Learn from the past to influence the future

If punk was the movement in Seventies design, linking street culture through fashion, music and graphics, then it was balanced by the well-heeled Yuppie ideals of the Thatcherite Eighties – great for corporate identity buffs serving the City and retail designers boosting high street sales.

The big difference is that punk was as much about rebellion and youth as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was, with its cool, jazz-loving followers in the Fifties, and the anti-war flower children of the Sixties hippie tribe. Yuppiedom, meanwhile, thrived on wealth and commercialism. It was the province of successful 20- and 30-somethings with a penchant for matt black and chrome rather than a younger, more eclectic crew.

Each in turn had a profound influence on design, particularly on fashion – black polo necks and ski pants; medieval velvets; Vivienne Westwood bondage trousers; and Armani-style power-dressing. But punk was arguably the most British, emanating from the streets of provincial cities as much as from the capital.

So what of the Nineties? If you can sum up a decade in a phrase, it has to be “pre-millennial”. We’ve gone through hardship and despair. We’ve seen caring by, among others, The Body Shop in its bid to highlight issues such as homelessness. It would be great if the days were numbered for the problem that helped put grunge fashion on the catwalks, a sadder statement than hippie/punk style.

The gay movement has had a big influence on design, from fashion to the street life of clubs, bars and cafés. And now we have official acceptance that the “pink pound” is stronger than most others, with even London tourism chiefs seeking to tempt West Coast gays to the capital.

We have New Labour and the return of the work ethic. Thankfully, it hasn’t revived the shoulder pad, but it hasn’t done much to inspire design, except to confirm a shift towards eating out. Political talk on design is dominated by the Millennium Dome and millennium projects. But we’ve yet to see really fresh creative ideas emerging for either, along with evidence that those administering millennium ventures have the passion to pull off something great.

New media is throwing up some interesting work, but designers tend to take too much of a cue from clients, rather than seeking new forms of expression. To remember how it’s done, get down to the Royal Festival Hall to absorb the energy behind punk retrospective Destroy (see feature, page 17). Like any movement, punk was eventually eroded by pale imitations. But we can still learn from the boldness of the ideas of its original exponents.

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