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How was redesign utilised by postmodern artists to subvert the certainties and methodological principles of the modernist movement?

Fundamentally, postmodernism can be considered as an attempt to break free from the practical and often impersonal approach of modern design (Rosenberg, 2022), where there was a strong emphasis placed on the functionalism of products. In retaliation to this philosophy, postmodernism celebrated the unconventional, with a range of competing styles (Atkinson, 2012) that looked for ways to reinsert meaning and expression into design  (Drew & Sternberger, 2005). It provided designers with creative freedom, which is considered the ‘most important legacy of Postmodernism’, according to design historian Judith Gura (Luxford, 2018). In this essay, I am going to discuss how postmodern artists utilised redesign in order to supersede the monolithic ideologies of modern design and create a world where anything goes. I will examine the work of artists such as Alessandro Mendini and Pieter de Bruyne, specifically analysing their use of redesign in order to mock design history as well as forge the new design principles of postmodernism- a period that had no rules.

 

Modernism was influenced by the inevitable and universal progress of mankind (Adam, 2012). The sudden advancement of technologies and industrialisation coupled with the rapid development of urbanisation and globalisation swiftly brought about a change to the shape of societies. Modernism resisted classical and traditional ideas, and embraced this rapid change, seeking to develop a progressive approach to design. In consideration of the significant, persistent change that occurred during modernity, there was a strong imperative towards continual innovation and an impulse towards experimentation in order to develop new forms and practices that were oriented towards the future. Art and design had to be continually novel and innovative (Walz, 2013).  According to American architect John Gaw Meem, modernism reflected our newfound ‘devotion to the ideal of scientific truth’ (Adam, 2012). Perhaps this focus on scientific truth and rejection of nature influenced the Bauhaus’s key design principle of ‘form follows function’, teaching a more minimalist approach to design, where rules should be followed so as to produce a successful design.

 

In retaliation to this, postmodernism celebrated creative freedom. It did not enforce any strict methodological principles of ‘good design’. Designs had an increasingly vast array of styles and shapes in response to the previous attempt to reduce design to a single style within the project culture of functionalism (Koveshnikova, et al., 2016). It can be viewed as an attempt to re-present the world as a contradictory, fluid array of decentred contingencies as opposed to a series of essential truths (Drew & Sternberger, 2005). However, the monolithic principles of modernity were so entrenched and widely accepted, designers used redesign to supersede these restrictive ideologies, and introduce the new principles of postmodernism.

 

One such designer was Alessandro Mendini, an Italian designer and architect who played an influential role in the development of Italian, Postmodern, and Radical Design. In 1979 he co-founded the Alchemy studio which produced objects inspired by popular culture and kitsch (Post Design Gallery, 2021) and was strongly identified with the concept of banality. Objects were designed without concern for the parameters of functionality that are required for industrial production.

 

 

Figure  1- 'L'Angoliera' by Mendini. Available at: https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-3920722 (Accessed 6 April 2022)

Mendini transformed many objects using the approach of redesign, including an Art Deco chest of drawers that was turned into a neo-Futurist collage, a sofa adorned with ornament derived from Kandinsky paintings and a Gio Ponti chair that was redesigned with the addition of little flags (Adamson & Pavitt, 2011).  Another of his projects, ‘Il Mobile Infinito’ or ‘Unfinished Furniture’ also contained elements of redesign and in the case of ‘L'Angoliera’, ‘The Scream’, an iconic modernist painting by Edvard Munch, was appropriated as the face of a cabinet. Designers such as Mimmo Paladino, Denis Santachiara, Bruno Munari, Gio Ponti, Ugo la Pietra and Mendini himself all worked on ‘L’Angoliera’. In an interview conducted by Claudia Donà in 2021, Alessandro Guerriero, one of the founders of Alchemy Studio reflected on the involvement of so many people in

the project, stating that ‘each of us can say that he is the designer,

but none of us can say that he was. It is a true anti-heroic project’ (Donà, 2021).

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2- 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2012/05/02/151706441/scream-still-echoes-after-more-than-a-century?t=1650282240311 (Accessed 6 April 2022)

 

Upon further analysis of ‘The Scream’, it is clear that by commandeering Munch’s work in the design of a cabinet face, Mendini was making clear his intention to subvert the seemingly entrenched principles of modernist design. ‘The Scream’ is recognised as an iconic piece of modernist art- it is ‘a canonical expression of the great modernist thematic of alienation, anomie, solitude and social fragmentation and isolation’ (Harrison & Wood, 1992). As the piece is considered to be inspired by Munch’s own experiences and emotions, the painting was influential in paving the way for a new era where art could now be employed to express inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Not only did the painting convey Munch’s own feelings, but it reflected the concerns of society in the late 19th century. Windram, suggests that the painting also draws attention to a widespread decline in mental health during a period of considerable change when rapid industrialisation was occurring (Windram, 2019). Mendini choosing to appropriate a piece of artwork so driven by emotion, is advantageous for his desire to subvert the inflexible rules of modernism, and introduce a new freedom associated with design and the different styles it can take.

 

 

Figure 3- Chantilly Chest by Pieter De Bruyne. Available at: shorturl.at/glqL6 (Accessed 6 April 2022)

 

Pieter de Bruyne was another influential postmodern artist, designer, and interior decorator, who is often considered as a precursor of postmodern design. Jan Pieter Ballegeer, an author and design historian described De Bruyne’s furniture as ‘an attack of sorts on the familiar itself, an annihilation, if you will, of the common.’ In a similar fashion to ‘L'Angoliera’, one of De Bruyne’s most famous works, the ‘Chantilly Chest’ appropriates a section of an 19th century cabinet, creating a layering of past and present (Atkinson, 2012). The juxtaposition of a faux baroque cabinet with brightly coloured lacquered chipboard, is an example of redesign that reflects the importance of bricolage in postmodernism (Battista, 2011). This application of redesign is further deepened by the fact that the 19th century cabinet is a historicist copy of a piece of French Baroque court furniture. This lack of unique innovation reflects the vast array of work and art already available, and how it can be utilised and re-presented in an original way that is advantageous to the artist and what they are trying to portray (Atkinson, 2012).

 

Both artists utilised a previous product/artwork in order to help forge a new creative freedom and help define the ‘anything goes’ mentality of postmodern artists. However, Mendini chose to apply a highly recognised modernist painting to his chest, which is comprised of a cubical cabinet resting on two curved back legs with conical feet, an unusual mismatch of geometric shapes characteristic to the postmodern approach to design, in order to supersede the restrictive rules of modernism. On the other hand, it can be argued that De Bruyne can be considered as having a more thought-out approach to his redesign of the eighteenth-century bureau desk into his progressive post-modern Chantilly chest. The chest has the same dimensions as the original French desk. Furthermore, the diagonals visible in the design are as a result of careful, diligent measuring from De Bruyne. This produces a dramatic contrast between the original French cabinet in the upper left corner and the abstract linework that reflected the new postmodern philosophies for design (Design Museum Gent, n.d.). However, whilst both artists have different approaches to the redesign and application of previous products, the final outcome is one that challenges the monolithic principles of modernism to help to bring about the new, unconventional postmodern approach to design.

 

In conclusion, postmodernism was a period of design that celebrated a diversity of styles and promoted a freedom which opposed the strict rules of modernism. It was an attempt to break free from the practical approach to design, where form should follow function. This retaliation in terms of deign approach was partially accomplished through the use of redesign. Postmodern artists such as Mendini and De Bruyne, who were influential in defining postmodern design, utilised redesign in their work to begin to subvert the widely accepted and unchanging principles of modernism. The result was politically engaging, visually shocking and entirely postmodern in its approach. It inspired designers with the newfound approach that it was not only possible to change, but to ‘change the change that had already occurred’ (Adamson & Pavitt, 2011), creating a design philosophy that celebrates the unconventional and mismatched, redefining the function of a product to one that is more fluid.

 

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