Whimsy started creeping into design a few years prior to the 1985 terminus a quo of the survey exhibition European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century, which R. Craig Miller curated for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and Kingston University, London. Contemporary design’s playful side, amply illustrated by the works currently spread throughout three floors of the High Museum of Art, almost inverts the hallowed principles of the Bauhaus. The unserious tone of this trend, often combined with Day-Glo color, disgusts many modernists—a predictably sober reaction to works in which form does everything except follow function. It is only one aspect of contemporary design, but it is a distinguishing and widespread one.
For those of us who get confused about design in the years between the 1988 demise of the proto-whimsical Memphis group and Philippe Starck’s neo-whimsical 2002 merchandise for Target stores, or for those of us whose design knowledge begins and ends with Target and Ikea, this is the exhibition to bet on. It straightens out the categories and gives us the history of almost a quarter-century of design forces and counterforces. Note that the exhibition is restricted to European design; thus you’ll find no Michael Graves toilet brush here, even if Virginia Postrel elevated it to icon status in her 2003 The Substance of Style.
The exhibition divides the post-1985 European design world into eight distinct schools, more or less chronologically. For the sake of brevity, I’ll do no more than list some of these design reactions and counter-reactions here, and cite only a few illustrative examples from the others.
The legacy of the Memphis group and its chief founder Ettore Sottsass included the schools of what this exhibition terms Decorative Design and Expressive Design: The Decorative school poses a significant update of the possibilities of pattern and ornament, and the Expressive school includes some of the exhibition’s chairs-as-sculptural-objects that can be sat in, but only the adventurous would want to try.
A revived modernist backlash to such ornamentation was inevitable, and the Geometric Minimal school gave us chairs with clean lines that serve equally well as seating or as sculpture.
By contrast to the new modernism’s revival of linearity, Biomorphic Design (the design version of what is sometimes called “blobitecture”) revisited the biomorphic movement of a half-century earlier, updated by contemporary materials and the possibilities brought by CAD technology. Think sensuous and playful at the same time. Also think Marc Newson, the legendary designer with origins in Australian surfing. (One or two of his most memorable seating designs are in this show.)
Neo-Pop, on the other hand, was just plain playful. The school blurred distinctions between “high” and “low,” creating mass-produced forms with a great deal of good humor in addition to the occasional one-off. It was the first of the successive Neo’s of the past decade, of which Neo-Decorative revisits the original Decorative movement, often sending the decorative off into realms of luscious fantasy.
Conceptual Design is almost the opposite, suggesting austere practicality in its frequent use of recycled and re-purposed materials to serve a specific function, as in Jurgen Bey’s pair of already existing chairs given a new identity by being united in a single skin of PVC plastic. Yet Bey’s double chair is both beautiful and—let’s face it—whimsical. The movements meld into one another in spite of themselves.
Tejo Remy’s lamp for Droog made from milk bottles seems distinguished from Neo-Dada/Surreal impulses only by the use of humble materials—and by the fact that Droog calls itself a conceptual-design firm.
Luscious fantasy redux seems to be the distinguishing feature (and not even a consistent one) of what the exhibition terms the Neo-Dada/Surreal Design school. These anything-but-anxious objects manage to be the sort of thing we have always wished Surrealist subversions would be but almost never were.
The Wieki Somers High Tea Pot appears to be a functional updating of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, since it consists of a bone-china teapot in the shape of an animal skull that can be covered with a fur tea cozy. In spite of this, it’s presented as an example of Conceptual Design. Less ambiguously, Philippe Starck’s luxury-item Bedside Gun Lamp offers an alternate take on Surrealism’s radical social commentary: a gold-plated Beretta pistol turned into a lamp stand.
It’s tempting to describe a huge number of works, but most of them need to be experienced in person, where they can be perused from a number of angles, like sculpture.
To take only one example, Maarten Baas’ Smoke Armchair, a burnt but still stable chair coated with black epoxy, sounds like a grim memento mori when described with those words. It is anything but. It feels like a more sumptuous cousin to Bey’s similarly coated chairs, but it’s shown here as an example of Neo-Dada/Surreal, indicating again the difficulty of identifying family lineages.