Postmodernism: the -ism with attitude

As the V&A hosts a show, Corinne Julius looks at the origins of Postmodernism
Bel Air chair, Peter Shire, 1982
Bel Air chair, Peter Shire, 1982
Architectural and design theory might seem a long way from most Londoners' lives, but what architects and designers argue about has a habit of coming to influence the nature of the city, its buildings and what's inside them. Postmodernism, which developed in the Seventies and flourished in the Eighties and early Nineties, has been one of the most reviled architectural movements, yet a highly influential one.

Ideas propounded by postmodernists and exploited (often very badly) by others have been absorbed across the built environment. Docklands developments are full of red and blue painted metalwork; classier projects such as No 1 Poultry by Sir James Stirling incorporate bright pink and yellow stripes into a strange, wedge-shaped structure with a façade of punched-out circles, squares and triangles; and Terry Farrell's green glass and stone MI6 monolith sits triumphantly at Vauxhall.

Postmodernism is a relatively recent phenomenon but the V&A has decided it is worthy of a major exhibition - Postmodernism: Style and Subversion. Co-curator Jane Pavitt says: "Thirty years seems a good distance from which to view Post-modernism. It's enough but not too much hindsight. It's still something of a toxic subject. The verdict isn't clear cut as to whether Postmodernism is trash or glorious."

Postmodernism, an -ism with attitude, was the response of a generation of architects and theorists to modernism, with its mantra of "form follows function". Modernism, once seen as key to the creation of a better world, had become the house style of corporations and government. Postmodernists challenged the orthodoxies of modernism, rejecting truth and simplicity in favour of the artificial, the kitsch, the colourful and the patterned. Post-modernists wanted buildings and objects that expressed irony, wit, historical allusion and style. They played with different aesthetics and stuck them all together so that style wasn't just a look, it was an attitude.

This questioning of authority, a key tenet of post-modernism, was echoed in fashion and music

Labrador sauceboat
Labrador sauceboat, Andrea Branzi, 1982
In America, architects such as Denise Scott-Brown with Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves and even the arch-modernist Philip Johnson came up with postmodern buildings ranging in look from fake Italian piazzas to skyscrapers with Greek columns and pediments. In the UK, postmodernism was promoted by Charles Jencks, who built houses in Cape Cod and London.

PoMo (as Postmodernism is sometimes called) was popularised in its kitschest form by Sir Terry Farrell's building for TV-am (1981-3) at Camden Lock. Farrell converted an interwar garage by cladding it in an assemblage of styles and historic forms. He adorned the roof with the station's sunrise logo, art deco lettering and blue-and-white eggcups.

This in-your-face approach extended to interior products. Two Italian designers led the way, Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass. The latter was the creator of the design group Memphis, launched in Milan in 1981. The furniture and products, often made of brightly coloured and patterned laminates with a rather two-dimensional look and an anthropomorphic feel, had personality.

Alessi coffee maker
Alessi coffee maker
Despite (or because) of their impracticality, they caused a sensation and soon became collectors' items. Almost immediately major manufacturers such as Formica, Knoll and Alessi commissioned Memphis and leading PoMo architects to design ranges to rejuvenate their brands. The Alessi tea and coffee towers designed by major PoMo architects is the classic example. In the US, architect Michael Graves not only designed buildings for Disney but all kinds of interior products, including a Mickey Mouse kettle (for Moller). If you could not afford a building by him you could at least purchase a plate. It began the age of consumerism in which what you bought defined who you were.

In the UK, postmodernist development was fuelled by Creative Salvage with raw and brutal designs made from found objects by emerging designer/makers such as Tom Dixon, Mark Brazier-Jones, Danny Lane and Ron Arad, whose Rover chair, 1981 and Concrete stereo, 1983 were hugely influential. In craft the UK led the way with emerging makers such as Alison Britton, Carol MacNichol and Michael Rowe challenging the perceived form and function of traditional craft. This questioning of authority, a key tenet of post-modernism, was echoed in fashion and music. Postmodernism broke down walls between the disciplines, embraced the media and helped to fuel new style magazines.

Super Lamp, Martine Bedin, 1981
Super Lamp, Martine Bedin, 1981
It was a heady mix. Gradually, the radicalism declined and what was left was the imagery: coloured metalwork, squares and circles and columns and arches stuck on the front of buildings. Pastiche without the concepts. Bizarrely, Postmodernism, which had been about the rejection of authority, became the house style of capitalism. It is alive and well in cities in the Gulf, Malaysia and China. On an individual level it came to stand not for the original individuality but for a new conformism - the promotion of self through accepted brands.

* Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, September 24 to January 8 (020 7942 2502;
* Reader offer: Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, edited by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt (V&A Publishing £40) accompanies the V&A exhibition and is available at the special price of £32 plus free UK postage and packing. Call 01256 302 699 and quote 6DG. Offer ends January 15, 2012.

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