The rebirth of the cool

London has once again been described as the ‘capital of cool’. But unlike the Sixties, the energy of the underground scene permeates all society, argues Liz Farrelly. Even politicians have twigged on – which could be a very good thing for our arts and fas

It’s official. London is “cool”. Even the Prime Minister says so. In a recent speech John Major put the governmental seal of approval on youthful British creativity. Recognising that “the buzz” could be useful for exports, not to mention the tourist industry, Major has been talking up the achievements of artists, musicians, designers, and especially the new fashion elite. Does this mean that off-the-wall initiatives will be welcomed by the quangos whose task it is to support innovation – the arts, design and fashion councils? Or is the establishment simply jumping on a bandwagon, set rolling by those usually shunned by the mainstream? We’ll just have to wait and see. But it’s highly unlikely anything will change. It smacks of electioneering to me.

Major’s effort at co-opting “the buzz” reminds me of those sound- bite histories of the Sixties. Remember “you’ve never had it so good”? I don’t. I was in my pram, but I’ve seen the newsreels. There is a similarity between the “swinging” era and this flowering of Nineties underground enthusiasm into a contemporary culture. But back then the buzz which we exported, swathed in a paisley Union Jack, was in reality prompted, exploited and enjoyed by just a handful of London-centric party people, while the rest of the country muddled along in the afterglow, trying to expunge the drab legacy of post-war depression. But there was a new energy, which did cause repercussions across the arts and industry.

Philippe Garner’s new book Sixties Design, published by those mavericks at Taschen, is a welcome reminder and a useful document. Despite following a tried and tired publishing formula for picture source books, with snippets of text introducing a lucky-dip of imagery, Garner has produced something of consequence. Being a director of the auction house Sotheby’s, he has a more catholic approach to the art and design of an era than blinkered design historians, who prefer to trot out the safe list of “classics from the canon”. Because he’s been exposed to objects and images which have gone under the hammer, that have financial value but would never earn shelfspace in the Design Museum, he’s got a broader take on the achievements of that decade.

Garner has collected together every form of design, from “hand bills” to city plans, regrouping like with like across the boundaries of genres and acknowledging the work of figures who’ve almost faded from memory. Where in the enshrined histories of graphic design are mentions of The Fool, or Hapshash and the Colour Coat, and others responsible for psychedelic Sixties imagery? How often do you see G R Yeats’ Post Office Tower illustrated in an architectural text book? And yet it loomed over the city, proclaiming a new age of technological optimism.

Providing useful tags for a variety of stances – Rationalist, Space Age and Anti-Design – Garner adds an adjunct to the pop sensibility, and demonstrates that one orthodoxy is never enough – that the polar opposite always exists. A useful lesson indeed for the analysis of material culture.

If you drag yourself away from the re-runs of the Avengers on Sky, get off your chintz sofa (throw it out!), and go to the Jam exhibition at the Barbican, you can see for yourself what Major’s bleating on about. Some of it seems like familiar Nineties’ style. But with its cross-disciplinary collaborations and confrontational stance, it does owe a debt to the Sixties. But this is far from being retro as we have known it.

And away from sanctioned exhibits, new-fangled retro is for real. A shop called Squire may sell collectable Allen Jones alongside the latest menswear, but both the fabric, technology, and the cut look to the future not the past. Open the pages of the home-style magazine Wallpaper, and the Gucci-clad models may be sitting on Charles Eames’ furniture in snow-white sets, but the editorial stance is aligned with young, experimental designers, such as furniture whizz-kids Michael Young, Michael Marriot and Andrew Stafford.

What we’re seeing is Post-Modern theory made manifest. You can’t blank the past – learn that lesson from the Sixties. It’s about appropriating the best bits and reinventing the past as an endless source material for legitimate reinterpretations of the “modern”. So forget the dogma of Modernism.

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