Design At The Crossroads
London is awash with new design this week, both global and British, some of it great, some of it disappointing. London Fashion Week has ended, to be replaced by 100% Design, which unfolds in buildings, shops and open spaces across the capital, and incorporates furniture, lighting, materials, fashion, homewares, art and much more.
I feel like I’ve run the gamut of design, from the startling originality of the sixties, the plasticky excess of the seventies, the sleek astro-home glitz of the eighties, the pastel Miami look of the nineties and the drab, grey noughties, and with so many new techniques now on offer from 3D printing to laser-cut wood I wondered what would be new and exciting. It turns out that the next big thing is – retro.
The first element you notice with the design of everything from buildings to rugs is that their creators reflect the period in which they were first influenced by other work. As fashion designers tend to hit big when they’re younger, you see the trends of twenty years ago quickly revived. With home design we’re going through a seventies to nineties resurgence.
Why do we have to regurgitate old styles so much? Probably because in times of uncertainty we fall back on the things that made us feel safe and comfortable. Photographer Martin Parr’s brilliant TV series from the early 90s, ‘Signs Of The Times’, was a tragi-comic look at personal taste in the British home, a survey of contemporary perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste, exposing the wide range of emotions that lay behind household choices. It did not poke fun, but looked dispassionately at design – and it was very funny.
The end of each episode showed people standing or sitting very still in their favourite rooms. (I recall a married couple complaining that they hated their decor, as it became abundantly clear that they hated each other.) We express our feelings subconsciously through our homes, aiming for what we see as sophistication, although my favourite rooms are ones which ignore sophistication for an expression of personality (the paradox being that I live with a design-freak).
I’ve never been a lover of British home design – it’s too conservative, twee and safe. But you can’t remove design from context. Wall-to-wall carpet was once seen as luxurious because British homes were once under-heated and bare looking after decades of hard times. People talk about the last period of true originality being the modernism of the 1960s, but they forget that in the UK this style was mixed in with Victoriana. Why? Because the leftovers of the Victorians were abundant and all around us, so if you were young and stuck with a bust of Gladstone you happily painted him purple.
On another TV show couples competed on challenges, one of which was to see who could smash up a piano fastest with a sledge-hammer and post it through a letter-box. This vandalism of the past took place on an inconceivable scale, because people wanted to be rid of it as quickly as possible and move forward.
The need now is to protect the remains, but in London it meant saving too little, too late. Yet in hipster areas like Shoreditch and Hoxton, (hipsters themselves dressing like their grandfathers) the streets are becoming peculiarly not-quite-right recreations of the past, with ironic little shops selling the sort of items that would once have been found in hardware stores at vastly inflated prices.
You’re not buying the item itself here, but the memory of it, of your father owning something similar. The most polarising example is Labour And Wait in Hoxton, a modern ironic hardware store selling the kind of expensive versions of bits and bobs (like string) to remind you of your dad’s shed. While it’s a very pretty addition to the neighbourhood, there’s a fakeness about selling a galvanised bucket for £28.
So while we eschew the real down-to-earthness of working class design – the garish plastic fascias, hand-printed signage, junk food and pile-em-high plastic bins of shops around Whitechapel – we venerate our imagined version of working class chic, the kind that appears in old BBC serials. Our fantasy is to see these streets come back selling cakes and lamps, with proper British pubs on corners, but the reality is that this is the wish of the moneyed class for carefully selected and re-imagined working class roots. In these eerily perfect surroundings only the wealthy can afford to live in a formerly poor neighbourhood.
If the pub above really wanted to look as it once did, the central curved brickwork would have an enormous advert for beer running up it – but that would be a step too far. Well, one definition of kitsch is something that masquerades as something else.
Of course there’s street art everywhere – much of it boring, identikit and covertly paid for by big business – but so much of it is interchangeable from one city to the next. The best examples I see in London are the unruly artworks that appear randomly on street corners, only to quickly vanish. In a city where so people many create, it’s important to look for qualities in less plentiful supply – originality tempered with discernment.