May 20, 2024

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Avant-Garde Design: The Enigmatic World of Playful Postmodernism

What Encompasses Postmodernism?

In the ever-evolving tapestry of art and architecture, Postmodernism, affectionately known as PoMo, stands as a defiant counterpoint to the tenets of Modern design and architecture. In stark contrast to the simplicity and functionality revered in Mid-century modern architecture, Postmodern design unabashedly embraces unconventional notions, espousing an ethos characterized by whimsy, artistry, and extravagance. Postmodernists were not bound by dogma; instead, they reveled in a ceaseless exploration of vivid hues, theatrical contours, and audacious forms, relishing every opportunity to defy the conventions of architecture and design.

The Genesis of Postmodernism

Although the precise origins of Postmodernism elude a definitive pinpoint, scholars concur that its embryonic stage finds resonance in Ettore Sottsass’s Totem, an industrial ceramic masterpiece unveiled at the Milan exhibition “Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants & Gas Pumps” in 1967, now enshrined within The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s design collection. Another credible inception point for this avant-garde movement may be traced to the publication of “Learning from Las Vegas” (1972) by the American duo Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. In this seminal work, the pair asserts that the diverse architectural styles adorning Las Vegas’s hotels and casinos constitute a subversion of modernist concepts of “taste,” epitomized by the flamboyant neon signage that graces the city’s landscape.

The Influence of Punk Culture

Postmodernism flourished during a period of profound social metamorphosis and challenging economic conditions. This era bore witness to the rise of anti-establishment subcultures, the rebellious strains of punk music, and the deconstructed couture championed by Vivian Westwood.

Simultaneously, in the late 1970s, architect Frank Gehry embarked on a radical transformation of his Santa Monica residence, a pioneering venture well ahead of its time. Interior walls were dismantled to expose structural elements, while plywood adorned the exterior, and corrugated metal panels, reminiscent of barn roofs, graced the façades.

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Aesthetic Pronouncements of the 1980s

The 1980s heralded an epoch where everything became an emblem of style. Cutting-edge graphics infiltrated art, periodicals, and music videos, ushering in a new post-punk subculture. Postmodern traits, such as resplendent colors, dramatic contours, and exaggerated forms, came to dominate the realms of fashion, furnishings, and accessories.

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The Trailblazing MEMPHIS Group

Born in 1981 within the hallowed streets of Milan, Italy, the Memphis Group emerged as a radical force in design. Spearheaded by the visionary designer and architect Ettore Sottsass, alongside his compatriots, this collective sought to chart a new design frontier. Borrowing their moniker from a Bob Dylan tune, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” this group disassembled norms with remarkable aplomb. Six short years later, the loosely knit ensemble of like-minded designers disbanded.

Memphis wielded rebellion as its weapon. Where the Bauhaus and modernist luminaries crafted austere furnishings bedecked in chrome, leather, or exotic woods, Memphis designers harbored an affinity for affordable materials, often favoring plastic. Their philosophy revolved around the “radical, funny, and outrageous.” Their aesthetic amalgamated geometric shapes reminiscent of the Art Deco movement of the 1920s with the vibrant color palette of the 1960s Pop Art movement, all with a whimsical nod to 1950s kitsch.

An Unconventional Style

Controversies notwithstanding, the Memphis Group charted uncharted waters. Their audacious utilization of clashing colors and unorthodox arrangements defied convention. Materials like laminate and terrazzo, hitherto confined to flooring surfaces, found new life as tables and lamps. Memphis shattered the traditional paradigm that objects should be functional rather than decorative. With their innovative and playful approach to design, Memphis reshaped the very essence of the field.

From Counterculture to Mainstream

Notable early proponents included Karl Lagerfeld, the illustrious fashion designer of Chanel, who was so enamored with Sottsass’s designs that he acquired his entire inaugural collection. In 2016, the estate of David Bowie unveiled his collection of over 400 Memphis pieces, which he had amassed since the 1980s. With such influential admirers, Memphis items achieved cult status, commanding the attention of design aficionados and gracing the galleries of major art and design museums. The V&A London, for instance, dedicated a significant retrospective to Postmodernism in 2011-2012, titled “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990.” Currently, the Vitra Museum in Germany showcases “Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance” (06.02.2021 – 23.01.2022). Today, Postmodernism has shed its radical and subcultural roots to become an integral part of mainstream design.

The Resurgence of Postmodernism

Once derided as the epitome of bad taste, the Memphis aesthetic is experiencing a renaissance, perhaps as a reaction against the modernist-inspired interior design that has held sway for the past decade, from Parisian Haussmannian apartments to Manhattan studios.

These perplexing times call for peculiar furnishings. For those daring enough to infuse a touch of the 1980s into their abodes, original Memphis pieces continue to be produced or have undergone re-edition and are available for acquisition through Memphis Milano. Furthermore, the vintage furniture market boasts a cornucopia of period items guaranteed to captivate your senses. A new generation of designers also reinterprets this style, breathing fresh life into its legacy.

In this age of eccentricity, Postmodernism is reasserting itself, inviting us to embrace the enigma and celebrate the bizarre in the world of design.