Postmodern Furniture: History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Postmodernism is a style of art and architecture that's both incredibly complex and perfectly simple. Add in the pressures of furniture design, however, and it really gets fun! In this lesson, we'll explore the history and style of postmodern furniture, and see just what that concept looks like.

Postmodernism & Furniture

Between the 1960s and 1980s, the world of art and architecture was beginning to change. The traditions and assumptions that had sustained the world of design for nearly a century were under attack as new colors, textures, and aesthetics burst onto the scene. This new wave was called postmodernism.

Postmodernist architects created buildings that were distinct from anything that had come before. Designers of these buildings found postmodernist paintings to hang on the walls and postmodernist sculptures to sit on the tables… wait, what tables? Somewhere along the way, postmodernist designers realized that their movement hadn't yet extended to furniture.

Postmodernist furniture appeared quickly and sporadically, as designers tried to create functional items that complimented the new postmodernist movement. After all, what good is revolutionizing architecture and art if you have to enjoy it from a non-revolutionary couch?

Modernism

At this point, you may be realizing that we still haven't really defined postmodernism. You're right, we haven't, and that's because there's really only one good definition for postmodernism: it's a rejection of modernism. So, that's where we have to start!

Modernism, as a movement, began in the early 20th century by rejecting the traditional rules of art that came before. Artists broke apart the rules of Western art, and architects stripped structures down to their simplest and most honest forms. Modernism was highly idealistic, believing that utopian societies could be created by rejecting old values and embracing new, serious morals.

In terms of furniture, modernist designs were minimalist, monochromatic, and often focused on the use of new, synthetic materials. Since modernist homes were supposed to be pretty bare, they actually didn't have too much furniture anyway. For years, this was the de facto principle of high art and design. Of course, eventually somebody would decide to break the new rules!

The Rise of Postmodern Furniture Design

In the 1960s, artists and architects started rejecting modernism. Rather than focusing on serious, objective designs free of subject, they started breaking rules. Which rules? Any and all of them! Postmodernist art and architecture started celebrating color, texture, and subject, all with a hint of whimsy and irony. They also rejected the modernist devotion to high art, looking for inspiration in items of popular culture, like comic books, magazines, and fast food.

So, how did this translate into furniture? Postmodern architects needed things to put inside their structures, and artists, architects, and designers together started developing their own canon of postmodernist furniture. While postmodernism itself is traditionally seen as originating in the U.S.A., some of the most important movements in postmodernism furniture started in the global capital of interior design: Milan.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Milanese artists brought designers together to explore the concept of postmodernist spaces. Two groups stand out for their efforts. The Studio Alchymia was led by designer Alessandro Mendini. Mendini was a leader in early postmodernist furniture, most recognized for his Proust Chair.

Picture living in a world of high design where chairs are geometric, minimalist, colorless, and reject the traditional structures of furniture. Then, picture a chair modeled on a Baroque sofa (the height of opulent design), exaggerated in size beyond normal proportions, and covered with a close-up of a pointillist painting by early 20th-century French painter Paul Signac. That's the Proust Chair, and that's postmodernist furniture!

The Proust Chair of Alessandro Mendini
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However, Mendini was not the only one interested in the irreverent use of color and style to mock the world of high design. The other Milanese studio to participate heavily in the foundation of this movement was the Memphis Group, led by Ettore Sottsass. One of Sottsass' first designs to capture the international imagination was a piece called the Murmansk fruit bowl. This sleek, silver-plated brass bowl sits atop six zigzag-shaped legs, inspired by the Russian city of Murmansk. For decades, fine art was supposed to reject drawing inspiration from the physical world, so this was a strong departure, and one of the earliest uses of subject in postmodernist furniture design.

Postmodernist shelf by Ettore Sottsass
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