June 16 2011: Design For Modern Living by Gerd and Ursula Hatje (Thames & Hudson, 1962)
First published in Germany in 1961, Gerd and Ursula Hatje’s Design For Modern Living: A Practical Guide To Home Furnishing and Interior Decoration was reprinted with an English text in 1962. Its plates exemplify the emerging post-war modernism, often derived from Scandinavian models, that was to fully enter the design mainstream during the next decade. What’s striking about many of the plates today is how closely many of them echo the stylistic features of paintings by artists like Richard Hamilton, and some of the images reproduced in the gallery below might even be mistaken for collages or paintings by him.
Certainly, collage paintings like Hommage à Chrysler Corp. (1957) and $he (1958-61) are informed by the colour palettes and clean lines of these photographs and interiors, albeit within a more painterly context. A few years later works like Interior (1964-5) or Interior II (1964) would draw on appropriated photographic techniques and refer directly to the aesthetic of books like Design For Modern Living. Hamilton’s Collected Words (1982) gathers pieces written between the early 1950s and the publication date and often reads more like a series of studies in architecture, interiors, product design and advertising techniques than a conventional book of artist statements.
Of course, this primarily reflects Hamilton’s own grounding in the thinking of the Independent Group in the early and mid-1950s, and their key statements, both collectively (in exhibitions like This Is Tomorrow) and individually (in writing by Rayner Banham, Lawrence Alloway and John McHale) were generally as much concerned with the analysis of imagery and style as their production. Hamilton’s writings are often on similar material and demonstrate a desire – common within the Independent Group’s membership – to infiltrate the operations of fine art into mass media and commercial contexts.
While not without some success in their earlier days, the general traffic around the Independent Group’s ideas since around 1970 has been in the reverse direction: the operations of commerce and media have infiltrated art. Despite this, it remains possible that the Surrealism-inspired notion that art’s transformative qualities might one day be put to work in the channels used by commercial propaganda and mass production, in order to transform their purpose, could once again become a productive working method for artists, yielding results more valuable than the transformation of art into advertising.