Thursday, 14 March 2013

Dieselpunk Manifesto: Bond, Art Deco and the Cool Curve pt 2.

 (The following is Art history watered down for normal people. Art history students will be offended by my generalisations. Normal people wont.)

Put on your retronautical goggles (Steampunks dial it back to its lowest setting, Dieselpunks to its highest, and you others just try to ignore the warning lights) and let us return to the turn of the century. The 20th century that is.
Take a pair of these...

... and connect to one of these.
 Amazing things were happening at the turn of the 20th century across Western society. A whole new set of exciting ideas was bleeding out into the way we did everything, from mundane everyday technologies that made our lives easier, to the more rarefied air surrounding Scientific and Art theory. And one leading strain of this epidemic of change we today call Modernism.

Modernism was a move by artists, designers, architects and other intellectual boffins to embrace the new century and its new ways of living by embracing a new set of ideals, especially in the fields of architecture and the emerging field of consumer design. Rejecting the past (especially the absurd Victorian need for gratuitous ornamentation) Modernist designers embraced a future of almost scientific purity, creating furniture, architecture and other cultural products where form followed function, materials were left without facade and mathematical geometry was king.
This new mode of thinking led to many astounding breakthroughs and positive changes to the way human beings lived but the triumph of Modernist thought is perhaps best summed up in the words of one of its leading lights, the architect Le Corbusier. He was one for manifestos, both artistic and architectural, and it was he who coined the term “A house is a machine for living in.”

And therein lies the rub.

You see, it’s one thing to build a house to Modernist spec, it’s another thing to create a home using the same idealist fervour, which is a dynamic that can be applied across the Modernist thought-scape. When done well Modernist architecture and design is cool, sophisticated, pure and timeless. But when it’s done badly it’s the bizarro version of ergonomics: a science devoted to seeing just how far you can contort human cultural practise via their urban environment before fell repercussions ensue. The bad version is lifeless, stark, cold and void of character – machine-like – and a good example of how an ideal can never be completely realised lest it break the fallible creatures that are inevitably at its centre – human beings.

The Cool Curve of Modernism/Art Deco.

In steps our hero – Art Deco. 

To put it in terms that would get me strangled at a university, Art Deco is ‘Modernism one step down the early adopter chain’, or in cultural trends, the ‘Cool Curve’. Now bear with me. I brought a picture with iPhones on it:

Early adopter curve, in this case focusing on technology.
 This graph is used by all sorts of people when they’re talking about the adoption of trends, whether they’re technology innovators or fashion designers, but the process is always the same. Essentially, there are people out there who have to be different. Psychologically they just can’t stand being like everyone else, or they just love the risk of being beyond the cutting edge. Out there and outrageous, they stand away from the crowd on purpose, happy to be extreme and different, wearing a four-foot lime green Mohawk when everyone else is getting a number three all over.

Keep in mind: not all trends take hold.
Now what these people really are is fashion ‘innovators’. They’re called innovators because they’re on the leading edge of the curve, rocking out a fashion trend BEFORE it’s actually a trend. What they’re doing is too extreme for mainstream tastes and the vast majority of consumers or thinkers, so they fit square into the middle of the ‘weird’ category. But they’re innovating all the same.

This is where the early adopters arrive. Early adopters aren’t beyond the cutting edge like the innovators, but they are ahead of the rest of the pack and enjoy leading the curve. Early adopters in fashion actually inhabit the cool sweetspot – the space where they get the maximum social credit from the rest of society for their cultural choices. But they keep ahead of the public by taking what the innovators do, watering it down to an acceptable level, then taking credit for it.
A watered down mohawk. Comfortably ensconced in the Cool sweetspot.
 This process plays out a few more times (aspire, water down, adopt) as you work your way down the curve until you reach the laggards who for whatever reason are a bit slow on the uptake, probably because they don’t care. By the time laggards get a fashion product it has been watered down to its most mass markety and the innovators have long ago moved onto something completely different (probably been through several different new styles by then) and the early adopters are waiting to rip them off and start the process all over again, everyone always trying to remain one step ahead of the group behind them.

Why am I explaining the ‘Cool Curve’? Because the ideals of Modernism can be seen as the innovators who dress too extreme for the mass market, sticking to strict design rules that the rest of society just won’t accept. As amazingly different and powerful as those ideas are, they’re just too extreme for the people at the middle of the curve to take seriously. At least, not until the early adopters take those ideas, water them down a little and make them really really cool (ie extreme but acceptable).

Enter Art Deco. Art Deco took the ideas of Modernist architecture and design but baulked at taking them to the extreme. Instead, where Modernism rejected the past completely Art Deco snuck the past in the back door with its shout outs to mythic figures and iconic imagery (such as the Egyptology craze and the numerous examples of lightning-holding titans). Where Modernism rejected all ornamentation, Art Deco was into deco-ration, staying to the Modern side of things with lots of geometrical lines and shapes, but decorating things regardless. Where Modernism was about purity, Art Deco was about the speed and exhilaration of the contemporary age. Where Modernism was about facade-less material, Art Deco was about new materials made from new technology and taken to the luxurious nth degree.
Art deco, baby. Modern... but mythic.
 Art Deco was in many ways the upper crust and the rich Bright Young Things taking the purified academic theory of Modernism and giving it some fun and luxury. Watering it down enough to be fun, fast and exciting rather than stilted and serious. And, as the ‘cool version’ of Modernism, it also became the style that the growing middle class of the 1920s would aspire to. Right up to the crash of ’29.

What happened next to our intrepid Art Deco pioneers? Did the Crash of ’29 destroy the new aspirational movement? Did the adaptation of Modernist ideas revert to their obscure academic ways? Stay tuned next week post for the next episode of ‘Bond, Art Deco and the Cool Curve’!

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