Web article by Marjan Groot
A postmodernist museum experience
On 1 April a group of design aficionados from our VU Arts and Cultures programme visited the Groninger Museum in the city of Groningen in the northern Netherlands. We were aiming for the permanent collection and the two one-man shows of British rock star David Bowie and contemporary designer from the Netherlands Joris Laarman. All together the package covered architecture, design and fashion, digital media, and visual art. It seems logical to begin with the architecture, because the gorgeous museum building of 1994 is striking. It was designed by the Italian architect and designer Alessandro Mendini. Situated on an island in a canal opposite the nineteenth-century central railway station, it is an iconic building representing Italian postmodernism, notwithstanding the fact that it was realized about fifteen years after the proclamation of postmodernism by Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini in the late 1970s. Since then, it has constantly lived up to its postmodernist statement in Western European architecture by fulminating against the rules of Western modernism. The museum also permanently hosts a collection of postmodern furniture and silverware featuring both the design studios Memphis (Sottsass) and Alchimia (Mendini).
While each of the shows on view on 1 April allows for elaboration separately from different perspectives, having both together side by side makes it interesting to consider the two in the postmodern framework represented by the building. The postmodern building and matching furniture collection made fun of 1920s to 1970s cliché modernist dogmas of soberness and functionalism. Instead, they emphasized love of colour and ornament, and irregular forms and shapes. These features of the postmodern in design subtly tune in with the important museum collection of visual artworks by the 1920s Expressionist artists’ club in Groningen called ‘De Ploeg’ (in Dutch this means both The Plough and The Group). This club is known for its strikingly coloured paintings and print work inspired by (among others) ‘Die Brűcke’ from Germany. Between c. 1906 and 1925, Expressionism could still celebrate colour, abstraction and the powerful lines and forms of non-Western art before the more radical abstraction of modernism reduced their impact and sometimes wiped them out. Some painters of De Ploeg referenced nineteenth-century French Impressionism as well, which again met with postmodern acclaim by Mendini in the pointillist decorative painting on his ‘Poltrona di Proust’ (or: Proust chair, named after the French novelist Marcel Proust). This porcelain chair with an ornament in the form of a pointillist painting strategically marks the entrance to the design pavilion of the Groninger Museum.
David Bowie, design and popular music
The postmodernist statement of the museum building and permanent collection also converges with the decades during which the British rock star David Bowie rose to world fame with his songs and theatrical performances and concerts. Throughout his career, which lasted from the mid-1960s until 2016, Bowie mixed and mimicked styles and personages as a truly eclectic personality and performer, now referencing avant-garde surrealism, then 1920s to 1940s dandyism in fine tailored suits, and always addressing the blurring of gender conventions in dress, as in the early 1970s when Japanese couturier Kansai Yamamoto designed Bowie’s costumes in a distinctly androgynous pop-style as well as a playful and postmodern look. The Bowie exhibition, which sadly turned out to be the last David Bowie show due to the passing away of the artist last January, was a celebration of media and design from Western music and youth culture of the second half of the twentieth century. It included many of the costumes for Bowie’s concerts, the design of video clips and films, of album covers, and more. All this was presented in dark spaces with lots of music to listen to as well.
Contemporary design of Joris Laarman
The design features of the museum building and of the many David Bowie performances and characters were rounded off in a way by a one-man show of contemporary designer Joris Laarman from the Netherlands. Being active as a designer with a ‘lab’ since the early 21st century, Laarman positions his work between high-tech manufacturing and the nostalgic forms and ornament of styles from the past history of design and decorative art: Art Nouveau, rococo, and 1960s design, all epochs which in their times opposed rationalist design based on classicist and later modernist form principles. Original rococo goes back to the decades between 1720 and 1750, and Art Nouveau was the ‘modern’ style in Europe between 1890 and 1910. In some parts of Europe Art Nouveau was importantly inspired by rococo. Their common design feature is the love of nature for forms and ornament, partly expressed in wavy and flowing lines which do not represent an evocation of classical Greek and Roman ornament and forms of design and architecture.
Laarman’s ‘searching for times lost’ in terms of form references to past styles brings to mind the famous novel by French writer Marcel Proust which is explicitly referenced by Alessandro Mendini’s ‘Proust Chair’. This novel, on which the writer worked between 1908 and 1922, was entitled A la recherche du temps perdu. However, Laarman’s statement on the dullness of modernism and his references to times gone by cannot hide that he essentially celebrates late 20th and early 21st-century manufacturing technologies by way of computer programming for furniture pieces, 3-D printing for production, and a fascination with metamorphosis of form through digital elements such as pixels and mathematic structures such as algorithms.
The exhibition had very clinically designed rooms in which the furniture pieces were exhibited as sculptures and artworks. The appealing quasi naturalness of wavy Art Nouveau lines and rococo flowers and birds clearly had to please the audience visually if not psychologically, as indeed it seemed to do, while at the same time providing an alibi for a manufacturing process celebrating factories and high-tech companies who importantly form our lives and mindset through technology. While postmodernists did offer some novelty in form, Laarman simply borrows existing designs to emulate technical manufacturing. His redesign in timber and other materials of a canonic chair by Danish designer Verner Panton of 1967, one of the first chairs made entirely from one piece of the material of fiber-glass reinforced polyester resin, is again an example of stylized wavy lines à la Art Nouveau. This attitude only partly meets the postmodernist attitude of Mendini, who redesigned a number of iconic modernist design chairs. Laarman also exhibited Makerchairs. These referenced the currently popular Maker Movement which hopes to combine an Arts and Crafts attitude with – again – a high-tech manufacturing process, thereby compromising a 150-year-old ideology for our present technological culture. The videos illuminating Laarman’s designs presented us with a lot of ‘crafting’, ‘drawing’ and ‘nature’ but there is no doubt that all his designs are about high technology. Essentially, Laarman fools us.
In his songs David Bowie regularly addressed the uneasy relationship between technological progress on the one hand and the people who try to deal with it on the other hand – his song ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) and character Ziggy Stardust are examples – while in his performances he also suggested irony, nostalgia and romance. It seems as though his striking outfits and personages stressed the ambivalence of technology. Although the work of Joris Laarman operates in a different sub-field of design, any irony with regard to technology is, however, flattened by the literal historicist references to past styles and designs. Such historical design is no longer relevant for our society, although we can still enjoy the originals in museums. And yet, the forms of original Art Nouveau or rococo furniture are so complicated that they also challenge our modern technologies, as the exhibition showed. In that sense the choice of these past styles is not just because they present us with intriguing and beautiful ornament instead of dull modernism, but also because they hold challenges for the most modern forms and experiments of production today.
When considering the constellation of exhibitions and museum collections as our group of design aficionados saw them, there was not only much to enjoy but also to think about in terms of design and design cultures, and about how our society evolves in a technological sense.
For the museum building and its history http://www.groningermuseum.nl/geschiedenis-van-het-museumgebouw.
For a review (in Dutch) of the show by Joris Laarman see Jan de Bruijn, ‘Laarman in het Groninger Museum: gelaagd ontwerper gereduceerd tot estheet’, posted 1 February 2016 at http://www.designhistory.nl/2016 (accessed 8 April 2016).
For a historical perspective on design from the Netherlands in general see Mienke Simon Thomas, Dutch Design. A History, London: Reaktion books, 2008.
For the history of debates about design in the Netherlands see Frederike Huygen, Visies op Vorm, Deel I en II, Amsterdam: Architectura et Natura, 2011 (both in Dutch).