Times & Places

20th Century design: The Last Thirty Years

The last thirty years of the 20th century saw the world grow increasingly interrelated due to political and technological change. The Cold War first began to thaw during the 1970s. In the next decade, tension between the Communist and capitalist powers receded further and climaxed in 1989 with the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Within a year, Germany was reunified, Europe's Communist regimes were overthrown, and the U.S.S.R. splintered. Despite the violence in Tiananmen Square (1989), relative liberalization also occurred in China. Extraordinary advances in and availability of new technologies aided the world’s increasing political cohesion. The last thirty years of the 20th century witnessed the development of products like the Telefunken videodisc (1970), the Texas Instruments pocket electronic calculator (1972), the fax machine (1973), optical fibers for telephones (1977), the Sony Walkman (1979), the IBM laser printer-copier (1979), the Apple Macintosh personal computer (1980), the Fuji disposable camera (1982), the Philips/Sony compact disc (1983), and the Sony camcorder (1989). Technological advances also allowed artists like George Lucas to envision entire new worlds in films such as Star Wars (1977), while in real life man pushed farther into the frontier of space with the space shuttle (U.S., 1981) and a permanently manned space station (U.S.S.R., 1986). In 1983, America's Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to leave our solar system. The effect of these rapid technological advances, including the introduction of the internet in the late 20th century, and the speed by which they manifested themselves in consumer products greatly affected contemporary design. Especially important was the hard-edged, almost science-fiction, look seen both in movements like High Tech (late 1970s) and in the work of design groups such as Memphis (founded 1980), headed by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, Jr. Central to these developments was the use of man-made materials including fiberboard, Formica, plastic, and stainless steel.

Excerpt from

Dallas Museum of Art, Hot Cars, High Fashion, Cool Stuff: Designs of the 20th Century (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1996).