ACQUIRED TASTE: HOW KITSCH HAS COME BACK IN
With followers in excess of 100 million, when stars like Kylie Jenner or Selena Gomez post on Instagram, what ensues is a seismic ripple of consequence – all the way from the fingertips of think-piece writers creaking into motion, to the hundreds of thousands of tweens rushing to comment ‘first’. Respect to the cynical middle-aged men who squawk that popular culture had more value when misogynistic rock stars pranced around in lycra on MTV.
In the summer of 2015, Taylor Swift set forth such ripples with a post that Charles Francis Richter might have deemed as tipping 10 on his scale, with analysts, trend forecasters and retail buyers joining kids and content creators in mopping up the debris it left behind. With a photo of Swift and then-boyfriend Calvin Harris floating atop a huge inflatable swan, the singer unwittingly forecasted what would be a best-seller for that season and beyond: ‘floaties’ became the must-have summer accessory, an instantaneous ‘like’ boost for any social media wannabes, and a major money spinner for those fortune ones in the inflatables industry.
From doughnuts to unicorns, an underlying factor in Swift’s perfect storm is that her inflatable already slotted into an aesthetic that was already enjoying a return to mainstream appeal. That Italian design house Gufram’s exhibition at 2016’s Milan Design Week was entitled “50 Years of Design Against the Tide” demonstrates the legacy of unabashed bad taste in contemporary design. Founded under the artistic direction of Giuseppe Raimondi in 1966, Gufram was born as a creative arm for the Fratelli Gugliermetto brothers – furniture manufacturers since 1952 – and rode the inspiration of Pop art to become a key player in the Italian Radical Design movement.
With gaudy plastic cactus coat stands and seating that resembled toppled Romanesque columns, Gufram were one of the first brands to commercialise the conceptual kitsch that the Pop art movement had ushered in. And with the movement itself inspired by mass culture, a full cycle had been turned: life imitating art imitating life. As the ironic eye of artists like Warhol and Claes Oldenburg had taken mass-marketed products into the gallery space, Gufram took Pop and put it into the home, a move fellow Italian Ettore Sottsass would make in the ‘80s with his recently reawakened Memphis design movement.
That Sottsass’ Memphis style of bold graphical elements and surrealist sculptural maundering had been enjoying a renaissance the same summer Swift set sail on a blow-up swan was not simple fate: aesthetic irony was increasing its presence at design fairs in the years prior, a visual rebuttal to Scandinavian simplicity and the oversaturation of the minimalist design Apple’s Jony Ive had nicked from Dieter Rams. Bad taste, says Shaun Beaumont – creative director of design agency ilk – is “the inevitable backlash of a visually ‘spoilt’ generation. The reason why everything is noticeably crap is that it’s never been as consistently good.”
It’s a fine observation – and one that speaks of the age of homogenised culture, where perfectly nice design starts to look a little meh, purely because you’ve seen it a million times before. Bad taste, though, has not always enjoyed such freedom. Before Warhol commodified irony, art intellectuals were simply repulsed by all that is kitsch. In his 1939 essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch”, American art critic Clement Greenberg was indignant in his disdain for mass culture. “Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rearguard”, he spat, “true enough, simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West – that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name, ‘Kitsch’.”
Critiquing the elements of popular culture that would go on to inform Pop – advertising, magazine covers, pulp fiction and Hollywood movies – Greenberg delineates Kitsch as an ‘ersatz culture’ created for the masses (the “peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois”) to pacify the boredom that arose from missing the folk culture they’d left behind in the countryside. German art historian and museum director Gustav Edmund Pazaurek was equally disapproving. An influential member of the Deutscher Werkbund – an association of artists, designers and architects that served as a forerunner to the Bauhaus – Pazaurek recommended in 1899 that every museum should have a ‘chamber of horrors’ to act as a ‘drastic cure’ for poor taste. A kind of real-life version of the correctional procedure, the Minister of the Interior subjects Alex to in A Clockwork Orange.
Pazaurek’s own ‘Cabinet of Bad Taste’ would be opened at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909, and over the next 24 years would amass a collection of more than 900 objects he deemed offensive enough to frighten would-be designers off making similar mistakes. If you think Pazaurek was a bit of a drag, you should know that his 1912 book, Good and Bad Taste in the Arts and Crafts, included categories of bad taste like “Decorative Brutality” and “Jingoistic Kitsch” – so there was clearly some sense of fun in the old boy. Truth is that until the 1950s, irony didn’t wash in the world of high culture. That the actions of pop stars like Taylor Swift have ramifications far beyond the mainstream, and that Richard Prince could sell inkjet prints of Instagram posts for $100,000, tells the tale of shifting perceptions in taste.
With the distinctions between cool and crass irreversibly blurred, irony has become an unavoidable device across all creative disciplines, causing humble, once-overlooked designs and objects to be heralded in a new light.
Fascinating designers and industrialists since the 1920s, the concept of making a chair from a single piece of material became iconic in the 1970s when French engineer Henry Massonnet began work on the archetypal Monobloc – the plain, plastic outdoor chair you’ve sat in thousands of times. Mass-produced almost to infinity, the chair’s ubiquity has not been lost on contemporary designers and artists, and last year saw the Vitra Design Museum host an exhibition – “Monobloc, A Chair for the World” – in its honour, which brought together artistic interventions, high-design updates, and hundreds of similar experiments with single materials.
Architecture has also seen the ugly or unloved turn beautiful and eulogised as the concrete monoliths of the brutalist era enjoy their moment in the sun; uncompromising odes to utilitarianism like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and Marcel Breuer’s stark Alpine ski resort Flaine addressed with the dignity they once evaded – a trend that has not been overlooked by culturally savvy hoteliers. As brutalism and the mass-produced anti-appeal of Henry Massonnet’s plastic carbuncle force us to reassess what would have nauseated Gustav Pazaurek and Clement Greenberg, creatives have a natural urge to push our notions of bad taste to the next stage.
What if Benidorm was the next Palm Springs?
Barcelona-based photographer Giorgia Righetti has a keen eye for detail; her ability to capture beauty in otherwise ignored trivialities of architecture is compelling – even her Instagram feed is a lesson in looking longer and deeper into details we’ve seen so often yet enjoyed so little. Shadows and staircases, emergency doorways and rain gutters, lonely Monobloc chairs. Where we’ve become familiar with the commodification of brutalist council estates such as Robin Hood Gardens – a segment of which was recently acquired by the V&A – Righetti is often found plundering, and finding the beauty within the perceived eyesores of mass-tourism resorts, with Tenerife and Gran Canaria providing similar aesthetic inspiration to Los Angeles or London.
In August 2016, San Sebastian–born José Javier Serrano – aka Yosigo – spent two weeks alone in Benidorm, coming away with more than 500 photographs. Commissioning Barcelona studio Querida to design the resulting photobook – the photographer offering flyers he’d collected on his trip as a moodboard of tackiness – Greetings From poses a conundrum in taste: beautiful to look at, but equally unsettling for someone who perceives themselves as possessing good taste.
An Instagram experiment turned fully fledged interior design studio, Ksenia Shestakovskaia’s Decor Hardcore takes notions of taste to obscene levels, with lurid purple shag piles, circular beds, gold satin sheets, and wallpapers that Liberace might have turned his nose up at. There is, however, an uncontrollable urge inside, a delinquent compulsion to think the unthinkable: when you see the lavatory encased in flower-print velour, you can’t help but say to yourself (in hushed tones, of course), “Cool.” You are not alone. Shestakovskaia has more than 120,000 followers – and last month picked out her most ‘hardcore’ homes for Airbnb. That you can rent the chaotic and confused duplex Ksenia picked in Skopje for £32 per night makes you want to book flights immediately.
“The strange truth is”, posits Stephen Bayley, the best-selling author of 2011’s Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, “too much beauty would be intolerable, an awful world of meticulously cropped lawns and starched linen.” Have we approached that intolerable beauty? Perhaps then, as Shaun Beaumont said, it’s a backlash to the visually ‘spoilt’ generation. Perhaps it is a case of cyclical trends. Perhaps– as divisive collective vêtements have put chavs on the catwalk and given a new lease of life to Juicy Couture – it’s the influence haute couture’s relentless desire to shock. Or perhaps it’s simply a case of, having abstained through self-imposed snobbery, we actually feel some genuine connection.
“My parents are bird watchers so, growing up, I didn’t go to trashy seaside resorts”, revealed Martin Parr when talking about his iconic portrayal of working class holidays in his photobook The Last Resort, “we went more to look at Waders and Goldfinches. But then my wife got a job in Liverpool, and we bought a house about a mile-and-a-half away from New Brighton. When I discovered it, I got very excited – I was attracted to its litter and energy, and I knew then that I would do a project about it.” The series was an instant hit, but met derision from snooty critics who scorned the fact that he was objectifying the working class. Quite conversely, Parr’s portrayal of working-class reality remains one of the most honest and warm documents of a British seaside holiday to date, serving as a reminder that there are real people with real stories behind all we frequently deem as ‘bad taste’.
If one thing could be learned from our shifting perceptions of taste, it would be that rules are eroding. Incessant homogenisation has numbed a generation, and ‘good design’ enjoys such ubiquity that there is a desire to rebel. If you have embraced the cool kitsch of inflatable swans, or warmed to the once-maligned austerity of brutalist architecture, how close are you to receiving that purple shag pile with open arms?