Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An "Era" of Distinction

So this isn't really positive or negative. It's just something I've always found interesting. Go online or to your nearest antiquated Better Homes and Gardens magazine and find a picture of a living room from the 1970s. Now find one from the mid 50s or the early '80s. You'll know them immediately, often without the need for captions to reveal the dates pictured.

That, to me, is so interesting. In a living room you have art, knick-knacks, furniture, electronics, textiles, carpets, paint and wallpapers, as well as the clothing and hairstyles worn by the room's occupants. All of these evolve separately, though clearly not in a vacuum, and each can and does influence each other. Regardless they all fuse together to create a very recognizable whole. And generally you can recognize that whole from just a small sampling of the pieces. Mid-century modern furniture is different from the loungy look of the '70s, or the angular, bloated look from the mid '80s. But these differences are often subtle. How is it that subtle differences in design across the spectrum of everyday objects creates easily recognizable palettes?

It's not like in any given era there is only a limited number of design choices. No matter the era eople create easily thousands of disparate designs. But something unifies them. Clearly at any given point in history there are overarching design narratives going on across the culture in question, whether people recognize it or not, that inform each individual item created during that period. They are subtle nuances, but they infect everything, and while they seem hidden to that eras' contemporaries, they leap out glaringly to the eyes of history.

I guess hindsight is 20/20 in more ways than one. Subtle patterns become increasingly more apparent as design becomes more dated. Or, maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's the subtleties that delineate objects, and these subtleties melt away over time, rendering the similarities between objects more obvious.

Maybe it's a factor of closeness. Not in terms of proximity but in terms of familiarity. We look at other humans and we see millions of unique faces because we are very familiar with that design form. We live with it everyday. However, when we look at a pig (most of us at least) we see...a pig. We would be very hard pressed to pick one pig's face out from a group of just 50 other pigs. We are far less intimately familiar with the design form, "pig." We only see the obvious similarities.

So with everything in design. One of those people sitting in your picture of that 1970's rumpus room is very familiar with the design forms around them. They see the subtleties of that design and hence don't recognize the "now" as anything special. They certainly don't recognize their rumpus room as belonging to any specific "era" of design.

But now, 30-some years later, having long since discarded, along with history, that particular design aesthetic, that same person can look back with clear eyes. Being far less familiar, in terms of everyday experience, with the design vocabulary of the 1970s, our modern day viewers lose much of the subtlety of design, and the overriding similarities emerge. We see what makes that "era" what it was. Of course it was always there. We were just to close to in 1975 to see it.

It doesn't hurt that we have a frame of reference now, and the sense to know that giant lime green, mustard yellow and rust orange flowers on your walls with three-foot thick shag carpeting to match isn't acceptable, ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment