True colours

With colour and pattern rampaging through contemporary design, Dominic Lutyens traces their origin to the Postmodernist and post-punk era

Only two years ago, neo-psychedelia seemed to be the one truly hip graphic design style. Remember the Honda ad with its dancing 1960s cartoon animals and Julie Verhoeven’s languid, Biba-esque illustrations? But the once-vigorous tendrils of the psychedelic revival are starting to droop. Mika might represent the fresh-faced new hope of pop, but the design for the sleeve of his album Life in Cartoon Motion looks singularly dated.

Indeed, it seems to have escaped his notice that a psychedelic backlash was kick-started two years ago by the angular, pared-down sleeve design for Franz Ferdinand’s album, You Could Have It So Much Better, featuring a bawling Russian peasant inspired by the Soviet revolutionary poster art of Alexander Rodchenko.

One reason for this sea change is pure nostalgia/ designers a few years ago were referencing psychedelia because they remembered it from their youth. Today, slightly younger designers are reviving the aesthetic they grew up with: the jagged, shouty, acid-bright graphics of the late 1970s/early 1980s, cultivated by the record sleeves of legendary indie labels such as Stiff, Mute and the comparatively austere, hi-tech aesthetic of Factory Records. If Franz Ferdinand’s covers hark back to the Socialist Russian Constructivists, it’s worth pointing out that in the late 1970s, Barney Bubbles, designer of sleeves for Stiff artists Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, was also greatly inspired by them.

‘The romance surrounding the Socialist ethic was very fashionable at art schools in the 1970s,’ recalls Martyn Atkins, who designed many 1970s and 1980s sleeves for Factory Records and Mute (including Depeche Mode’s album A Broken Frame, which pictured a Russian Soviet-era peasant). ‘There are definitely influences from the 1970s and 1980s being absorbed and recreated by Noughties designers,’ he adds.

While designers in their twenties may be familiar with Bubbles’s iconic cover for Ian Dury’s single Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – a stylised toy Dalmatian puppy in black, white, pink and lime green – the original influences on this style are comparatively rarefied. In fact, these stem from 1970s Postmodernist ideas emanating chiefly from avant-garde Italian design collective Studio Alchymia, a late flowering of which was 1980s design group Memphis, and ultra-hip Italian fashion label Fiorucci.

All these revelled in decoration (that Modernist heresy), referencing 1950s kitsch (the squiggly patterned Formica surfaces of 1950s American diners, or garish leopard prints), and jettisoning polite good taste for trashy materials such as plastic, vinyl and laminates.

Today, designers across the board are channelling this shrill, synthetic post-punk and Postmodernist aesthetic. Topshop is awash with Fiorucci-esque T-shirts emblazoned with zany, flouro zigzags. Fashion designer and east London club kid Cassette Playa’s dottily 1980s-kitsch clothing is unadulterated Fiorucci retro (crossed with early 1980s hip-hop styling and the concomitant jaunty graphic style of artist Keith Haring). Hip London shop Dover Street Market sells badges and T-shirts designed by artist Duggie Fields, who’s often described as Britain’s first Postmodernist painter. Many of these bear details from his late-1970s and early-1980s paintings. Despite being associated with the recent acid house revival, the nuttily colourful portrait of nu-rave band Klaxons is, arguably, far more Fiorucci, while the collages on their record sleeves, cut out from colour magazines, recall the post-punk – albeit more political – graphics of designer Linder, famous for her sulphur-yellow sleeve design for the Buzzcocks’s single Orgasm Addict.

Meanwhile, the record sleeves for Berlin-based DJ collective Jazzanova, currently on show at the Hackney gallery Art Vinyl, and indie electro group Hot Chip are a hybrid of busy, acid-bright Fiorucci-style graphics and the cool, ordered aesthetic of Peter Saville’s record sleeves for Factory Records.

A slew of exhibitions are fuelling this vogue: the Barbican’s show on punk and post-punk art, Panic Attack: Art in the Punk Years, which opened this week and runs until September, will include work by Linder and Haring. This joins the current Design Museum show on Memphis’s ringleader Ettore Sottsass. Recently, The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-1988 at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts spotlit such mavericks as Leigh Bowery and Michael Clark, while Art Vinyl’s recent show on 1970s and 1980s Mute record sleeves looked back at influential music graphics. Simon Reynolds’s book on post-punk culture, Rip It Up and Start Again, has also stoked up interest in the era.

According to Adrian Shaughnessy, who wrote the essay for Art Vinyl’s Mute show, today’s 1980s-revisited graphics are primarily ‘driven by music’. ‘Bands are plundering the sounds of Gang of Four, Wire and early 1980s electronic music, and this inevitably leads to a plundering of the period’s graphics,’ he explains. He also sees Klaxons’s image linking in with ultra-lairy ‘new magazine Super Super, which looks like a fusion of early Smash Hits, Memphis and Fiorucci’.

Designers from other disciplines are also in thrall to such influences. There’s illustrator Daisy de Villeneuve, who ‘adores Fiorucci and Memphis’, furniture designer Gini Coates, whose ‘Lines to Somewhere’ cabinets ‘reference 1980s graphics’, textile designer Suzanne Martin, product designer Georgina Griffiths and ceramicists Alexandra Mitchell, Tom Parnell and Chris Hudson. Parnell, a Royal College of Art student in his final year, creates slick Thermos flask-shaped vases, which share with Postmodernism and Memphis ‘the use of bright colour combinations’.

Hudson, another final-year RCA student, makes sculptures inspired by Memphis, sculptor Tony Cragg (whose early 1980s work will be on show at London’s Barbican) and 1980s cartoon characters like the Care Bears. Most believe fashion alone is propelling this trend. Atkins, for one, says, ‘It’s about young designers wishing they’d been part of an era they weren’t part of’. Or, is it simply about a swing of the pendulum? ‘Everything is cyclical,’ is Fields’s explanation.

Yet, with neo-psychedelia merely fading from fashion rather than dropping dead, its polar opposite – Postmodernist and post-punk-inspired design – has a lot of life left in it yet.

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