Of all movements in art and design history, postmodernism is perhaps the most controversial. This era defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.
Postmodernism shattered established ideas about style. It brought a radical freedom to art and design through gestures that were often funny, sometimes confrontational and occasionally absurd. Most of all, over the course of two decades, from about 1970 to 1990, postmodernism brought a new self-awareness about style itself.
Postmodernism was a drastic departure from modernism’s utopian visions, which had been based on clarity and simplicity. The modernists wanted to open a window onto a new world; postmodernism’s key principles were complexity and contradiction. If modernist objects suggested utopia, progress and machine-like perfection, then the postmodern object seemed to come from a dystopian and far-from-perfect future. Designers salvaged and distressed materials to produce an aesthetic of urban apocalypse.
As the 1980s approached, postmodernism went into high gear. What had begun as a radical fringe movement became the dominant look of the ‘designer decade’. Vivid colour, theatricality and exaggeration: everything was a style statement. Whether surfaces were glossy, faked or deliberately distressed, they reflected the desire to combine subversive statements with commercial appeal. The most important delivery systems for this new phase in postmodernism were magazines and music. The work of Italian designers – especially the groups Studio Alchymia and Memphis – travelled round the world through publications like Domus. Meanwhile, the energy of post-punk subculture was broadcast far and wide through music videos and cutting-edge graphics. This was the moment of the New Wave: a few thrilling years when image was everything.
As the ‘designer decade’ wore on and the world economy boomed, postmodernism became the preferred style of consumerism and corporate culture. Ultimately this was the undoing of the movement. Postmodernism collapsed under the weight of its own success, and the self-regard that came with it. The excitement and complexity of postmodernism were enormously influential in the 1980s. In the permissive, fluid and hyper-commodified situation of 21st-century design, we are still feeling its effects.
This content was originally written to accompany exhibition Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970–1990, on display at the V&A South Kensington 24 September 2011–15 January 2012.