Design At The Crossroads


IMG_0584London 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.

GB. England. 'I don't think it's anything particularly forced on Deborah. We've just always enjoyed the same sort of things.' From 'Signs of the Times'. 1991.

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.

Kinfolk_City-Guide-Labour-Wait_Web_01-19You’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.

IMG_0596If 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.




9 comments on “Design At The Crossroads”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Reading this makes me realise of guilty of many of these sins — I have a kerosene lantern hanging from the ceiling, for example. Time I threw it all out, I think.

  2. Bill says:

    Does it hang there because it has always been there? Then it belongs there. If you don’t want it, don’t relegate it to a landfill. Surely you have charities that sell donated goods?

    I guess I sound like what I am- a collector of the past.

    Do you know that in America there is hardly any rococo revival furniture, once the most produced styles of the 19th century: After it became hated, and it didn’t sell at country auctions, the auctioneers would bonfire it all. So, almost no more rococo revival furniture. It is strangely beautiful. The furniture, not the notion of dropping a match on it.

    For decades, my country went mad with the past; collecting was a mania. Ten years ago a friend of mine, whose business it was to put on massive antiques and collectibles shows, said it was all going to stop. She was right.

    Modern design? Know nothing about it, really.

    Time to put the kettle on the hob!

  3. Bill says:

    As soon as I posted I realized it wasn’t for me to advise anyone, certainly a complete stranger, about her lantern. Truly sorry, Rachel Green.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    I agree with Bill first time round. Rachel, you should’t feel guilty for having something old or out of fashion. The only criteria is do you like it?

    That applies to any form of design. One person’s kitch/tacky/tasteless is absolutely someone else’s cup of tea. It would be a dull world if we all had similar tastes.

    Also, I can’t see anything wrong with taking bits of old design and mixing and matching them to create something original. Things need not be in a pure form of a certain era or style.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    Chris W,
    Certainly agree with the mixing of styles. Sometimes the juxtaposition of style elements brings a creativity, a surprise, which forces re-evaluation of those elements. I visit and photograph English village parish churches and some of the most stimulating are those that have incorporated their contemporary developments with past structures. An eighteenth-century altar in a thirteenth-century building, illuminated with light through 21st century stained glass has continuity, similarity, contrast, opposition; and that all makes for interest. I guess we live in a world that we shape through design, and that world shapes us in return. Being aware of the design process and its effects on us maybe helps us to understand ourselves better.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Design is a subject close to my heart. As Bill and Chris said, the main criteria is how much we like the object. This depends on function, how well the object performs the function that we set for it. ‘Function’ shouldn’t be taken in the narrowest utilitarian sense: it may include emotional, psychological and other more obscure aspects. Thus, shoes and lampshades (as interesting examples) may have functions quite apart from the simplest and most obvious ones. And, if they deliver them for us, the design is good.

    Understanding the less obvious functions in the design of an object can tell us a lot about the design and also about ourselves.

  7. Bill says:

    Have you ever tried to wash your hands in an ultra-luxe, ritzy public bathroom? It can be impossible. It happened to me several times in Miami restaurants. Couldn’t find out how to turn on the water! Apparently part of the design charm was ability to mystify. Had to go out with soapy hands to find an employee who could help me. They were always patient; I guess I couldn’t have been the only perplexed slob around.

    Sometime later, the subject of bizarre faucets came up in some thread on some other website. Same complaint, but answered by a guy who identified himself as the designer of bathrooms! His stated purpose was to “get the public thinking about design”, I swear it.

    I guess he didn’t have the sense that his unwilling “public” would think some designer was a jerk.

  8. Vivienne says:

    The ‘Brown String’ shops do sell some good solid stuff but I wonder how many Hoxton residents have to fill a galvanised pail and carry it all over the house when scrubbing floors? They might, then, see the attraction of plastic.

    I think the first really modern decor was the 20s/30s with that walnut shaped furniture, mirrors and zebra rugs type of thing: Eltham Palace is a perfect example. I find it quite interesting that the 30s houses are fitting back into fashion – I mean the sort of semi with curved windows at the corners. They lend themselves well to the neutral greys and greens and the doors with frosted glass alongside and fences made of horizontal slatting. 30s politics seem to be having a revival too.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Vivienne, curved glass is outrageously expensive and always has been.
    I have a pair of kerosene lamps with reflectors on my kitchen wall. They fit with the design of the room. I also have the standard kerosene table lamp we had when I was a teenager. Winter storms brought down tree limbs which killed the power. The wall lamps have “lamp oil” in them but the table lamp still has kerosene and every once in a while I go over and have a sniff. I took it to school so the grade threes could see what home lighting was like a hundred years ago. They were nervous about matches being lit but understood why their early task could well have been cleaning the lamp chimneys. Kids and chimneys!

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