Collection Selection Boxes – Postmodern Design

Our Collection Selection Boxes are a unique opportunity to handle original prints, drawings and photographs from our collection. These resources contain carefully curated material that introduces a particular period, style, material, or technique, and are available for individual study or group teaching.

Postmodern Design

Postmodernism is a phenomenon first noted in the late 20th century; as a movement it has informed the style and content of fine art and design, as well as the arts more generally. Postmodernism's influence on architecture is of particular note, in design terms it often uses a mixture of old and new styles and has been defined as a reaction against Modernism.

Theorists contradict each other over when Postmodernism began, and indeed over whether it even exists. Charles Jencks is widely known as the principle writer on the subject. In The Language of Postmodern Architecture he claimed that Postmodernism originated in architecture, and that the death of Modern architecture heralded the rise of postmodernism across the arts.

Zygmunt Bauman represents another school of thought, suggesting that modernity, of which modernism was a symptom, did not die to be replaced with something after, or 'post'. Bauman suggests that instead it simply moved from being solid (conveniently symbolised by Modernism's interest in rationalism, the linear andthe grid) to being liquid, adapting to the constant changes of the contemporary world, rather than trying to struggle against them. This 'liquid modernity' bears the same characteristics of what Jencks described as postmodernism.

Either way, a fundamental difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that the latter rejects the belief in absolutes. Accordingly, Postmodernism is disillusioned by notions that humanity can progress solely through reason and science. The turn towards rationalism in favour of tradition is key to Modernist ideology and has its roots in the Enlightenment, the 18th century historical period which is credited as the foundation of modern Western political and intellectual thought.

Postmodern design often integrates an element of playfulness and/or pastiche. Irreverence is a key theme, whether intended as a direct critique of Modernism or lighthearted wit. In architecture, certain theorists have noted that Postmodern buildings often incorporate ornament, reference and a sense of humour all at once. Where Modernist architecture had aimed to clarify and make uniform the features of buildings, Postmodernism revelled in the opposite; in an intentional clashing and confusion of architectural aesthetics.

The frequent rejection of simplicity and austerity in Postmodern design is aptly summed up in Robert Venturi's rewording of Mies Van der Rohe's comment "Less is more" to "Less is bore".

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Background image: ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Carlton’ furniture design, Ettore Sottsass, 1981, Milan, Italy, en and ink, coloured chalk, bodycolour. Museum no. E.414-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London