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Title: What comes after Carnaby Street?

Pages: 42 - 43

      

Author: Corin Hughes Stanton

Text: What comes after Carnaby Street?
In this article Corin Hughes-Stanton analyses the impact of Pop or Post-Modern design symbolised by Carnaby Street. He suggests that it is not, as many claim, a passing fashion
Carnaby Street has come to represent a form of design often, but inaccurately, described as "pop". In a brief three years it has explored and exhausted every conceivable form of three-dimensional as well as -graphic titillation. The race has been headlong, exhilarating, immense fun for protagonists and onlookers: but the last few months have seen a slowing down of pace and an ingrowing of ideas which suggest that Carnaby Street and all it stood for is no longer a spearhead of design innovation.
If the creative period of Carnaby Street (for which it will always be remembered) is over, what happens next ? This is an important question, because Carnaby Street or Pop design has produced a revolution in design attitudes; and, having pulled the rug from under the feet of Contemporary or Modern, it must inevitably contribute to the way in which design will develop from now on.
It is becoming a familiar cliche that Pop design will not last, that Carnaby Street will become a place of mere historical interest, that Union Jacks will soon fly exclusively on flagpoles, and that this short three-year interlude will end with Modern design taking over again as the mainstream of design development. But this is extremely doubtful.
If those who claim that Pop design cannot last mean that most of the current forms of Pop are likely to disappear, then they are almost certainly right: the Carnaby technique of overexposure and market saturation is after all the same as that used for keeping records in the Top 20 on the move. On the other hand if critics mean that the Carnaby approach to design will fade away, then they are almost certainly wrong. There is nothing to suggest that the design attitude it represents has exhausted itself or is out of sympathy with the social, economic, or mental ambiance with which it is associated.
The essential point is that the new design thinking is freewheeling and, unlike the philosophy which gave coherence to the Bauhaus or Modern school of design, it has not had, nor does it show signs of having, any dogmatism towards actual design forms. Thus Pop or Carnaby design is an umbrella movement, embracing all the design schools except Contemporary - or Repro-Contemporary - and Traditional; it has cheerfully encompassed Pop, Op. and Surrealist fine art, cottage pinewood furniture, Buckminster Fullerism, amusement arcades, hot dog stands, and Archigram: it has been as much influenced by close-up photographs of complex constructional engineering and models of moon vehicles as by American comics and ice cream vans outside the V and A.
If one is to accept that Carnaby design has been of fundamental importance to design development, then it is necessary to analyse the new criteria, the post-Carnaby values. The difficulty is that it is essentially a non-literate, non-verbal, non-theorist movement. In spite of efforts by the SIA Journal (as it then was) in the early 60s to distinguish the main signposts, and in spite of the polemics of Reyner Banham, who has been the best guide to the movement, there has been no authoritative apology or critique.
Professor Pevsner has inspected the architectural wing of the movement,' declared it not entirely desirable but here to stay, and given it the title of "post-modern." Since this is a far more accurate name than either Carnaby Street, which is increasingly concerned only with clothes, or Pop, which properly only refers to a particular form of fine art, it deserves to be used to describe the whole movement - not just architecture. It gives one a starting point from which to view the movement, and enables one to see its relationship to parallel design disciplines which have so far been out on a limb: like Post-Modern, children of the Modern movement, but essentially in opposition to it. They are cybernetics, ergonomics, and engineering design, and I shall return to them later.
Before discussing those positive aspects of Post-Modern design which make it so central to design development, it is necessary to look at its negative, or bad, features. These are easy enough to catalogue: the movement has been far too derivative, picking up various styles and techniques from art nouveau and Odeon 20s through to pseudo space age, regenerating them without moving on from them with any sense of creative purpose; it often uses decoration so inappropriately that, however brilliant the original concept, it detracts from its own raison d'etre. It is not, for instance, that there is anything intrinsically wrong with psychedelic design. But its uncontrolled, unthinking use has largely obscured those designs which have real merit. The pebble-dashing of furniture, shop fronts, or whole buildings with coloured patterns, regardless of their forms or their actual possibilities, is entirely irrelevant to what design should be about. In this sense, Post-Modern has been too frantic and too wasteful, rarely allowing a concept to mature.
But the chief criticism that must be made of Post-Modern design is that it has produced very little original work. Those of us who have championed the movement, not as a rejection of Modern design but as a logical step in its development, welcomed it not entirely for the intrinsic quality of the things which it produced in the initial stages, but as much for the creative designing which we hoped would blossom in a later, non-derivative period.
The sad thing is that Post-Modern has still not produced its own contemporary style or handwriting. Of course, there have been great triumphs in dress design, in spite of undigested historical trimmings; there have been a number of fine examples of Post Modern architecture, in spite of a tendency towards undisciplined, baroque monumentalism (and historicism); there has been much fine art that has set its own standards. But overall, and particularly in the area of industrial design, there has been surprisingly little. Red mugs, orange colanders, jolly washing up cloths, bulls eye trays and chests of drawers, export-reject flowered cups, and French peasant
but rather a starting point of a new design era. Next month Christopher Cornford discusses the "crisis of values" which is at the roots of the new movement.
casseroles do not add up to a school of design.
Reyner Banham said this time last year,2 writing about the architecture, "the relevance is only that of form-fondling, round-corner styling, artwork and paint-jobs." But individual failures do not in themselves negate the value of the ideas behind them, or lessen the importance of the successful designs. As Dr Banham went on to say, "It is often more than that, but even if it were purely visual and superficial, that would not in itself be contemptible."
The Post-Modern movement has already displayed attributes to indicate why it is so important. As an attitude, it is closer to people and to what they want: it is prepared to meet all their legitimate needs without moralising about what those needs should be. Its roots are thus deeper embedded in society than those of the Modern school.
Post-Modern is non-static: it does not have any preconceived "forms" at which it is aiming and from which, once achieved, it will not depart. This is completely the reverse of the Modern philosophy which, in trying to meet new design demands, found itself with a dilemma it was increasingly unable to solve.
As a corollary of this, the new movement, in not having as many preconceived ideas about what is and what is not good design, is more genuinely and freely experimental. This has not only enabled it to move and develop with social and technical changes, but also to avoid becoming merely stylistic. While this may well mean that we live in a time of aesthetic anarchy, it also means that the opportunities for design are far greater than ever before.
But perhaps the movement's most important feature is that it is anti-puritanical and more humanistic than the modern school. PostBauhaus had a limiting concept of functionalism, reducing it to the mechanical/physical attributes of buildings and products. Thus it completely ignored all those other human needs that give so much pleasure and satisfaction and are so necessary to our wellbeing and comfort. While there is no doubt that much of the decoration that Bauhaus influence swept away deserved its unlamented end, the condemnation of decoration as such was a moral judgement which failed to take into account human need for it.
In this sense, the new movement has been a tremendous liberating force which has carried design out into the open. Indeed, in looking back, it may well be that the puritanically "functional" period in design, and not Post-Modern, was the mainstream interlude, however necessary and worthwhile. As Ken Baynes pointed 3 out three years ago: "Today the pedantry and purism of functionalism seems irrelevant, a debased coinage in the riotous but cramped environment of the mid 20th century. The direction for design should surely be related to the central theme of the present, to the growing concern with the individual and the expression of his individuality in the context of society. If this means more decoration, more colour, more flamboyance, a closer link between entertainment and everyday life,design has no brief to impose its own more limited morality."
There is no doubt that the Modern school was growing further and further away from social and economic developments. But, equally, much Contemporary design had begun to become merely a style. Sir Paul Reilly has pointed out 4: "Modern design became its own worst enemy through the very narrowness of choice offered. The limited range of modern production lent force to the misapprehension that 'contemporary' was just another style with tapered legs in place of bulbous, pale timber in place of dark, or fragmented geometry in place of flowers or stripes; and because the new style seemed hardly more exciting than the old, young people began to turn away from it." It is not surprising therefore that "They began to want. . . something younger and gayer than the apparently sobersided standards of the ageing advocates of the modern movement."
If design is indeed likely to progress within the Post-Modern framework, what will the main lines of development be ? Again, the key to the situation lies in the early years of the Modern movement. It is becoming clear that the boundaries of "design" drawn at that time were too narrow, and that we are now seeing them broken down.
On one hand design is becoming richer and more aesthetically adventurous: less inhibited and clinical. On the other, it is becoming increasingly demanding as part of scientific and engineering disciplines. This, of course, is a great advance since those early Bauhaus days: not only in terms of industrial design's progress into ergonomics and engineering design, but also in the increasing sophistication of the methods and techniques by which it is created. Parallel and possibly equally significant has been the liberation of fine artists from the art-for-arts-sake attitude of the 19th century to a more socially oriented basis for their work.
Taken as a whole this may appear an aesthetic free for all, but it has a more realistic total coherence than that which the Modern movement, for all its apparent visual unity, ever achieved. It means that we may no longer (to give a single example) have to choose between ergonomic but clinically dull cars, and pleasure-giving but dangerous cars. The two can be compatible because the Post Modern movement recognises the equal importance of ergonomics and psychological fulfilment, and it is not part of its philosophy to suppress one at the cost of the other.
The arts, design, and engineering are becoming increasingly intertwined and necessary to each other. There are going to be failures. The charlatans are going to have to be sorted out from the contributors. But the design possibilities sparked off by the Carnaby Street era are not going to be extinguished very easily.
lliustrations (from right): Patrick Ward, Observer; John Laing, Interior Design; Peter Cook, Architecture: Action and Plan, Studio Vista.
1 Listener, 29 December 1966, 5 January 1967
2 New Society, 2 March 1966
3 SIA Journal, March 1965
4 Architectural Review, October 1967

 

 

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