When Daryl Hannah decorates Charlie Sheen’s apartment in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, she whips up a quintessential postmodernist pastiche. The faux-ruined walls and clashing colours personify the aspirations of the nouveaux riches, a shallow world of image and artifice. In a rare moment of design slapstick, Michael Douglas (as Gordon Gecko) puts his drink on the coffee table and it falls through – he thinks there’s glass there. You can hear the modernists tutting. With its deceptive surfaces and furniture that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, postmodernism is not just the backdrop to but a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, where a plump balance sheet conceals all manner of sins and where marble-effect plastic laminate hides chipboard. But was postmodernism really so bad?
Already we’re in cliche territory. If there were a critic’s rulebook, it would stipulate the need to begin any piece on postmodernism with a pop culture reference and a tone of moral ambivalence. That mandatory disapproval is based not so much on the carnival of bad taste that romped through the 1970s and 80s, but on the fact that this bad taste was only skin deep. For, according to the standard reading, postmodernism was fickle and ironic, obsessed with style for its own sake. Where modernism was about high-minded notions such as essence and truth to materials, perhaps even a social agenda, postmodernism was about surfaces and signs. As Fredric Jameson put it in his brilliant Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “it is like the transition from precious metals to the credit card”.
With a major retrospective of postmodernism opening at the V&A Museum later this month, the question is whether we have anything new to say about this phenomenon. Will the show reinforce old cliches, or will it manage to capture some of postmodernism’s complexity? One of the awkward things about the postmodernists was that few of their leading lights actually wanted to be one. Ettore Sottsass, arguably the godfather of postmodernist design, felt that it was an American architectural movement. And in some ways he was right. In architecture, the agenda was set across the Atlantic, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s embracing of Las Vegas neon, by the historicist references of Michael Graves, the vertiginous corporate lobbies of John Portman and the assemblage style of Frank Gehry’s house. But in design, the main impetus came from Europe. There were exceptions, such as the American Peter Shire, whose Bel Air chair does a fair impression of a cornice abusing a beach ball. But when Sottsass founded the Memphis group in Milan in 1981, along with Michele De Lucchi and Marco Zanini and others, he unleashed postmodernist design’s boldest force.
Memphis was garish and irreverent, trawling history for allusions and splattering them with previously unthinkable patterns. It was a self-conscious riposte to modernism’s steel-tube sobriety. Martine Bedine’s Super lamp was like a child’s toy, part ferris wheel, part puppy on a leash. Sottsass’s Casablanca sideboard has something Aztec about it, and that kind of arbitrary reference was pure postmodernism – it might be neo-Mesopotamian, like Sottsass’s 1972 Lapislazzuli teapot, or neo-art deco primitivism like the 1982 Murmansk fruit bowl.
But what Memphis is chiefly remembered for is the plastic laminate that gave these pieces their dizzying visual effect. Thanks to this emphasis on shock-and-awe surfaces, it has become common to suggest that Memphis products were designed merely to look good in photographs – that it was mediatised furniture for an image economy. Jameson made the same point about postmodern architecture. This may be true, although in Memphis’ case I’m not sure it was as conscious as that. Certainly, news of Memphis travelled fast – influencing some of the worst design of recent times – but Memphis itself was never a commercial success. The only people who seemed to do well out of it were Abet Laminati, the Italian laminates company that produced the riotous veneers Sottsass and co made all the rage.
The problem with the conventional reading of Memphis as ironic, mediatised furniture was that Sottsass, at least, was not that cynical. A romantic, he believed that domestic objects could take on an almost sacred quality. A truer postmodernist was his compatriot Alessandro Mendini, who had established the Studio Alchimia group even before Memphis. Sharing none of Sottsass’s optimism, Mendini was much more the ironist and iconoclast, seizing the opportunity to break all of design’s rules – such as originality. His Proust armchair, a baroque confection daubed in pointillist brushstrokes, crosses furniture with an impressionist painting. He once described it to me as “hermaphrodite design” – nothing is his except the act of creating a hybrid. It was literate, sophisticated and meant as a joke.
Just as architectural postmodernism descended into the pejorative “PoMo”, with pastiches such as Philip Johnson’s AT&T building (which crossed a skyscraper with a Chippendale cabinet), so postmodernist design fell into gimmicky merchandising. Mendini was a key culprit, with his toy-like Anna G corkscrew for Alessi, shaped like a woman in a dress. Even more literal was Michael Graves’s kettle, also for Alessi, with its whistling plastic bird perched on the spout. Abandoning the old form-and-function dogma, design embraced its new nature as kitsch – kitsch that still sells rather well today, we might add.
From here, the link to pop and street culture is an easy one, and the V&A retrospective promises to regale us with instances of where postmodernist design culture simply became popular culture. Hip-hop sampling, Peter Saville’s New Order record covers, Grace Jones’s eclectic styling and the Levi’s ad in which Nick Kamen strips off in a launderette are all claimed as a groundswell of the postmodern ethos. There’s a good theoretical basis for a lot of that, but it threatens to confuse postmodernism with 1980s popular culture generally – and resuscitating Neneh Cherry as a postmodern icon feels like the 80s revival run amok.
In fact, revivalism seems to be one of the permanent legacies of postmodernism. Retro has become a perpetual condition. You can see it in ultra-conservative magazine design and referential fashion statements. If chameleon style-shifters such as Madonna and Grace Jones are postmodernists, then so is Lady Gaga. What is Apple if not neo-modernism, a revival of the minimalism preached by Dieter Rams and the Ulm design school in the 1960s? And the image economy (if that really is a Memphis legacy) is now so advanced that designers publish computer-generated images of work that is not only skin-deep, but doesn’t even exist. In architecture, meanwhile, PoMo didn’t die so much as find itself exported to the new bastions of turbo-capitalism: mirrored glass (and the lack of financial transparency that goes with it) abounds in Moscow, while the towers with the funny crowns migrated to Dubai and Shanghai. The V&A ends the story in 1990 (well, shows have to end somewhere) but postmodernism is proving a difficult habit to kick.