August 15th, 2008


Ikea "discovers postmodernism"

My Moment blog today goes into a subject that interests and amuses me: the way Ikea established itself globally -- and it's become a sort of de facto global home furnishings monoculture -- by taking a puritan-Modernist (and stereotypically Swedish) stand against clutter and chintz, but how decoration -- that Modernist taboo -- has recently been spotted creeping back into Ikea designs. I plot this development to two decisive moments in design history: the 1908 moment when Viennese architect and theorist Adolf Loos declared ornament "a crime", and the 1984 moment when mainstream post-modernism broke the Loos taboo. We also look at the strangely sarcastic world of early 1990s Ikea ads attacking the English and their neurotic attachment to decorative furniture, and wonder whether furniture stores (like Pottery Barn) which skipped the Modernist aesthetic altogether were somehow avant garde as a result. (The answer is, I suspect, that the whole idea of the avant garde died with Modernism: in the pomo period distinctions like avant / mainstream, high / low, and now / then collapse into a great mulch of endlessly-circular, gormlessly-ironic cultural references.)

So the story here probably isn't so much "Ikea belatedly discovers Postmodernism, betrays Modernist principles" as "Ikea's apparently Modernist gestures were Postmodern all along". But I suppose they could have been both at the same time -- the advertising could have made a post-modernist joke of Ikea boss Ingvar Kamprad's relatively sincere Modernist principles. The irony is that Ikea is abandoning the clarity of the Modernist aesthetic just as the art world is rediscovering it, and embracing post-modernism just when some of us are getting thoroughly sick of it.