Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Post Modernity and the Current State of Design

The 1960s signaled the recognition of several co-existing cultural expressions in art and design, a situation sometimes referred to as Pluralism, in which no single approach to modernity dominated, and the value of all commodities overshadowed former distinctions between good, mass, and popular design (Raizman, p.354). Thomas Crowe summarized this situation by saying, “The avant-garde is the research and development branch of the culture industry.”


Dissatisfaction with modernism affected architecture and city planning before it reached design. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs stated her views against “monolithic uniformity of the modernist vision” saying that cities should instead be a sort of patchwork of new, old and renovated buildings that relate to the human-scale of the street level. Five years later (1967) architect Robert Venturi also declared a preference for “messy vitality” over “obvious unity” in a manifesto entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. He flipped the script of Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” by saying “less is a bore.” Denise Scott Brown’s Learner from Las Vegas launched the postmodern movement saying the building fa├žade should be a medium of communication, and forms of pure information. Ralph Caplan, a critic and contributor to I.D., claimed that boredom from the modernist movement resulted in an inclination towards flashy, colorful, ephemeral products. He stated, “after so many years of clean, stark, unlittered design, product designers, like architects, are saying, ‘Why the hell shouldn’t there be some fun in it?’” Form follows function was translating into form follows emotion, during post modernity.


For design, postmodernism includes projects and forms that mark the end to the ongoing argument between esthetically-directed or socially-directed design and commercially motivated design, which appeared as a strain of modernism that dominated design theory for much of the two decades following WWII. “Theoretically, postmodernism shares with mass culture a user-oriented approach to design that emphasizes multiple interpretations and meaning and often embraces the ephemeral rather than the permanent characteristics of the design enterprise, exemplified by… performance art and the inclusiveness of popular art forms,” (Raizman, p. 354). Postmodernism also is often discussed in conjunction with post-industrialism and late capitalism, where consumption is the subtext. It is marked by the readiness of businesses to design, manufacture and market new products with ever-increasing speed. Postmodern products were designed on a higher level of sophistication due to an accelerated interactivity between design, manufacturing and marketing through the use of digital technology.

Postmodernism, or Pluralism, was the overall theme for the Design Now: Industry or Art exhibition in the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt in 1989. The Formic Corporation requested members of the Memphis design group to design furniture using their new ColorCore product, which could be molded and cut, yielding products like Stanley Tigerman’s Tete a Tete chairs of 1983. Another chair produced using Pluralism design values was Robert Venturi’s Chippendale chair of 1984, which mocked important tenets of modern industrial design, which flaunted its decorating through the use of colorful painting, rather than eliminating ornament or expressing it as subservient. French architect/designer Philippe Starck emerged in the mid-1980s with original furniture designs for sophisticated clients, working with Art Deco and using assembled industrial materials, simple geometric shapes and collapsibility for storage. American architect/designer Michael Graves designed a moderne-inspired tea and coffee service set with polished surfaces and non-functional blue knobs. He was also hired by Target to design a series of household products, for which he used an egg shape for inspiration, saying it was ergonomically friendly design.

Technology & Design

Digital technology has had a major impact upon the practice of graphic design. The interface of the computer experienced major developments and change during the 1980s, thanks largely to Mac computers. The experience of the user shifted from turning pages to clicking links, showing windows filled with information that was seen, read, and heard—often all at the same time. Programming changed from type and images in electronic code to creating and controlling those object with an interactive mouse that moved across a virtual desktop. Contemporary design is often referred to as “soft” design: the use and manipulation of virtual (rather than real) materials and forms through computer imaging, which allows one to work more dynamically and experimentally in a more interactive and collaborative process.
“In a sense, it seemed that the history of design in the US had come full circle. Although most people could not fathom the complexity of the software that enabled them to design their own websites, or that in the future might be enable them to participate in the designing of their own clothes, furnishings, appliances, or automobiles, the transparency of that software’s interfaces gave them a feeling of being closer to the source of things, closer to the basic level of the artisan or craftsperson, than at any time since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.” (Meikle, p. 210).
Do you think computer interface and software has helped you in your own design process? Do you think you would reach the same conclusions in your designs without the use of computers and computer programs? Is there a negative side to using computers as part of the creative design process?

Reform & Social Responsibility

Not unlike so many other contemporary products, phones have become a lifestyle accessory, which is tailored to our age group and aims to help us become the image we would like to be perceived as. Should shopping for a phone result in so many options? Are we really being presented with several quality options, or has the quality and durability of components and materials been degraded and combined with variety to make the phone market another case of planned obsolescence? Has our culture become a “throw away” culture? Or are we now moving away from this direction, heading towards a “green” movement? Perhaps we are only faking this so-called “green” movement as yet another marketing ploy to see more products when none are actually needed by the consumer?

(But not really because we’re living in Postmodernity/the current state of design!)

“Somewhere between universal standards based upon taste, safety, human factors, or environmental impact, and a democratic embrace of the seemingly insatiable desire for individual fulfillment through commodity consumption, there may lie a middle-ground that sustains hope for the future of design, a balance between the permanent and the ephemeral, between nature and the consumer-dominated culture that has emerged during the past 200 years,” (Raizman, p. 363).

This blog is intended for the interior design students in the college of design at the University of Kentucky. It was created with the intent to present students with information, providing them with a channel for contemplation and discussion.