MarkDery on Mon, 6 Sep 1999 19:27:02 +0200 (CEST)

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    [A slightly different version of the following originally appeared in 
_Bookforum_, the literary supplement to _Artforum_ magazine.]

    Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? 
Richard Hamilton's tongue-in-cheek question, asked nearly half a century
ago, is answered in earnest by the socially insecure nouveaux riches who
take Wallpaper magazine's style commandments as Holy Writ. 
     And the answer is: Mid-century modern furniture.  Like the
biomorphic, bucket-seated Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs that added a futuristic
flourish to Men in Black, despite their advanced age (1958-60).  Or the
padded sofa and disco-Cubist aluminum floor lamp, both '60s artifacts,
that looked so retrochic (and utterly out-of-character, but never mind
that) in Woody Harrelson's minimum-wage Space-Age bachelor pad in EdTV. 
Or the fiberglass Gyro chair by Eero Aarnio that popped up in the Missy
Elliot video "Beep Me 911."  Or the squishy, egg-shaped cushions that
serve as chairs at Cafeteria, a modernist-inspired restaurant in New
York's Chelsea neighborhood.  Or, canonically, the sleek, jet-age design
fetishized in Wallpaper, whose April 1999 issue hyperventilates about
sinuous 1964 white plywood armchairs by Joe Colombo ($7,500 a pair) and
Arne Jacobsen's 1966 Ox armchair (P3,800), an exotic contraption with
jutting arms and a upswept, wraparound headrest that looks like a CEO's
throne designed by T'Pau, the Vulcan matriarch in the old Star Trek. 

    But what's the buried engine driving the current vogue for '60s
furniture and architecture?  Best to recollect it in tranquility, and
where better than Eero Saarinen's aerodynamic TWA Terminal at New York's
JFK airport, the inspiration for the headquarters-cum-intergalactic
spaceport in Men in Black and the subject of a new tribute from the
Princeton Architectural Press?  Besides, the New York Times (whose arrival
on any scene is an albatross-like omen of its imminent demise, but why
spoil the fun?) informs us that "the prototypical Wallpaper interior seems
to be the first-class lounge of an international airport."  Ideally, we'd
be waiting for the loudspeaker announcement that it's time to board the
endangered Concorde, that needle-nosed monument to the fading dream of a
supersonic society, as sweetly sad in its own way as the last passenger
pigeon.  To complete the picture, we'd be listening to Eno's anodyne Music
for Airports, preferably on '60s-era space-cadet headphones like the ones
owned by the New York deejay Frankie Inglese, a collector of vintage
electronics who laments, "It's nearly the year 2000.  We have great
technology, like cell phones, the Internet, and digital cameras.  But
we're still sitting on eyesores by Ikea.  This is not what the future was
supposed to look like." 

    Mr. Inglese isn't the only one still waiting for the Pan Am flight to
the Moon from 2001.  From late Boomers to early GenXers, anyone old enough
to remember the future---the space-Pop film and TV interiors of the '60s,
a decade that lasted until 1972 in furniture design, according to the
design writer Cara Greenberg---can't help feeling that the monorail to
Tomorrowland is running late.  How can it be, on the eve of the Y2k, that
Olivier Mourgue's blobby, undulating Djinn chairs in 2001's space-station
lounge still look light years ahead of anything in our living rooms? 
Greenberg's new coffee-table book, Op to Pop: Furniture of the '60s
(Bulfinch, June), is a startling time capsule from the age of the launch
pad, the Pill, and the tab of LSD.  Who would have thought that
yesterday's tomorrows would still lie so far ahead of us?  The button-down
futures of corporate shills like Nicholas Negroponte look instantly dated
alongside the sly, sensual visions of things to come conjured up by Eerio
Aarnio's Ball chair (c. 1965), a hollow sphere, complete with a cushion
seat and stereo speakers, that Greenberg calls "a personal space
capsule…in which to take solitary flight."  We encounter inflatable
armchairs, plastic globe chairs suspended from the ceiling, and
polymorphous, vaguely perverse chairs made of polyurethane foam which were
compressed and vacuum-sealed so that they came to life when unwrapped,
ballooning into their final form over the course of an hour.  Ana Azevedo,
co-owner of the New York antique store A&J 20th Century Designs, marvels
at the teenagers who come into her shop "and think all of this '60s stuff
is brand-new, that it's just been designed.  We wanted the future to look
like this but we never achieved the look of the Space Age in everyday
life.  Airports have moving sidewalks but that's as close as we got to The

    But the question remains: Why now?  Why, as the millennial counter
nears triple zeroes, are we so eager to go back to the future of an
earlier era?  Because we can.  The vaunted Long Boom affords us---well, at
least some of us, namely the new-media bohos and number-jugglers rewarded
by the New Economy---the luxury of worrying about the niceties of interior
decoration.  This isn't cheap chic, as Wallpaper's fawning features on the
retro styles of the rich and famous make clear. 

     But why retro-futurism?  Because, despite (or because of) millennial
anxiety and the unremitting grimness of most recent SF and Hollywood
evocations of the future, We Want to Believe.  Apple's Power Macintosh G3
plays to this yearning, its streamlined, turquoise-and-white shell
subliminally evoking the space-age design and color scheme of Disney's
Tomorrowland.  Like the G3, modernist furniture like Paul Tuttle's
zigzagging Z chair (1964), which he compared to a rocket launcher, returns
us to a time before the Challenger disaster and the dreary Mir, when
technology's bright promise was untarnished---when John F. Kennedy told a
rapt nation that America would head for space, the "New Frontier," and
crowds watched the "machines of tomorrow" terraforming the moon at the
1964 World's Fair.  Of course, you can't go home again, which is why our
affection for the Jetsonian tomorrows of the Space Age is shot through
with pomo irony.  Cryogenically preserved in a past that knows nothing of
Three-Mile Island and Love Canal, yesterday's tomorrows seem campy and
kitschy and harmlessly fun. 

     But enjoy them while you can, before they're consigned once again to
the deep freezers of history.  The latest issue of I.D., a far sterner
disciplinarian in matters of style than Wallpaper, declares, "Now that
Time, The New York Times---even that arbiter of style, the Washington
Post---have all proclaimed the modernist revival, it is clearly over." 
What's next?  Postmodernism, of course, the cartoon-y, channel-surfing
aesthetic of the late '80s.  It's the Next Big Thing Redux, foreshadowed
by Michael Graves's post-Moderne kitchen accessories for Target.  Call it
retro pomo, neo-pomo, po-pomo. 

            Or call it history's revenge on the perpetual now of our
zapper-proof, fast-forward culture.  Because, even as "the future is
ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present," as J.G. Ballard
has noted, the present is almost instantly becoming passé.  Living in the
dwindling media interval between Wired and Tired, between trend du jour
and been there, done that, has given rise to what might be called a
nostalgia for the present---the melancholy knowledge that even our most
futuristic gadgets, semiotic shorthand for the future, will be outmoded by
tomorrow morning.

                        - 30 -

Mark Dery [] writes about new media, fringe thought, and 
unpopular culture for _The New York Times Magazine_, _Rolling Stone_, _The 
Village Voice Literary Supplement_, _Suck_, and _Feed_.  His collection of 
essays, "The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink," was 
published by Grove Press in February, 1999.


  Julia Chaplin, "Generation Wallpaper," The New York Times, Sunday Styles 
section, September 6, 1998, p. 2.
2 Ibid.
3 Cara Greenberg, Op to Pop: Furniture of the '60s (New York: Bulfinch Press, 
1999), p. 22.
4 Jennifer Kabat, "Post Postmodern," I.D., March/April 1999, p. 30.
5.  J.G. Ballard, "Introduction to the French Edition," Crash (Vintage Books: 
New York, 1985), p. 4.

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