Saturday, July 26, 2008


I remember being a young and romantic student of architecture and coming upon the just published masterpiece book of Architect Robert Venturi called "Learning from Las Vegas". To be quite honest I felt a mixed sentiment of both surprise and aversion. How could the art and the architecture of the "ugly and ordinary" be a matter of such study? What a terrible blow to we, the designers, on our spirited crusade for the dictatorship of the good taste!

Should we now be forced to join the Bad Taste Unlimited Incorporated, run by the governors of kitsch? At the time, the thought made me tremble!

So what exactly is kitsch?

Is kitsch the enemy of good design? Is it “bad art”?... Or maybe it’s a functional part of what is accepted today as “high art”?

The concept of kitsch became widely accepted during the second half of the 20th century, though the origin of the term is more complex. Kitsch came to us from Germany, its precise origin obscure, with many suspecting Yiddish input (a known wink from the shtetl.)

Kitsch is pretense…Yet not all pretense is kitsch. Something more, something involving you, the recipient of the sentiment, is required to create the sense of the intrusion (the unwanted hand on the knee) which kitsch achieves all so well! For kitsch is not just pretending, it is asking you to pretend along with it.

And touché! There is the revolutionary side of this movement!

Kitsch is an attempt to have the spirit of life… but on the cheap - a function of its irony. Often the sentimentalism or mawkishness it presents is an impudent invitation to deeply explore forgotten places inside ourselves. Therefore its value is in the kind of relationship it proposes, and precisely why some objects of design will appeal to the kitsch condition within every one of us: because we all , at sometime or other, envisage only the pleasant – refusing to see the unacceptable and tragic, both valid, if unfortunate, part of our lives.

So now you begin to see that there really are no kitsch objects, only a kitsch relationship; an intimate, unreal, and overly sentimental depiction of life which becomes an affair between the object and its receiver.

That is kitsch.

For the Modernist, ornamentation was a crime. Therefore, during much of the 20th century, decoration was considered a taboo when it came to furniture design. In the1920’s,“modern” design principles dictated that the “form follow function”, so any ornamentation was considered frivolous and unacceptable in good design.

Until the arrival of the Pop Art in the 1950’s, kitsch has pejorative connotations. It then associated with the society of consumption…and soon began to appear in the depiction of common, everyday things. In this field is where kitsch found its real authenticity.

George Nelson, the exceptional industrial designer for Herman Miller, was also one of the most influential personalities in U.S. design during that period. His work concer
ned himself with ongoing sociological and artistic themes and his “Marshmallow Sofa” is the perfect example of mid-century kitsch. A traditional sofa transformed into a three-dimensional structure of art, the Marshmallow Sofa is made of soft, round, colored cushions which can be removed and replaced to improve wear and tear, the Marshmallow Sofa must surely be considered on of the earliest Pop Art furniture design, if not the quintessential design icon of mid-century furniture.

Of course not even this icon of kitsch design made its entry into our culture so easily. The 1956 Herman Miller furniture read: "Despite its astonishing appearance, this piece is very comfortable", the company revealed a notable complex of guilt for this transgression to the modernist asceticism!

In the 1970s, kitsch expression gained a more respectful position, existing alongside accepted modernist styles. “Queen Anne”, the chair designed by Venturi, is a postmodern blending of these styles. Based on a chair designed circa 1790, its surface is decorated by playfully floral motif from a favorite tablecloth, imposed over diagonal stripes copied from the paintings of the artist Jasper Johns.
Such traditional floral patterns can be quite sentimental and thus antithetical to the modernist aesthetic. However, it is this very quality of sentimentality that appealed to Postmodernist Architects in their search for conventional images and patterns for use in a novel new way.

To rise above that which is merely bad, kitsch must have the quality of excess and a force of passion; it must have an energy manifesting itself in color, decoration or sheer blatant tackiness. Why some designs come to be regarded as kitsch depends upon the way in which they clash with the more established notions of good taste. But are those notions real? You decide.

So, in closing, my friends, I remind you that kitsch is as old as the sun and everywhere around us.

From time to time, allow yourself to be part of its kitchen and sink drama!

Benvenue l'art pour vivre!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The forgotten paradox of the symbolism

Seems to me only yesterday that I find myself in front of the Saint Marcel’s portal of Notre Dame of Paris on Saturn's Day. Suddenly I am in a trance and a group of determined alchemists of the 14th. century passes by my side in their way to hermetic meetings - perhaps to discuss academic, theoretical and unknown issues veiled for the rest of us, the mortals - when from the crammed group of salamanders that adorns the famous entrance, a powerful rumor of cracked voices descends to me, waking me from the most fabulous of the visions…

…Again my sense of reality was betrayed by the occult enchantment of the chimeras, grotesques, masks and gargoyles that ornaments the olden cathedral.
From the beginning, the use of ornament has been an integral part of virtually all cultures: gracing buildings, clothing, utensils, weapons, vehicles, even our bodies…hardly an appurtenance of daily life untouched by design.

Ornament has beautified the most utilitarian and the most luxurious of objects. From the war’s sword of the medieval knight to the intricate settings of the Czarina Alexandra’s Faberges, exquisite jewelry and architecture was no exception.

Perhaps ornament has been such a consistent part of human history because it has satisfied a need for beauty that everybody shares, transporting us to remote universes and places through unexpected new windows of our imagination.

From ancient times to the Gutenberg's invention of the printing press (and its subsequent mass production of written wisdom) architecture was transmitting, through all kinds of ornamentation, the perpetuation of scientific information, historical events, legend and myth and more, for practical use as well as social memoir of different cultural groups.
Notre Dame is an ideal example of architecture as a vivid and complete encyclopedia of medieval knowledge. Art and science finally found its way out from the obscurantism of the monasteries to last for ever in this grand cathedral’s facades.

Despite the “non-sanctum” act of bringing only beauty and complacence to the senses, many times ornamentation was acting on behalf of “honest” functions such as managing rain water away from roofs and walls, screening sunlight, railing balconies and stairs, etc.

Mon Dieu! The form is not following the function but the ornament is “functioning” anyway!
Inevitable debates arose as to whether or not a building was defined as “beautiful” because of its ornament and proportions, or due to other, more functional criteria.

While the Royal Academy of Architecture in France emphasized the scientific, technical approach to architecture, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded shortly after the French Revolution, treated architecture as an art itself. It started with a concern for human experience, personal identity, and a carefully sense of composition and beauty.

These qualities defied (as they still do) precise quantification, tough the presence or metaphor of the sensual delights of the body can be noted in today’s magnificent existing constructions.
Regardless of whether these archaic symbols became gradually to diminishing in the world at large, or whether it was a product of responsibility for equipping complex functional and large functional environments, a schism in architectural thought was to develop.

The ideology of the Modernism started in the beginning of the past century installing a new morality, ignoring popular taste, regionalism and local tendencies. It tried to develop a universal architecture without the deviations proposed for the senses, disallowing for pleasure, and hence banishing the ornament and accessions.

Modernism, now devoid of the creative ability of being a trigger to fantasy, desire, illusion and ideal, lost the opportunity to harboring a sense of dwelling and belonging for the people who lived within and amongst it.

But in the early 1980's a new stream of architectural thought began to reconsider this holy, forgotten relationship. Taking elements from the past, new designers called “Postmodernists” achieved a valid effort to provide architecture the ability to again stimulate sensations and feelings for people in other moments beyond the present, perpetuating in design and development a new sense of positive empathy between the three-dimensional element (the building) and we who inhabit.
Ornament is borrowing not only the tradition, but also sensation of other times – past to contemporary – offering realities that invites you to reflection, and to enrich your moment today.

Carpe diem!