At the bottom of every mathematical proof is an axiom, something that must be assumed but cannot be proved. So it is going to go with these next few columns. My axiom is that every so often a new idea comes along, originating in genius, religion, the economy or politics and it spreads throughout the culture changing every thing it comes in contact with, including: philosophy, all forms of the arts and even furniture style. Of course, reading a newspaper column about history is like eating in a bad restaurant. The food may be bad but at least the portions are small.
We’re going to do a little historical perspective on furniture design, working from the present into the past, so we’ll start with postmodernism. Blame it on Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo or a global recession in the early 1970s, the optimism of the modern movement faded away to be replaced by cynicism and disillusionment. The response was that there can be no new thing, only anarchy and plundering the past. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for popularity of the Sex Pistols.
In furniture design, this was epitomized by a group of international artists in Milan, Italy, who called themselves the Memphis school. The name, by the way, came from a Bob Dylan song they listened to when they first met. They combined both expensive and inexpensive materials and elements from a number of different world cultures and different time periods to create their look. Theirs was a deliberate attempt to try and communicate their ideas through their designs.
An example of their work is the Proust Armchair which appropriated the Louis XV look but the fabric is multi-colored like a pointillist painting. Their focus was frequently on the surface of furniture and included things like painting a faux pattern of an ornate leg over the top of a very plain physical leg, using marble in combination with plastics, using multi-color plastic laminates and injection molded furniture as a rejection of earlier attention to authenticity and realism. In a philosophical sense, it is also a rejection of the idea that there’s any substance beneath the appearance, that how things appear is what they are. For me, one the ultimate expressions of appropriation is furniture from Ikea which uses Scandinavian names and styles for furniture made in China and sold in the US.
Although the Memphis school produced office furniture too, they also incorporated industrial elements like modularity and casters into their home furniture as a rejection of permanence and universalism. They used asymmetry in traditionally symmetrical furniture like chairs because it bespoke a rejection of rationality and order.
Like the role of semiotics in literature (the study of signs), the Memphis school put a great deal of stress on the role that furniture is a form of communication. One designer called furniture “a way of discussing life”.
My other axiom is that every clever, interesting idea has guys who hate it and spawn a counter-movement. Later in the decade, with the growth of the Japanese economy, a new minimalism began in furniture. These designs were sometimes called “dematerialization” or “Late Modern”. Their styles used wicker and clear acrylic in very simple, straight lines or gentle curves. In Britain, John Makepeace led a Craft Revival movement. In the US, Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof and Tage Frid (who wrote several good books on wood working) combined postmodern minimalism with the use of natural materials, creating furniture that looks like stylish Shaker style. You can see these elements of simplicity in the styles of Crate & Barrel, a stress on the functional but still incorporating stylish shape.
But we live in a world of rapid and global communication. Increasingly we’ll see every imaginable shape and material used with every other. As Mom used to say, life is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.