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04.07.10 | Opinion

Past present

Is the widespread revival of the past a reaction to 1990s minimalism, or a protest against the globalised 21st century.

As a card carrying modernist whose decorating mantra has always been the Miesian “less is more”, I’m disturbed by my recent desire to introduce leopard skin Louis Qatorze into a living room where function has always subjugated form. Suddenly I’m conjuring a mental collage of mother’s 17th century boule commode, collected Ivory Coat masks, Aboriginal art, Nana’s Dutch school still life and a Swarovski chandelier.

I would put it down to mid-life madness if I weren’t observing or appropriation of the old across so many social dimensions and market areas. Fashion’s current ‘faves’, Balenciaga, Galiano, McQueen and Elbaz are rummaging through the costume trunk, while Hollywood is in search of the Holy Grail – the launch of Ridley Scott’s crusader film Kingdom of Heaven coincides with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code topping the bestsellers list and the Broadway hit Spamalot, a musical make-over of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The classical period is box office gold it seems, but Columbia Pictures is banking on 18th-centruy France having the same cult cachet with the production of Marie Antoinette, a film being shot by ‘it’ director Sofia Coppola.

Pre-empting the full-blown rococo revival that Marie Antoinette is is expected to trigger whe released later this year is the reappearance of archival toile de Jouy – the the story telling fabric with engraved-like detail that originated from Jouy-en-Josas, France, in the 1760s. I’m seeing it folded into coquettish pleats and worked into couture lampshades by designers wishing to lend hard-edged modernism a very ‘now’ air of confusion.

Among the many exponents of this postmodern, self-aware regurgitation are English designer Jasper Conran, who has fashioned flower print wallpapers and upholstery fabrics that draw on Elizabethan embroidery techniques for Designers Guild: and Ilse Crawford, the former founding editor of Elle Decoration turned self-described ‘strategic designer’, who has together with furniture manufacturer Ferrious and Christopher Farr Cloth, produced a range of lighting and printed textiles that take as their aesthetic inspiration the turned wooden table leg of mid-17th century. Coincidentally Moooi, the Dutch collective under the creative direction of Marcel Wanders, incorpoarated the turned leg into elegant sideboards, a facnciful move signalling a natural ‘back to the future’ trend in the Netherlands. Compatriot designer Tord Boontje collaborated with Alexander McQueen on the ‘Witch Chair’ – a play of overlapping leather that is a Louis Qatorze version of Madam Lash.

With less interest in postmodern irony than post-war industry, English fashion designer Margaret Howell collaborated with Anglepoise on a limited ‘pale turquoise’ re-edition of Kenneth Grange’s iconic Type 3 Light, while Swiss manufacturer Vitra is promoting a mix of “different styles, authors and periods” with the re-introduction of pieces by George Nelson, Verner Panton, Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames and Sori Yanagi. Yanagi’s iconic Elephant stool has been refreshed with injection-moulded polypropylene in four fashion colours.

Why are we experiencing a pandemic of past referencing? Well if aesthetic history is a repetitive sequence of reaction to preceding action, which it so often is, then this ‘kooky’ introduction of old to our living room store of new is a reaction to the previous decade’s designer nihilism. Minimalism had homogenised interiors to the point where you could walk into Pottery Barn in New York, Habitat in London and Country Road in Melbourne and see the same stock of ceramic vases, touchy-feely throw rugs and scented candles.

On a more primitive, fear-based level, we are in post-September 11 shock and seeking the security of times when there was no terrorism, no loss of identity to globalism and no distrust of the dominant forces of authority. By surrounding ourselves with the old we are not only re-establishing a familiar order in a destabilising world (albeit on a small scale), we are enshrining our individual differences where they are rapidly diminishing. By scrawling a personal signature with a mix of periods, styles and authors we are also making powerful protest against the dictates of global brands that for so long have told us how to think, act and look. Style has become a form of resistance and individualism a consumer revolution. Bring it on home.

Words_ Annemarie Kiely
Illustrator_ Andrea Wilcock

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