An ‘ideal story’ of interiors might start with Michel De Certeau who noted that to become a personal space, the roots of the family microcosm, interiors have to acquire “a density of matter and affect” (Michel De Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayol, L’Invention du quotidien, Gallimard, Paris, 1994).
The prudish Victorians, who gave us the corridor as a means of eliminating communicating rooms, believed that the only way to show the true character of the family was the ostentation of objects accumulated over time. Subsequently derided as collectors of bric-a-brac, the Victorians saw the home in terms of “densification”. This ornament-overload led inevitably to movements extolling simple, essential interiors, culminating in the Bauhaus, founded in 1921 in Weimar by Walter Gropius. The catechism of this new aesthetic preached that form followed function. Its cardinal rules: Adolf Loos’ famous dictate that “ornament is crime”, and Mies van der Rohe’s prescription that “less is more”. For the Bauhaus masters, form had to fit function, furniture should be simple, rational, and possibly affordable by everyone. Densification was totally alien. If anything, there should be absence or void. For an interior to attain “moral purity”, it should contain no ornament; walls should be white and the furnishing essential, possibly made of metal tubing. With hindsight, however, even the modern Bauhaus style now appears yet another fashion or trend. Sociologist Harvey Molotch defines the Bauhaus as creating the fashion of doing away with all fashion, its ideal a “universal aesthetic”, and the “democratisation of moral purity” (Harvey L. Molotch, Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are, Routledge). And in the words of Reyner Banham, all well designed chairs are uncomfortable and expensive (Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, MIT Press, 1960). Many tube frame chairs, he points out, were not as functional as the purists would have. In fact purity comes at a price: sharp metal and glass edges, sticky finger marks on shiny surfaces etc. Houses in the modern style had nowhere to put family belongings, holiday souvenirs, children’s drawings.. Moral purity is allowed in but life is left outside - or at least the traces that life leaves. Up to the Eighties and post-modernism, good design and ornament were sworn enemies. (There were a few exceptions, Gio Ponti being one of the most noteworthy.) Ornament was something for decorators, an underclass in the Bauhaus value scale. Bric-a-brac was dubbed kitsch, the preserve of the tasteless. Which meant that people of taste had to forego the pleasure of kitsch. Yet kitsch, said the anti-conformist Abraham Moles (Le Kitsch. L’Art du bonheur, Maison Mame, 1971), stands in contrast to simplicity. Kitsch is art because it embellishes everyday life with a series of ritual ornaments, giving it an exquisite complication. Kitsch is an elaborate game, the sign of advanced civilizations. Kitsch therefore has a social function over and above its alleged use, which is just a pretext anyway. Alessandro Mendini, who wrote the introduction to the Italian translation of Moles’ book, notes, however, that ornament has been used to execrable effect by boorish yuppie decorators. Which in turn led to an inevitable purist reaction. Although, Mendini continues, the time has come to call a halt to certain excesses, ornament is nonetheless a stable feature of our world and will definitely reappear, this time re-invented with a whole new communicative impetus. (Alessandro Mendini, Scritti, edited by Loredana Parmesani, Skira, 2004). Yet Mendini’s impassioned apology of decoration remained theoretical discourse, and made little impression on the practical world of furniture production. Even the colours and vivid decorations of Memphis were hailed as little more than one of many trends, the philosophy of a single project. The post-modern furniture signed by Ettore Sottsass and his heroic group made it into museums but not into homes. They figured widely on the front cover of magazines but seldom in furniture showrooms where people go to choose their furniture. Today as collectors’ items, they command high prices at vintage-modern auctions. The post-modernist movement triggered a further turn of the purist screw, and howls that design risked irremediable decline. Still today, though perhaps only in Italy, an old guard of “design purists” - along with Dieter Rams in Germany and Roger Tallon in France - considers the new generations offshoots of post-modernism, and so incapable of producing good design. They refute the idea that mutations have taken place, and continue to lament the inevitable demise of design. Yet mutations are well underway, despite the purist sneers that what is produced is fashion not design, the product of furniture-makers not designers - and conveniently ignoring the fact the furniture-makers engage 5-star designers sought after by all major companies. Designers hail from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, or France. They come with a huge baggage of do-it-yourself know-how on account of the dearth in their countries of manufacturers producing designer objects. They all started producing on their own, going as far as their imaginations and new technologies would take them, creating a whole new domestic scene inhabited by magic and fantasy, not just purity. Craftsmen and designers, they have discovered the pleasure of creating with their hands, discovering the crafts once reserved for women. Nor do they disdain sorties into the frivolous, seductive world of fashion. Dutchman Tord Boontje and British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, famous for his Victorian taste, together dressed Moroso chairs in corsets, skirts and blouses. Fashion designer Maurizio Galante developed for Baleri “Galanterie”, a red, ‘haute couture’ furniture collection with pleats, frills and visible stitching, highly reminiscent of his flamboyant fashion style. Forms are no longer stark but dressed with a flourish in flower patterns, crochet work, or flowered felt fretwork, like Patricia Urquiola’s recent armchair Antibody for Moroso. Acclaim from the media and large sections of the public - tired of moral purism and in the mood for touchy feely things - has convinced even the great names of Italian manufacturing to woo the standard bearers of this new ornamentation. B&B has even bought a 50% share in Dutch design company Moooi which, thanks to the art direction of Marcel Wanders, perhaps best represents the new trends towards ornament and contamination. Moooi’s catalogue is a medley of papier maché furniture by Studio Job, huge severe, animal-shaped standard lamps by the young inventive Swedish talents of Front, and the cork stools by minimalist Jasper Morrison.
Clearly though, these recent decoration trends have nothing to do with the baroque flourishes of certain decorators, the well-timed revivals put on the market by certain furniture-makers, or the period collections of many firms. The new design trend comes from some place else. It is closer to art than to the dogma of design. It sets before us the unexpected, presents things out of their normal scale, shocks and amazes. Articles are not replicas but interpretations, arresting for their different take on familiar things, showing us new surface effects, unexpected levity, a mix of rational and fairy tale...
Two years ago, a brand was even created - Domestic - selling wall decoration stickers by well known designers, like Matali Crasset, who have no qualms about producing this sort of article.
Marcel Wanders has definitely brought back ornamental fabrics. His Moooi boutique project for furniture prêt à porter (April 2006) was especially brilliantly timed. For the idea is not new. Back in 1984, B&B commissioned Gianfranco Ferré to ‘dress’ a creation by Paolo Nava, and create a fashionable ‘wardrobe’ for a mundane series of furniture. The surprising thing about the Moooi collection of pleats, marabù piping, gold brocade and Provençal stripes, is that they are not by a fashion designer but by Wanders himself. When Ferré clothed his divans he did away with all embellishment, bar the odd loosely falling pleat. In 2006, Wanders, designer now turned fashion stylist, throws caution to the winds and produces sumptuous, decorated garments in the highest haute couture tradition, using patterned fabrics and accessories to turn a purist design object into a glamorous, tailor-made work of art.
This is the general trend. But, as is only right in a globalised world, it exists alongside purism and even pauperism: think of Jasper Morrison’s multi-purpose stool/storage unit/bedside table created for Established & Sons; nothing more than a rough wood container, it pares down furnishing issues to the very basics!
And what about interior design?
The style is fusion. Confirmed by Christian Deydier, president of French antique dealers. Anything goes: not just purism and ornament, but antique and modern, avant-garde and vintage-modern, mass-produced and collectors’ items. Everything can be mixed with anything depending on your taste of the moment.
Personalisation demands contamination.
Today even people with taste can allow themselves the « art of happiness », and add kitsch to embellish their everyday lives.
With Domestic wall stickers, Tord Boontje’s laser cut aluminium floral lamps produced by Artenica and Crate, Jasper Morrison’s bedside table-cum-container, the home becomes a fairy tale, providing respite, at least in the comfort of the home, to the (every increasing) number of Peter Pan’s in our societies.
And here the story ends - at least for the time being. The moral could be that interior designers no longer serve a purpose. We are best off following our own instinct. Things that we really love, that are chosen from the heart, will always sit well together. What counts is not that our home be baroque or purist, modernist or antique but a mirror of our souls. And our souls never sing just one note.