lady Vaizey of Greenwich CBE
Chairman of the Friends of the V&A
First published by V&A Publishing, 2011
Victoria and Albert Museum
South Kensington
London SW7 2RL
The exhibition is also supported by
Distributed in North America by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York
© The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011
The moral right of the authors has been asserted.
Hardback edition
ISBN 978 1 85177 659 7
Paperback edition
ISBN 9781 85177 662 7
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2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
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Front jacket/cover illustration: Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez,
Constructivist maternity dress, 1979. Worn by Grace Jones (detail of pl. 4)
A Practice for Everyday Life
Denny Hemming
Hilary Bird
New photography by Richard Davis
and the V&A Photographic Studio
Printed in Singapore
Threads and Rays: Accessorizing Michael Clark
Matthew Hawkins
Embraced by the (Spot)Light: Ōno Kazuo, Butō and Admiring La Argentina
Bruce Baird
Fashion, Violence and Hyperreality
Rebecca Arnold
Big Magazines: Design as the Message
Rick Poynor
Between Words and Images: Simulation, Deconstruction
and Postmodern Photography
Paul Jobling
David McDiarmid, Peter Tully and the Ecstatic Space of
the Paradise Garage
Sally Gray
Curators’ Foreword
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion
Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
Arch-Art: Architecture as Subject Matter
James Wines
Our Postmodernism
Denise Scott Brown
On Bricolage
Victor Buchli
Kitsch and Postmodern Architecture: Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia
Patricia A. Morton
Michael Graves and the Figurative Impulse
Christopher Wilk
Irony and Postmodern Architecture
Emmanuel Petit
Riding the Wave of Reaganomics: Swid Powell and the Celebrity Architects
Elizabeth A. Fleming
Civitas Interruptus
Thomas Weaver
Margaret Thatcher, Postmodernism and the Politics of Design in Britain
Jonathan M. Woodham
The Presence of the Past: Postmodernism Meets in Venice
Léa-Catherine Szacka
A Way of Looking at Things
April Greiman
Always Already Postmodern? Japanese Design and Architecture in the 1980s
Sarah Teasley
The Architect as Ghost-Writer: Rem Koolhaas
and Image-Based Urbanism
Martino Stierli
Paper Architecture: The Columbaria of Brodsky and Utkin
David Crowley
Coming Up for Air: 1980s Spanish Style Cultures
Viviana Narotzky
Photography into Building: The Smithsons and James Stirling
Claire Zimmerman
Furniture Out of its Mind: Düsseldorf, 1986
Wolfang Schepers
Postmodern Angel: Shiro Kuramata
Paola Antonelli
True Stories: A Film about People Like Us
Rick Poynor
We are All in the Gutter: Retailing Postmodern Fashion
Claire Wilcox
Abstract Figural Systems
Reinhold Martin
Making Memphis: ‘Glue Culture’ and Postmodern Production Strategies
Catharine Rossi
No Duchamps in Delhi
Arindam Dutta
The Uses of ‘Notes on Camp’
Christopher Breward
Post-Modernism Comes of Age
Charles Jencks
Tomorrow’s Been Cancelled due to Lack of Interest: Derek Jarman’s The Last of England
Oliver Winchester
The End of Style?
Paul Greenhalgh
Unsettled Images: From TV Screen to Video-Wall and Back Again
Mari Dumett
David Byrne
Sampling and the Materiality of Sound
Ulrich Lehmann
Select Bibliography
Picture Credits
Buffalo: Style with Intent
Carol Tulloch
Dressing Viciously: Hip-Hop Music, Fashion and Cultural Crossover
Zoe Whitley
What is ‘Post’ about Global Hip-Hop?
Sujatha Fernandes
Klaus Nomi: Astral Countervoice of The New Wave
Susanne K. Frantz
Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
It may seem strange or even perverse for a large public institution
like the V&A to tell the story of postmodernism. After all, this
‘style’ and the ideas that gave rise to it were explicitly antagonistic to authority. Postmodernism’s territory was meant to be
the periphery, not the centre. Its artefacts resist taxonomy, and
its episodic cadence defies the orderly impulse of the historian.
Yet exhibitionism was also a defining characteristic of postmodernism. Postmodern objects were often designed with their
own mediation in mind, and circulated rapidly through
magazine covers, music videos and mainstream feature film.
Alessi’s production of limited edition silver tableware in the
1980s, for example, was in part aimed at curators. The collection
was sold directly to institutions eager to present the roll-call
of postmodern architects through exhibition-friendly objects.1
Postmodernism was often made with its own museumification
in mind, and was supremely self-regarding in its methods,
often circling back on its own tracks (pls 1 and 2). In reproducing
postmodernist objects in this book, and placing them on
exhibition plinths under hot lights for the viewing pleasure
of thousands, we feel we are making them right at home.
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990 follows
several other major V&A exhibitions that have tackled the
‘grand narratives’ of twentieth-century style: Art Nouveau,
Art Deco and Modernism amongst them.2 Yet we consider our
project to be unique within this series; given the slippery nature
of postmodernism and the toxicity still associated with that word,
our venture might well be seen as a fool’s errand. The assertive
title we have chosen, with fixed and tidy dates appended to it,
certainly does not seem to be getting into the spirit of the thing.
Why begin in 1970 when many of our protagonists (Robert
Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Tadanori Yokoo, Ettore Sottsass)
had made their key ‘departure’ works before that date (works
that are found in the book and exhibition anyway)? Why close
in 1990, years before the substantial impact of postmodernism
had manifested itself upon vast swathes of China, India and the
Gulf States? Singapore, Beijing and Dubai are arguably more
postmodern now than Milan and London ever were.
So the choice of our 20-year span may be artificial. But
it is also deliberate. By attending in detail to this fast-paced
period of time, we can assess the phenomenal range and
penetration of postmodern practice. Milan and London in the
1970s – not to mention New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Berlin
and Sydney – would not have recognized their 1990s selves.
The boom-bust turbulence of the postmodern moment left
society, industry and even individuals’ sense of selfhood
fundamentally changed. From the ‘years of lead’ (as the 70s
recession was known in Italy) to the ‘designer decade’ of the
80s, the economic policies and effects of late capitalism (to
use a more specific nomenclature, Reaganomics and Thatcherism)
were in a way the engines of postmodernism. But it was also
powered by radicalism and resistance, which were established
before inflationary culture took hold.
Right: 1
Tadanori Yokoo,
A la Maison de M. Civeçawa
(To the Shibusawa House),
poster for the Garumella
Company, 1968. Silkscreen.
V&A: E.43–2011
Far right: 2
Tadanori Yokoo,
The Great Mirror of the Dance
as an Immolative Sacrifice,
poster for the Garumella
Company, 1968. Silkscreen.
V&A: E.44–2011
Curators’ Foreword
Our choice of dates is also meant to focus attention on the
period immediately prior to the arrival of the World Wide Web
(publicly available for the first time in 1991). Postmodernism was
a pre-digital phenomenon. Yet one of its greatest distinctions
was its anticipatory nature. Even though the arrival of the
Apple Mac in 1984 started to transform graphic design,
postmodernism was first achieved by conventional methods
– paper, scissors and glue – and distributed by print, post
and fax. The products and images of postmodernism, however,
presaged the non-space of the screen and the clicking, hopping
and surfing rhythms of hypertext. As Paul Greenhalgh says at
the end of this book, postmodernism stands in relation to our
own moment as the Steam Age did to its own oil-powered future.
Thirty years after the apex of the postmodern episode,
it seems high time to sort out exactly what happened. Before
plunging in though, it is worth mentioning three things this
project has not tried to achieve. A first proviso: this is not a
history of art or literature. As curators in a design museum,
we have given ourselves permission to use paintings, sculpture
and novels as an accompaniment or adjunct (much as our
colleagues in other institutions tend to use chairs and teapots).
Having said this, we have gladly exploited the fact that
artists and writers in this period were very attentive to the
language of design. Graphics in the work of Barbara Kruger
and Jenny Holzer; commodities in the sculpture of Ai Weiwei,
Ashley Bickerton and Haim Steinbach – these played a key
role in eroding disciplinary lines between fine art and design,
anticipating today’s more fluid creative landscape (pl. 3). We
include them here, partly as a way of indicating postmodernism’s
contribution to that relaxation of categories, and partly as
a helpful commentary on the course of postmodern design.
The latter motivation has also prompted us to engage in the
quintessential postmodern tactic of the untethered quotation,
pulling apt phrases from fiction, lyrics and theory.
Secondly, we have taken our subject to be postmodernism
rather than postmodernity in general – that is, a set of
intentional design strategies, not the overarching condition
that made them possible.3 We have not tried to write the
history of Chicken McNuggets or nouvelle cuisine, for example,
or shoulder pads or cocaine – though these examples of 1980s
material culture could justifiably be described as postmodern.
While we have tried to be acutely aware of shifts in attitude to
history, identity and money over the course of these two
decades (which social theorist David Harvey memorably
summarized with the phrase ‘time-space compression’),
our emphasis throughout has been on design practice.4
A third, and final, note: the reader will not find anywhere
in this book, or the exhibition it accompanies, a single handy
definition of postmodernism. Recently, the critic Louis Menand
noted that ‘postmodernism is the Swiss Army Knife of critical
concepts. It’s definitionally overloaded, and it can do almost
any job you need done.’5 We recognize this flexibility as a
strength, and do not believe that postmodern practice was ever
carried out with precise parameters in mind. Our attempt has
therefore been historical rather than definitional. We have
tried to clearly set out, for the first time, the key practitioners,
objects and techniques that make up this fascinating passage
in design history. Doubtless any other curators would have
picked a different path through the wreckage. But though we
would make no claims about the definitiveness of this project,
we would stand by its usefulness – the usefulness of assembling
a postmodernism that is more than the sum of its many parts.
Despite the seemingly vast literature on postmodernism
produced in the 1980s and 90s, little that has been written on
design extends beyond the standard survey text or hagiography.
With a few exceptions in recent years, histories of postmodernism
are surprisingly scarce. As curators, then, we started with
objects, examining the whole circuit of design from production,
through distribution and mediation, to consumption.
Like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, we have tried
to uphold the values of both/and, not either/or. Postmodernism
was both an extension and intensification of some aspects of
Modernism, and a conscious departure from it. Moreover, its
practitioners consciously played these two aspects against
one another. They resisted classification, even running from
the label ‘postmodernism’ itself as if it had turned back to bite
them (which, indeed, it had a tendency to do). Amongst the
many artists, designers, architects, performers and makers
we have spoken to in the course of organizing this project, very
few embraced the term with outright affection. The kaleidoscopic
structure of this book – our own single narrative, accompanied
by a ‘heap of fragments’, essays that are multi-vocal and
wide-ranging, addressing the particular, episodic and personal
– is the means by which we have sought to accommodate this
complexity. This work has been informed by theory, but has not
been in thrall to it. It has embraced the interdisciplinarity of
postmodern practice whilst respecting the specificity of genre.
Above all, it puts design at centre stage.
Opposite: 3
Haim Steinbach, supremely
black, 1985. Plastic laminated
wood shelf, ceramic pitchers,
cardboard detergent boxes.
Private collection
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?1
— Talking Heads
Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez,
Constructivist maternity dress, 1979.
Worn by Grace Jones
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion
In 1985, art critic Hal Foster wrote: ‘Postmodernism: does it exist at all, and if so, what
does it mean? Is it a concept or a practice, a matter of local style or a whole new period
or economic phase? What are its forms, effects, place?’2
By the time Foster posed these questions, there was no shortage of evidence of the
forms, effects and place of postmodernism. Luxury tableware carried kitsch or historical
motifs; TV advertisements were laden with ironic pastiche; public spaces bore the signs of
‘Disneynification’ or heritage styling; fashion had raided the dressing-up box to produce a
mix of decadent looks. Nor was there a shortage of column inches devoted to postmodernism.
Academics and journalists argued vociferously over its meaning. But what did this all add
up to? If postmodernism was a territory, then it was contested. If it was a style, then that
style was an agglomeration of all other styles. And by the time most people had heard of it,
its demise had already been declared.
Foster might have added another item to his list of questions about postmodernism:
‘And what is it called?’ Postmodernism acquired an exhausting range of noms de plume and
sub-genres: radical design, adhocism, counter-design, transavantgardism, neo-expressionism,
radical eclecticism, critical regionalism. Similarly, the prefix ‘post’ was affixed to an
assortment of social and theoretical constructs: one heard of post-industrialization,
post-fordism, post-colonialism, post-disciplinarity, post-gender, even post-human.
The arrival of the ‘post’ signalled not only the end of grand narratives, but also the
removal of certainty itself as a base of operations. Even at its peak in the mid-1980s
postmodernism was hard to locate. Modernism had its manifestos and its schools, its
camps and champions, and had been authoritatively claimed as a movement. Postmodernism,
by contrast, was a collection of wry looks and ironic gestures. Modernists devised new
windows on the world; postmodernists offered a shattered mirror. Modernism dreamt of
utopian visions, which would transform society; postmodernism threw together a new look
for a night on the town. Modernism declared itself to be beyond style (style was mutable,
but Modernism was ‘universal’). For postmodernism, style was everything. Instead of
authenticity, postmodernism celebrated hybridity. In place of truth, postmodernism
had attitude (pl. 4).
But if postmodernism was just a pose, it could nonetheless be found in almost every
genre of creative and philosophical practice. During the 1970s, various fields claimed their
own ‘postmodern turn’ – in film, dance and literature, for example – which marked either
the crisis or the exhaustion of the avant-garde, as well as a renewed interest in sampling
or quoting from the past. Nor did postmodernism occupy a series of niches. Its nearinstantaneous spread meant that by the 1980s, postmodern style could be discerned not only
in a building, a teapot or a poster, but also in a haircut, a poem, a music video or a dance step.
Despite its disciplinary diversity, postmodernism achieved its greatest visibility in
architecture.3 As Reinhold Martin has recently put it, architecture was postmodernism’s
‘avatar’ – the form in which it was most frequently encountered.4 As theory followed practice,
early and influential formulations used architecture as a rubric to define postmodernism’s
terms of engagement.5 Graphic design, the applied arts, fashion and styling, film: all
were discussed in parallel to buildings as a way of understanding their own postmodern
tropes. Architecture’s ‘postmodern turn’ became the blueprint for other disciplinary
histories: Rejection of high Modernism? Embrace of the popular, the ‘low’ and the kitsch?
A prioritization of surface over depth, style over structure? Use of quotation, metaphor,
plurality, parody? Check your work against Michael Graves’ 1982 Portland Building and
see (see pl. 208, p. 230).
Postmodernism also inhabited the peripheries of practice, often finding its most
effective projections through the lenses of gender, race or identity politics. Perhaps
unsurprisingly, this is one aspect of postmodern practice that did not take its lead from
architecture. The postmodern reassertion of certain genres was a political act: the
reclaiming of sewing and china-painting, for example, in the feminist artist Judy Chicago’s
landmark installation The Dinner Party of 1974–7; or quilt-making in David McDiarmid’s
Disco Kwilts, c.1980, ecstatic, sensual works celebrating the multi-ethnic club culture of
1970s Manhattan. Alongside such unique, one-off projects, postmodernism was favoured
by those involved in short-run, batch production, often with a high degree of artisanal
involvement. Postmodernism came to the fore in genres such as furniture and interiors,
glass, ceramics and metals in the late 1970s in Italy, and its influence spread across the
world at an eye-watering pace. Late capitalist, post-fordist service culture could meet
localized, specialist and traditional forms of production, shake hands, and do business.
Postmodernism produced its own sort of subversive entrepreneur: post-punk British
designer-makers fusing fashion, music and design; radical Italian and Spanish designers
claiming the attention of family-run manufacturing firms; as well as more isolated figures
like Pieter De Bruyne, single-handedly forging a pop historicist style in Belgium, or the
Atika group in Prague, weaving together post-industrial aesthetics with Czech folk and
surrealist traditions as a protest against a stultifying state-socialist culture (pls 5 and 6).
However, to understand postmodern design at its furthest extent we need to explore
the more generic world of consumption – or over-consumption – that it engendered.
For an image of this commodity-saturated world, it would be difficult to improve on the
following passage from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), which describes the
apartment of the novel’s main character, the fashion- and technology-obsessed serial
killer Patrick Bateman:
Over the white marble and granite fireplace hangs an original David Onica. It’s a
6 × 4 foot portrait of a naked woman, mostly done in muted grays and olives, sitting
on a chaise longue watching MTV, the backdrop a Martian landscape, a gleaming
mauve desert scattered with dead, gutted fish, smashed plates rising like a sunburst
above the woman’s yellow head, and the whole thing is framed in black aluminum
steel. The painting overlooks a long white down-filled sofa and a thirty-inch digital
TV set from Toshiba; it’s a high contrast highly defined model plus it has a four-corner
video stand with a high-tech tube combination from NEC with a picture-in-picture
digital effects system (plus freeze-frame) ... A hurricane halogen lamp is placed in
each corner of the living room. Thin white venetian blinds cover all eight floor-toceiling windows. A glass top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin sits in front of
the sofa, with Steuben glass animals placed strategically around expensive crystal
ashtrays from Fortunoff, though I don’t smoke … An Ettore Sottsass push-button
phone [rests on a] steel and glass nightstand next to the bed.6
Alessandro Mendini, destruction of
Lassù chair, 1974
Pieter De Bruyne, Chantilly chest,
1975. Chipboard, lacquered in black,
white and blue with section of historic
furniture in ebony, partly gilded.
Design Museum Gent (80/297 1/1)
In this environment Bateman carries out the daily activities of a postmodern subject,
reading his copy of USA Today, washing down his copious intake of pills with Evian, drinking
grapefruit-lemon juice from a Baccarat St Remy wine glass, and listening to the new Talking
Heads album. Easton Ellis’ novel exemplifies the condition of postmodernity in its most
terrifying form: consumed by self and status, and utterly lacking a moral compass. How
did we get here? To answer that question, we need to return to an earlier imagining of
death than the one presented in American Psycho – the death of Modernism itself.
Last Rites
Let us then romp through the desolation of modern architecture, like some Martian
tourist out on an earthbound excursion, visiting the archaeological sites with a superior
disinterest, bemused by the sad but instructive mistakes of a former architectural
civilisation. After all, since it is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse.7
— Charles Jencks
In 1978, the Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman produced a small photomontage entitled
The Titanic in which Mies van der Rohe’s 1956 Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology
(Tigerman’s alma mater) is shown capsizing in the smooth waters of Lake Michigan, frozen
for a moment before its plunge to the depths (pl. 8). The death of Modernism had been
proclaimed on countless previous occasions, most memorably by Charles Jencks, who
located the moment to 3.32p.m. (or thereabouts) on 15 March 1972, when the notorious
and crime-ridden Pruitt-Igoe modernist housing project in St Louis, Missouri, designed
by Minoru Yamasaki in 1951, was dynamited (pl. 9).8 Tigerman offered a more protracted
farewell to the supposedly unsinkable certainties of the Modern Movement (see Emmanuel
Stanley Tigerman, The Titanic, 1978.
Photomontage on paper. The Art
Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Bohuslav Horák (for Atika), Labyrinth
of Autumn bookcase, 1987. Sheet steel
and enamelling. Umĕleckoprůmyslové
Muzeum v Praze (Museum of Decorative
Arts), Prague
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Overleaf: 9
Minoru Yamasaki, Pruitt-Igoe housing
project, 1954–5. St Louis, Missouri.
Demolition began at 3.32p.m., 15 March 1972
Last Rites
Petit’s discussion of this on p. 124). Like a giant ocean liner set on its course, Modernism’s
turning circle had proven too wide to avoid impact with any obstacle fixed on its horizon.
Several years earlier, in 1974, in an empty industrial plot of land next to a furniture
factory in Italy, the designer and impresario Alessandro Mendini poured gasoline over a
chair of his own design, set it alight, and recorded the resulting funeral pyre for the cover
of his radical architecture journal, Casabella (pl. 7). Lassù (meaning simply ‘above the
ground’) was not so much a modernist chair as a platonic one – the kind a child might draw,
of the most basic construction but mounted on steps like a throne. Its cremation underlined
its ritual purpose: ‘Its mass [was] reduced to ashes, and these were gathered; its life was
closed with a rite: it passed from an object to a relic, from matter to memory.’9 Mendini’s
projects at this time were Duchampian tributes to life’s absurdities: a concrete suitcase for
one’s journey to the afterlife; a cast bronze desk lamp resembling a fossilized Bauhaus
design; a transparent plastic chair full of soil, meant to invoke the basic human act of
sitting on the ground – all graced the covers of Casabella.
Each of these gestures marked a moment in the long trajectory of dissatisfaction,
beginning in the early 1960s, with the commercial and institutional mainstreaming of
the Modern Movement. Tigerman’s sinking of Mies was a ‘killing of the father’, as well as
an attack on the academic hegemony of modernist architecture in America (enshrined
in schools like IIT). Mendini’s nihilism signalled an endgame, played out in Italian Radical
Design in the late 1960s and early 70s. It staged the death of the ‘beautiful objects’ of
Modernism, which had seamlessly and uncritically taken their place within the commercial
nexus. Architectural Modernism in the post-war world, it seemed, had become detached
from its early socio-political agendas and instead established itself as the style of choice
for both corporations and the state. Reliant upon an exhausted faith in technology and a
sterile vocabulary of industrial functionalism, Modernism could no longer claim legitimacy,
relevance, or radicality. Nothing looks as dated as last season’s future. Attempts in the
1960s to inflect the modernist utopian project with pop culture (by counter-cultural
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
architectural groups such as Archigram, Archizoom and Superstudio) were derided as naive
and anachronistic, a fetishization of technology.10 Some of the most fervent attacks
came from those who had themselves been participants. Jean Baudrillard, briefly a member
of the French architectural/philosophical collective Utopie, turned his critical eye on
the false consciousness of modernist architecture: ‘Utopia is a luxury good, blinding us
with its splendour.’11
Declarations of the many deaths of Modernism did not emanate from any fixed
point, but rather from various quarters where architects and designers found themselves
struggling to determine the relevancy of their practice both within, and in opposition
to, the Modern Movement. But what were the alternatives? For some, the solution was
to re-engage with the past, either through historicist architectural styles or by the exploration
of the experience of architecture through ideas of place, memory and archetype. To elegiac
effect, radical architects depicted modernity in ruins; Arata Isozaki’s Reruined Hiroshima
(1968) and Ettore Sottsass’ Planet as Festival (1972), to name only two such imaginings,
showed 1960s Space Age megastructures that had crash-landed onto a devastated
or primordial earth.12 For Isozaki, 1968, the pivotal year of political upheaval, brought
Modernism to a dead-halt.13 As Martin has put it, the ‘unthinking of Utopia’ became
a central tenet of postmodernism.14
Road Trips and Gas Pumps
The alternative to the harsh responsibility of remaining faithful to the modern tradition
lies not in pluralism, but in the open, courageous suicide proposed by Pop architecture,
rejecting all cultural models, all open or closed orders, and returning to the primordial
chaos, to triviality and artifice. Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement
can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas, between sclerosis and drugs.15
— Bruno Zevi
For the Italian Marxist critic Bruno Zevi, abandoning Modernism could only result in a
terrible choice between the binary poles of history and the vernacular, the highest art and
the very lowest, grandeur and banality. In the eyes of architects like Charles Moore, Robert
Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, however, that choice was a false and unnecessary one.
All were in favour of ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or,’ in Venturi’s famous formulation.16
What was needed was a structure for the systematic analysis of both Versailles and Vegas
(and, for that matter, the Campidoglio in Rome, A&P Parking Lots and the Miami Beach
Modern Motel), which would allow them to be understood as phenomena of architectural
communication.17 Most American architects encountered the monuments of the past, in
Rome, Athens and Venice, through the words of historians like Rudolf Wittkower, Colin
Rowe and Vincent Scully.18 Some got to Europe to see for themselves. (Long before his
Damascene trip to Vegas, Venturi had spent two years in Italy as a recipient of the Rome
Prize, awarded to architectural students by the American Academy in Rome.)
Moore found what he needed in his native California. His concern for a sense of place
in architecture (as an embodiment of memory and history) took in Californian-Spanish,
neo-colonial and Beaux-Arts architectural styles as well as local adobe architecture,
suburban tract housing and the pseudo-public spaces of Disneyland. Moore advocated
‘an architecture of inclusion’, talking about the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the Madonna
Inn, a tourist destination in San Luis Obispo, California, in (almost) the same breath (pl. 10).19
The Inn, an exuberant pastiche of styles described by Umberto Eco as ‘Archimboldi builds
the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton’,20 was for Moore a moving and exhilarating ‘architecture
for the electric present’ that gave its all and connected with the user in doing so.21 The
Madonna Inn exemplified the ‘triviality and artifice’ predicted by Zevi, and fulfilled the
definition of kitsch as ‘falsified nature’ supplied by Gillo Dorfles in 1968.22 It was both
Vegas and Versailles. The same went for Disneyland, which Moore was prepared to settle
for as a latter-day version of civic space, saying: ‘Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland
is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost someone a great deal of
money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life.’23
The mythic roots of early architectural postmodernism, it seemed, lay in such thrilling
encounters with this world of popular ‘low’ taste, often experienced from behind a
Las Vegas Strip, 1966. Photographs by
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Alex and Phyllis Madonna, the
Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo,
California. Opened December 1958
© Macduff Everton /CORBIS
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Overleaf: 12
Denise Scott Brown and Robert
Venturi in the Las Vegas desert, 1966
Road Trips and Gas Pumps
dashboard. The road trip had already been designated a modern rite of passage by writers
like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. Route 66, Main Street and the Las Vegas Strip
became familiar tropes in the literary accounts of the period, as did endless desert drives
through California, across the Mojave Desert and down to Mexico, punctuated only by stops
at service buildings along the route. From the Beat poets to Bob Dylan to Ken Kesey’s Merry
Pranksters (immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of 1968), the 1960s
counter-culture took trips through a landscape of heightened contrasts – desert sun and
neon light, hot rods and cacti, empty horizons and giant billboards – vistas often enhanced
by psychotropic drugs. The architecture of signage, exemplified by the gas stations along
Route 66, was immortalized in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider and inventoried by
Ed Ruscha in his own road-movie-style artist’s books, such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations
(1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a continuous folding strip of Los
Angeles building façades photographed from the back of a pick-up truck. Ruscha’s deadpan
documentary method, with its lack of hierarchy and anthropological attitude to the urban
landscape, had much in common with the image-making and research methods of Venturi
and Scott Brown, working on their own inventory of the landscape of Las Vegas.
Vegas, with all its excess and pastiche, was the paradigm of rampant consumerism
and celebrity.24 Glimpsed from a heat-hazed highway, the billboards, gas stations and
one-night-stop motels on the approach to the city seemed to announce a new kind of
architectural order (pl. 11). The sensory overload experienced by the Vegas visitor was
captured by Wolfe in his hilarious account for Esquire magazine in 1964: ‘Las Vegas (What!)
Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!’, which evoked, above all, the competitive
noisiness of the city’s signage. Wolfe put it succinctly: ‘Las Vegas is the only town in the
world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like
Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs.’ Vegas fitted the hybridity and vitality that Venturi
had called for in his so-called ‘Gentle Manifesto’ – Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture, written in 1962 and published in 1966. This levelling of cultural distinctions
between high and low and his embrace of ‘messy vitality over obvious unity’ was borne out
in Venturi and Scott Brown’s socio-anthropological study of Vegas, carried out in the late
60s and published, with Steven Izenour, as Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. The book
presented the Strip deadpan, in the manner of Ruscha, but also investigated its implications
for urban planning in general.
Much of this was the contribution of Denise Scott Brown, who had taken a diversionary
route on her way to Vegas. Born in South Africa and educated at the Architectural Association
in London, she met Venturi at the University of Pennsylvania, where both were students of
Louis Kahn. Whilst at Penn, she studied urban planning with social scientist Herbert Gans,
best known for his case study of 1950s suburbia, Levittown.25 When she went to teach at
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1965, she became interested in the way that
West Coast cities ‘seemed to hint at a new architecture for changed times’. She recalls the
‘aesthetic shiver’, composed of both ‘love and hate’, for an environment ‘as beautiful as it
was ugly’.26 She invited Venturi to co-teach with her at UCLA, and then to join her on a road
trip to Vegas (pl. 12). Arriving in a rental car along Route 91, the neon signs and blatant
advertisements for the pleasures of the city shocked them into a new evaluation of the
communicative power of the built landscape. She recalled, some years later: ‘Dazed by the
desert sun and dazzled by the signs, both loving and hating what we saw, we were both
jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins.’27
Precisely because it was not overlaid on top of pre-existing urban patterns, the pop-up
architecture of Las Vegas offered an unadulterated version of American vernacular: the
effects of unregulated development in an automotive age. Just as the pioneers of modern
architecture in the 1920s had found a new order in industrial forms (steam ships and
aeroplanes), Las Vegas offered a recalibration of architecture. The city had evolved a new
kind of symbolism, designed to be read while the body was travelling at 35 miles an hour,
so that buildings acted as billboards, and parking lots as public piazzas. Learning from
Las Vegas was an argument for the power of semiotics over space, assessing the visual
architecture of the ‘big sign and the little building’. But the book was neither a celebration
nor an aestheticization. They were well aware that the Strip could be seen as sensorially
deafening, as Wolfe had put it, and also aesthetically bankrupt, part of what critic Peter
Blake acerbically referred to as ‘God’s own junkyard’.28 Yet they asked the question: ‘Is not
Main Street almost all right? Indeed, is the commercial strip of a Route 66 almost all right?
What slight twist of context will make them all right?’29
Americans were not the only ones hitting the road in the 1960s. The Italian architect
and designer Ettore Sottsass, Jr took an extended trip around India with his first wife, the
literary translator and editor Fernanda Pivano, in 1961. He later described the journey as
a search for origins and an exploration of the sensory (rather than the rational) terms of
existence; India expanded his understanding of the connections between objects and the
rituals of daily life. The colours, forms, language and mystical references of Indian culture
reverberated in his work for decades to come. They were fused with a heady embrace of the
pop and beatnik impulses of the 1960s, which he encountered on trips to the United States,
crossing paths with the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Neal Cassady and
others (connections made through Pivano, translator and friend to the Beat generation).30
These encounters came about after Sottsass was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
in 1962, on his return to Italy from India. The intervention of his friend and employer,
Roberto Olivetti, arguably saved his life, as Olivetti paid for Sottsass to fly to Stanford
University in California for specialist treatment. From his sickbed, Sottsass began a journal
with Pivano, which they titled Room East 128 Chronicle (after his hospital room), largely as
a means of keeping in touch with friends. The journal, hand-collaged and manually printed,
offered updates on Sottsass’ treatment and observations on American popular culture.
Convalescing, Sottsass joined Pivano in San Francisco for a time, where she was working
with Ginsberg.31 The libertine tendencies of the Beat generation, their experimental
lifestyles, fascination with Eastern mysticism and nomadic attitude to life, all influenced
the course of his practice in subsequent years.32
On his return to Italy, Sottsass channelled his newfound interests into a series of ceramic
works. The first, entitled Ceramics of Darkness (1963), and subsequent collections (Offerings
to Shiva, 1964; Tantric Ceramics, 1968; and Yantras of Terracotta, 1969) employed a system
of cosmological signs that allude to meditation, the relationship between the individual
and the universal, and symbolic sexual union – all drawn from an amalgam of Hindu and
Buddhist traditions. This fascination with non-Western culture offered a way out of the
strictures of modernist practice which was rooted in the sensorial, and which he also
equated with the easy pleasures of life encountered in America. These thoughts culminated
in a collection of large-scale ceramic works shown first at the influential Sperone Gallery
(known for exhibiting Pop Art and Arte Povera) in Turin and then Milan, and collectively
titled Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants and Gas Pumps (pls 13 and 14). In his series of
lithographs Planet as Festival (1972–3), he imagined buildings which, like his ceramics,
were containers for the pleasures of life: ‘super-instruments’ in which to take drugs, have
sex, listen to music and watch the stars, in the form of Aztec temples, Indian shrines and
giant teapots. In the series entitled Indian Memories of 1973, these temples shrink to actual
teapots once more. Sottsass’ objects are high-grade hits of signification, extracted from
his imaginary planetary landscape and compressed to the scale of tableware (pl. 15).
Years later, Sottsass recalled his zest for life, rediscovered after his near-death
experience, which had motivated the production of the works:
I want to concentrate on life, I want to bring it into my mind, I want to make a bonfire,
a signal, a pole, a pivot, a center, a mandala that will make me concentrate on life,
I want to build myself a colossal phallus, dear Shiva, my friend, with an orange flower
on its head, around which to stop or travel or sing songs like the saints of Nepal that
fly over the valleys, or play gigantic trumpets, or cultivate gardens or scatter seeds, the
seedman’s and mine. I want to make myself a filling pump where I can fill up forever
on 4-star fuel, fill up my veins and set them alight. I want to build myself a temple to
deposit biscuits in, immense plates of meringues and cream for the gods of sleep.33
Sottsass’ use of the symbolic languages of India did not mark a wholesale rejection of
Western consumerism, but rather a re-calibration of his understanding of the relationship
between people and things. He was struck particularly by the associative values of American
goods, and how these were played out in Pop Art (Paolo Thea refers to Sottsass’ idea of
‘semantic charge’ around certain objects).34 His ‘menhirs and gas pumps’ were containers
for the pleasures of the everyday, as well as monuments to life’s absurdities; receptacles for
Ettore Sottsass, Totem, 1967. Ceramic
with pedestal and threaded attachment
rod. Private collection
contraceptives, cigarettes, drugs, memories and ashes. Like his compatriot Mendini,
Sottsass was beginning to redefine the terms under which design could be seen to operate.
Back in Italy, he too found himself at the centre of a movement that came to be known
as Radical Design (or Counter-Design). According to Sottsass, Mendini and others of their
generation, design could be provocative and conceptually challenging; it could address
social norms, market imperatives and assumptions of taste in critical ways. Radical Design
had all the hallmarks of an avant-garde call to arms: ‘We want to bring into the house
everything that has been left out,’ proclaimed the group Archizoom, ‘contrived banality,
intentional vulgarity, urban fittings, biting dogs.’35
Radical Design was a product of hard times. For Italy, the 1970s were the bleakest
decade since the war: a time marked by intellectual crisis, a wave of domestic terrorism
and severe economic recession. ‘My personal view of the future is mainly pessimistic,’ said
Mendini in 1976. ‘I belong to those groups of people who have not torches to throw their
beams into the future.’36 As industry suffered, both designers and manufacturers devised
novel means to subsist. Radicalism appeared in the guise of the group Global Tools (active
1973–6), a collective that saw itself as a kind of incubator for design outside of commercial
constraint. Almost everyone who was ever associated with Radical Design in Italy took part
– Mendini, Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Ugo La Pietra, Riccardo Dalisi and Andrea Branzi, to
name a few. Together they sought to reconnect design with essential themes such as the
body, basic skills of making, communication and survival.37
Though Global Tools was partly motivated by frustration with the lack of commercial
opportunity, it was also strongly anti-consumerist. Most of the figures associated with the
group were politically on the left, and were profoundly suspicious of late capitalist society
(despite designing products for its markets). Believing design to be an instrument by which
social change could be achieved, they largely ignored the collusive nature of their profession.
Some saw the contradiction. Italy’s foremost Marxist critic, Manfredo Tafuri, argued in his
1973 essay ‘Architecture and Utopia’ that the inevitable fate of modern architecture and of
the avant-garde was to collapse into the very system it professed to critique. Tafuri could
see no way out of this crisis. The utopian project was unsustainable, and competing modes
of practice, which had risen up to challenge the rationalist basis of Modernism, were merely
cul-de-sacs in its ongoing development:
The ‘fall’ of modern art is the final testimony of bourgeois ambiguity, torn between
‘positive’ objectives and the pitiless self-exploration of its own objective commercialization. No ‘salvation’ is any longer to be found within it: neither wandering restlessly
in the labyrinths of images so multivalent they end in muteness, nor enclosed in the
stubborn silence of geometry content with its own perfection.38
Tafuri’s criticisms were aimed at bigger fish than the Italian design radicals, but he did
single out Sottsass’ work for its ‘erotic exhibitionism’.39 Here he put his finger on the
designer’s conflicted position, caught between his commissions for industrial firms and
his role as agent-provocateur extraordinaire. Indeed, despite his close and symbiotic
relationship with firms like Olivetti, Sottsass himself spoke in jaded terms about the
state of professional design:
Now that I am old, they let me design electronic machines and other machines of
iron, with flashing phosphorescent lights and sounds which could be cynical or ironic.
Now I am only allowed to design furniture which sells, furniture – they say – of some
use, use to society – they say – so they sell more – for society – they say – and so
I am now designing things of this kind. Now they pay me to design them. Not much,
but they pay me.40
Ettore Sottsass, Totem of Palo Alto,
1962. Ink and pastel drawing on paper.
Private collection
Ettore Sottsass, Study for Tea Pot
(rendered by Tiger Tateishi), 1973.
Graphite and self-adhesive letters
on paper. The Museum of Modern Art,
New York (1308.2000)
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Road Trips and Gas Pumps
This tone of weary cynicism would not last, as we shall see. The harsh experiences of these
years would eventually propel Sottsass towards Memphis, a design experiment in which
the commercial and the conceptual merged. But in the 1970s, architecture was the main
platform on which the discourse of postmodernism developed in critical and academic
terms – not only in Italy, but in the United States, Britain, France and Germany as well.
The Presence of the Past
I am very fond of ruins. [T]hey’re what’s left, all that is granted us by the unknown …
of thoughts, of plans, of hopes.41
— Ettore Sottsass
From our twenty-first-century perspective, it is perhaps hard to imagine why the use
of past styles in architecture would provoke such antipathy. Why would an exhibition of
nineteenth-century architectural drawings in a modern museum be denounced as an act
of sacrilege? Why might use of a seemingly innocuous stylistic idiom be taken as an act
of daring provocation? Yet the architectural discourse of the 1970s was littered with such
arguments and schisms. Whilst the revival and re-use of historical styles was a component
of postmodern practice, it was generally distinct from historicism as such – the continued
veneration of classical or Gothic architecture. The architects of the postmodern era
employed history, but knew they could not ignore or unlearn the statutes of Modernism.
They ran the gamut from academicism to parody, some applying complex coding to their
evocation of past styles, others displaying a slap-happy delight in the plundering of a rich
box of stylistic tricks.
Critics were divided. From the Marxist perspective of Tafuri, for example, postmodernism
was less about the death of modern architecture (it had died already, he thought) and more
about the impossibility of meaningfully replacing it, at least until society itself changed.
‘[N]othing remains,’ said Tafuri, ‘but to gather around the hearth to listen to the fables of
the new grannies.’42 The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, speaking after the opening
of the first architectural Biennale in Venice in 1980, denounced its international roll call of
postmodernists as an ‘an avant-garde of reversed fronts’, who had ‘sacrificed the tradition
of modernity in order to make room for a new historicism’.43 In Habermas’ view, Modernism
was not dead, only temporarily exhausted. Its progressive vision could be renewed only
through constant critical appraisal, not evasion and retreat.
Other writers were intent on repositioning the relationship of Modernism to history,
by establishing the presence of the past that existed within modern architecture itself.
Historians like Colin Rowe and Vincent Scully both drew parallels between classical
precedents and twentieth-century figures such as Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe.44
Rowe’s 1947 essay ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ was a formalist analysis of the
commonalities between the classical and the modern (specifically Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta
and Le Corbusier’s Villa de Monzie), and was to have an abiding influence upon the revival
of formalism in architecture in the 1970s. Scully’s landmark study The Shingle Style (1955)
analysed formal and spatial developments in nineteenth-century domestic buildings in
a way that argued against the functionalist reading of architectural history. Scully, not
surprisingly, became an early champion of Venturi and Scott Brown, in whose work he
recognized the legacy of this American tradition. These ideas took root in academic
institutions, first in the United States (Rowe at Cornell and Scully at Yale), and also in the
pages of architectural journals, as historians were called upon to debate the future of
modern architecture. Scully went head to head with the writer Norman Mailer in the pages
of Architectural Forum in 1964, defending modern architecture against Mailer’s charge that
it was ruthlessly totalitarian and intent on destroying the past.45 Whilst Scully argued for a
more sympathetic view of Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and other leading American moderns,
the basis of his position in the 1960s was to call for a more contextually aware modern
architecture. As this new generation of architectural historians were well aware, context
was everything.
Context was one reason for the stir created by an architectural exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975. MoMA, a champion of avant-garde architecture
since the 1920s and a bastion of modernist orthodoxy, took the unexpected step of staging
Architecture of the Ecole des beaux-arts, a spectacular exhibition of drawings from the
nineteenth-century tradition of neoclassical academicism. As historian Felicity Scott
has written, ‘The exhibition became a notorious landmark in architecture’s turn toward
postmodernism, a notoriety exacerbated by its presentation within an institution that had
both codified modern architecture as the “International Style” [in] the 1930s and sponsored
its ongoing legacy.’46 Both the tradition of the beautiful architectural drawing (rather than
Aldo Rossi, L’Architecture Assassiné
(Architecture Assassinated), 1975.
Etching. Deutsches Architekturmuseum,
Frankfurt-am-Main (216–014–011)
© Eredi Aldo Rossi. Courtesy
Fondazione Aldo Rossi
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Aldo Rossi, Aerial perspective of
cemetery in San Cataldo, Modena,
Italy, 1971. Crayon and graphite on
sepia diazotype. The Museum of
Modern Art, New York (Jon Cross and
Erica Staton, Digital Design Collection
Project, Luna Imaging, 1287.2000.
2002) © Eredi Aldo Rossi. Courtesy
Fondazione Aldo Rossi
The Presence of the Past
the axonometric plan) and the decorative embellishments of the nineteenth century
were restored to value by the exhibition. As Robert A.M. Stern stated the following year,
it made it possible for New York architects of differing persuasions to ‘begin to reweave
the fabric of the Modern period, which was so badly rent by the puritan revolution of the
Modern Movement.’47
In the United States, this repurposing of architecture centred around two schools of
thought. One group, identifiable as the ‘New York Five’, whose members had taken part in
an exhibition of that name at MoMA in 1967, was comprised of Peter Eisenman, Michael
Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier. Their work in the late 1960s
shared a formalist commitment to the principles of interwar Modernism, and a belief in
the artistic autonomy of architecture (a position later abandoned by Graves, but more or
less maintained by the other four). Eisenman, the chief theorist of the group, argued for a
‘post-functionalist’ rather than postmodern turn, which would liberate modern architecture
from orthodoxy and instead renew its avant-garde artistic principles. The group’s adherence
to Corbusian purity led inevitably to their being characterized as the ‘Whites’. They were in
sympathy with the view advocated by Rowe that Modernism shared with classicism some
ideal principles of form and proportion. In the other corner of the ring were the ‘Grays’, a
loose association of architects who favoured contextual and symbolic eclecticism: Robert
A.M. Stern, Charles Moore, Alan Greenberg, Jaquelin Robertson and Romaldo Giurgola.
They were supported by Scully, who had weighed in with his championship of Venturi and
Scott Brown (honorary, if not actual ‘Grays’) and his revisiting in 1975 of his earlier ‘Shingle
Style’ treatise – an essay on its contemporary relevance, cannily subtitled ‘The Historian’s
Revenge’. The Grays eagerly laid claim to the Beaux-Arts show as evidence of the
limitations of Modernism.
These intellectual battles over the legacy of Modernism and the future of architecture
continued through the 1970s. There were as many commonalities between groups as there
were oppositions: both Whites and Grays recognized the redundancy of late Modernism
while acknowledging its early vigour. All parties recognized the inadequacies of a monolithic
attitude to city planning, and the resulting denial of urban complexity and community.
Modernism was now just one stylistic choice amongst many. And how many stylistic
recoveries there were. The bouillabaisse of sources was cheerily described by Rowe, with
only a soupçon of irony:
We will give a nod to Kaufman; we will give three muted cheers for the Stalinallee; we
will adore the manifesto pieces of Boullée; we will (mostly) refuse to observe the built
work of Soane; instead we will unroll a few hundred yards of neutral Adolf Loos façade,
build a lot of little towers and stand around on top of them a quality of Ledoux villas,
wave quietly but not too exuberantly to Louis Kahn …, insinuate a reference to the
metaphysic of Giorgio de Chirico, display a conversance with Leonidov, become highly
enthusiastic about the more evocative aspects of Art Deco, exhibit the intimidations
of curtains waving in the wind, and, then, gently warm up the ensuing goulash in the
pastoso of Morandi.48
The return to history that brought architectural historians into closer contact with practice
also paved the way for architects to become historians and theoreticians. Italian architect
Aldo Rossi, for example, published his influential study of urbanism and contextualism,
The Architecture of the City, in 1966. Moore, influenced by phenomenology, published on the
significance of place, experience and memory in architecture.49 Venturi’s visits to Rome
provided the basis for his first published article, on the Campidoglio in 1953, and much of
his observations in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Rome was a parallel that
Venturi continued to draw upon: ‘Visiting Las Vegas in the mid-1960s,’ he said, ‘was like
visiting Rome in the late 1940s. Las Vegas is to the Strip what Rome is to the Piazza.’50
Complexity was just one theme that united proto-postmodern discussions about the
role of history in architecture. Another was memory and its proper symbolism. Rossi’s
approach to the city, for example, was elegiac: ‘With time, the city grows upon itself; it
acquires a consciousness and memory. In the course of its construction, its original themes
persist, but at the same time it modifies and renders these themes of its own development
more specific.’51 He contrasted the effects of post-war destruction and subsequent redevelopment with the persistence of recognizable fragments, which for him stood as landmarks
to the ‘universal and permanent character’ of urban experience.52 He developed a language
of archetypes and a typological system that reflected this theory, attempting to reinvest
the city with meanings that had evolved over time. His iconic, primary forms – arcades,
columns, cones and cubes – suggested an elemental language without recourse to explicit
historicism (pls 16 and 17). Rossi extended this typology to include forms that suggest
everyday objects like coffee pots, cups and bottles, forms that would reappear in his
contributions to 1980s luxury micro-architecture.
A very different, but equally rich, symbolism was achieved in the building that many
consider the finest of all postmodern architectural statements: James Stirling’s Neue
Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1970s) (pl. 18). Designed with his partner Michael Wilford, the
project exemplified a postmodern attitude in its handling of public space, circulation,
historical reference and wit. Stirling had been briefed to provide a series of new galleries
for an existing museum (the Alte Staatsgalerie, built in 1843), coupled with a central
courtyard and a public passageway through the site – an element recognized as a democratic
gesture of openness on the part of the West German government regarding their public
institutions. Stirling placed an open-air rotunda at the centre of his addition. A pathway
meanders through the layers of the design, the exterior portion of which consists of a series
of terraces dressed with elements that allude to archaeological fragments, including a
tumble of loose stones that seem to have been dislodged from the façade. As Reinhold
Martin has pointed out, the building ‘stages a narrative of passage without an end’ – its
access route ‘slides’ across the forecourt, meeting several dead-ends, and is deliberately
displaced from traversing the centre of the courtyard, whereupon it ‘leaks’ out across
the back.53
The perceived authority of the public museum is countered by the indeterminacy of
the visitors’ experience. This ambiguity is heightened by the building’s use of materials in
combination – mostly pale sandstone and travertine marble, into which are sliced brightly
coloured high tech elements – a snaking glass curtain wall with green steel mullions,
blue and red steel handrails, doors and roof canopies. These overt references to high-tech
Modernism (such as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou of 1972–6, or
Stirling’s own 1964 Engineering Faculty Building at the University of Leicester) were also
inverted – the structural steel members serve a decorative function in their application
over the stonework of the museum. With its many layered and fragmentary references,
James Stirling Michael Wilford and
Associates, Neue Staatsgalerie,
1977–84. Stuttgart © Richard Bryant/
both general and specific, the building is collagist in nature: it incorporates Greek,
Romanesque and Egyptian motifs, as well as quotations from Schinkel’s Altes Museum in
Berlin and Asplund’s Stockholm Library (to name only two of the many sources). It was a
perfect setting for artworks by the likes of Giulio Paolini, whose similarly theatrical essays
in classical sculpture were shown at the Staatsgalerie soon after its opening (pl. 19).54
Another textbook example of postmodernist pluralism – not coincidentally, also
centring on a public space – was Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (1976–9)
(see pl. 127, p. 117). Like Venturi and Scott Brown’s early collaboration on the planning of
South Street in Philadelphia, which recognized the architectural eclecticism and social
diversity of its downtown location, Moore’s Piazza was designed to reinvest an anonymous
urban area with a sense of community and inclusivity. Unlike Venturi and Scott Brown,
Moore could not draw upon the locale for direct visual reference as the site was surrounded
by bland and anonymous modern buildings, and no public space akin to a square existed.
So instead he opted for an audacious fiction inspired by the neighbourhood’s predominately
Italian population. Moore sought to encapsulate the idea of Italy displaced: as the German
curator Heinrich Klotz put it, ‘The Piazza risks making the poetical statement “Here is
Italy!” only to add immediately, with a sad smile “Italy is not here”.’55 As Patricia Morton
explains elsewhere in this book (pp. 116–19), the circular site (achieved by claiming space
from an adjacent development site) is the basis for a stage-set-like accumulation of
fragments which form a map of Italy, with a fountain in the middle of the space. All the
classical orders, including Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Moore’s own specially created ‘Deli’
order, are there in the colonnades. The Piazza d’Italia mixes memory and fiction, humour
and sentiment. Moore plays games with materials, using trompe l’oeil and other visual
tricks (the stainless steel columns are smooth, for example, but an effect of fluted marble
is achieved by courses of water running down them). Instead of the monumentality of a
formal square, the Piazza declares its own cultural hybridity, with a neon-decorated arcade
and casts of the architect’s own face (spouting water) in place of classical deities or putti.
This personal joke amongst the layers of more generally accessible visual puns and
references exemplifies the postmodernist idea of double coding. Most users of the square
could not be expected to recognize Moore, and even fewer would have known that his
doctoral research had addressed the relationship between water and architecture, a subject
on which he could conceivably have ‘spouted’ for some time.
Audaciously, Italy was also temporarily relocated to Japan by Arata Isozaki in his
design for the centre of Tsukuba Science City, completed in 1983. Like the Neue
Staatsgalerie, Tsukuba marked a prominent architect’s decisive turn to postmodernism.
It also reflected Isozaki’s fascination with ruins – both the ruins of modernity (Hiroshima)
and the more ancient ones of Rome – which he made explicit in a large-scale drawing
showing the site as if it had already fallen into a state of decayed wreckage (pl. 22).
Designed to take an overflow of population, and relocate in their entirety the universities
and research facilities from nearby Tokyo, Tsukuba began life as a manufactured community.
Ricardo Bofill, Les Espaces d’Abraxas,
1979. View of the Théâtre from the
upper level of the Palacio. Marne-laVallée, near Paris. Photograph by
Addison Godel
Ricardo Bofill, Architectural drawing
of the Palacio at Les Espaces d’Abraxas,
1979. Collage, graphite, marker and ink
on brown paper. Museum of Modern
Art, New York (379.1985)
Giulio Paolini, L’ Altra Figura
(The Other Figure), 1984. Plaster,
plaster fragments, plinths. Courtesy
of Studio La Città, Verona
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Overleaf: 22
Arata Isozaki, Tsukuba Town Centre in
Ruins, 1979–83. Watercolour on paper.
Deutsches Architekturmuseum,
The Presence of the Past
Isozaki himself found the commission to fill this ‘vacant lot’ to be oppressive: ‘Upon first
encountering this desolate textbook-designed modern city, I knew it was not the kind of
place where I would want to live.’56 His proposal was an elaborate piece of artifice, in which
he superimposed Michelangelo’s design for the Campidoglio in Rome in the central forum
of the complex, but reversed its topography, so rather than being found at the high point of
a hill (as in Rome) it is sunken into the well at the centre of the plaza. The building seemed to
collapse upon itself: an unusual example of postmodern architecture as outright social protest.
A similar principle of reversal was employed to spectacular effect in the forbidding
and enigmatically titled Les Espaces d’Abraxas, a public housing project by the Spanish
architect Ricardo Bofill (1979) (pls 20 and 21). Bofill’s office, the Taller de Arquitectura,
found great favour with the French authorities in the 1970s, leading to a number of major
commissions for public housing. Les Espaces d’Abraxas is in the dormitory new town of
Marne-la-Vallée, on the suburban train line out of Paris (appropriately adjacent to the
eventual site of Euro Disney). Bofill employed the language of the Baroque in a monumental
composition, which is organized around a number of ‘closed’ theatrical spaces and forms:
the Palacio (a housing block of 400 units), the Théâtre (another block of units, arranged
around an amphitheatre) and the Arc (a triumphal arch of apartments, set at the centre of
the amphitheatre). The complex is dressed throughout with monumental Baroque fragments:
friezes, colonnades and columns modelled in the negative. Bofill claimed his use of a
hierarchical, ‘noble’ architecture for public housing was a direct inversion of historical and
social values.57 The stage-set qualities of the site were highlighted when it was chosen as a
location for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, his postmodern take on George Orwell’s 1984.
The cinematic possibilities of postmodernist symbolic architecture were also realized
by Rem Koolhaas and his partner Madelon Vriesendorp. Koolhaas’ ‘retroactive manifesto’,
Delirious New York, was published in 1978, illustrated with Vriesendorp’s anthropomorphic
imaginings of skyscrapers cavorting in bed and the unlikely adventures of the Statue of
Liberty (pl. 23). At the end of the book, Koolhaas offered a little tale entitled ‘The Story of
the Pool’. The setting is Moscow, 1923. A student, inspired by the visionary architecture of
his day, designs and builds a floating swimming pool. Enthusiastic architects discover that
by swimming in synchronized laps, the pool can actually be propelled backwards, enabling
it to travel anywhere by water (pl. 24, see also pp. 136–9). The utopian thinking that
inspired the pool, however, falls under suspicion as the political situation in the Soviet
Union worsens in the 1930s. The architects decide to use the pool as a means of escape, by
swimming in unison to America, dreaming of their vision of a futuristic society of skyscrapers
and airships. But in order to do so, they must swim away from where they want to get to.
They finally reach Manhattan in 1976. They see the skyscrapers, but are disappointed by the
bland and uncouth populace they encounter. New York, in turn, does not favour the arrival
of the Constructivists. Modernism is over, and the pool an outmoded symbol of utopian
ambition. Instead, the postmodernist architects of New York reward their colleagues from
Moscow with a medal commemorating the passing of the historical avant-garde. Disgusted,
the Constructivists swim off again, only to collide with a giant plastic replica of Géricault’s
Raft of the Medusa, in use as a floating discotheque. ‘The Story of the Pool’ is a postmodern
parable. Modernism swims backwards towards the future, where it collides with history.
The tale is set against the backdrop of Manhattan, an urban testing ground for ‘the splendours
and miseries of the metropolitan condition’: a place of congestion and delirium, which
inspires ‘ecstasy about architecture’; a vision without theoretical formulation, whose theory
is simply that of Manhattanism. If Las Vegas is the city of depthless surface, Manhattan is
the place of fragments, sediments and endless mutations, layer upon layer of which leave
their trace upon the city.
Madelon Vriesendorp, Dream of
Liberty, 1974. Watercolour and
gouache. Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt-am-Main
Opposite: 24
Rem Koolhaas and Madelon
Vriesendorp, cutaway axonometric
drawing of the Welfare Palace Hotel
Project, Roosevelt Island, New York,
1976. Gouache on paper. Museum of
Modern Art, New York (1209.2000)
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Cut and Paste
Frank O. Gehry, The Gehry House,
1977–8. Santa Monica, California.
Photograph by Craig Scott
Adhocism in its fullest sense is able to contain its opposites, since impurity is always
a greater whole than purity.58
— Nathan Silver
Despite the efforts of Charles Jencks and other supporters, who carefully parsed the variants
of the new idiom, a wide range of architectural manners – Rossi’s symbolic melancholy,
Stirling’s compositional sophistication, Moore’s energetic post-Pop, Isozaki’s informed
criticism, Bofill’s grandiose bombast, and sometimes even Venturi and Scott Brown’s
socially engaged contextualism – were often treated as indistinguishable. Often they were
dismissed as ‘pastiche’, an imitative jumble of existing ideas. This accusation suggested
that postmodern architecture was merely the spasm of a profession in its death throes.
‘Irony’, too – a word that is used more often, and more indiscriminately, than any other in
relation to postmodernism – also underrates the achievement of the postmodernists, who
were up to much more than a series of arch jokes at history’s expense. The 1970s was not
a period of defeat or cynicism among architects, but a radically expansive moment. In its
years of emergence, postmodernism lived up to its ambition to replace a homogenous
visual language with a plurality of competing ideas and styles.
There is, therefore, no single technique that binds together the architecture and design
of 1970s postmodernism. Nonetheless, there is one method that the key players adopted
to a greater or lesser extent: bricolage. This is a term that we might initially associate with
fine art, particularly figures such as Robert Rauschenberg (pl. 28). Critic Leo Steinberg
referred to the artist’s assembled ‘Combines’ as being like the flatbed of a truck – as if the
picture plane’s job was just to carry whatever fell onto it.59 Of course, Rauschenberg did arrange
these elements according to a hermetic logic of his own devising. But this willingness to see
his own expressive means as a constant compromise was in itself a postmodern, pluralist
method. As American art historian Douglas Crimp wrote of Rauschenberg’s work in 1980:
Nathan Silver, Adhocist chair, 1968.
Steel gas pipe, plastic insulating foam
material, wheelchair wheels, bicycle
axles and bearings, auto bumper bolts,
chromed tractor seat, paint.
V&A: W.37–2010
Rauschenberg had moved definitively from techniques of production (combines,
assemblages) to techniques of reproduction (silkscreens, transfer drawings). And it is
that move that requires us to think of Rauschenberg’s art as postmodernist. Through
reproductive technology postmodernist art dispenses with the aura. The fantasy of a
creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerptation, accumulation,
and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality, authenticity, and
presence, essential to the ordered discourse of the museum, are undermined.60
Charles Jencks, The Garagia Rotunda,
1976–7. Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Robert Rauschenberg, Estate, 1963.
Oil and screenprinted inks on canvas.
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1967-88-1)
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Cut and Paste
Crimp here suggests one way that we might distinguish between postmodern bricolage
and earlier modernist collage (as in the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso, the ferocious Dada
assemblages of Hannah Höch, or the films of Sergei Eisenstein), which it often resembles.
Indeed, there are clear continuities between the two. For the modernists of the 1910s and
20s, ‘cut-and-paste’ technique was an expansion of formal and expressive means, and it
might direct attention to the instability of language. The Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno
suggested that modernist collage (or in film, montage) could be seen as a first step toward
the death of the author: ‘For the first time in the development of art, affixed debris cleaves
visible scars in the work’s meaning.’61 Yet this did not entail a radical ‘undermining’ of
artistic authorship, or any sense that the avant-garde might need to be replaced with a
new set of artistic values. Postmodern bricolage was a way to do just that, through an acute
self-awareness about medium and mediation, and a radical openness to the world beyond.
As Victor Buchli notes in his contribution to this volume (pp. 112–15), the concept of
bricolage was drawn originally from the writings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
In architectural discourse there was a clear lineage from his writings to a mature theory of
postmodernism. The key figure here is Jencks, whose 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern
Architecture did more than any other publication to popularize the term ‘postmodernism’,
and fix it as a topic for debate. Five years before, he had adopted the figure of the bricoleur
in Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation, written in partnership with the British architect
Nathan Silver. The book bridged the counter-culture of the late 1960s and Jencks’ later
formulations. (It could even be argued that his writing style, which patched together a
far-reaching argument through an assemblage of closely observed architectural criticism,
was ad hoc in method.) Silver and Jencks highlighted multivalence, fragmentation, and
Lévi-Strauss’s idea of bricolage as a practice that defined contemporary experience.
Gracing the cover of Adhocism was a chair designed by Silver, assembled from the seat of
an agricultural tractor, wheels from a wheelchair, standard gas pipe, and insulating foam
(pl. 25). Unlike much Italian Radical Design of the early 1970s, Silver’s chair was made
with a practical purpose in mind. Needing a form of seating that could cope with the rough
brick floors of his own home, he devised a rolling chair made from at-hand materials, and
employed a local engineering firm to manufacture it to the cost of £30 (half of which went
on the purchase of its four wheels). Its cover-star status was an afterthought.
Jencks also put ‘adhocism’ to use in his own home, the so-called Garagia Rotunda,
which he built in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1976–7 (pl. 26).62 The project was completed
for a grand total of $5,500, yet it was an ambitious building: a hybrid of the vernacular
shingle style, Queen Anne classicism, modernist gridwork and learned classical references.
Opposite: 29
Wolfgang Weingart, Kunsthalle Basel
Kunstkredit 76–77, 1977. Lithograph.
V&A: E.473–2009
Bernhard Schobinger, Scherben vom
Moritzplatz Berlin (Shards from
Moritzplatz, Berlin), 1983–4. Antique
crystal beads, television bulbs,
Coca-Cola bottle fragments, silver and
steel wire. Drutt Collection, Museum
of Fine Arts, Houston (2002.4062)
Cut and Paste
The plaster cast of a Medusa’s head kept watch at one end of the building, the front door
was marked with a twice-broken split pediment above the door, and of course the name
was a nod to Palladio’s domed Villa Rotunda. Jencks did all this on a shoestring budget,
principally by using inexpensive stock millwork – doors, spindles, railings and finials, all
bought off the rack – and a prefabricated garage, complete with a rolling door. The furniture,
too, was built almost entirely from standard 4 × 4 studs. Jokes abound – apart from the 14
different hues of blue paint (homage to the skies and waters of the Cape), the only other use
of colour is in the red-painted vertical elements used to carry the electrical wiring. Jencks’
nod to De Stijl also serves as a handy health and safety warning. The Garagia Rotunda was
knowing, and perhaps even academic, architecture, but it was also rough and ready. Jencks
was not present during the construction, a fact he noted proudly in his writing about the
project: his team of carpenters had been able to complete the house without supervision, or
even detailed working drawings. This was a ‘shed’ aesthetic, created using cheap and easily
obtainable parts. The house spoke the language of commercial building, not just symbolically
but through its means of construction. It broke all the rules of modernist appropriateness,
instead fulfilling all the principles of the ad hoc: speed, economy, improvisation, dissonance
and multivalence.
On the West Coast, a related essay in adhocist improvisation was being explored in
another architect’s residence: Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica (1977–8) (pl. 27). Gehry
started with an existing house, a typical family property with a shingled roof and brick
chimney on the corner plot of a residential street. Instead of demolishing the structure he
extended it, wrapping it in an enclosure made from chain-link fencing, timber siding, glass
and corrugated iron sheeting. The original house penetrates the new, a solid square which
looks as if it is pushing through its temporary and unstable surrounds. The cheapness,
banality and provisional nature of the materials (the most common materials, found on
any building site) give the house an unfinished appearance of technical and constructional
imperfection. It was aptly described by Heinrich Klotz as ‘an expressive rendering of
improvisation, and of the temporary, the unfinished and the jumbled together, through
narrative illustration.’63
Adhocist strategies were also employed in diverse ways outside architecture. In
graphic design, ‘cut and paste’ is given literal expression in the raw edges, glued overlaps
and overlaid films assembled on the designer’s light-box. In leaving these layers visible, the
assemblagist aspect of the designer’s work could be exposed. The approach was pioneered
by the Swiss graphic designer Wolfgang Weingart, who is widely credited for blowing apart
the rules of modern typography. Rather than abandon the modernist framework, Weingart
retained the grid in order to subject it to assault: pushing jagged images across its surface,
obscuring or curtailing words, sliding elements and images out of line, as in his Kunstkredit
exhibition poster of 1977 (pl. 29). This shuffling of fragments succeeded in creating a new
kind of graphic space, and influenced the work of American designers Dan Friedman and April
Greiman, who both studied under Weingart.
By its nature, bricolage relies upon the hand assembly of elements, and tends to bypass
technical drawing. This made it a suitable idiom for craft artists in the 1970s, many of whom
were involved in a palace revolt within their respective mediums. Over the preceding
decade the crafts had undergone a paroxysm of avant-garde activity. Makers were now
more likely to be trained in art schools than traditional workshops. Many sought to cut ties
with functionalist design and traditional crafts alike, and instead forged links with
contemporary sculpture. In California, the Funk movement (named after a 1967 exhibition
in Berkeley, California curated by Peter Selz), along with a healthy dose of bohemian
lifestyle, fuelled the visions of ceramists such as Richard Shaw, Ken Price, Ron Nagle and
Adrian Saxe, as well as the prodigious furniture maker Garry Knox Bennett (see pl. 126, p. 114).64
Makers like these brought exemplary technique to ad hoc combinatory practices, infusing
their decidedly odd objects with a single-minded sense of purpose. The Swiss jeweller
Bernhard Schobinger attacked his medium with even greater fury. Fuelled by the energy
of punk and industrial music, his bricolaged works were nonetheless assembled with a
connoisseur’s care. The prospect of lacerated skin was just one part of the extreme glamour
he offered his clients (pl. 30). Though nobody described these craft artists as postmodern
at the time, in retrospect they were ahead of the game, already infusing bricolage with a
refinement and intensity that would not be seen in other design fields until the 1980s.
Apocalypse Then
Ron Arad, One Off Shop, design and
production studio, 1984. London
Struggle, fracture and fragmentation are counter-images to that of the smooth surface
of post-Modernism … cracks that become faultlines, creating gaps that may yet prove
fruitful openings for the emergence of new patterns and forms.65
— Robert Hewison
By the late 1970s, it was clear that the energy required to depart from Modernism would be
found in the very force of Modernism’s collapse. The ‘death of the author’ bred a proliferating
range of authorial and interpretive strategies.66 Antipathy to narrow functionalism led to
an explosion of formal creativity. Distrust of progressive, teleological models of history
– ‘grand narratives’, in Jean-François Lyotard’s famous formulation – authorized a style
of disordered temporal fragments, in which past, present and future were folded into one
another.67 The phoenix-like promise of Mendini’s burning chair was now realized, as the
apocalyptic became an explosively generative idiom across every area of design.
The maestro of this approach was the singular Italian designer Gaetano Pesce, whose
apocalyptic leanings had already become clear in 1972. In that year he assumed the role
of archaeologist in his contribution to the landmark MoMA exhibition, Italy: The New
Domestic Landscape. Challenged to present a vision of future living, he circumvented the
expected role of designer by imagining instead the discovery of an underground dwelling
of the late twentieth century, excavated by archaeologists in the next millennium. Driven
below the face of the planet by total cultural collapse (what Pesce termed a ‘period of
great contaminations’), the inhabitants of this subterranean plastic world had retreated
to a life of isolation and self-destruction.68 All that was left were the fragments of their
last traumatic days, a fossilized modernity that rendered the material signs of progress
(plastic, technology) as a language of decay.
Pesce’s fascination with the lifecycle of objects was expressed the same year in the
Golgotha chair, a project for BracciodiFerro (literally, ‘arm wrestle’), which was an experimental
offshoot of the Italian company Cassina (pl. 31).69 The design was an enquiry into the nature
of ‘poor materials’ – a padded cotton sheet was soaked in resin and then suspended across
poles so it could be sat upon. As the resin hardened, the chair permanently assumed the
imprint of its brief occupant. Rather than assert the value of newness in an object, Pesce
created a shroud-like chair at the mid-point in its cycle of use, a process that will lead to
its eventual discarding. In a later variation on this theme, Pesce experimented with fixing
an object halfway through its own making. His Pratt chair design was produced as a limited
series in plastic (1983–4), each successive version using the same process of production,
but captured in a temporal moment of development (pl. 32). The first chair in the set is
frozen in a state of soft collapse, the third is strong enough to support a child, while the
ninth and final one is hardened to the point of uncomfortable resistance for the sitter.
Pesce’s fascination with death and decay echoes that of Jean Baudrillard in the early 1970s:
Gaetano Pesce (for BracciodiFerro), Golgotha
chair, 1972. Dacron-filled and resin-soaked
fibreglass cloth. Private collection. Courtesy
Gaetano Pesce Studio
From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it
is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own
sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the
ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal.70
Pesce’s idea that an object might offer an elucidation of its own eventual obsolescence or
decay was key to the postmodern strategies of the period. The tactic of designing objects
that seemed hardwired to self-destruct was both an articulation of the problematics of
Modernism, and a materialization of the punk slogan ‘no future’. In Britain alone, the
roster of designers working in the idiom was impressively diverse. In 1983 Ron Arad
(with his business partner, Caroline Thorman) opened the shop One Off, in an old warehouse
near London’s Covent Garden, as an extension to their studio practice (pl. 33). Arad’s
business had initially been built on his ingenious use of scaffolding components to make
furniture, using the Kee Klamp system (whose proprietary name aptly describes its
function). The results included his 1981 Rover chair made from reclaimed car seats and
tubular steel.71 Arad’s essays in industrial materials, including the iconic Concrete Stereo of
1983 (pl. 34), were paralleled by the experiments of other young designers such as Danny
Gaetano Pesce, Pratt chair (no. 3),
1984. Urethane resin. Courtesy
Gaetano Pesce Studio
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Ron Arad, Concrete Stereo, 1983.
Stereo system set in concrete. Museum
Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
(V 1166 a–d, KN&V). Photograph
courtesy of The Gallery Mourmans
(V&A: W.7–2011 exhibited)
Apocalypse Then
Lane (who specialized in stacked and smashed plate glass), as well as André Dubreuil, Mark
Brazier-Jones, Tom Dixon, and Nick Jones whose works in found objects and bashed metal
were created within a collective entitled Creative Salvage. All across London, artists and
designers were pursuing similar effects. The artist Paul Astbury fired scraps of clay and
bolted them to cardboard boxes and other objects, covering the resulting constructions
with lashings of paint, while Bill Woodrow cut into the sheet metal of white goods in order
to transform them into representational sculpture (pl. 35). Graphics and fashion literalized
the slogan ‘rip it up and start again’,72 with punk originators like Jamie Reid and Vivienne
Westwood continuing to explore the possibilities of bricolage, and Malcolm Garrett and
Zandra Rhodes following close behind.
Independent shops like Arad’s One Off and Westwood’s Nostalgia of Mud (see Claire
Wilcox’s essay in this volume, pp. 154–9) were essential to London’s entrepreneurial,
post-punk design culture. Not for the first time, of course; shops had been nodal connections
between clubs, magazines and the music scene for at least two decades. Yet the proliferation
of such establishments in the early 1980s was also a reflection of a new post-industrial
economy. Former docks were being converted for new uses, whilst Covent Garden, finally
vacated by its costermongers in the mid-1970s, was refashioned as a chic shopping district.
Retail culture eddied out from there, claiming the warehouses and back alleys of the
neighbouring area. Warehouses were repurposed as homes, offices and shops in ways that
mirrored the reconfiguration of disused urban spaces in Manhattan, Paris and other cities.
What had begun with ad hoc occupation by artists and designers continued with the
rebranding of these districts as part of a luxury lifestyle. Inevitably, the aesthetic of these
industrial spaces was the starting point for their reconditioning: there was a craze for
ruined concrete, battered metal sheeting, scaffolding, exposed wiring and pipework. As
well as scavenging the detritus of the industrial landscape, interior designers plundered
multiple style cults: 1940s and 50s Americana, rock’n’roll, hip-hop and Japanese kitsch.
The dockland sites of London also attracted the attention of a young group of architecture
students at the Architectural Association, led by their young tutor Nigel Coates.73 The collective,
which came together under the name NATØ (Narrative Architecture Today), combined the
processes of architecture with those of film-making, photography, magazine editing and
indiscriminate scavenging. Influenced by the French architect Bernard Tschumi, a more
senior figure at the AA, they explored narrative strategies for understanding the multiplicity
and layering of urban experience (pl. 36). Their starting points were clubbing, clothing and
music cultures; they embraced the then novel term ‘lifestyle’ for its liberating potential:
Nigel Coates and the NATØ group,
Concept drawing for Derek Jarman’s
ideal home from the exhibition
Starchoice at RIBA, 1984. Pastel
and acrylic on tracing paper.
V&A: E.1495–2010
We look for the overlap between the nightclub and the computer graphics screen.
We note clothing and music as the initial vehicles for this meshing, both of which have
managed to put expression into life-style. Meanwhile, in Albion decay and disorder
are heaped onto one another: invasion, reversal, perpetual upheaval, self-examination,
reality-as-fiction, enclosure, mechanical overkill.74
NATØ manifested itself in a series of imaginative and speculative urban projects, brought
together in their magazine of the same name, part fanzine, part manifesto, a bricolaged diary
of visual and textual fragments. Through their projects, NATØ recast post-industrial Britain
as Albion – a fusion in which the past and the present have hardened together like scar tissue.
It was an aesthetic that closely matched the film-making techniques of another Docklands
denizen, Derek Jarman. Coates and his NATØ colleagues envisioned a retreat for the
film-maker, in the form of a sprawling archaeological site (pl. 37). The project was unrealized,
but drawings showing Jarman as if he were a fragment of classical statuary remain.
The dystopian aesthetic of the times found its ultimate expression in Ridley Scott’s
1982 film Blade Runner, set in an imagined Los Angeles of 2019: a teeming cityscape of
dereliction and exhausted technology (pl. 61). The site was not a coincidental choice; LA
was already associated with radical levelling, as Charles Moore put it, ‘a model of the new
unhierarchy’ that had ‘poured itself’ across the landscape.75 In the film it was presented
as an amalgam of other cities, a stitch-up of Asian and Western urban fabrics evoking
Shanghai in the 1930s, the street markets of Hong Kong, the neon scenography of Tokyo,
and the Art Deco skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago. Garbage piles up and street gangs
roam free. Darkness, rain and the electrical crackle of the lights are incessant. The city is
cranked up to overload, crammed with detritus as if every future possibility has been
grafted on to the remains of its previous iteration. There is an obsessive level of style-sampling
in the film: Greek and Roman classical columns, Assyrian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids;
Soviet-style typography; 1950s automobiles, and antebellum interiors. The fashion styling
is alternately 1940s and futuristic, and the narrative itself is an impure mix of genres: film
noir meets sci-fi, a Chandleresque detective story with an electro soundtrack by Vangelis.
Set designer Syd Mead summed it up: ‘One of the principles behind designing this film
is that it should be both forty years in the future and forty years in the past.’76
The compression of past and present, time and space, were all part of the modus
operandi of postmodern design. As Blade Runner demonstrates, they could be employed in
the stylistic rendering of an anterior future – the future as it will have been. The architectural
subversions of the 1970s had been a clear articulation of this position. And as James Wines
shows in his contribution to this book (pp. 98–105), architects played out a kind of ‘nature’s
revenge’ upon the effects of modernization, such as the purposeful shattering of functional
structures (see Wines’ own series of stores for BEST Products, in which façades collapse
and nature intrudes). As with Gaetano Pesce, burial and excavation were a means by which
the symbolic nature of inhabited structures could be reasserted. The pre-ruined artefact,
building, landscape or garment was a conscious strategy for designers like Pesce and
Wines, Arad and Westwood, and film-makers like Scott and Jarman to historicize the future.
This was yet another means of articulating the crisis in Modernism, replacing a teleological
version of history with its archaeological equivalent. As Jarman put it:
My world is in fragments, smashed into pieces so fine I doubt I will ever re-assemble
them … So I scrabble in the rubbish, an archaeologist who stumbles across a buried
film. An archaeologist who projects his private world along a beam of light into the
arena, till all goes dark at the end of the performance, and then we all go home.77
Bill Woodrow, Twin-Tub with Guitar,
1981. Adapted washing machine. Tate.
Purchased 1982 (T03354). Photograph
by Edward Woodman
Narrative Architecture Today (NATØ),
no. 1, 1983
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
The New Wave
Though this position may remind one of the postmodern notion of the ‘death of the
author’, in fact Mendini’s editorial method was a clever way of extending his reach. At a
point in his career when he lacked the patronage of large manufacturers, his neo-Duchampian
strategy of ‘redesign’ – in which an existing thing was rearranged and/or decorated – was
a clever and expedient way to make a charismatic, photo-ready object. By transforming
an Art Deco chest of drawers into a jagged neo-Futurist collage, festooning a sofa with
ornament derived from Kandinsky paintings, or simply adding little flags to a Gio Ponti
chair, Mendini simultaneously mocked modernist art and design history, signalled his deep
knowledge of that same history, and made obvious his desire to supersede it (pl. 40).
His Proust chair of 1978 was the object that most successfully condensed these restless
energies, at least to judge from its subsequent notoriety (pl. 41). It was another paste-up
job: a title taken from literature, a form adapted from eighteenth-century Baroque
furniture (albeit swollen to improbable proportions), and decoration swiped from a
Pointillist painting by Paul Signac. This surface treatment was achieved through the
ingenious means of projecting a slide of the painting onto the chair, and daubing paint onto
its surface to match the dots.
The most explicit application of Mendini’s strategy of design-as-editing was Il Mobile
Infinito (‘Infinite Furniture’), launched during the 1981 Furniture Fair in an exhibition space
at the Architecture School of the Milan Polytechnic. Mendini’s explanations of the project
were grandiose, but also teasingly indeterminate:
Memphis appeared to many, especially to the young, not only as the ghost of hope,
the omen of a renewal and mutation, but as the answer that not only was it possible
to change but the change had already occurred.78
— Barbara Radice
Not all was doom and gloom at this key moment in the development of postmodern style.
Quite the reverse was true in Italy, where Radical Design had abandoned its former
austerity. Polka-dot chairs, teapots with wings, lamps that roll around on the floor: these
objects could easily have leapt from the pages of a cartoonist’s sketchbook. But behind this
seeming absurdity lay a very serious intent: to completely transform the space of operations
for design. As we have already seen, groups such as Archigram and Global Tools, as well as
individual practitioners like Gaetano Pesce, rethought their activities from the ground up
in the early 1970s, creating provisional, difficult objects. In the latter part of the decade,
this radical project went still further, abandoning the sense of a ‘ground’ entirely. The
covers of magazines like Domus and Modo depicted the designer floating in free space, with
no clear orientation (pl. 38). Political conviction, commercial imperatives, principles of
form and function: all had been jettisoned. Even radicalism itself, the critical posture of the
avant-garde, came to seem a distant memory. What was left?
That was the question confronted by the two principal figures in Italian design in these
years, Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, Jr. It is almost too easy to juxtapose the pair
as occupying oppositional roles: the intellectual pessimist and the sensual optimist. What’s
more, each stood at the head of a group that reflected his persona. For Mendini, this was
Studio Alchymia (or Alchimia). In 1978 he joined forces with Sottsass, Andrea Branzi, and
the architect and designer Alessandro Guerriero, who had founded a showroom of that
name two years previously. The aim of Alchymia was, as Mendini later wrote, to act
‘ambiguously outside the design itself, in a state of waste, of disciplinary, dimensional, and
conceptual indifference.’79 Sottsass founded Memphis in what his partner Barbara Radice
described as ‘an act of friendly secession’ from this nihilistic worldview.80 The collective
comprised his senior colleagues at Sottsass Associati, as well as several young designers
whose work had the breathless energy of a three-minute pop song. The formation of
Memphis in 1981 announced a more positive, forward-looking, and perhaps commercial
phase of Radical Design. As Sottsass put it, ‘All that walking through realms of uncertainty
… has given us a certain experience. Maybe we can navigate dangerous rivers, penetrate
jungles where no-one has ever been. There’s no reason for getting worked up. We can finally
make our way with ease; the worst is over.’81 It is also possible, however, to overplay the
distinction between the two groups. Despite the differences in rhetoric, they drew from a
common palette of materials, colours and compositional techniques. Though Alchymia was
strongly identified with the concept of banality, Memphis also employed materials that
could be seen as kitsch, notably plastic laminates. And there was considerable overlap in
personnel: Sottsass contributed to Alchymia, and Mendini to Memphis, while Branzi and
Michele De Lucchi were involved in both projects (pls 39 and 44). In certain respects,
Memphis was an extension of strategies first explored under the Alchymia umbrella.
So what were these strategies, and in what sense were they postmodernist – a word that
the Italians themselves preferred not to use? First and foremost, if earlier Radical Design had
emphasized direct experience, then Alchymia was all about its own mediation. This should
not be surprising, given that Mendini had been operating principally as a magazine editor
since he took over the helm at Casabella in 1970. He would go on to function in the same
capacity for Domus, Modo and Abitare, as well as writing a regular column for Artforum,
moving back and forth fluidly between the roles of designer, editor and critic. This gave him
a ready outlet for the promotion of his own work and that of his colleagues (much as Gio
Ponti had done at Domus decades earlier), and also set the methodological tone for his
design activities. Both the literal cut-and-paste work of assembling a magazine in the
pre-digital era and the more figurative editorial work of arranging other people’s ideas were
central to Mendini’s approach with Alchymia. As he puts it, ‘My experience editing magazines
gave me an interest in seeing design and architecture as a bit like conducting an orchestra
… I don’t always hold the last card; the cards are held by a lot of different people.’82
Il Mobile Infinito is an attempt to obtain a non-mediocre result from a collection of
mediocre conditions. Having said this, it is obvious that Il Mobile Infinito is not really
furniture, but an allegory, an ex-voto, a metaphor of other problems, a pendulum
Domus, no. 643, October 1983.
Designed by Giancarlo Maiocchi
Alessandro Mendini with Prospero
Rasulo and Pierantonio Volpini,
Redesign of a 1940s chest of drawers,
1978. Painted wood, mirror.
Private collection
Ettore Sottsass, Le Strutture tremano
(Trembling Structure) table, 1979.
Enamelled tubular metal, glass, plastic
laminate-covered wood. V&A: W.8–2010
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Alessandro Mendini, Proust chair,
1978. Wood and painted textile.
Private collection
The New Wave
held over the history of objects, a kind of banality carried through to its classical state.
More than furniture, then, Il Mobile Infinito resembles washing forever hung out to
dry, a library that constantly renews itself, a collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, an
arms store, a flower shop with a florist throwing away the faded flowers, a constellation
cast adrift between heaven and earth … Il Mobile Infinito is chatty, ill, mysterious,
fleeting, uncertain, dreamy-eyed (and attracts and collects in the pores of its skin the
maximum amount of mental dust around it). Il Mobile Infinito is ‘philosophical’
furniture, a desert where everything seems to happen but nothing ever does, that does
not exist because if it existed it would no longer be infinite.83
In practical terms, however, the only thing ‘infinite’ about Il Mobile Infinito seemed to be
the list of contributors to the project. Each part of each piece of furniture was designed by
a different person: ornaments by Branzi, lampshades by Sottsass, handles by Ugo La Pietra,
legs by Denis Santachiara, and so on. There was also an element of redesign. The interiors
of the furniture were veneered with patterned laminates designed decades earlier by
Italian modernists like Bruno Munari and Gio Ponti, and in one case Edvard Munch’s iconic
painting The Scream was appropriated as the face of a cabinet – an intensely expressive
image of alienation rendered as harmless décor, like a museum-bought postcard tucked into
a mirror at home (pl. 42). Though Mendini was the mastermind of this complicated scheme,
he relied on his Alchymia colleague Paolo Navone to organize the manufacture of the
furniture. The results shared not only the bricolaged quality of one of Mendini’s magazine
covers, but also the stylistic vocabulary that was already emerging as the postmodernist
lingua franca: floating shapes in bright, solid colours; slick, obviously artificial surfaces;
and intentionally awkward juxtapositions of linear and blocky elements.
Il Mobile Infinito was the most ambitious thing Studio Alchymia had ever done, and in
many ways was the group’s swansong. Though the group persisted for a few years, at least
in name, another exhibition held at exactly the same time would definitively shoulder
Alchymia from the spotlight. This was, of course, the inaugural presentation of Memphis,
held at the gallery Arc ’74 during the Milan Furniture Fair (the Salone del Mobile) in
September 1981. There are many ways of approaching the tangled topic of Memphis, which
was immediately recognized as a seismic disturbance in the design firmament. But perhaps
the best route is through its individual contributors. Though they were understood as a
band of like-minded enfants terribles – an impression that was fixed by the much-reproduced
image of the Milanese-based members sitting in Masanori Umeda’s tatami-mat boxing ring
bed (pl. 45) – in fact the chemistry of the group was much more complex than that.
Sottsass was obviously the leader. This was not only by virtue of his fame and charisma,
which lent him by this time the air of a guru (he was 64 when Memphis was launched), but
also because many of the other members worked as partners or staff designers in his firm.
Most influential among these, arguably, was the brilliant Michele De Lucchi, who had
met Sottsass through the Radical Design group Cavart in 1973. He had already created
convincing product designs in the postmodern style: a set of prototypes for the Italian
manufacturer Girmi (pl. 43). These pastel-coloured, toy-like objects – stylistically related
to the Sinerpica lamp he designed for Alchymia in 1978, and a coffee pot commissioned by
Cleto Munari the following year – were intended to put a friendly face onto appliances
that were normally functionalist and severe, like hairdryers and clothes-irons. Like the
Memphis objects that followed, these were stage props for a hyper-real life. They anticipated
the friendly, animated product designs of more recent years that have had such success on
the market – even at the time, as De Lucchi said, ‘everybody liked [them] but designers’
– but they did not go into production.84 They were, however, made famous through display
at the 1979 Milan Triennale, and through photographic reproduction. De Lucchi would go
on to be Memphis’ most important furniture designer apart from Sottsass himself, creating
(among many other designs) the group’s biggest seller, the First chair (1983), which looked
something like a diagram of an orbiting satellite.
Also drafted into Memphis from Sottsass Associati were four other members of the
firm, each of whom had extensive practical experience of work with corporate clients like
Olivetti. Matteo Thun was the scion of a well-to-do Austrian family, and had trained in
Florence under the architect Adolfo Natalini (of Superstudio). He proved to be the most
talented ceramic designer of the group, capable of satisfyingly resolving a complex semantic
soup of zoomorphic, ornamental and architectural elements into a single animated form.85
If there were any such thing as a ‘typical’ Memphis designer, Marco Zanini (not to be
confused with the fashion designer of the same name) might fit the bill. He was the
member of the group most engaged with glassware production, again apart from the
prolific Sottsass, and also designed furniture and ceramics. Like De Lucchi, Thun and other
members of the group, Zanini had come from the architectural scene in Florence, but was
only in his mid-20s when Memphis was founded. For him the formation of the collective
Alessandro Mendini with Andrea
Branzi, Ettore Sottsass, Mimmo
Paladino and Francesco Clemente,
Denis Santachiara and Ugo La Pietra,
Il Mobile Infinito cabinet, 1981. Wood,
paint and metal. Collection of Nick
Wright and Swati Shah, London
Michele De Lucchi (for Girmi),
Prototype toaster, hairdryer, iron and
egg timer, 1979. Painted wood. Museum
Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
(V 951 a–c,e, KN&V)
Andrea Branzi, Labrador sauceboat,
1982. Electroplated nickel silver and
glass. V&A: M.34–2010
Masanori Umeda, Tawaraya boxing
ring bed, 1981. Memphis members from
left: Aldo Cibic, Andrea Branzi, Michele
De Lucchi, Marco Zanini, Nathalie du
Pasquier, George J. Sowden, Martine
Bedin, Matteo Thun and Ettore Sottsass
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
The New Wave
marked a passage from ‘the utopias and illusions of the academies of architecture in the
seventies, to the reality of the designer’s profession’.86 Aldo Cibic was another relatively
junior partner, with minimal aesthetic leanings uncharacteristic of the group. His principal
contribution was to function as a project manager, ferrying drawings and prototypes back
and forth between the group and various fabrication firms.87
The fourth participating staff designer at Sottsass Associati, the British expatriate
George Sowden, formed both a personal and professional relationship with one of Memphis’
younger members, Nathalie du Pasquier. Only 24 when the group was founded, she
nonetheless made a dramatic impact through her pattern designs for laminates and
textiles, which bore the influence of her recent travels in Africa. Sowden, for his part, had
been working on the Sottsass Associati account with Olivetti, specializing in electronics.
He and Du Pasquier blended their expertise in an interesting Memphis spin-off project:
Objects for the Electronic Age (pl. 46). This series of small domestic products – boxes,
clocks, etc. – was meant to mark a theoretical transition between two phases in the history
of design. As Sowden puts it, ‘If mechanical design is about function, then electronic design
will be about decoration’ – because mechanical devices have substantive moving parts that
must be housed in an exterior shell, but an electronic device can be any shape. This was the
pair’s key insight: ‘Electronic age objects will be anything.’ The two designers took up
temporary residence at the Abet Laminati factory, quickly creating patterns and running
them through the machines. This allowed them to produce very limited runs of a particular
laminate for use on a particular design: ‘one-off pieces made with an industrial process’.88
Martine Bedin, a childhood friend of Du Pasquier’s from Bordeaux, was another of the
Memphis ‘young bloods’. Her Super lamp is an excellent example of how the group absorbed
the ideas of its participants (pl. 47). Bedin had thought up the colourful lamp on wheels
several years earlier. After she attracted notice for an ornament-rich installation entitled
La Casa Decorata at the 1979 Milan Furniture Fair, she met Sottsass, leading to an invitation
to join Memphis. When Sottsass saw her drawing for the Super lamp he asked her about it,
and she explained that she had wanted something she could take with her anywhere – ‘I can
carry it behind me, like a dog.’89 This was just the sort of insouciance that he was looking
for, and the Super became one of the stars of the first Memphis collection. Bedin (whose
father was an electrical engineer) was given responsibility for managing production of most
of the rest of the Memphis lighting as well.
In addition to the close-knit family of Italians and expatriates gathered in Milan,
Sottsass also drafted a handful of international designers into the group, among them
Michael Graves, Kuramata Shiro, Masanori Umeda and Javier Mariscal. This had the double
advantage of lending the project prestige and broadening Memphis’ aesthetic palette.
Graves’ neo-Art Deco Plaza vanity (pl. 210, p. 233), Kuramata’s confetti-coloured terrazzo
tables, Umeda’s action-figure-like Robot cabinet, and Mariscal’s animated Hilton bar
trolley, leaning back as if it were rolling downhill at top speed, were all typical expressions of
their designers’ personal styles (pl. 48). In the Memphis context, however, they contributed
to an impression of a shared postmodern project, a ‘new wave’ of design that would sweep
all before it.
Just how far one could ride that wave is clear from the career of Los Angeles-based
ceramist, sculptor and furniture designer Peter Shire, who was the figure from abroad who
participated most enthusiastically in Memphis (pl. 52). Prior to his alliance with the group
he had been known mainly for his teapots, essays in postmodernist bricolage that he had
been making since the early 1970s. These looked completely non-functional (though he
always ensured they could in fact pour well) and incorporated influences from Pop Art,
California ‘Googie’ architecture, and surf and hot rod culture. Sottsass became aware of
Shire’s work in the unlikely context of the West Coast lifestyle publication Wet, which had
run a feature on Shire in which he commented, ‘My work doesn’t even relate to my own
lifestyle. I’m not much of a tea-drinker … Actually my first impulse is to put Coke in teapots.
I’m a big Coke drinker and I’d love to see Coke flowing out of the teapots and foaming on
the ground.’ (pl. 49)90 Sottsass immediately recognized that Shire would bring to the group
a welcome dose of humour and colour – what Barbara Radice later described as ‘plastic
color, hot dogs, sundaes, artificial raspberry colour’.91
After a get-acquainted trip to Milan, Shire set to work with his customary enthusiasm,
not in his usual medium of ceramics but in metalwork and furniture. Among his first
Nathalie du Pasquier, Gracieux accueil
(Gracious Reception) box, 1983.
Wood, metal and plastic laminates.
V&A: W.32–2010
George Sowden, Heisenberg clock,
1983. Painted steel and clock parts.
V&A: W.22–2010
Martine Bedin (for Memphis), Super
lamp prototype, 1981. Painted metal,
lighting components. V&A: M.1–2011
Javier Mariscal (for Memphis), Hilton
bar trolley, 1981. Painted metal trolley
with shaped crystal glass and
industrial casters. V&A: W.15–2010
Opposite: 49
Peter Shire, Bel Air chair, 1982.
Laminated wood and wool upholstery.
V&A: W.19–2010
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Opposite: 50
Cinzia Ruggeri, Homage to
Lévi-Strauss dress, Autumn/Winter
collection 1983–4. Double silk.
V&A: T.20–2010
Ettore Sottsass (for Memphis),
Casablanca sideboard, 1981.
Plastic laminate over fibreboard.
V&A: W.14–1990
The New Wave
designs for Memphis was the iconic Bel Air chair, which featured a brightly coloured
beach-ball of a rear foot and an asymmetrical shark-fin back (pl. 49). Shire was thinking
partly of similar forms used by the American sculptor H.C. Westermann, but also of the
Stevens House by architect John Lautner, located on the ‘surfer beach’ in Malibu. Like all the
early Memphis furniture, the chair’s title was taken from the name of a hotel – in this case,
a five-star establishment in Beverly Hills. (Shire says he wanted to give it the more punning
title Bone Air, as in ‘debonair’, but Sottsass preferred not to; he used it anyway a few years
later, pl. 52.) This ‘branding’ strategy, originally Radice’s idea, was perhaps intended as a
subtle joke about the limited run and craft production of Memphis objects, which inevitably
made them luxury goods. But according to Shire the main purpose of the titles was to lend
a sense of coherence, much in the manner of a thematic couture collection.92
At the edges of Alchymia and Memphis, artists in other fields also flourished, such as
the photographer Giancarlo Maiocchi, who designed a two-year series of covers for Domus
magazine under the label Occhiomaggico; and the fashion designer Cinzia Ruggeri. If
Memphis objects were like props for a stage performance, then Ruggeri provided the
requisite costume. Her dress Homage to Lévi-Strauss (a reference to the French anthropologist)
featured a bold ziggurat profile and a vivid green colour, making its wearer a match for any
Sottsass sideboard (pl. 50). Ruggeri also undertook futurist experiments with clothing,
inserting LED lighting into the fabric or installing micro-ventilators that inflated the
garments when they were worn.
As is clear from this extensive roster of participants, Memphis was in every sense
a group effort – an alignment of pre-existing tendencies that lent credence to the fact
that there was a ‘New International Style’, as the collective’s first promotional materials
claimed. But, inevitably, Sottsass played the starring role. He was the group’s de facto
spokesman, issuing proclamations like, ‘The only thing I know is that Memphis furniture
is very intense and that it can only live with very intense people, very highly evolved and
self-sufficient people’.93 Sottsass’ prominence was further enhanced by the fact that the
other ‘front person’ for Memphis was Radice, who wrote fiercely intelligent manifestos on
the group’s behalf. It was Sottsass’ work that spoke loudest, however. He seemed to have
boundless energy, working across more media than any other Memphis designer – furniture,
metal, ceramic, glass, even a television – and producing the group’s most iconic objects.
And like other members in the group, he seamlessly integrated his previous design
approach into the new brand; as Radice put it, ‘almost all the Memphis ideas, in a less
virulent, clear, and emblematic form, had already been in his work for twenty years’.94
Yet it was precisely the emblematic quality of Sottsass’ Memphis designs that made
them so devastatingly effective. His furniture, in particular, has assumed symbolic status as
the sine qua non of 1980s design (pl. 51). The principal material used to make it was plastic
laminate: cheap, artificial and dimensionless, a surface seemingly without inherent
properties apart from its role of being a surface, a role which it performs without inflection.
Memphis was funded, in large part, by Abet Laminati (it is only a slight exaggeration to say
that Memphis served as a publicity stunt for the company) and Sottsass was not shy in
putting their products front and centre. Away with your Modernism, Sottsass seems to say.
This too is a possible truth about materials: sheer theatrical effect, only skin deep. Like
other Memphis objects, his Casablanca and Carlton sideboards could be used in a domestic
interior despite their oddly canted shelves (as Sottsass was fond of saying, books always
fall over anyway), but they were made principally for the purpose of taking a photo. As
Peter Shire has observed, ‘Memphis was of the media. There was never any problem with
colour separations, it always reproduced true, because we were using synthetic colours in
the first place. The priority was to go for the image. The difference was between its existing
and not existing.’95
So where did Memphis objects go, once they had been produced and reproduced? As so
often in the 1980s, it is helpful to follow the money. Dealers played a key role in making the
‘new international style’ a reality; even projects as well capitalized as Memphis could not
have succeeded without the support of a new retail environment, in which design galleries
were styling themselves after their fine art counterparts. The New York gallery Art et
Industrie was a pioneer in this regard. Its proprietor Rick Kaufmann leveraged early shows
of Alchymia and Memphis to support the careers of several home-grown American
furniture designers, all of whom approached their work as a form of sculpture.96 The stable
Peter Shire seated in Bone Air chair,
c.1985. Photograph by Kevin LaTona
Opposite: 53
Howard Meister, Nothing Continues
to Happen chair, 1980. Painted birch
plywood. V&A: W.6–2010
included neo-modernists such as Forrest Myers, ‘fantasy furniture’ makers like Terence
Main, and Howard Meister, whose Nothing Continues to Happen chair (inspired by images
Meister had seen of the latest Italian provocations) became one of the widely circulated
postmodern designs (pl. 53). The chair was hand-carved from MDF and then painted a flat
grey to mimic ruined concrete: an emblem of disintegration reminiscent of Mendini’s ritual
torching of a similarly Platonic chair form several years earlier. This was a chair for looking
at, rather than sitting in, and though it was published extensively in magazines and design
books, only three were ever made. Art et Industrie’s strategy was not necessarily very
profitable – as Kaufmann puts it, ‘Sales were a struggle all the way through … that usually
shows that you’re doing something right’ – but designs like Meister’s achieved a level of
exposure at odds with their availability.97
Keith Johnson’s firm Urban Architecture, based in Detroit until 1998, was another key
conduit between Italian design and American buyers. Johnson got his start while working
as an inner city loft developer in ‘Motown’ in the 1970s. This work brought him into contact
with stylish lighting and furniture firms such as Artemide and Driade, and he soon shifted
from importing products for his own buildings to acting as a dealer and distributor for the
Italians. Johnson remembers cold-calling executives featured in Fortune magazine as a way
of drumming up clientele (among the buyers he secured in this fashion was Asher Edelman,
the noted corporate raider and arts patron who inspired the character Gordon Gecko in the
1987 film Wall Street, which also featured some of Meister’s furniture). This bold approach
to salesmanship led to his becoming one of the first to handle Memphis design in the United
States, eventually becoming their sole American distributor in 1985.98
Despite the efforts of middlemen like Kaufmann and Johnson, Sottsass never had any
real intention of making money out of Memphis – he considered it a sideline and an
antidote to his lucrative corporate work. Even the group’s most famous pieces, like Graves’
Plaza, Shire’s Bel Air and Sottsass’ Carlton, sold fewer than 50 copies over the course of the
1980s. Memphis, then, was never built to last. In its second year, 1982, Sottsass was already
saying, ‘I would be terrified to think that Memphis may carry on as it is for 10 years, or even
only five.’99 That proved to be about right. The collective did undergo several dramatic
changes in tactics over its short lifespan, turning to a more luxurious set of materials for
its second collection and then experimenting with mass production in its third (which
included De Lucchi’s First chair), all the while undergoing internal paroxysms at the
implications of any form of commercial success. Perhaps it was inevitable that an attempt
would be made to make Memphis profitable, given the enormous influence of the group
in the marketplace of style. (As one design buyer reportedly said, when some of the young
Memphis designers first paid a visit to London, ‘My immediate reaction is that all this is
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
irrelevant to serious design. But, God help me, this lot is our next generation of customers.’)100
In practice, this took the form of a transfer of ownership. While other possibilities were
debated, including ownership by the designers themselves, the original partnership
structure (see Catharine Rossi’s essay in this volume, pp. 160–5) was dissolved. In 1987
the Memphis name and the right to reproduce the designs were sold to the entrepreneur
Alberto Albricci.
At around the same time, Sottsass announced that as far as he was concerned, it was
over. Bedin recalls the scene: ‘That created an incredible reaction – very Commedia
dell’Arte, very Italian, though we weren’t all Italian. De Lucchi, who has a very low voice,
was screaming at him: “Ettore, you can’t leave us!” But Ettore said, “It’s like a love story.
When you get used to it, you have to quit”.’101 That was one way of understanding the
unravelling of Memphis; the other was that the commercial sphere had bested this attempt
to ridicule its own imperatives. You can almost hear Mendini’s taunting words on the
subject hovering in the background: ‘What pleasure we get, what intellectual exercise, from
this egotistic exploring of markets, catalogues, seductive shop-windows, advertisements,
other people’s houses … the more you repudiate this immoral demon of temptation, the
more it bobs up and wins again.’102 Yet even if its residual radicalism was drowned out by the
ringing of cash registers, Memphis had a huge impact on design. It inspired many outright
imitations and, more generally, a looser, more art-oriented, and above all more permissive
visual language. Memphis showed that innocuous, domestic things – sideboards and
teapots – could play a part in the hyper-real life of the postmodern subject: a life lived
as if always on stage.
Jean-Paul Goude, Preliminary
photograph for Grace Jones Revised
and Updated, 1978. Photographic print
Synthetic Identities
Fame, gonna drive me insane,
like it drove you away from me.
Fame, all alone with my name,
even that don’t belong to me.103
— Grace Jones
Are you for real?104
— Zhora from Blade Runner
Before theorists started to talk the talk – before Judith Butler anatomized gender identity
as a performative act, and before Donna Haraway delivered her cryptic pronouncement that
‘we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism’ – performers
of all kinds were already walking the postmodern walk.105 Dancers and choreographers; art
directors for sci-fi films, pop promo videos and style magazines; performance artists; drag
queens; pop stars; disc jockeys; cabaret singers, partygoers, poseurs and nightclubbers:
these were the unlikely authors of the first visualizations of postmodern identity.
In the 1970s diversity was a rhetoric within professional design practice, but not a
reality. Even in the most radical architectural enclaves, where postmodern pluralism was
embraced as a guiding principle, straight white men dominated the profession. Women
such as Gae Aulenti and Denise Scott Brown faced routine discrimination.106 Underground
performance culture, however, was an entirely different matter. The roots of this ‘scene’
can be found in jazz clubs, illicit gay bars, and bohemian art culture, and most of its key
innovators were female, gay, black, or otherwise ‘other’. In this context alterity could itself
be the basis of professional identity. The names said it all: Steve Strange; Klaus Nomi
(‘no-me’); Public Enemy. And yet, paradoxically, it was these apparently marginal figures
who brought postmodern ideas their greatest fame. Performers in various disciplines
brought techniques like quotation and self-referentiality to a much wider audience than
even the most commercially successful designers of chairs, teakettles and buildings.
Over the course of a few short years, they managed to rewrite the rules of pop culture.
In many respects, postmodern performance strategies resembled those being explored
elsewhere in design. Performers deconstructed and re-assembled. They worked in a language
of pastiche. But to this basic toolkit they added further layers of complexity, combining
visual style (dress, graphics and stage sets) with music, movement and words, fully
realizing postmodernism’s potential for interdisciplinary crossover. Most importantly,
they drew explicit attention to the mediation of their own work, creating (in Kate Linker’s
words) ‘shimmering synthetic appearances that flaunt their artificial origins’.107 As we have
Jean-Paul Goude, Preliminary collage
for Grace Jones Revised and Updated,
1978. Cut-up Ektachrome
Opposite: 56
Jean-Paul Goude, Grace Jones Revised
and Updated, 1978. Photographic print
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
seen, being media-friendly was an important aspect of Memphis and other New Wave
design, but that fact was left largely tacit. For performers, by contrast, the operations of
stage and screen were a topic of obsessive interest. The means of reproduction, like TV and
magazines, were taken up as primary content. As the literary critic Larry McCaffery noted
at the time, this was a natural response to the postmodern condition:
and exploitation to a broader public, the potentially disruptive energies of the subculture
are controlled, and the hegemony of mass culture is continually re-asserted.113 Whether
this just-so story is ever valid is hotly debated by theorists.114 In the case of postmodernism,
however, it is clear that it does not apply in at least one key respect: the processes of
mediation and commoditization were factored in all along, so how could there be a
moment of ‘selling out’? Tricia Rose has made this point about the supposed commoditization
of hip-hop music:
This is a milieu of near-infinite reproducibility and disposability, a literal and
psychological space that has been radically expanded by recent video, computer,
digital, Xerox, and audio developments, by technology’s growing efficiency in
transforming space and time into consumable sounds and images, and by the
population’s exponentially increased access to cultural artifacts which can be
played, re-played, cut-up, and otherwise manipulated by a casual flick of a switch
or joystick.108
Hip hop’s explicit focus on consumption has frequently been mischaracterized as a
movement into the commodity market (i.e., hip hop is no longer ‘authentically’ black,
if it is for sale). [But] hip hop’s moment(s) of incorporation are a shift in the already
existing relationship hip hop has always had to the commodity system.115
For the most part, theorists of postmodernity were inclined to see this expanding empire
as terrifyingly anti-human. (As Lyotard memorably put it, ‘We are like Gullivers in the
world of technoscience: sometimes too big, sometimes too small, but never the right
size.’)109 They portrayed the mass media as manipulative, its simulations tending to erode
authentic experience and put in its place an all-conquering ‘society of the spectacle’.110
But what if being spectacular is your primary objective? For some postmodern
performers, acting out the part of a celebrity was an expressive act in its own right. As
Rosetta Brooks, the editor of avant-garde style magazine ZG, put it, ‘The poser is his/her
own ready-made art object … whose circulation is not the microcosm of the art world but
the self-consciously constituted clique.’111 While it might be possible to see such figures as
tools of the ‘culture industry’, it is hard not to feel that when they hit the stage or screen,
they were very much in charge. This is certainly true of Grace Jones, for example. After
emerging in the late 1970s as the doyenne of New York’s underground club and disco scene,
Jones worked with her lover, the stylist Jean-Paul Goude, to fashion herself into an iconic,
even superhuman character. Photographed in a maternity dress that looked like a Memphis
sideboard, perched atop a Mendini-esque ziggurat, or appearing on stage alongside a
phalanx of masked Jones clones, she exploited the vocabulary of postmodern style to
devastating effect. The truest portrait made of her during these years was probably the
cover of the album Island Life, fabricated by Goude out of many separate photographic
fragments (pls 54–6). The resulting image showed her in a seamless arabesque – a potent,
hyper-real action figure. (Will the real Grace Jones please stand up? Why would she want to?)
Jones might be taken as emblematic of postmodern performance, too, in the way her
career progressed. She got started by playing in the New York disco scene, frequently to gay
audiences. By the 1980s, she was at the top of the charts and starring in Hollywood action
films. To some extent, this passage from the underground to the mainstream was the shape
of postmodern performance in general. It first blossomed underground, a hybrid of glam,
punk, funk and drag. Then, it moved through a great churning mill of clubs and fringe
venues, breaking out into popular culture via large-scale engines of style like MTV (Music
Television, launched in 1981) with unprecedented speed. To this day, the postmodern
techniques of self-regard, irony and exaggeration form the bedrock of the commercial
pop repertoire (witness Lady Gaga). This arc conforms to the customary course of stylistic
diffusion, already explicated in 1970 by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock:
Leigh Bowery posing during a
performance at the Anthony d’Offay
Gallery, London, 1988. Photograph
by Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features
From this perspective, the disruptive potential of postmodern genres such as hip-hop were
actually implemented rather than de-fanged when they were taken up by the culture industry.
Take another example: Leigh Bowery. An Australian-born club denizen, resident in
London, Bowery fashioned himself into a ‘living artwork’ through extraordinary, bodydistorting costumes of his own design and make. Alterity was at the heart of his activities.
He was a front-man for the nightclub Taboo, contributed outfits to Michael Clark’s radical
dance company, and started a band called Minty which was notorious for, among other
things, its graphic on-stage depiction of a birthing process (with Bowery in labour). In 1988
While charismatic figures may become style-setters, styles are fleshed out and marketed
to the public by the sub-societies or tribe-lets we have termed subcults. Taking in
raw symbolic matter from the mass media, they somehow piece together odd bits of
dress, opinion, and expression and form them into a coherent package: a life style
model. Once they have assembled a model, they proceed, like any good corporation,
to merchandise it. They find customers for it.112
By the time of Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book Subculture, Toffler’s skeletal account of mainstream
absorption had become the basis for a satisfyingly thorough analysis of the operations of
style. The thinking went like this: as new ideas migrate from their niche or avant-garde
position and then proliferate, at first through an ‘in-crowd’ and eventually via appropriation
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Synthetic Identities
he staged a week-long performance at London’s Anthony d’Offay Gallery in which he
displayed himself in a variety of costumes behind a one-way mirror (pl. 57). An object in
a vitrine, he nonetheless looked at himself posing and therefore shared in the voyeuristic
gaze of the visitor.
Clearly Bowery was not bidding for mainstream acceptance. Yet gradually his ideas
permeated the worlds of cutting-edge fashion and art. Even before his death of AIDS in
1994 he was one of the most name-checked figures in London’s art and fashion worlds,
and he is regarded today as something like a national treasure. At first this looks, again,
like the defusing of an avant-garde gesture – initially shocking, eventually mainstreamed.
But it should be remembered that, for all Bowery’s outrageousness, he was camera-ready
from the beginning, and highly conscious that ‘image’ was his principal medium. Already
in 1983 he was modelling his clothing at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and in
fashion shows, and he appeared on catwalks and on television throughout the decade. The
same year that he appeared at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery he staged a similar performance
in the window of a Japanese department store, demonstrating his indifference to the
distance between art and commercial venues. Even for this most seemingly indigestible of
radical performance artists, finding an audience and holding its attention was a constant
preoccupation – in some ways, the point of the whole exercise. Bowery’s intelligence as
a designer and performer was premised on the infrastructure of fame.
Another fascinating instance is the case of ‘voguing’. This concept was made famous
by Madonna, the queen of pop, in 1990:
Brown and Robert Venturi brought to Las Vegas. This studied neutrality of style – detached,
a little artificial – was common in 1980s pop. Bands like Talking Heads and Eurythmics
delivered vocals, conventionally the most expressive aspect of rock music, in a flat
monotone. Musical inflection was now located not in the singer’s voice and lyrics – what
the song meant – but rather in the song’s mediation, how it worked: its technical fabrication
through samples and synthesizers, and its subsequent distribution through recordings,
videos and live performance.119
The American band Devo was exemplary in this regard. Their name was derived from
an apocalyptic theory of ‘Devolution’ developed by founders Gerald Casale, Bob Lewis and
Mark Mothersbaugh while they were students at Kent State University in the early 1970s.
Casale writes:
Visage, Fade to Grey album (UK
release), 1980. Make-up by Richard
Sharah, hair by Keith of Smile, clothes
by Judith Frankland, photograph by
Robyn Beeche. V&A: E.231–2011
Devo, Freedom of Choice album (USA
release), 1980. Photograph by Joep
Bruijnje. V&A: E.230–2011
Kraftwerk, The Man-Machine album
(German release), 1977. Artwork by
Karl Klefisch, photograph by Günther
Fröhling. V&A: E.48–2011
There’s no question that we exhibited post-modern trends before we knew of the label.
Our Dadaist send-up of the modernist idea of progress and technological utopia was at
the core of the Devolutionary aesthetic that we so stridently advanced. We attacked
the thin veneer of certainty posited by what we saw as a gang of illegitimate authority
(cops, preachers, TV hucksters, psychologists, etc). We asked the seminal question
‘Are We Not Men?’ and gleefully proclaimed the answer.120
Overleaf: 61
Blade Runner, 1982.
Directed by Ridley Scott
By the time they hit the mainstream in 1980 with their album Freedom of Choice, Casale
and Mothersbaugh had designed a sophisticated ‘fashion/anti-fashion’ look composed of
silvery Naugahyde suits and vacuum-formed headgear (the iconic ‘Energy Domes’) (pl. 59).
Whether they were on stage, in magazines, or starring in videos broadcast during the first
years of MTV, Devo projected an unnervingly ‘post-human’ quality.121
In Germany, a similar approach was being pursued by Kraftwerk, who emerged from
the experimental electronic music scene in Düsseldorf in 1970. Appropriately for a band
whose name translates as ‘power plant’, they fully embraced the idea of technological
determinism. (Asked about their instrumentation, Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter and Florian
Schneider would reply, ‘We play the studio’, rather than guitars and keyboards.)122 For their
1978 album The Man-Machine, they re-fashioned themselves in the image of their own
‘robot pop’ music, having themselves depicted as androids on the neo-Constructivist record
sleeve and in music videos (pl. 60). On one track, the group intoned:
Ladies with an attitude
Fellas that were in the mood
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it
The term had perhaps been drawn to Madonna’s attention two years earlier, when it was
adopted by the omnipresent subcultural gadfly of postmodernism, Malcolm McLaren, for
his single ‘Deep in Vogue’. The song was a tribute to the drag queens of New York City, such
as Paris DuPree (a kindred spirit of sorts to Grace Jones), who had invented voguing a decade
earlier. According to disco historian Tim Lawrence, African-American transvestites would
flip open a fashion magazine – not necessarily Vogue, but it was a popular choice – to a
random page, and adopt whatever pose they found there.117 It was one way of ‘throwing
shade’ (displaying attitude) on the dance floor. So when Madonna hit No.1 in the pop charts
and got herself into fashion magazines yet again, she was returning the practice to its
origins. Voguing was always already mediated.
Postmodern performances are almost always built around these recursive effects.
The music video for the 1980 song ‘Fade to Grey’, by the pop group Visage, is typical in its
attitude, though superlative in its realization (pl. 58). The band’s singer, Steve Strange, is
first shown plunging from a town car into a scrum of fashionistas (a nod to his real-life
activity as impresario of London’s Blitz Club). Photographers gather around him and his
beautiful young male companion: he is the centre of media attention. Then we ourselves
are looking at him, in close-up. He stares back, eyes wide in deadened astonishment,
pseudo-Cubist make-up dividing his face. Moments later he is broken into fragments
through montage: an eye and a pair of rouged lips, patches in the darkness slowly coalescing
into a face. Then, true to the song’s title, he fades away into nothing. Meanwhile, Strange
sings of alienation:
We’re functioning automatik
And we are dancing mechanik
We are the robots 123
At the press launch for the album, they appeared in person for only five minutes, allowing
most of the event to be handled by four inert showroom dummies. Kraftwerk was an early
and unusually extreme example of the performer as completely synthetic creation. They
were early adopters of an important postmodernist motif, which might be termed the
‘authentically inauthentic’ subject.124 The idea is perhaps best known from Blade Runner
(pl. 61) which features characters called ‘replicants’ who are physically and mentally
superior to humans but are in fact commodities, fabricated by a corporation to provide
free labour. Poignantly, one of the replicants, Rachel, is unaware of her own status as an
artificial life form. Her tragic, amnesiac, and completely constructed identity is a template
for the postmodern condition.125
In New York City, the performance artist Laurie Anderson was engaging with a similar
range of ideas. But if groups like Visage and Kraftwerk were radically reductive in their
approach, she used ‘deadpan’ as a springboard, creating a dazzling repertoire of synthetic
effects. Anderson’s work resists both disciplinary categorization and easy understanding.
It is wilfully scrambled and indeterminate, but also politically committed and poetically
evocative. (As the Marxist scholar Marshall Berman once put it, she is ‘ironic, maybe
quixotic, but the more determined for all that’.)126 Anderson is above all a storyteller, but
her tales are invariably non-linear. She has noted that ‘language can be very fragile – it can
be used in so many different ways’, and she fashions her persona out of fragments, as if her
words and music had fallen to the floor and she were picking up the pieces.127 Stray bits of
media broadcast, political speeches and the sweet nothings of lovers are all set to a
One man on a lonely platform
One case sitting by his side
Two eyes staring cold and silent
Show fear as he turns to hide 118
He presents himself as a postmodern subject: an object of constant fascination who is
only a cosmetic shell, an identity formulated through a process of disintegration. Strange’s
impassive voice and mask-like face recall, too, the ‘deadpan’ methodology that Denise Scott
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Synthetic Identities
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
dizzying soundtrack of jazz, classical orchestration, Steve Reich-style minimalism, and
transcendent chorale. Her lyrics, too, occupy a tonal never-never land, caught somewhere
between a public address announcement, deconstructivist theory and modernist poetry.
In the song ‘From the Air,’ for example, Anderson imagines her anonymous addressee as
a postmodern subject in freefall, and in need of consolation. Whether she provides it or
not is not obvious.
allows Anderson to shift fluidly among various ‘modes of address’, each of which seems to
signify a different stereotype, a different perspective on the world.129 Out of all this, though,
arises a powerfully unified artistic vision – an act of synthesis encapsulated in the punning
title of Anderson’s sprawling 1983 masterpiece United States.
Anderson’s work, with its eclectic bricolage of performance disciplines, is all about
assuming different guises – a fragmentary persona built around a teasingly unknowable
core. Her work might be considered a polymorphous, staged equivalent to Cindy Sherman’s
rather more focused photographic project Untitled Film Stills (1977–80). With their
combination of specific narrative and absent identity, these images are an inevitable
reference point for postmodernism in art history (pl. 65). If Grace Jones and Jean-Paul
Goude used a single image to assemble an identity from parts, Sherman achieved the same
end through an open, fragmentary series. Nor is there a huge gap between the work of
Pictures Generation artists – that is, Sherman and her conceptualist colleagues such as
Richard Prince and appropriationist Sherrie Levine, so-named for a group exhibition of
1977 – and the popular image-making that they mined so effectively (pl. 64). Fashion
photography in this period often employed the same combination of quotation and impending
violence that one finds in Sherman’s work.
And how different, really, are a Sherman film still and the portrait of Boy George, Steve
Strange’s friend and fellow Blitz Club habitué, taken at the Richmond Holographic Studios
in 1985 (pl. 63)? This may seem a strange comparison, juxtaposing as it does a benchmark
of post-conceptual art with an apparently frivolous image destined for the gift shop
market.130 Yet David Harvey’s concise description of Sherman’s work could apply equally to
both images: ‘They focus on masks without commenting directly on social meanings other
than on the activity of masking itself.’131 In each case, identity is shown in the process of its
own construction from raw material. It consists entirely of pre-existing codes. If anything,
the hologram of Boy George is the more eerily synthetic of the two portraits. It shows the
pop star posing coquettishly in the garb of a clown, decorated all over with polka dots. Even
in reproduction the photo has an unearthly quality, but in person, the hologram projects
a powerful sense of non-space. Boy George floats in an undefined 3D void, and no matter
where we stand in front of the glowing green image he stares right through us. His look
recalls Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s memorable description of the postmodern gaze as ‘calm
and blank’, seeing everything in its field of vision but withholding all judgment.132 In an
image like this, disillusionment creates its own kind of magic.
Put your hands over your eyes.
Jump out of the plane.
There is no pilot.
You are not alone.
This is the time;
And this is the record of the time.128
The identity that Anderson projects is at once multiple and, as is suggested by the cover of
her album Big Science, a completely blank screen, ready for projection (pl. 62). She processes
her weirdly persuasive speaking voice through a vocoder (or voice encoder, a device
invented in the 1930s to transmit encrypted messages over the radio). This artificial means
Laurie Anderson, Big Science album
(USA release), 1982. Art direction by
Perry Hoberman, design by Cindy
Brown, photograph by Greg Shifri.
V&A: E.229–2011
Richard Prince, Untitled, 1983.
C-type colour print. V&A: E.334–1994
© Richard Prince, courtesy Gagosian
Richmond Holographic Studios
(Edwina Orr and David Trayner),
Boy George reflection hologram, 1987.
Silver halide on glass © Richmond
Holographic Studios (Edwina Orr and
David Trayner). Courtesy Jonathan
Ross Hologram Collection, London
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Synthetic Identities
Cindy Sherman, Untitled # 74, 1980.
C-type colour print. V&A: E.1594–1994
© Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers
Berlin London, and Metro Pictures
Style Wars
Unlike all the other genres of music, there are no boundaries to hip-hop. We can
lyrically describe and talk about anything we want to. Musically, we could use almost
anything. We don’t have to sing in key. We don’t have to have a bridge or a chorus.
It doesn’t matter. This particular style of music … is it.133
— Grandmaster Flash
If one were seeking a single metaphor to bind together postmodern performance culture,
a good choice might be ‘sampling’. The sample resembles the historical quotations that are
used widely in postmodern practice. Just as in architecture, reproducing a pre-existing
fragment of a sound, image, or text creates a layer of temporal complexity. Past and present
sit side by side in unresolved juxtaposition. But as Ulrich Lehmann argues in his contribution
to this volume (pp. 178–81), sampling is also distinct within postmodern technique, in that
it ‘is a means by which technology enters into the very core of the artwork’. This observation
has particular force within reproductive media like recorded music, video or film, where
the replication of a copy is essentially indistinguishable from the original. This implies that
the technique is anti-material, but actually sampling was still achieved through strictly
manual means in the 1970s and 80s. The electronica artists (Brion Gysin, John Cage,
Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brian Eno) and reggae and hip-hop innovators (Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry,
Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa) who pioneered the techniques of
sampling and mixing were all working with their hands. They painstakingly assembled
loops and entire compositions from bits of tape, or mastered the difficult art of turntablism,
by which a DJ mixed two (or more) records on the fly to create a unified composition. Like
breakdancing and graffiti, turntablism lent itself to head-to-head competition, or ‘battling’
– it was part of the hip-hop repertoire of stylistic warfare. A benchmark recording was ‘The
Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ (1981), which ran for an astonishing
seven minutes, and consisted of nothing but manipulations of vinyl (including recognizable
snatches of mainstream hits by the likes of Queen and Blondie) on a trio of turntables. It
announced the possibility of a completely unprecedented musical form – new because
every bit of it was recycled.134
For graphic designers, this ‘cut-and-paste’ method was not a metaphor but a literal
description of practice – and it was equally craftsy. April Greiman’s collaborative work
with Jayme Odgers may look as though it was done using Photoshop, but it predates that
software by more than a decade (pl. 68). It was actually laboriously clipped out and pasted
down in the manner of a collage, and then photographed to create a unified image, which
could then be reproduced through offset printing. It is not surprising that Greiman was
among the first graphic designers to turn to Macintosh computers when they were
introduced in 1984 (a moment marked by a celebrated advertisement created by Blade
Runner director Ridley Scott, inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian predictions for that
year). As Umberto Eco once put it, ‘lying about the future produces history’,135 and like
many postmodernists, Greiman was ahead of the curve – anticipating the possible
aesthetic impact of technologies that did not yet exist.
Sampling was primarily a formal concern for Greiman and Odgers, not a way of
indicating common cause with other practices. But many other graphic designers of the
New Wave generation had a much more intimate relationship with performance genres.
This is especially true in the music industry. Before the advent of the CD and the Internet,
graphic pieces such as record sleeves, posters, magazines and flyers were important
promotional mechanisms. It is useful to think of these designs as applying, in twodimensional form, the aesthetics of sampling and active contradiction that one finds everywhere in postmodern performance. Peter Saville’s groundbreaking record sleeves for New
Order, for example, took advantage of an anarchic working environment at Factory Records
(founded but not exactly led by Tony Wilson, and connected to the iconic postmodernist
Hacienda nightclub, designed by Ben Kelly) to transform a youth commodity into a ‘radical
object’. Partly because Factory was so unprofessional, and partly because New Order had
lost their charismatic leader, the troubled singer Ian Curtis (frontman for the band’s
previous incarnation Joy Division), Saville had a completely free hand. No one objected
to his designs, even when they included no title, no image of the band members, no clear
April Greiman and Jayme Odgers,
Cal Arts (California Institute of the
Arts) poster, 1978. Four-colour offset
lithograph. V&A: E.1498–2010
New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies
album (UK release), 1983.
Design by Peter Saville (FACT 75)
New Order, Movement album
(UK release), 1981.
Design by Peter Saville (FACT 50)
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Colourbox, Colourbox album
(UK release), 1985. Design by
Vaughan Oliver (CAD 508)
Style Wars
relationship to the music within. In place of these standard elements, there were only
quotations and cryptic codes. Saville was a voracious consumer himself, who surrounded
himself with used books and other source material, and the imagery he swiped was rather
esoteric. One New Order sleeve was based on a still life by Henri Fantin-Latour; another
on the graphic work of Futurist designer Fortunato Depero (pls 66 and 67). Neither was an
obvious point of reference, but both resonated with the times nonetheless. Fantin-Latour’s
flowers found a fashion-world parallel in Scott Crolla and Georgina Godley’s ironic use of
chintz, while quoting Futurism allowed Saville to simultaneously evoke and undermine the
avant-garde’s breathless pursuit of the new.136 Alongside these sampled images were bars
of colour, which simultaneously referenced the graphic’s nature as a reproduction (they
looked like proofing strips) and functioned as an intentionally illegible language. Each
square of colour corresponded to a letter of the alphabet in a system of Saville’s own
devising. It was an example of postmodern play, as well as a gift to New Order’s cultish
audience, who thrived on the sense of being insiders.
The graphic designer Vaughan Oliver enjoyed a similarly attentive audience in his
work for the label 4AD, which produced post-punk bands like the Cocteau Twins, Modern
English, and the Pixies. Founder Ivo Watts-Russell gave Oliver free rein in developing the
graphic identity of the label. He responded with a body of work that is remarkable for its
visual density and consistency, featuring quintessentially postmodern tactics like erratic
typography, cut-and-paste visuals, and appropriated imagery. Though they used more or
less the same techniques, Oliver and Saville make an instructive contrast, suggesting the
aesthetic range of postmodern graphics: the sensual, Dionysian expressionist and the
cerebral, Apollonian conceptualist. Even when using found images, Oliver sought to achieve
an air of mystery and ambiguity – as in his 1985 sleeve for the band Colourbox (pl. 69).
While it seems to be a piece of custom-made bricolage, the image is actually a Japanese
printer’s ‘make-ready’ sheet – that is, a piece run through the press to absorb excess ink
in advance of the production run. In this case, there is a collision between two banal pop
images: a fashion shoot and an advertisement for peaches. It was unusual for Oliver to
leave his material completely untransformed in this way. Typically, he cut apart and layered
his appropriated images into a suggestive palimpsest. But in this case the work seemed to
have been done for him by happenstance. It was also appropriate to the band, which was
one of the first in Britain to use sampling. Unlike Saville, whose practice was premised on
self-aware gamesmanship, Oliver always tried to form an explicit and embodied tie to the
music he was representing, in this case ‘the manipulation of something already existing,
something ephemeral and throwaway’.137
The use of appropriation by designers like Saville and Oliver marked an important
moment in the proliferation of postmodern technique because it was distributed to a
massive audience via the echo chamber of the post-punk music scene. New Wave and
hip-hop, with their limited recording equipment, DIY musicianship and street-style
clothing, were documented by a proliferation of handmade fanzines and flyers. As these
musical genres came of age, intermingled and reached a wider listenership, the graphics
that supported them did too. They became glossy, both literally and figuratively. The ‘zine
gave way to large-format, post-punk style bibles like New York City’s Bomb (edited by
a book entitled Hiding in the Light. Though he conceded that the editors at The Face were
impressive innovators, he was deeply alarmed by the slippage between editorial, advertising
and art direction that made the publication distinctive:
Far left: 70
i-D, no. 28, The Art Issue, August 1985.
Styled by William Faulkner, design by
Terry Jones, photograph by Nick
Knight, featuring Lizzy Tear
The Face is a magazine which goes out of its way every month to blur the line between
politics and parody and pastiche; the street, the stage, the screen; between purity and
danger; the mainstream and the ‘margins’: to flatten the world. For flatness is corrosive
and infectious … To stare into the flat, blank Face is to look into a world where your
actual presence is unnecessary, where nothing adds up to much anything anymore,
where you live to be alive. Because flatness is the friend of death and death is the great
leveller … Advertising takes over where the avant garde left off and the picture of the
Post is complete.140
Left: 71
Ryūkō Tsūshin (Fashion News),
no. 196, May 1980. Styled by Hideharu
Kanno, photograph by Shingpei Asai,
art direction by Tadanori Yokoo
A similarly damning conclusion was reached by another partisan of the 1970s punk scene,
Jon Savage, in his 1983 article ‘The Age of Plunder’. It was an early statement of an argument
that would become more and more commonplace over the course of the decade: that
postmodern quotation was an admission of creative paralysis, a form of surrender.141
Savage placed an even more political spin on this issue than Hebdige had: ‘This nostalgia
Betty Sussler), New York Rocker (edited by Andy Schwartz and designed by Elizabeth van
Itallie) and Fetish (designed by Doublespace Studios); London’s i-D (edited and designed by
Terry Jones, with the declared purpose of ‘finding fashion at its source, and [giving] credit
to the new ideas born on the streets’),138 Arena, Blitz and City Limits; Tokyo’s Ryūkō Tsūshin
(Fashion News), designed for a short time by Tadanori Yokoo; and the unforgettable Wet:
The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing (a California publication, needless to say, edited by
Leonard Koren and designed by a rotating cast including Greiman and Odgers) (pls 70, 71
and 72). These magazines unleashed the complete battery of postmodern graphic techniques
on their eager young audiences: cut-and-paste graphics; the use of registration marks and
colour bars as found ornaments; hand-drawn, quasi-legible type; a New Wave palette of
colours, often in vivid juxtaposition with stark (and cheaper) black and white; and above
all, a free-for-all of sampled content. Often it was impossible to tell whether a given bit of
graphic information, text or image, was appropriated or not.
The Face, founded by former New Musical Express editor Nick Logan, was the quintessential example of these postmodern style guides (pl. 74). As its name suggests, the
magazine was completely in tune with the postmodern fascination with the façade. But
this is not to say it was superficial, especially once Neville Brody was brought on to give the
magazine a spiky, intricate design identity. He brought his punk-era affinity for ‘cut ups’ to
The Face, creating typography from manipulated, mixed and matched bits of Letraset. He
violently cropped both text and images, sometimes near the point of illegibility, and certain
motifs were repeated and abstracted over several issues so that attentive readers could
follow the gradual transformation – an ingenious exploitation of the magazine’s serial
character. Yet even as Brody’s graphics took on autonomous life, and the slogan ‘the world’s
best dressed magazine’ appeared on the contents page, The Face remained receptive to the
contributions of other photographers and stylists. The result was a cocktail of visual
stimulants that readers could navigate as they wished. As Brody put it, ‘The Face had two
narratives, the writing and the design. We wanted people to be their own editors.’139
Thematically speaking, the constant collision of forms could not have been more
appropriate. Though The Face was all about personal style – subject matter that would
have seemed frivolous in other places and times – that topic had become deeply politicized
in 1980s London. Not for nothing did Brody emblazon the New Socialist with the title ‘Style
Wars’ when he was asked to redesign the magazine (pl. 73). In the wake of the subculturestrewn 1970s and at the heart of Thatcher’s 80s, style was a key cultural battleground. One
index of this fact is the vituperative criticism that was launched at The Face not from the
right, but the left. Dick Hebdige took aim at the magazine in his 1988 follow-up to Subculture,
New Socialist, no. 38, May 1986. Design
by Neville Brody
The Face, no. 69, January 1986.
Design by Neville Brody, photograph by
Jean-Paul Goude, featuring Grace Jones
WET, no. 20, September/November
1979. Design by April Greiman with
Jayme Odgers
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Overleaf: 75
The Face, no. 33, January 1983.
Design by Neville Brody
Style Wars
transcends any healthy respect for the past: it is a disease all the more sinister because
unrecognized and, finally, an explicit device for the reinforcement and success of the New
Right.’142 This was another case of postmodernism eating itself; for the article was published
in – where else? – The Face. Brody, in laying out the spreads for the essay, was not shy
about including his own peers as targets for Savage’s ire – including his former colleagues
at Stiff Records, the graphic designers Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville.
The act of ‘plunder’ that anchored the opening spread was Saville’s straight lift from
Futurist design discussed earlier, directly juxtaposed with the original (pl. 75). Brody thus
entered into the fray, supplementing Savage’s commentary with one of his own. It was a
curious form of brinkmanship; while his own work rarely included that kind of direct
appropriation, he certainly participated in the general postmodern practice of fragmenting
and deploying pre-existing styles. Savage’s critique could easily have been read as a
condemnation of the very magazine that published it. In his heartbroken concluding lines,
it seemed clear that he was speaking to The Face’s editors and readers alike: ‘The Past is
then turned into the most disposable of consumer commodities, and is thus dismissable:
the lessons which it can teach us are thought trivial, are ignored amongst a pile of garbage
… What pop does, or doesn’t do, ceases to be important’.143
Whether that was true probably depended on who you were. For Savage, who had
experienced the glory days of punk firsthand, the New Wave years seemed a rapid slide into
vacant consumerism. But for those a little younger, or working at a different end of the
industry, the early 1980s were the glory days. Every kid making a mix tape, decorating it
and passing it on to a friend was articulating the postmodern shift in music culture.144
The righteous purity of punk’s nihilism had given way to a situation of general pastiche and
commercial experimentation. At the professional level, new careers emerged: pop stylists,
video makers, independent producers, and art directors. Styles were created from whole
cloth, with (of course) a winking acknowledgement of the artificiality of that process.
One example was Buffalo (see pp. 182–5), a true style without substance, which was
promoted heavily through The Face. It centred on the pastiche stylings of Ray Petri, who
found inspiration in everything from reggae (Bob Marley’s song ‘Buffalo Soldier’ inspired
the name of the look) and mod styles of the 1960s to noir films and Scottish kilts. Vivienne
Westwood fashioned a couture collection in tribute to Buffalo in 1982, the same year that
Malcolm McLaren got in early on the commercial exploitation of hip-hop with his song and
video ‘Buffalo Gals’. A group of models and musicians gathered around Petri, including
fellow stylist Judy Blame, producer Cameron McVey and singer Neneh Cherry, who would
hit it big with the hip-hop dance track ‘Buffalo Stance’. In the accompanying video (1989),
Cherry appears within a sliding bricolage of turntablists, computer-generated images,
floating texts (including the question ‘Know what I mean?’ translated into four languages)
and Buffalo-styled dancers, all against a constantly shifting backdrop of lurid neo-psychedelic
patterns. Despite Cherry’s reiterated claim in the chorus that ‘No moneyman can win my
love/It’s sweetness that I’m thinking of’, her primary ornaments are a massive pair of gold
earrings and a single matching ‘$’ hanging from her throat. Call it a dollar sign of the times.
Big Money Is Moving In, from the
Changing Picture of Docklands, series 1,
1981–4. Original photomontage and
digital remastering by Peter Dunn
© Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson,
Docklands Community Poster Project
Big Money Is Moving In (pl. 76)
Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1981.
Synthetic polymer paints and
silk-screen inks on canvas. Private
collection. Photograph Christie’s
Images 2011 © DACS London
Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength. It’s a fiction,
an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.145
— Martin Amis
Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city
of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours? … Come down
from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third
World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans,
Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians,
Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit
the frontiers, you gutless wonders!146
— Tom Wolfe
In 1981, as if to greet the new decade, Andy Warhol created one of his signature silkscreen
paintings. It featured a big, beautiful dollar sign (pl. 77). Ever since the heady days when his
studio, the Factory, had been the epicentre of New York chic, Warhol had been a poster boy
for postmodernism. He was obsessed with surface, and his paintings seemed to be unmatched
as depictions of the pervasive, affectless flatness of the commodity sphere. As he put it in his
memorably titled book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), ‘all the
Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it,
the bum knows it, and you know it.’147 He might just as easily have been talking about money.
For many in the art world, Warhol had been a big disappointment. His early Pop works
had been those of a gimlet-eyed observer, a new type of realist who held up a mirror to
American mass culture. But in 1969, he had founded the magazine Interview, which gave
him a chance to indulge his chatty, cliquish side, and in the late 1970s he became one of
Studio 54’s most prominent habitués. By the 80s, he seemed to be little more than a society
portraitist, churning out identikit images for anyone who would pay for the privilege. In
a transparent bid to regain art world attention, he initiated a collaboration with the hot
young graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The art press immediately saw that this alliance
was more like a corporate merger than a meeting of the minds. A New York Times Magazine
article about the rise of marketing in the art world used Basquiat as a case study, and
opened with a vignette of him chatting amiably with Warhol, Keith Haring and Nick Rhodes
(of Duran Duran) at the restaurant Mr Chow’s over ‘plates of steaming black mushrooms
and abalone’, drinking kir royale (pl. 78).148 This was Warhol’s milieu now: not the Factory,
with its inspired freaks, but the nightspots of the glitterati. Instead of deepening his
artistic vision, he was cashing in.
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Big Money Is Moving In
But then, Warhol had never been about depth in the first place, and for those who
thought that ‘face value’ was not necessarily to be despised, he was still very much in the
frame.149 Among those who still took him seriously was Fredric Jameson, one of the few
major theorists of the 1980s who analysed specific works of art and design. For a generation
of critics, artists, academics and students, Jameson’s article ‘Postmodernism, or, The
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1984; expanded to book length in 1991) seemed to
capture the condition of postmodernity better than any other text. And Warhol was central
to this account. Jameson was fascinated by the artist’s billboard-like images: they ‘ought to
be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, one would certainly want
to know why.’150 He found Warhol’s glittering series Diamond Dust Shoes (1980–1) to be
particularly unnerving. He saw in them an art that was not only completely in thrall to
commodity, but also thrilled about that fact. The paintings, he wrote, have ‘a strange,
compensatory, decorative exhilaration, explicitly designated by the title itself, which is,
of course, the glitter of gold dust, the spangling of gilt sand that seals the surface of the
painting and yet continues to glint at us.’151
Exhilarated, or critical? Commodity, or commodity critique? Both /and. This was the
dichotomy that ran right through postmodernism in the 1980s. As we shall see, Jameson
identified a similarly vertiginous experience in architecture, but had he written a few years
later he could scarcely have avoided mention of another artist: Jeff Koons. While Jameson
found in Warhol a ‘waning of affect’, Koons was too full of love for comfort. His iconic
sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) put the changeling pop star on a pedestal
– literally – and rendered him in the gilt-edged white porcelain of a Meissen figurine (pl. 81).
The contradictory energies of postmodern celebrity were certainly there: a black man
turned white; the human face (already surgically altered) turned into a hard, smiling mask;
and even, in a detail that might have been drawn from the pages of Haraway’s ‘Manifesto
for Cyborgs’, a weirdly familial relationship between human and animal. Yet all these
conflicts were resolved into an object of supreme, hermetic perfection. In a self-portrait
of the same year, published as an insert in Artforum, Koons gave himself his own makeover
(pl. 80). Presiding over a gaggle of school children, he was flanked by sinister slogans –
‘exploit the masses’ and ‘banality as saviour’. But with his teen idol looks and beguiling smile,
and the word ‘mentality’ tilting upwards encouragingly behind his head, he came across as
a bearer of the true word. Squeaky-clean, benevolent, powerful and disturbing, Koons
seemed to have stepped out of the back room of the art world, where all the secrets were
kept. A new religion of commodity art had arrived, and he had appointed himself its redeemer.
Of all the anxieties that attended this blithe celebration of banality, the one that cut
most deeply was the same prospect Hebdige had glimpsed in the pages of The Face – the
possibility that they marked the end of the avant-garde. Koons himself was unusually
explicit on this point; as he put it, ‘I was telling the bourgeois [sic] to embrace the thing that
it likes, the things it responds to.’152 That was in direct contradiction to the modernist tactic
of shocking the bourgeoisie, of course; but if the avant-garde was a thing of the past, what
would the future hold? One possibility was that art would now operate according to the
dictates of fashion, which would mean relinquishing art’s critical autonomy. It is striking
how many artists of the 1980s adopted not just the appearance but also the context of
advertising, placing their works on commercial billboards or poster displays (see pl. 249,
p. 285), as Keith Haring did with his subway drawings – an honest attempt to reach an
audience that lacked any prior involvement in contemporary art.153 But such an entry into
the commodity sphere had an unsettling corollary: it might mean that art would henceforth
be propelled not by ideas, but by money. Koons’ provocations aside, the booming art market
of the 80s seemed to be settling this question of its own accord.154
Equally telling was the fact that the world of fashion responded in kind, claiming
the status of an avant-garde, but without the dimension of radical social critique usually
implied by that phrase. As discussed in Claire Wilcox’s essay in this volume (pp. 154–9), the
Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, and to a lesser extent her peers Issey Miyake and
Yohji Yamamoto, were received as prophets of postmodernism on their arrival in Europe.155
But Paris fashion also had its own postmodern figurehead, as outré and glamorous as
Kawakubo was monkish and austere. This was Karl Lagerfeld. With his dramatic black cape,
aviator sunglasses and fluttering Japanese fan, he was a high camp German in the heart of
France. He had been an early adopter of New Wave design, filling his flats in Monte Carlo
Jean-Michel Basquiat in his SoHo
studio, illustrated in ‘New Art, New
Money’, The New York Times, February
1985. Photograph by Lizzie Himmel
and Paris with Memphis furniture and photo blow-ups by Helmut Newton (pl. 79).156 A
German magazine described the scene: ‘He sits at ease at his little building-block table –
in a khaki green cotton suit, handmade glasses and hand-sewn shoes, his grey-flecked hair
drawn into a tight ponytail, coated in his own sharp “Lagerfeld” scent – and gazes round
his new surroundings with amusement. The only thing missing is a robot to clatter along
the marbled rubber floor and serve its master a Coca-Cola in a plastic cup.’157 Lagerfeld had
been a freelance designer for over two decades, noted particularly for his work for the
brand Chloe, when he took on the job of chief designer at Chanel, the most hallowed brand
in Parisian fashion, in 1982. Coco Chanel had died in 1971, and the label had slipped into the
doldrums since. It was badly in need of a revamp, and this is exactly what Lagerfeld
provided. Out went the sober restraint and elegantly unified ensembles associated with
Chanel. In came tight miniskirts, swags of gold jewellery, and above all the interlinked
double-C logo, which Lagerfeld plastered over everything: handbags, shoes, belts, fabrics.
The ultimate modern brand in fashion had been postmodernized (pl. 82).
The volte-face that Lagerfeld performed at Chanel found its architectural equivalent
in the unlikely form of Philip Johnson, who had for decades been America’s most tireless
promoter of high Modernism. All the way back in 1932, he had co-curated the Museum of
Modern Art’s landmark exhibition The International Style, and his best-known building was
his own residence, the Glass House (1949), a highbrow exercise in modernist clarity. Those
who had paid close attention to Johnson over the previous decades might have detected a
gradual turning in his thinking. In 1961, he commented: ‘How long ago it was that Goethe
said the pilaster is a lie! One would answer him today – yes, but what a delightfully useful
one.’158 His interiors for the Four Seasons Restaurant (1959) in New York and for the New
York State Theatre at Lincoln Center (designed 1964) had been glitzy, almost kitsch. They
looked like, and were perhaps inspired by, Hollywood film sets.159 And as recently as 1975,
Johnson had confessed to postmodernist relativism in a lecture at Columbia University:
‘It takes moral and emotional blinders to make a style. One must be convinced one is right.
Who today can stand up and say: “I am right!” Who, indeed, would want to?’160
But none of this prepared the architectural community for the AT&T Building (designed
1978, completed 1984). With its Chippendale top, arched entryway and pink granite
detailing, the skyscraper was a return to the ornamental historicism that Johnson himself
Karl Lagerfeld in his Monte Carlo
Memphis-furnished apartment, 1981.
Photograph by Jacques Schumacher
Jeff Koons, from Art Magazine Ads,
originally published in Artforum,
1988–9. Photograph by Matt Chedgey
© Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and
Bubbles, 1988. Ceramic, glaze, paint.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,
San Francisco, California (91.1) © Jeff
Koons. Purchased through the Marian
and Bernard Messenger Fund and
restricted funds
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Big Money Is Moving In
Opposite: 82
Karl Lagerfeld (for Chanel), Ensemble,
c.1989. Photograph by Karl Lagerfeld
Judith Grinberg (for the studio of
Johnson and Burgee Associates),
Presentation drawing of the AT&T
Building, 1978. Ink, graphite and ink
wash on tracing paper.
V&A: E.522–2010
Big Money Is Moving In
had helped to banish, seemingly forever (pl. 83). There was no denying that it was the work
of an informed architect, with quotations from Palladio, Brunelleschi and New York Art
Deco. But the building hardly seemed scholarly, or even gentlemanly. It was a provocation
and sure enough, many people hated it, none more than the spirited critic for the Village
Voice, Michael Sorkin, who fumed, ‘the so-called “post-modern” styling in which AT&T has
been tarted up is simply a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old
building by cloaking it in this week’s drag and by trying to hide behind the reputations of
the blameless dead.’161 From this perspective, Johnson’s Chippendale ornament, high above
the city streets, seemed an emblem of lofty detachment from the real job of architecture.
Posed on the cover of Time magazine with the model for the building cradled in his arms
– as if he had just given himself an award for Best Architect – he seemed a capricious
giant, gleefully visiting incoherence on America’s cities (pl. 84). (Johnson’s other projects
of the time, designed with his partner John Burgee, included Houston’s step-gabled
Pennzoil Place and Pittsburgh’s neo-Gothic PPG Place.) The magazine Progressive Architecture
argued that Johnson’s defection to postmodernism lent ‘a kind of dignity and stature to the
movement which, in large part, it heretofore lacked’, and Mendini was quick to welcome
him as an ally, describing him as ‘at once the last architect of the epoch of the Masters, and
the first of an epoch without Masters’.162 But many others hated the AT&T Building, not only
on stylistic grounds but also because it so effectively put architecture in the service of
corporate identity. As Jencks noted, it was at once the first major postmodern monument
and ‘the grave of the movement to detractors.’163 At the age of 78, Johnson had demonstrated
that it was never too late to sell out.
As shocking as it seemed at the time, Johnson’s embrace of corporate postmodernism
was a bellwether for the architectural profession. In 1980, Leo Castelli held an exhibition
in New York frankly entitled Houses for Sale, in which the designs of eight architects were
offered directly to any client who would have them.164 Another of Manhattan’s gallerists,
Max Protetch, had success selling renderings by architects like Aldo Rossi and Michael
Graves, who produced skilfully finished presentation drawings, often for projects that
remained unbuilt. Such schemes were originally motivated by a lack of building opportunities
in a down market. But as the 1980s arrived, their meaning shifted. The circulation of
renderings as art commodities now signalled the transformation of architecture into a
name-brand enterprise. As Robert A.M. Stern observed at the time, the popularity of
drawings represented a departure from modernist architects’ preference for scale models
rather than renderings, which were often seen as ‘tarted-up drawings expediently conceived
for presentation (that is, selling) purposes’.165 For the postmodernist architect, however,
the persuasive quality of a beautifully made presentation drawing was completely desirable.
A flat rendering was a perfect medium to capture not only the ornamental surface of the
postmodern building, but also its iconic qualities.
Over the ensuing decade, buoyed by this rhetoric of the architectural image, the
‘starchitect’ became a fixture on the urban scene. Newly moneyed patrons, both corporations
and private individuals (such as the famously tasteless but vastly rich Donald Trump),
offered architects a chance to realize their ideas, and also to become famous – all the while
placing new constraints on their work. You would never know it from the key journals of
postmodern architectural theory at the time, such as AD or Perspecta, but architecture in
the 1980s was above all a service industry. Buildings cost money, and lots of it. From a
corporate client’s perspective, the architect’s most important job is not to incite debate,
but to create value: to provide return on investment. Postmodern technique proved to be
a perfect means to that end. As Magali Larson noted in 1993 in an important early analysis
of 80s corporate architecture, ‘If what is desired is a new image, minimizing risk compels
the client to “style” the building superficially – the massing, the façade, the lobbies, the
skin – while keeping the routine invisible and the costs down.’166
As for John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, which Fredric Jameson
famously analysed in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism as a spatial
manifestation of postmodernity – well, you really have to see it in person. Even Jameson
admitted, ‘I am [at] a loss when it comes to conveying the thing itself.’ The hotel ought to be
easily navigated: it is structured around four evenly spaced elevator towers, and the plans
helpfully posted around the building seem relatively straightforward. But then you look up
– and down (pl. 86). Crisscrossed by escalators, lined by ramps and shops and cocktail bars,
and furnished with an indoor lake, the atrium of the Bonaventure is indeed astounding
in its scale and complexity. Jameson saw this Piranesian space as a sealed environment,
a world unto itself, filled with pure movement. As proof he pointed to the exterior of the
building, with its ‘curiously unmarked entrances’ and its sheath of mirrored glass that
reflects the surrounding city, dematerializing the mass of the hotel behind a play of
reflection (pl. 85). If Johnson’s AT&T Building was an arch joke writ large on the skyline,
Portman’s Bonaventure was something much more total. This architecture ‘does not wish
to be a part of the city,’ Jameson argued, ‘but rather its equivalent and replacement
or substitute’.167
With three decades of hindsight, however, this claim can be called into question. Despite
Jameson’s characterization of the Bonaventure as hermetic, the hotel is today one of the
most photographed places in Los Angeles, appearing in movies, television shows, commercials,
and even hip-hop and rap videos. Far from being invisible within the urban fabric, the
refractive structure has proved remarkably durable as a media icon. And though Portman
would probably agree with Jameson that kinetics were in some sense the subject of his
architecture, he would certainly reject the accusation that this makes him a postmodernist.
The material vocabulary of the Bonaventure – glass curtain walls and formed concrete –
is in fact quintessentially modernist, and the building lacks any of the applied décor that
an architect like Michael Graves might have employed at the time. Thus, the intentions that
lay behind the hotel (and its subsequent reception) would at least complicate and perhaps
contradict Jameson’s interpretation. This suggests something of the complexity that
surrounds corporate architecture of the 1980s, which was only rarely a manifestation of
postmodernist style, even if it did inhabit the broader ‘condition’ of postmodernity.
Jameson’s discussion of the Bonaventure is now remembered as the paradigmatic
text on postmodern corporate architecture, but the powerful critic for The New York Times,
Ada Louise Huxtable, was equally influential at the time. Faced with the historicism of
Philip Johnson’s various projects, she made no attempt to hide her revulsion:
Opposite: 84
TIME, 8 January 1979
If the sources are diverse, the results suffer from a certain sameness; rarely do these
eclectic exercises coalesce into an architectural statement with the authority of the
examples so blithely exploited. Their so-called playful use of history is heavy-handed,
their paper-thin pretensions misfire, no matter how solidly enclosed or dazzlingly
surfaced … these buildings are simply not clever enough. The problem is not that they
fail to say the same thing as the buildings they crib from – that is neither possible in
today’s world nor their avowed intention – it is that they say nothing at all.168
Right: 85
John Portman, Westin Bonaventure
Hotel, 1976. Los Angeles, California.
Photograph by Dennis O’Kane © John
Portman & Associates Archive
Far right: 86
John Portman, Westin Bonaventure
Hotel (atrium), 1976. Los Angeles,
California. Photograph by
Alexandre Georges © John Portman
& Associates Archive
Big Money Is Moving In
The tricks with mirrors and other real materials performed by corporate globalization
produce the illusion that there is an illusion: the illusion that their materiality is illusory,
unreal, dematerialized … [This] describes what a new stage in commodity fetishism
might actually look like: the inability simply to look at something directly, rather than
attempt to see through it. This mode of distraction draws us in even as it keeps us out.173
Koyaanisqatsi, 1982.
Directed by Godfrey Reggio
Mario Bellini, tea and coffee service
(or piazza), 1980. Silver, rose quartz,
lapis lazuli. The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, New York (1988.191.1–6)
Fredric Jameson, who serves as Martin’s jumping-off point throughout much of Utopia’s
Ghost, went so far as to argue that the transition away from classical city layouts and
toward Blade Runner-like sprawl spelled an inevitable end for style as a relevant concern
for architecture (see pl. 61). In a discussion of bubble-economy Tokyo, he noted that it was
hard to see ‘how any specific building would ever stand out in this kind of fabric, since it is
a bewildering, infinite, endless series of built things, each of which is different from the
next’.174 The inside of the Bonaventure thus becomes a template for the built environment
at large; it is movement that now has meaning, not static form. This idea of the postmodern
city was also captured in popular culture, as in Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi
(pl. 87). With its obscure, portentous title (Hopi for ‘world out of joint’), Koyaanisqatsi was
yet another ‘postmodern denunciation of the culture of postmodernism’.175 Its stop-motion
footage of faceless office workers coursing like water through the streets and train
stations, down escalators and into mirrored office buildings, and its hectoring musical
score by Philip Glass, presented the postmodern city as completely dehumanized and
alienating – but captivating all the same.
Among the points made by Huxtable, perhaps the most incisive was that postmodernism’s
embrace of difference, once it was processed according to the exigencies of profit margin,
was actually producing an urbanism of soul-crushing homogeneity. The style became
merely routine over the course of the decade, as one city after another sprouted a crop of
skyscrapers festooned with second-hand, flattened ornament and sheathed in dematerializing
reflective glass. When it opened in 1982 – just before the AT&T Building – one could make
a case for Michael Graves’ Portland Building as a provocative intervention into a modest
north-western city (see pl. 208, p. 230). But it was not long before its stage-set quality
– like four billboards clapped together at the corners – quite literally wore thin. The
building was built on a shoestring budget for a civic client, and it is in shockingly poor
condition today. It would be unfair to blame Graves for the inadequate execution of his
design, but the paint peeling from every surface of the Portland Building nonetheless lends
credence to Charles Jencks’ perceptive observation that Art Deco-style postmodern
ornament often did serve a sort of functionalist purpose: ‘to hide faults in construction’.169
In his widely read condemnation of superficial postmodern architecture, ‘Towards a Critical
Regionalism’, Kenneth Frampton enlarged on this point. Buildings had become so ‘universally
conditioned by optimized technology’ that architecture was now limited to either a pure
high-tech system, speaking of its own functions, or the use of a ‘compensatory façade’ to
cover up system building. The Portland Building, he wrote, was both.170
As postmodernism proliferated, it seemed to prove that historicism – while it could
be a vivid interruption into modernist urban fabric – was merely insipid when applied in
broad strokes, as at Ed Jones’ massive complex at Mississauga near Toronto, Quinlan Terry’s
Richmond Riverside development in Surrey, or the toy town community of Celebration,
built by Disney in the 1990s.171 Not that the problem was limited to questions of style.
Denise Scott Brown directs our attention away from that plane of architectural thought,
and toward the question of social responsibility (see pp. 106–11). She charges that ‘PoMo’
architects abandoned 1960s ideals of social responsibility and instead decided to ‘license
indulgence’ (echoing David Harvey’s concise statement that ‘postmodernists design rather than
plan’).172 Her position finds common cause with Reinhold Martin’s ambitious revisionist
history of postmodern architecture, Utopia’s Ghost (2010). Martin argues that the reflective
and ornamental character of buildings themselves, and the endless debates about those
stylistic choices, all served to disguise an underlying truth about corporate architecture
in general – its literal extension of power in space:
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Big Money Is Moving In
Living in a Material World
might attract attention to the company and establish its design credentials. They were
loss leaders at worst, and might just bring unexpected success.
It was on this basis that the storied American furniture company Knoll (which, not
unlike Chanel after the death of Coco, had been flailing about, unsure of their direction
following the retirement of the visionary modernist Florence Knoll) invited Robert Venturi
and Denise Scott Brown to create a new line for them. Today the pair look back on this
episode somewhat ruefully. As Scott Brown puts it:
The acquisition of an image (by the purchase of a sign system such as designer clothes
and the right car) becomes a singularly important element in the presentation of self
in individual identity, self-realization, and meaning. Amusing yet sad signals of this
quest abound.176
— David Harvey
However one settles the accounts of 1980s postmodern architecture, it is undeniable that
the decade witnessed the rise of a new ‘trophy building’ mentality. Richard Bolton, taking
note of the sudden appearance of architects in advertisements for such products as
Hennessy cognac, argued that ‘the architect is a plausible spokesperson for luxury products
because the architect is a member of the corporate class. He already speaks for the system
through his own work – the building is just one more luxury commodity.’177 This made for a
natural alliance between architect-designers and the manufacturers of high-end domestic
wares, and also opened up opportunities for a new form of middleman, the ‘design editor’,
who had no production capacity but rather brokered relations between architect-designers,
craft workshops, interior designers, and retail outlets or galleries.178 These entrepreneurs
functioned rather like producers in the film or music industries, investing in projects and
then trying to maximize profit.
The practice of design-editing emerged first in Italy, where a strong craft base and a
well-established design press made the prospect feasible even before the economic boom.
The first company to work in this way was arguably Danese, founded in the 1950s, which
produced tablewares and domestic furnishings by a range of designers such as Bruno
Munari and Enzo Mari.179 But the strategy was expanded and perfected by Cleto Munari, an
aesthete and collector from Vicenza, who founded his eponymous luxury goods company
in 1972. Though Munari, like Danese, worked mainly with modernist designers such as
Carlo Scarpa and Gae Aulenti, he occasionally produced objects reflecting the new stylistic
ideas coming out of Milan. A coffee pot designed for the firm by Michele De Lucchi in 1980
shared the palette and cartoonish, Art Deco styling of the designer’s Girmi prototypes; and
in the same year, the otherwise unimpeachably modernist architect Mario Bellini designed
a tea and coffee ‘piazza’ for Munari in the historicist style then being explored by Paolo
Portoghesi at the Venice Biennale (pl. 88).
A few years later, Munari launched his most ambitious project. He worked with an
international all-star list of designers, including De Lucchi, Peter Eisenman, Isozaki, Shire,
Sottsass, Stern and Zanini to produce a collection of postmodernist jewellery (pl. 89).
The project strategy resembled that of Memphis, and included many of the same players
(including Barbara Radice, who wrote a promotional book about the collection). But if
Memphis had held luxury at arm’s length, only teasingly acknowledging it through such
devices as titling, the Munari jewellery was an emphatic entry into the production of
aristocratic objets d’art. In a sense the project was customized to an Italian design scene
where ‘the shock of Memphis had worn off’, as critic Deyan Sudjic wrote in the inaugural
edition of Blueprint, leaving as a main attraction fashionable parties with ‘relays of
white-gloved waiters, decked with chains of office, dispensing champagne, mountains
of langoustines, baby octopuses, risotto and blueberries to brawling crowds of elegantly
tanned ladies wearing great chunks of brass around their necks and wrists’.180
By the mid-1980s, seemingly every country boasted at least one design-editing firm
chasing this upscale market: Swid Powell and Sunar in America, Néotu and XO in France,
Anthologie Quartett in Germany, Sawaya & Moroni in Italy, Akaba in Spain. In Japan, the
designer Kuramata Shiro depended on his colleague Takao Ishimaru to subcontract work
in acrylic, metal and other materials. In all of these cases, entrepreneurs with expertise
in sourcing and marketing helped architects and designers to realize their ideas. This
distribution of design agency was another means by which postmodern style proliferated
into the marketplace. The commoditization was even more explicit in the case of largescale manufacturers, who began in the mid-1980s to commission architects to design
postmodernist products, very much in the manner of the smaller ‘editing’ firms. These
alliances might seem improbable, given the way in which they brought together purposefully
indigestible design ideas with mass distribution. But even if the objects failed to sell, they
We were overjoyed that Knoll wanted and paid for the project, but we had thought
we were helping to produce, in early Modern terms, cheap but good objects lovable
for the ‘masses’. [But] they were using us to rub off on their trade objects, to brand and
rebrand themselves … as if we were a recherché book of poems published by a large
press to polish its image rather than to sell.181
Formica Corporation ColorCore exhibition,
retitled Post Modern Colour, a Boilerhouse project
at the V&A, London, 1984. View from left to right
includes Stanley Tigerman’s Tête-à-tête chaise
longue, Lee Payne’s Neapolitan and SITE’s Door.
Photograph by Mark Fiennes
Michele De Lucchi (for Cleto Munari),
necklace, c.1987. Yellow and white gold,
black and white onyx, green agate,
turquoise, emeralds, sapphires, pearls.
Private collection
Aldo Rossi (for Alessi), tea and coffee
service (or piazza), 1983. Electroplated
silver, enamel and glass.
V&A: M.57–1988
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott
Brown (for Knoll), Chippendale chair
with Grandmother pattern, 1984.
Laminated plywood. V&A: W.21–1990
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Overleaf: 93
Oliviero Toscani, United Colors of
Benetton poster, 1992 (detail).
Colour offset lithograph on paper.
V&A: E.2170–1997
Living in a Material World
Even so, the chairs are quintessential postmodernist objects, extensively reproduced
then and since, perhaps because they speak so directly of the architects’ eye for form
and pattern (pl. 90).182 The cut-out plywood chairs, partly inspired by the example of Alvar
Aalto’s furniture, were ingenious adaptations of their interest in façades and historical
ornament, processed through a mix-and-match system of cheerful cartoon profiles based
on historic styles (Chippendale, Sheraton, Art Deco, etc.). With their wide, flat fronts and
completely linear side view, they are like design drawings unfurled into space. They are
adorned with patterns drawn from vernacular and high style sources – most famously,
Grandmother, a floral print borrowed from ‘Fred’s grandmother’s table cloth’ and overlaid
with ungrandmotherly black hash marks. (‘Fred’, the New York architect Frederic Schwartz,
was a young employee of Venturi and Scott Brown at the time.)183 The backs, however, were
left plain – as Scott Brown puts it, they were ‘decorated in front and shed behind’.184
At the same moment that Knoll was working with Venturi and Scott Brown, the
manufacturer Formica decided to follow in the footsteps of their Italian competitors Abet
Laminati, who had been intimately involved in the production of Memphis. Formica had
a new product to sell, called ColorCore, and it is telling that they first chose to promote it
through architect-designed furniture. Traditional laminates had an unsightly black line
around the edge of each sheet, a ticky-tacky, obviously fake quality that Sottsass and the
other Memphis designers had enjoyed. As the name implies, however, ColorCore was
patterned or coloured all the way through its depth. This meant it could be used rather like
a hardwood veneer – either applied to a surface directly, or stacked, glued, and then sawn,
carved, finished or even inlaid. This was a clear instance of the original orientation of
postmodern design, toward kitsch and surface effects, giving way to the values of quality
workmanship.185 Formica launched the new product at the NeoCon Furniture Fair in Chicago
in June 1983 with an exhibition entitled Surface and Ornament, curated by the company’s
creative director Susan Grant Lewin (pl. 91). The selection of architect-designed furniture,
including contributions from Gehry, Moore, SITE and Tigerman, was shown again in New
York, then alongside Memphis in Milan that autumn, and in London the following year.186
Gehry’s contribution was particularly ingenious. Snapping a piece of ColorCore between his
hands, he exposed a jagged edge that appealed to him. He undertook a series of lamps that
exploited this literally deconstructive technique, as well as the translucency of the plastic.
For its next act, Formica engaged the New York gallery Workbench, operated by Bernice
Wollman and Judy Coady, to organize several independent furniture makers to experiment
with the material. The result was Material Evidence: New Color Techniques in Handmade
Furniture (1985). This was arguably the most successful privately sponsored craft project
of the decade, despite the fact that the makers found ColorCore difficult to work – hard,
but also brittle and easily chipped.187 Whereas the architects had left the fabrication of their
designs to Formica, skilled craftsmen like Garry Knox Bennett, John Cederquist and Judy
McKie explored the technical qualities of ColorCore in a way that architects never could,
exploiting its potential as a carving medium, sandblasting or polishing it to produce a
varied surface, and stack-laminating it into complex constructed forms.188
Knoll and Formica achieved a certain degree of prominence with their editing projects,
and in both cases successfully breathed new life into their long-established brands. There
were plenty of other companies who tried the same trick: postmodernists were hired to
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Michael Graves (for Moller
International), Mickey Mouse
Gourmet Collection, 1991. Stainless
steel. V&A: M.29 to 32–2010
Opposite: 95
Swatch watch USA poster, 1984.
Offset lithograph. Design by Paula
Scher. Paula Scher/Pentagram
make handbags (Martell), wristwatches (Swatch), crystal decanters (Swarovski), shopping
bags (Bloomingdale’s) and wall clocks (Lorenz). But by far the most famous of the postmodern
editing jobs was the Alessi Tea and Coffee Piazza collection, launched in 1983 simultaneously
at the Brera Gallery in Milan and the Protetch Gallery in New York. This ‘micro-architecture’
project was instigated by Alessandro Mendini, and ultimately involved 11 international
architects including Graves, Hollein, Jencks, Meier, Portoghesi and Venturi. Aldo Rossi’s
contribution became the most iconic: a flag-topped tabernacle that bespoke hermetic
preciousness (pl. 92). The influential German curator Volker Fischer, based in Frankfurt,
was among the few who took this manoeuvre seriously. He argued that the ‘iconophilia’
of the tea and coffee piazzas represented a welcome incursion of ‘a more consciously
cultural attitude to the design of everyday products’. In a memorable formulation, Fischer
predicted that form would now follow fiction, not function.189
If buildings were already like trophies, operating according to the dictates of a
corporate symbolic order, then the scaling-down of an architect’s ideas did not necessarily
represent an act of trivialization. Yet the Alessi services undeniably marked the culmination
of a shift away from radical prototypes and toward luxury objects. Indeed, it could be said
that these tabletop trophies were more a sign of things to come than the buildings made by
the same architects. As often when confronted with postmodern excess, Sudjic was moved
to satire, noting that Graves’ silver tea and coffee set ‘will cost you rather more than getting
a house built to his plans’. But he also added, presciently, ‘Can Michael Graves designer bed
linen, sun-glasses and jeans be far behind?’190 In fact it was only a few years before Graves
became a kind of franchise in his own right, applying his postmodern idiom not only to
Disney’s buildings but also to a tea kettle and accoutrements crowned with the ubiquitous
mouse ears (pl. 94). His later work for Target, though produced long after the heyday of
postmodern design, continued the process, bringing pastel colours and cartoon shapes
to middle-class homes across America.
Graves was unusually prolific as a muse to the corporate class, but he was hardly alone.
Now under the direction of Aldo Cibic, designers at Sottsass Associati were kept busy
designing stores for Esprit, founded by self-styled ‘image director’ Doug Tompkins, who
had emerged from the counter-cultural scene in California that also produced Peter Shire,
April Greiman and Wet magazine. Blueprint aptly described the company’s approach as
‘fashion retailing that has passed the age of innocence. Every aspect of the chain is handled
with as much care as if it were being watched over by corporate identity consultants with
a battery of identity manuals.’191 Swatch developed their brand in close consultation with
Mendini, and commissioned one of the most recognizable of all postmodernist graphic
designs – Paula Scher’s wholesale quotation of a 1934 Constructivist poster by Herbert Matter
(pl. 95).192 MTV was often identified as a mainstream delivery system for postmodernism; its
Arata Isozaki, Team Disney Building,
1989–90. Orlando, Florida. Photograph
by Victoria Slater-Madert
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
rapid-fire superficial barrage of style statements quoted the counter-cultural tropes of the
1960s even while ‘divesting them, for commercial reasons, of their originally revolutionary
implications’.193 Even its logo featured applied paste-on ornament, much like Venturi and
Scott Brown’s chairs for Knoll. Benetton pursued a more provocative tactic, hiring the
photographer Oliviero Toscani to create print advertising with highly charged documentarystyle and still life images (pl. 93). This was an unusually bold use of the postmodern
technique of quotation, in which profoundly divisive issues such as AIDS deaths, race
relations, refugees and Third-World conflict were appropriated as the raw materials for
brand formation. Was this a progressive use of media power to engage in mass activism?
Or was it rather a case of unprecedented cynicism, in which any content, no matter how
upsetting, could be made to serve the interests of a middle-market clothing company?
Nothing could show more clearly how a corporation can absorb adjacent critique, and
render it instead into technique. Benetton shows how subversion – even when selfinflicted – can serve as an ideal corporate strategy.
A similar quandary arises concerning Disney, at once the most reviled and beloved of
entertainment companies, not to mention the most active corporate patron of postmodern
architecture. Back in 1972, Venturi had offered the then-unthinkable opinion that ‘Disney
World is closer to what most people want than what architects have ever given them.’194 By
the mid-80s, not only his and Graves’ firms but also those of Isozaki, Gehry, Rossi and Stern
were working for the company.195 And they were taking the jobs seriously. Some of the
buildings that resulted, like Graves’ spectacular double hotel the Swan and Dolphin, or
Isozaki’s masterfully collaged Team Disney Building (complete with mouse-ear gateway),
rank among their designers’ best work (pl. 96).196 This meant, in turn, that the architects
were open to criticism. Books like Dorfman and Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck:
Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1975), Louis Marin’s Utopiques (1984), Richard
Schickel’s The Disney Version (1985), Michael Sorkin’s Variations on a Theme Park (1992)
and George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (1993) all used Walt and his company
as both symbol and instance of everything that was manipulative in late capitalism. For
these critics, Disney was a ‘degenerate utopia’, whose offer of an apparently harmless
escape into Fantasyland was actually ‘a sort of amnesic intoxication, born of the triumph
of forgetting over memory and of effect over cause’.197
But to some other observers, particularly those who sympathized with postmodern
practice, this hard-line opposition rang false. The music critic Greil Marcus portrayed
academic attacks on Disney as a sort of hysterical blindness: ‘What they mostly produce
[is] polemical, ideological, or merely self-congratulatory … they can hardly be bothered to
investigate which rides are fun and which aren’t, let alone why.’198 Steven Fjellman, in his
subtle book Vinyl Leaves (1992) – the title evoking the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse,
a monumental simulacrum – also tried to distance himself from the chorus of alarm
around Disney. Fjellman was quite happy to confess his attraction to the Magic Kingdom:
‘I love it! I could live there. I love its infinitude, its theatre, its dadaisms. I love its food, its
craft, its simulations.’199 In the book, he attempted the difficult balancing act of acknowledging both the awe-inspiring power of Disney World and the genuine pleasure it brings
to consumers. And in this respect, he probably approximated the ambivalence with which
many people, including designers, regard the company (pl. 97). On the one hand, it is easy
to see Disney as an epicenter of corporate power and control. On the other hand, it is a
space apart, a heterotopia, premised on the temporary realization of total happiness,
as in the (borderline racist) 1946 Disney film Song of the South:
world of commodities was only in its nascence in the 1980s; we have witnessed a dramatic
global expansion of its techniques in the two decades since. But for many, the brandscape
already felt all-encompassing. This was, after all, the designer decade, a time when
seemingly anything could profit from the magic of a brand name: designer jeans (Jordache),
designer water (Perrier), designer drugs (Ecstasy).
Surface Effects
The simple attachment of the right name to a product or an interior has a measurable
economic value. It’s not simply a matter of kettles or pasta, there now seems to be no
aspect of life which is free of the designer phenomenon.202
— Maurice Cooper
Betty Woodman, Arezzo, 1984. Glazed
earthenware. Courtesy of the artist and
Meulensteen Gallery, New York
Wendy Maruyama, Mickey Mackintosh
chair, 1988. Painted maple wood.
V&A: W.10–2011. Photograph courtesy
of Pritam & Eames
It’s the truth,
It’s actual
Everything is satisfactual200
How exactly should one feel about that as a general condition of life?
That’s yet another question with no easy answer, of course, and perhaps the best way
to grasp the postmodern consumer experience of the 1980s is as an amusement park thrill
ride: a disorienting, high-speed passage through places formed by and through the workings
of capital. Like Disney World, this experience of dynamic identity formation projected a
powerful, but illusory, impression of totality.201 In hindsight, it is clear that the postmodern
Alison Britton, Big White Jug, 1987.
Hand-built and painted earthenware.
V&A: C.233–1987
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Surface Effects
So one read in Blueprint (founded 1983), one of a host of new lifestyle magazines promoting
the flow of new designer goods. Like the Italian magazines that Alessandro Mendini was
busily editing (by the 1980s, he was working on Modo and Domus), or the publications of
the Condé Nast empire, or the metastasizing colour supplements of Sunday newspapers,
the whole world seemed to be turning inescapably glossy. Even Neville Brody, the enfant
terrible of British graphic design, had an abortive turn as a design consultant for the
bubble-gum teenage magazine Mademoiselle. It was, as he observed, ‘the sort of thing that
American magazines love to do, the big splash, the smell of money burning’.203 It is hard,
indeed, to find a single area of the creative arts that was not obsessed with the prospects
and problems of commoditization.
The pervasiveness of money culture is attested by the degree to which even the least
capitalized areas of cultural production became dominated by talk about money. Take,
for example, the crafts. One might expect that potters, furniture makers and metalsmiths
would have taken one look at postmodernism and run the other way. The traditional
associations that craft has with authenticity, depth and tacit knowledge are all directly
counter to the period fascination with superficiality. But in fact, craftspeople were among
the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of postmodern technique because it allowed
them to express longstanding discomfort with the substance of their own work. Craftspeople
had been treated as second-class citizens within the arts throughout the post-1945
period, and already in the 1960s many makers were embracing exaggerated decoration,
anti-functionality and absurdity as a way to address their own status.204 Of particular note
as precedents for postmodern craft are West Coast Funk ceramics, led by satirists such as
Robert Arneson and Howard Kottler; and the Pattern and Decoration movement, which
was partly fuelled by feminist artists’ interest in historical women’s work. P&D (as it was
known) found expression across many media, particularly ceramics (Betty Woodman,
Joyce Kozloff), textiles (Miriam Schapiro) and furniture (Kim MacConnell) (pl. 98).205
Like the radical Italian design of the same period, these objects drew from a language
of decorative art but were intended as provocations in the manner of an avant-garde.
In the 1980s, this ongoing inquiry into the politics of craft intersected with the growth
of new, dynamic markets. The result was an expansion that was both commercial and
discursive. As prices rose, craftspeople engaged in lively, self-critical debates whose terms
were often drawn from the art and design school cultures in which most of them had been
trained. The pages of Crafts magazine in Britain amply catalogue the way that the postmodern
culture wars could turn local. On one side were the artists: ceramists like Alison Britton,
Carol McNicoll, Jacqueline Poncelet and Richard Slee; metalsmiths like Michael Rowe;
furniture makers like Fred Baier; and jewellers like Caroline Broadhead, Susanna Heron and
Pierre Degen (pls 99 and 100). Every one of the traditional craft media was turned inside
out in the process. As the critic Martina Margetts, who edited Crafts from 1978 to 1987, puts
it: ‘It was an assault on convention on every front.’206 This generation of troublemakers and
experimentalists was embraced by adventurous souls such as the Crafts Council’s founding
director Victor Margrie and its curator Ralph Turner. Controversially and rather bravely,
given that it depended on government funding, the Crafts Council enthusiastically supported
the most avant-garde activity and distanced itself from tradition.207 Some observers were
delighted. Rose Slivka, formerly editor of the American magazine Craft Horizons, professed
herself bowled over by the new jewellery coming out of Britain:
It is in orbit around the body, a galaxy of planets whirling on their dervishes. Jewellery
is now a body cage and a mind expander. Not only are the materials no longer precious,
they are anti-precious. They are the modern synthetic materials – neoprene, fibreglass,
plastic tubing – of post-industrial life and extraordinary consciousness.208
Fred Baier, Prism chair,
designed with technical
assistance by Paul McManus,
1982 (made 1993). Lacquered
MDF in four finishes,
including gold leaf
(re-lacquered 2009).
V&A: W.13–2010
Gabriele Devecchi, Equilpiemonte
coffee pot, 1983 (made 2009). Silver
with wooden handle. V&A: M.15–2010
Adrian Saxe, covered jar, 1985.
Porcelain, raku, stoneware, lustres.
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Surface Effects
But not everyone was so impressed. Conservative voices (given ample space in Crafts
magazine by Margetts, who was a progressive but also an ecumenical editor) attacked
the newfound pretensions of the artisan. As in architecture, postmodernist ceramics and
jewellery attracted unusually vituperative critique. Theo Crosby, one of the principals at
the leading design firm Archigram, came to the conclusion that the new tendencies were
so much sound and fury, signifying nothing: ‘When I look at the Crafts Council shows I am
filled with despair at the smartness, the uselessness of the products.’209 Critic Peter Fuller
was equally incensed by the ‘sterile pretension’ being promoted by the Council, which he
saw as motivated by the sinister belief ‘that a better world can only be established by the
eradication of every manifestation of aesthetic life, and of all the preconditions necessary
to nurture it’.210 Even Peter Dormer, a key critical supporter of the new direction, thought
it important that craft hold on to its roots: ‘It would be as well if those who promote or
attend to the welfare of the crafts understood its conservative heart; I believe it is this
which accounts for the potency of the crafts now, a potency which can be summarised
in one word: consolation.’211
But fewer and fewer craftspeople were interested in staging such a holding action.
They were rushing headlong into the postmodern condition, and for them the prevailing
concern with commodity status was particularly acute. Just as the modernist avant-garde
had tried to retain a distance from the market, so studio craftspeople had sought to remain
unsullied by the brute forces of supply and demand. This ended in the 1980s. In England,
craft was reframed by the Thatcher government as a type of ‘small business’, with all the
attendant political implications of that phrase. For a field often caricatured as a hippie
counter-culture, the sudden infusion of money made a huge impact. In the United States,
first studio glass and then other media were swept up into the luxury trade, driven by
galleries, large-scale selling fairs, private collectors, ambitious museum exhibitions, and
glossy magazines such as World of Interiors.212 Some craftspeople, like Wendell Castle,
Dale Chihuly, John Makepeace and Albert Paley, thrilled to the possibilities of individual
entrepreneurship. They forged links with dealers and private collectors that were (of
course) not only lucrative, but also enabled them to drastically expand the scale and vision
of their careers. Others worked behind the scenes, collaborating with interior decorators
to execute private commissions for wealthy clients.
The luxury turn in the crafts played out very differently according to geography. In
Japan, craft already enjoyed an unusually high status thanks to its historical connections
to tea ceremony and associated collecting practices; the government actively recognizes
and funds artisanal work through its ‘living national treasure’ programme.213 Postmodern
style and quotations were integrated into this milieu with seeming ease. In Italy, similarly,
historicism and refinement came easily to makers. The Italian silversmith Gabriele
Devecchi, for example, created postmodern versions of an eighteenth-century coffee pot
form common to the Turin area. Though everything about these objects was a pastiche,
from the collided shapes to the punning titles, the execution was immaculate (pl. 101).
Devecchi’s son Matteo, who helps to run the firm today, suggests that ‘silversmithing was
already postmodern. Every day, you make the same coffee pot you have been making for
200 years. There is no evolution.’214 In America, which lacks such a deeply embedded
artisanal culture, historicism was inevitably a more assumed pose, and it came with a more
cutting edge. Craftspeople in the United States made exquisite objects, but many seemed
to writhe in discomfort at the idea of luxury. Richard Mawdsley fashioned extraordinary
neo-Baroque presentation cups, which look richly ornamental from a distance but prove
to represent desolate American Midwestern water towers at close range. In ceramics,
Adrian Saxe appropriated the materials and motifs of French Sèvres porcelain to make
biting comments on contemporary culture (pl. 102). In the Netherlands and Germany,
meanwhile, a strong academic base helped conceptualism to flourish, particularly in the
field of jewellery – an ideal medium to explore questions of value. Some, like Dutch
jeweller Robert Smit, outlined a defence of traditional materials like gold, while others
parodized the instinct for display – as in Gijs Bakker’s rendering of a court necklace in cheap,
flat PVC plastic (pl. 104).215 The German jeweller Otto Künzli asked his clients to sport gold
frames from their necks, a chain of threaded Deutschmark coins, or a lapel pin in the form
of a single, huge gold ingot marked ‘300g, 10.5 oz’. It was fake, of course (pl. 103).
Wonders Taken for Signs
Superficiality has depth if understood and accepted as the profound difficulty
of human life.216
— Alessandro Mendini
In all areas of creative practice, then, there was an inversion of polarity as the 1980s wore
on. The postmodernist’s position was no longer that of a critical outsider who lacked a
ready public. Distribution was now beginning to drive production, not only in economic
terms, but also in determining the preoccupations of designers and makers. Fine artists
felt this too, and the most lastingly relevant works from the 80s and early 90s are those
that draw on design as the most appropriate language to confront postmodernity. This is
why rather than the neo-Expressionist paintings by Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer,
it is the Commodity Art works of Koons, Sherman and Warhol, as well as Ai Weiwei, Peter
Halley, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Allan McCollum, Haim
Steinbach, Ashley Bickerton and Yasumasa Morimura that speak to us most strongly from
this era (pls 106 and 107). All of these artists directly faced the nature of their own works
as goods to be bought and sold. But they did more than that; they also saw commodity
status as a raw material, like paint or clay: a medium in which they could operate.
This was the highest, but also the most tragic state of postmodernism. The dramatic
collision between art, design and money had many negative consequences, not least of
which is the skewed understanding it imparted to the present. The late 1980s saw a
consensus form around postmodernism, still shared by many, which ignored its expansive
and liberating qualities, and instead saw it as a shell game – at best derivative and caustic,
at worst the new clothes for an empire of corporate greed. In fact, though you are reading
about postmodernism right now, there’s still a good chance you hate it – if not the ideas, then
the look of it. And if you don’t, your parents almost certainly do. (All that plastic laminate,
those clashing colours and disjunctive forms – who could live with it?) Postmodernism
never asked to be loved, to be sure, but whatever aggression it put out into the world has
been repaid in full. Jürgen Habermas was among the first to voice opposition, finding in
postmodernism a dangerous turning away from the Enlightenment project of creating and
extending a liberal, consensus-seeking public sphere.217 Feminists were early in launching
a critique too, rightly pointing out that postmodernism’s vertiginous doubt of any stable
truth had conveniently arrived just when women were starting to lay claim to equal
discursive status. As Rita Felski asked, ‘How can feminism justify its own critique of
patriarchy, once it faces up to a pervasive legitimation crisis that corrodes the authority
of all forms of knowledge and reveals truth as nothing more than the reuse of power?’218
From a post-colonial perspective, too, postmodernism’s emphasis on play and doubt has
sometimes been seen as a callow abdication of responsibility. ‘Postmodernism preserves
– indeed enhances – all the classical and modern structures of oppression and domination,’
wrote Ziauddin Sardar. ‘Those enslaved by poverty and those trapped in an oppressive
modernity do not have the luxury of postmodern freedom of choice.’219 For many living
outside the Euro-American enclaves of postmodernism, as Nigerian author Dennis Ekpo
put it, postmodernism looks like ‘nothing but the hypocritical self-flattery of the bored
and spoilt children of hyper-capitalism’.220
Even the practitioners documented in this book, the very people who formulated
the style and the subversive strategies of postmodernism, tend to dislike being called
postmodernists. Those who have at some time or other renounced the title, either in
published statements or in conversation with us as curators include Ron Arad, Mario Bellini,
Denise Scott Brown, Frank Gehry, Hans Hollein, Barbara Radice, and even Ettore Sottsass
and Robert Venturi, whose comments on the matter could hardly have been more definitive:
‘I don’t consider our group Memphis to have anything to do with Postmodern at all’; and ‘I
am not now and never have been a postmodernist and I unequivocally disavow fatherhood
Otto Künzli, 300g, 10.5 oz ingot pendant,
illustrated in Crafts magazine, no. 71,
November/December 1984
Opposite: 104
Gijs Bakker, Pforzheim 1780 necklace,
1985. PVC-laminated photographs,
gold leaf, precious stones. Drutt
Collection, Museum of Fine Arts
Houston (2002.3593)
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
of this architectural movement.’221 Many other designers and architects, if the question is
put to them, just smile warily, and perhaps invoke Groucho Marx (who famously refused to
be a member of any club that would have him). The same holds for whole geographies of
design culture. In Europe, especially Italy, postmodernism is often defined in narrow terms
as a principally American architectural style employing a historicist classical vocabulary.
According to this version, Portoghesi’s 1980 Biennale was a one-off event, Michael Graves
is the kingpin of PoMo, and Radical Design is a continuation of the modernist project. In
America, conversely, postmodern design is often spoken of as a largely European phenomenon,
emblematized by the work of Sottsass and his fellow Italian radicals. And everywhere,
there are doubters who consider the whole thing a charade, which has no reality outside
the books of theorists such as Jean-François Lyotard and Charles Jencks.
Alessandro Mendini is one exception. When we put the question of postmodernism’s
legacy to him – is it still with us today? – his reply was simple: ‘Claro. Sono ancora qui,
non?’ (‘Sure. I’m still here, aren’t I?’)222 What does it mean to stand up for postmodernism
now? As a master of indirection, Mendini would seem unlikely to provide the answer to this
question. But a self-portrait of sorts that he contrived may be as good as we can hope for.
It is not a painting, or even a chair, but rather a three-piece suit, printed with the logos of
all the companies that Mendini worked for – Abet Laminati, Alessi, Artemide, Driade,
Domus, Interni, Memphis, Vitra, and the rest – alongside those of multinational corporations
such as Ford and McDonald’s (pl. 105). Mendini thereby styled himself a true company man
– like a Formula One car, plastered with its sponsors’ brands, or perhaps an animated
version of Ashley Bickerton’s sculptures, which included the logos of various art world
power brokers (pl. 106). By the late 1980s, corporations were in the driver’s seat, treating
prominent architects and designers as the engine of their own project of self-fashioning.
But as marketing directors were already learning in the 1980s, the most powerful effect
of any commodity is often outside its creator’s control. Mendini’s self-branding gesture is
his way of acknowledging the true conditions of professional design, in the pocket of his
patrons, but is also a suggestion that brands too can be the material for bricolage. They
are, to invert a phrase of post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s, ‘wonders taken as signs’ –
entities of superhuman economic and cultural force, reduced to the level of communicative
ornament. In the process they become manageable, even as they retain their power. When
we claim a brand as our own, we give ourselves permission to articulate our own complicit
position in mass culture.223 If practitioners – and indeed, the rest of us – do not want to
admit to being postmodernists, that may
be because it is uncomfortable to do so. But maybe a little discomfort is what we need.
What has struck us most as curators is the range of ways in which the questions
posed by postmodernism remain open to this day. This has to do not only with the relation
between commodities and systems of power, but also the other themes charted in this
book: the proper use of history, the interactions of identity and mediation, the use of found
objects of all kinds within creative work, and lateral movement across disciplines. The
postmodern surface afforded the exploration of all of these issues in depth, and they
remain central to design discourse. Since 1990 we have seen huge changes in design, the
rise of digital technology above all. Unsurprisingly, many new ways have been found to
describe design and its social role – network theory, mass customization, risk society,
liquid modernity, viral advertising, ‘Design Art,’ etc. But in many ways these catchphrases
are refinements or recapitulations of postmodernist discourse, not departures from it.
The term itself may have gone out of fashion, partly no doubt because of sheer exhaustion
brought about by overuse. Equally, the rhetorical points to be scored by declaring an end
to postmodernism must be considered. Donald Barthelme wrote an imaginary letter to a
literary critic that began ‘Yes, you are absolutely right – Post-Modernism is dead’ all the way
back in 1975, and French curator Nicolas Bourriaud has proposed the end of postmodernism
and the inauguration of a new dispensation, which he calls Altermodernism, as recently as
2008.224 Evidently postmodernism’s death is its most lasting feature. But once postmodern
fragmentation is introduced as technique, it can never be got rid of. As Zygmunt Bauman
memorably put it, ‘The modern crusade against ambivalence and the “messiness” of human
reality only multiplies the targets it aims to destroy.’225 Thus postmodernism always has
been, and is still, an endgame, an ongoing gambit in which the apocalyptic impulse serves
as an entry into the new.226
Alessandro Mendini with Kean Etro,
Logo suit, 2004. Photograph by
Carlo Lavatori
Ai Weiwei, Han Dynasty Urn with
Coca-Cola Logo, 1994. Painted Han
Dynasty urn. Private collection, USA
If postmodernism never goes away, despite the repeated claims of its foreclosure,
what does its future (which is of course our present) look like? The most obvious way to
approach this question is to think about ‘globalization’, another term that has achieved
currency since 1990, and which perhaps more than any other idea conveys a sense that we
have entered something discrete, something post-postmodern.227 It will not have escaped
the reader’s notice that the geography of this project is essentially Euro-American, with
Japan as an exception that proves the rule, and the majority of the objects it documents
are the work of white men. Furthermore, as mentioned above (and in Arindam Dutta’s
essay for this volume, pp. 270–3), the presumption of a ‘universal’ postmodern condition
is astonishingly Eurocentric. All the same, postmodernism has itself demonstrably
‘globalized’ since 1990. In the past two decades, major postmodernist art and architecture
appeared in Cairo, Singapore, Shanghai, and almost every where else where capital
accumulates (pls 107 and 108).228
More important than this matter of stylistic diffusion, though, is the fact that contemporary
globalization itself is best understood as a postmodern phenomenon. As Mike Featherstone
has written, ‘On the global level, postmodernism not only signifies a revival of the interest
in the exotic other, but the fact that the other now speaks back.’229 This suggests that
today’s asymmetries of power can still best be viewed in terms of postmodernism, in both
a positive and an oppositional (that is, anti-postmodern) sense. We want to pursue this
claim, in a rather limited way, by focusing on one exhibition: Magiciens de la Terre, which
was staged in 1989 at the Centre Pompidou and the Parc de la Villette in Paris. This situated
the project within two buildings whose relations to postmodernism were complex, the
former being a late modern structure by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, whose overstatement
of functionalism tipped into colourful expressionism, and the latter a deconstructivist
complex by Bernard Tschumi. What made the event controversial, however, was not the
architectural setting, but rather the curatorial premise. Curator Jean-Hubert Martin and
his colleagues set out to present a universal picture of contemporary art, which included
blue-chip conceptual artists from Europe and America alongside wood carvers, metalworkers
and painters from Africa, India, the Australian outback and other ‘marginal’ spaces.230 The
project has recently, and aptly, been described as the moment when ‘the international
art market was awakened to the potential riches of another period of global colonisation,
of what then would have been referred to as “the other”’.231 Though the divide between
occidental artists and ‘les autres’ was in some ways clear and absolute, Martin argued that
they all drew from a common wellspring of human creativity:
All of these objects, from here or elsewhere, have one aura in common. They are not
simple objects or functional tools. They are meant to act upon the same mentality
and the ideas from which they are born. They are receptacles of metaphysical values.232
A perhaps surprising aspect of Magiciens de la Terre, given this emphasis on spiritual
authenticity, was its emphasis on ‘salvage culture’ – just the sort of bricolage that Jencks
and Silver had celebrated all the way back in 1972 in their book Adhocism, but now more
explicitly in the context of the global movement of commodities and images.233 Many of
the Euro-American artists included operated in this way – whether it was British sculptor
Tony Cragg’s assemblages of plastic junk, German painter Sigmar Polke’s pastiches of pop
and historical motifs, or French conceptualist Daniel Spoerri’s neo-primitivist masks made
from disparate found objects.
Two of the most resonant figures in the show were African artists whose objects also
seemed the products of globally-inflected bricolage; in fact, their work looked uncannily
like postmodernist design. These were Samuel Kane Kwei, a cabinet-maker from Ghana,
who had been making sculptural coffins since 1951 in the shape of automobiles (pl. 109),
fish, houses and cameras; and Bodys Isek Kingelez, from Zaire (Congo), who in 1977 had
begun fashioning imaginary visions of Kinshasa. Kingelez’s models, made of painted
cardboard, looked for all the world like the creations of a New York architect (pl. 110). After
Kane Kwei and Kingelez were showcased at the Pompidou, other institutions lined up to
celebrate them: the Museum for African Art in New York, the British Museum, MoMA, and
the definitive postmodern museum in Groningen (designed by Mendini) all exhibited one
or both artists. Jean Pigozzi, a Geneva-based venture capitalist, worked with the assistant
Ashley Bickerton, Commercial Piece
#1, 1989. Anodized aluminium, wood,
leather, acrylic paint, rubber. Courtesy
of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin
Gallery, New York
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Wonders Taken for Signs
curator from Magiciens, André Magnin, to form a groundbreaking collection of contemporary
African art that included both Kwei and Kingelez.
It was not only the style of these objects that made them register; they also spoke to
the status-obsessed art and design world of the 1980s. Kane Kwei drew on longstanding
pageant customs but also marked the passage of new foreign goods into his community
(Teshie, a suburb of Accra), and his work spoke directly to the ambition of his clients. It
was an echo of that key postmodern preoccupation, the construction of the self through
commodities, even though the motivations and symbolism of the objects were local in
character: ‘These extravagant coffins are chosen by the deceased’s family, most often
according to their social background or their profession. A lion for a traditional chieftain,
a Mercedes for the boss of a fleet of taxis, a chicken for a mother with a large family.’234
Kingelez’s architectural models were also a hit with the postmodern set. A few years
after Magiciens de la Terre, his work propelled Ettore Sottsass into a paroxysm of rhetorical
flight that echoed the exhibition’s transcultural vision:
The exhibition was, in other words, postmodern not only in its content but also its attitude.
Martin and his colleagues staged a globalist gesture that was nonetheless exquisitely
For many observers this was the worst kind of false hybridity. In her scathing
critique of Magiciens, the art historian Annie Coombes wrote a passage that is worth
quoting at length:
The memories of Bodys Isek Kingelez are those that are possible, maybe even those
that are foreseeable, to a traveller who leaves an ancient, dark, tiring, fierce world of
African nature and finds he’s being aroused by, that he’s falling in love with, and
understandably so, that part of the Western modern landscape, in fact that part of the
American landscape that is most brightly lit, most colourful, noisiest, most artificial,
most ‘anti-nature,’ the very part that is precisely ‘history-less’, the part that is projected
to reassure everyone, to transport everyone, if possible, toward happiness, toward a
total Existential blessing. Aren’t Las Vegas, Miami, Atlantic City, divine places, blessed
by good fortune, placed where time doesn’t exist, places without history, places to
dream, rainbow places, places with tall plastic palm trees and celestial breezes?235
In the same way that bricolage superficially reproduces the qualities of [modernist]
collage but smoothes over the fracture that collage retains, ‘difference’ as an analytical
tool can simply revert to the pitfalls of the older cultural relativist model, concealing
the distances between cultures while affirming that all are equal. The chasm is too
great between the actual experience of economic, social, and political disempowerment,
and the philosophical relativism of postmodernism’s celebration of flux and indeterminacy
as the product of the mobility of global capital. We need an account of difference which
acknowledges the inequality of access to economic and political power, a recognition
which would carry with it an analysis of class and gender relations within subaltern
and dominant groups, and would articulate the ways in which such differences are
constituted, not only in relation to the western metropolitan centres.236
Samuel Kane Kwei, Mercedes-Benz
Shaped Coffin, 1993. Enamel paint and
wood. Contemporary African Art
Collection, Geneva. Courtesy CAAC –
The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva
© Samuel Kane Kwei
Coombes issues a tall order here, probably one that no exhibition (not Magiciens, and
not the present exhibition either) can fulfil, at least on its own. What is most striking
about her criticism, however, is the fact that it is itself framed in terms of postmodernism
– by being against it. Like its intermittent demises, postmodernism’s inadequate claims
of universality are a gift that keeps on giving. Or to put it more seriously: attending to
difference still requires the flux and relativism of the postmodern position. It is only
as a rift in an otherwise undifferentiated, connective field that the particular becomes
political, rather than simply descriptive or constraining. Here it may be worth remembering
the words of one last theorist, Trinh T. Minh-ha, who wrote in 1987: ‘Difference is an
ongoing process; like authenticity [it] is produced, not salvaged.’237 From this perspective,
postmodernism’s engagement with the global, as embodied in such events as Magiciens de
la Terre, is worth holding on to precisely because it is so objectionable. Postmodernism’s
self-presentation as a difference machine may be fraudulent, but at least the apparatus
is there for all to see.
Sottsass gives himself permission to forget the real context of these objects’ production
– which he caricatures in terms drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902)
– and instead see them as monuments of a transcultural postmodernism, devoid of history
but filled with happiness. One can detect this strain of multivalent idealism throughout
the reception of Kane Kwei and Kingelez, and indeed all the ‘other’ work in Magiciens:
a range of conflicting and conflicted responses that combined old-fashioned exoticism,
well-intentioned universalism, and a shock of recognition, all fuelled by self-projection.
Ahmed Mito, Supreme Constitutional
Court of Egypt, 2000. Cairo
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
Bodys Isek Kingelez, Zaire, 1989.
Paper, coloured and decorated
cardboard, polystyrene, plastic.
Contemporary African Art Collection,
Geneva. Courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi
Collection, Geneva © Bodys Isek
Wonders Taken for Signs
essayists, looking back at postmodernism means looking back at their own youths. Some
were children in the 1970s and 80s; others were in university or graduate school, having
these ideas laid out before them when they were hot off the press. It is the same for us as
curators. One of us was born in 1967, the other in 1972, and our first encounters with design
history were conditioned by the insights of postmodernist theory.
It would be naive to suggest that such generational affinities play no role in the history
of ideas, and this is one explanation why, after a period in which postmodernism seemed
to have been exhausted as a topic of discussion, it is now back in vogue. But there are many
other reasons why this project seems to have come along at the right time. We have curated
this exhibition during a period of sudden economic distress, which makes the recessionary
decade of the 1970s, the ‘bubble’ of the 80s, and the crash years that followed, all feel
uncannily familiar. We have also conducted our research at a time when many postmodern
practitioners are seeking to consolidate their own legacies – a good time to gather
collections and recollections alike. And, of course, there are all the arguments to be made
about the ongoing importance of postmodernism, both as a historical subject and a set of
unresolved intellectual provocations. The history we have set out here should help us to
understand the permissive, fluid and hyper-commodified situation of design today. Even
so, these issues are subsumed under our own personal relation to the period: the sense that
when we look back at the years from 1970 to 1990 we are looking at the moment of our own
formation. And this will be true of many, if not most, people who read this book. Why can’t
we be ourselves like we were yesterday? Because like it or not, we are all postmodern now.
Whenever I get this way
I just don’t know what to say
Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?238
— New Order
When choosing a director for their video Bizarre Love Triangle (1986), the pop band New
Order turned to Robert Longo. At the time, Longo was just on the cusp of a brief stint as
a video-maker, but he was also one of the hottest contemporary artists in New York.239
Another member of the so-called Pictures Generation, he was probably best known for his
Men in the City series. These life-sized, full-length figure studies were based on photographs
in which men wearing suits were captured in the throes of a mysterious convulsion
(pl. 111).240 Were they dancing? Had they been shot at close range (by a gun, as well as a
camera)? It was impossible to tell, and of course that was the point. Like so many other
postmodern poseurs, his figures were at once ambiguous and ecstatic.
In the video that Longo made for New Order, this indeterminate motif is adapted into
the key image accompanying the chorus. As we hear Bernard Sumner singing the lines
‘Every time I see you falling/ I get down on my knees and pray’, we see well-dressed bodies
floating in an endless freefall against the backdrop of a blue sky (pl. 112). The sequence
emblematizes the condition of the postmodern subject, adrift in frictionless space (and it
is even more haunting now than it was when conceived, given our memories of corporate
employees plunging from windows on 11 September 2001).241 Wrapped around the tumbling
figures, during the verses, is a world of quickly changing imagery, which seems to have been
assembled from found footage but was actually shot on location in New York. The subject
matter sometimes recalls the urban flux of Koyaanisqatsi – escalators, industrial architecture
and crowds on the move. At other times Longo surveys the technological infrastructure of
the song itself, in shots of reel-to-reel tape, scrambled footage of the band in performance,
and black and white televisual ‘noise’. Occasionally, as in Laurie Anderson’s performances,
the video becomes suddenly and unexpectedly poetic. Fireworks light up the night sky, and
a child runs through the city, scared, clutching a doll to her chest. And then, toward the end,
there is an inexplicable rupture, unlike anything you expect to find on MTV. A (very) short
film-within-the-film, shot in black and white:
Woman: I don’t believe in reincarnation, because I refuse
to come back as a bug or as a rabbit.
Man: You know, you’re a real ‘up’ person.
This brief exchange could be taken as a joke about the idea of the ‘post-human’, then gaining
ground in academic and subcultural circles. Plastic surgery, breast implants, steroids, crash
diets, mood drugs, genetic engineering: all these developments had given rise to the idea
that identity was now something manufactured, and hence as much a question of control
and manipulation as any other form of consumption.242 The man’s rejoinder both satires
this world of self-creation, and refers obliquely to the pervading idea of postmodern identity
(those floating figures might be seen as permanently ‘up’). But even this interpretation is
probably too literal. As the video’s rapid-fire images flash back across the screen, it’s clear
that the sheer experience of media fragmentation constitutes the real message.
In the spirit of Longo’s flickering yet revealing video, we now turn to a kaleidoscope
of views on postmodernism. The territory we have laid out here, in this long introduction,
will now be remapped from the beginning. We have invited 39 authors to deliver short
essays on a subject of their choice. The resulting multivalent perspectives capture not
only the complexity of postmodernism, but also its incommensurability. We hope each of
these essays will take you closer to a particular moment, practitioner or idea; and also that,
taken together, they will constitute a compelling story (but definitely not a grand narrative).
A few of the authors are leading figures from the period: architects James Wines and Denise
Scott Brown, graphic designer April Greiman, dancer and choreographer Matthew Hawkins,
curator Wolfgang Schepers. Among the contributing historians are some who lived through
the period and helped to shape it, like Charles Jencks and Rick Poynor. But for most of our
Robert Longo, Untitled (Joe) from the
Men in the City series, 1981. Charcoal
and pencil on paper. Tate: Presented by
Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996, London
Overleaf: 112
Robert Longo, stills from Bizarre Love
Triangle video for New Order, 1986
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 –19 90
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