The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a surge of unbridled consumerism manifested in a number of diverse, often contradictory, design currents. Some architects and designers chose to conform to the previously established intellectual strictures of modernism, seeking expression through form rather than applied ornament. Others, inspired by texts that denounced the cool aridity of modernism—including Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Collage City (1973) by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, and Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York (1978)—developed a postmodernism that celebrated the vernacular and reinterpreted motifs of the past. Still others used the design of objects as a means to make countercultural social or political statements. Many of the leaders of the Studio Craft Movement consciously abandoned the creation of useful objects in favor of nonfunctional art. Toward the end of the 1980s, designers, recognizing the inherent beauty of materials developed for science, began to employ them in a wide range of consumer products. In the century’s last decade, the environment became a major concern for designers offering “green,” socially responsible solutions to design problems
International Style architecture developed in Europe between the world wars and dominated design throughout the twentieth century. From 1975 onward, late modernist projects were guided by the conviction that rationalist architecture had yet to be fully realized. Designers sought to integrate modern technology with formal elements derived from the basic grid. The use of industrial materials—predominantly stainless steel and other metals—and of minimalist, linear forms evokes the language of the idealistic International Style as well as a Japanese design philosophy of doing more with less.
From the late 1970s through the 1980s, many architects and designers, reacting against the dictates of modernism, looked to Neoclassical forms and materials for inspiration. Visual references derived from art and architecture superseded functionalism and overt historical references and decoration transformed architecture, furniture, tabletop accessories, even jewelry, into objects of fantasy. Well-known architects Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and others accepted commissions to design products for such diverse international companies as Knoll, Alessi, and Formica.
Memphis and Postmodern Italian Design
An antidesign movement energized Italian design throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Such radical design groups as Archizoom, Superstudio, and Studio Alchimia were established in opposition to the pure functionalism of the International Style. In 1981, Ettore Sottsass formed a loosely organized group to pursue an ironic approach to design in which surface decoration was paramount. When the group met one evening at Sottsass’ home, Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was playing. Struck by the diverse implications of “Memphis,” the designers adopted the name. It suggested not only the typical American city, the blues, and suburbia, but also conjured visions of the ancient Egyptian capital, thus signaling contemporary and historical meaning as well as high and low culture. Memphis annually introduced new furniture, lighting, textiles, ceramics, and glass objects in Milan from 1981 through the late 1980s.
Adlin, Jane. “Design, 1975–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dsgn4/hd_dsgn4.htm (October 2004)
Fiell, Charlotte, and Peter Fiell. Design of the 20th Century. Cologne: Taschen, 1999.