Postmodern Design

Postmodern design emerged primarily in architecture in the United States beginning in the early 1970s, largely instigated by the books of Robert Venturi. Originating in the philosophical writings of French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the movement signified a revolt against the sparse and uncompromising aesthetic of Modernism, and gained influential international advocates including Aldo Rossi [1995.183.A-G], Hans Hollein, Philippe Starck, and Arata Isozaki, as well as Americans Michael Graves [2006.11.1.A-B], Charles Moore, and Robert A.M. Stern. A wave of the Italian avant-garde dominated later Postmodernism as seen in iconic objects in furniture, lighting, and accessories that were conceived by the Memphis Group, founded by architect and designer Ettore Sottsass [1995.148.A-C].

Reversing the Modernist doctrine of form following function, Postmodernism valued form's aesthetic and expressive potential. Its practitioners sought to return meaning to architecture and design by incorporating easily identifiable elements drawn from history and popular culture. Charles Jencks, in his 1996 book What is Postmodernism?, called this double-coding, or multivalent messages.

At the peak of the movement's influence, Las Vegas and Los Angeles surpassed Rome and Florence as sources of inspiration in buildings that revived historical references with wit and irony, and provided a multi-layered experience that could evoke an emotional response from inhabitants and passersby. Classical motifs were cherry-picked and often distorted in convention-flouting silhouettes, sparked with occasional notes of Baroque or Rococo. The most extreme Postmodern buildings challenge accepted standards of good design, sometimes receiving critical and public backlash for their awkward coloring and discordant geometry.

Since the designs were often impractical and visually dissonant with other furniture, Postmodernism did not translate comfortably into interiors. But it produced some notable works, including Sottsass's iconic room divider [1995.148.A-C] and Venturi's laminated and lacquered plywood chairs [2001.323] parodying 18th and 19th century period styles. Postmodern design reached the broadest consumer market through decorative accessories like vases, candlesticks, and tableware that ranged from charming to tacky.

Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2017.

Drawn from

Judith Gura, Design After Modernism: Furniture and Interiors 1970-2010. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 95-100.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, DMA. Decorative Arts; Design; post-modernism; chair; conceptual furniture; modernism; mass production; "form follows function;" Memphis Design Group

Web Resources

Art in America archives
Read a 1971 essay entitled, "What is Postmodernism?"