Visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum’s autumn blockbuster exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990, I had a minor epiphany in front of a chest of drawers. In 1978 Alessandro Mendini arranged to have an Art Deco cabinet decorated with a copy of an abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky from the 1920s and an angular mirror slice through its drawers. One of Mendini’s celebrated ‘Redesigns’, this exhibit expressed his ironic view of one of the high points of modern art. But it was not the Italian architect’s irreverent attitudes to modernism which seized my attention: it was the way in which a piece of furniture was quite literally transformed into an image. This was also true of the Cinzia Ruggeri Homage to Lévi-Strauss dress (autumn/winter collection, 1983–4) fixed on the wall nearby. Fashioned in green silk, this asymmetrical dress flared at the waist and the neck with a stepped profile like that of a ziggurat. This was a piece of clothing which lost its shape and therefore its meaning when worn in the streets. But photographed in the studio with the model fixing a rigid pose, it formed a marvellous silhouette. Fashion is always about images, but Ruggeri’s dress was only an image.
Halfway through the exhibition, it was clear to me that postmodernism was, at least in this sense, a triumph for graphic design. This was an age when everything – or at least everything which made it onto the glossy pages of the design and style press – looked like graphic design. The chairs, the buildings and the emblematic figures of the day – like Grace Jones – were flattened out and decorated in the pursuit of the most celebrated value of the 1980s: style. Surface treatments were often reprographic in the way that they quoted printing effects or traditional decorative schemes. Plastic was valued not for its malleability or even its cheapness, but for the way in which it caught the light.
Of course, there were some good philosophic reasons for the ‘graphic turn’ in postmodern design. In the late 1960s American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown told architects to “learn from Las Vegas” – meaning that the commercial strip of this city of neon and billboards in the desert held important lessons for modern architects. Utility and function may have been the shibboleths of modernism, but they were no longer enough. Buildings ought to have symbolic content too. This would allow architecture to restore its lost place-making function.
The first results of this change in thinking – vividly mapped at the V&A – were provocative schemes which seemed to behave more like art than architecture. With their crumbling brickwork, James Wines’ mid-1970s designs for BEST stores seemed to anticipate their future ruination. A few years later in the UK, architect Nigel Coates proposed ‘Narrative Architecture Today’ (NATO) which tuned into the high frequencies of fashion and the low pleasures afforded by the nightclub to rethink the city. Architecture could no longer be a matter of following the tracks laid down by technology and rational thinking. NATO’s fantastic propositions were exercises in expression and the imagination. And, of course, the results were images not buildings.
Postmodernism was – as its chief theorist Fredric Jameson told us – “the cultural logic of late capitalism”. Production was downplayed, as the west engineered a new age of reproduction. What a company was worth on the stock exchange counted for more than what left its production lines. Branding consultancies and advertising agencies were charged with the crucial task of image management. At the same time, new technologies – microchips and video screens – seemed to promise a new virtual world. The postmodern dream of immateriality was projected in the glitch aesthetics of artist Robert Longo’s video for New Order’s single, Bizarre Love Triangle (1986) and April Greiman’s early experiments with the buzzing pixels that could be achieved with the then-new Macintosh.
Postmodernism never did away with the real, despite what its champions and enemies claimed. Looking back, this is evident in Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a spectacular and sometimes sentimental movie exploring the relationship of humanity, technology and the environment. With sublime aerial shots, compelling slow motion sequences and pulsing time-lapse images, Reggio refused the conventional voice-over narration. The combination of images was enough to make his point (at least, when accompanied by Philip Glass’s insistent soundtrack). Life was ‘out of balance’. Watching this film 30 years later, one cannot help but think how very material and very physical the world on screen appears. Factory assembly lines are populated with hundreds of people, performing the same repetitive tasks. And people are all too thing-like when they are packed into trains to get to work on the assembly line. Somebody had to make those computers and screens through which we would enjoy virtual reality. In Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio anticipated the industrial panoramas captured by photographer Edward Burtynsky in India and China today.
One cannot help thinking that if postmodernism was a victory for the skills on which graphic design is based, it was one that few would want to claim. What started as a critical examination of the universalising myths of progress became, in the age of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, a form of canny commercialism. In the V&A show, works by the former Wall Street banker Jeff Koons and Terry Farrell’s TV-am building in Camden London (1983), are overshadowed by a quote from Martin Amis’s novel, Money, (1984): “Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength. It’s a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.”
Viewed from the present, postmodern tastes look disturbingly excessive. Shopping with a bag bearing Barbara Kruger’s cautionary slogan
‘I shop therefore I am’ may have been given an ironic twist but it was still shopping. Overconsumption – with its malign effects on the planet and on the individual – may not have been created by postmodernism, but it was licensed by it.
David Crowley runs the Critical Writing in Art and Design programme at the Royal College of Art in London. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 runs until January 15, 2012 at the V&A in London. See vam.ac.uk