The hangover of Minimalism finally seems to be reaching an end. Hugh Pearman welcomes back decoration and ornamentation with open arms
It has been a long time absent, but now it’s on its way back – and how. Decoration is everywhere – on buildings, interiors, furniture, fashion and products of all kinds. The bell is tolling for Minimalism, quiet good taste, white rooms, subtle sludge colours and plain fabrics. The whole less is more thing is out – be gone!
Anyone who was at 100% Design this year will have seen it. Anyone with half an eye for what is happening in architecture at the moment will have seen it. Decoration – applied surface ornamentation, entirely separate from ostensible function – is hot.
The ornamental pendulum generally ticks back and forth, roughly about once a decade. The utilitarianism of the 1940s gave way to the whimsical pattern-making of the early 1950s, which in turn yielded to the purer forms of the 1960s. Decadence set in during the 1970s, only to be expunged by the historicism and post-modernism of the 1980s. Then came economic meltdown, followed by a new, cooler start. The Modernists – the anti-decoration brigade – were back by the early 1990s and have ruled the roost ever since. Which is why, inevitably, fickle fashion has tired of them.
Purists are purists, of course, no matter what. It’s hard to imagine architects such as John Pawson or David Chipperfield departing from their ascetic tastes. Functionalist designers, from Dieter Rams to Jasper Morrison, are unlikely to suddenly espouse flock wallpaper. Likewise, chintz-merchants didn’t go out of business during the long hegemony of Modernism.
But consider these two bellwethers of public design attitudes: electric toasters and pubs. In the 1980s, it was hard to find a toaster without some kind of patterning – usually a beige background and ears of corn. Similarly, there was only one pub style: the universal ‘Victwardian’. And, although we design commentators frequently announced it as over, it lingered on and on. It wasn’t until pubs started redesigning themselves as modern bars that the revolution could be declared absolute.
Even so, I needed the evidence of the small electricals section of John Lewis. It had happened there, too – decoration had been banished from toasters. Soon estate agents stopped obsessing about ‘original features’ and, shortly after, builders were, once more, flinging Victorian fireplaces and balusters into skips. So now where are we? Bars, toasters and show-flats remain broadly modern, but Wayne Hemingway, the ultimate pop anti-Minimalist, is active in the nation’s housing estates. On the design side, we have modern furniture gurus SCP launching a rather horrible, patterned, furniture fabric called London Toile by Timorous Beasties. On the architectural side, we find the cerebral Caruso St John glorying in the rediscovery of Arts and Crafts-inspired ornamentation.
But it’s not as if we hadn’t seen this trend for ornamentation coming. When right-on developer Urban Splash started to see a market in Postmodern revivalism, when Future Systems built a Selfridges covered in silver sequins, when Norman Foster sanctioned a skyscraper – the famous Gherkin – adorned with Art Deco surface patterning, then we could all see which way the wind was blowing. Even before Lucienne Day’s 1950s fabrics started turning up on Converse sneakers.