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Postmodernism Receives the Treatment it Deserves

01/18/2018 By Kadie Yale

Postmodernism Design Complete cover In reaction to modernism, postmodernism used classic  styles, such as the Chippendale form, in new ways. Memphis sideboard in postmodernist style. Postmodern designs, like Michael Grave's tea kettle (right) were widely copied, leading to what Gura believes was one of the reasons for the style's Judith Gura

When Judith Gura’s publisher asked her about writing a book on postmodernism, the design historian and educator knew it would be an exciting topic—but one that couldn’t be completed idly. “I said it would be really fun but I’d have to work on it pretty quickly saw how timely it was,” Gura reflected. “I started noticing the dribs and drabs of a postmodern revival.” The result, “Postmodern Design Complete: Design, Furniture, Graphics, Architecture, Interiors,” has already received high praises since its Nov. 28, 2017, release date, being named one of The New York Times’ Best Art Books of 2017.

For many, postmodernism is baffling—both in its definition and aesthetic. As for its categorization within the history of design styles, Gura has laid out postmodernism as the time period directly following midcentury modernism. “In order for it to not be totally confusing, I’m defining, and most scholars define, postmodernism as the period that ran roughly from the late 1970s to the early 1990s,” Gura explained. “That’s when the boldest iterations of the style came in.”

As for the aesthetic, she admitted, “it was really polarizing. Most people either love it or hate it because the most dramatic examples of it are very extreme. [However], whether you like it or not, the objects are interesting, and the architecture is very exciting.”

In anticipation for Gura’s January 24 lecture, “The Postmodern Phenomenon: From Failure to Fashion-Forward,” i+s spoke to her about the book, postmodernism, and the movement’s revival.

How she would describe postmodernism:
“This phenomenon of postmodernism was usually categorized as a reaction to modernism, to the international style. The most obvious features were going back to look at traditional styles and to ornament.”

In reaction to modernism, postmodernism used classic 
styles, such as the Chippendale form, in new ways.

On choosing the book topic:
“It was the publisher who brought it up. We’d meet every year or so and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we could do something together?’ We were throwing around possible topics and he asked what I thought about a book on postmodernism. I thought it would be really fun to do—and it was.

“And to a design historian, the idea of being able to deal with a period where most designers are still alive was exciting. This is the style that everybody viewed as dead. But the people are still there, some of them doing the same kind of thing; others have been evolving to different styles or later styles.”

On Memphis:
“Before I started teaching, I was in public relations and marketing in the design industry, and I had the chance to go to the Salone del Mobile. It was, I think, the third showing of Memphis. I arrived in Milan, and everybody said, You have to go see this." I walked into the showroom, and I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know whether they were joking. It wasn’t a matter of whether it was pretty, but I thought, 'do they really think people are going to buy this furniture? And if you buy it, where would you put it? What are you going to do with it in a conventional looking home?'”

Memphis sideboard in postmodernist style.

On issues surrounding postmodernism:
“The negative, in terms of design: it wasn’t always a major consideration whether [the pieces] were comfortable or not, or functional or not. Instead of ‘form follows function’ it was ‘function follows form,’ and some of the designs were really intended more to make a statement than to be practical pieces of furniture for the home.”

On the “death” of postmodernism:
“It died a fairly quick death when it went mass-market. What ruined the style, I think, was people laughing at it … but it [also] was copied in kitschy things. For instance, the Michael Graves teapots were a big hit and they’re still being sold. But there was postmodern kitchenware and dishes, even matchbook covers. I saw images of a couple of ugly teapots. Really awful looking things that were copies in an attempt to follow the style and there were always copies of style. There have always been copies of styles, but I think [postmodernism] really lent itself to getting messed up. It died a rather quick death—not because it was [actually] downscale but because it was in bad taste. Also, I think the fact that it didn’t combine well with other styles contributed to its decline.”

Postmodern designs, like Michael Grave's tea kettle (right) were widely copied, leading to what Gura believes was one of the reasons for the style's
Postmodern designs, like Michael Grave's tea kettle (right) were widely copied, leading
to what Gura believes was one of the reasons for the style's "death."

On the current postmodernism revival:
“There's about a 30 year cycle, in terms of a past style that are gone and being revived. Sometimes by people who were too young to know it in the first place, so they’re looking at it with fresh eyes.

“But a large reason [for its revival] is that postmodernism was exciting. It was more important than we thought at the time, and more influential than even most experts realized. It influenced all design that was to follow. Not in the sense of people copying the shapes but in it being much more acceptable to be different, to break rules and say, ‘We don’t care if this is in good taste.’

“The designers who followed [postmodernism] felt freer not to follow strict rules. So the fact that nowadays designers are more inclined to feel that it’s OK to do what they want instead of what they were taught to or what standard rules dictate, is something they owe to postmodernism. That’s another reason, I think, that the revival is welcomed. It’s bringing out creative impulses that designers otherwise might have restrained.”

Follow the link for more information on the lecture, “The Postmodern Phenomenon: From Failure to Fashion-Forward.”

Judith Gura is a design historian, author, and educator. Her published works include “Postmodernism Design Complete,” “Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York” (co-author), “A History of Interior Design” (co-author, 4th edition), “Design After Modernism: Furniture and Interiors, 1970-2010,” “New York Interior Design, 1935-1985,”  “Sourcebook of Scandinavian Furniture: Designs for the 21st Century,” and “Guide to Period Styles for Interiors.” A graduate of Cornell University, she has a Master’s degree in History of Design and the Decorative Arts from the Bard Graduate Center. Gura is on the faculty of The New York School of Interior Design and has taught at Pratt Institute and FIT. She has curated exhibitions at the New York School of Interior Design and worked on exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She writes and lectures frequently about 20th century design and decorative arts.

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