Real homes: Chrome and black are back

Brace yourself - the next design revival is going to be the Eighties. JAMES SHERWOOD picks out some timeless classics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What a difference a decade makes. With 20 years separating us from the Seventies, Wallpaper* magazine can safely repackage the edited highlights of the decade as modern design. It's all right to like shagpile rugs, chocolate-brown, ultrasuede, cube chairs and tangerine leather upholstery. But the Eighties are too close for comfort.

"The Eighties was an era of very flamboyant, flashy and superior design," says Jonathan Sherwood, director of 20th-century, classic-furniture showcase, Haus. "The aesthetic was extremely hard and masculine. But because there was a lot of spending going on, I think it was a rich time for interior design. When money is easy, designers feel freer to create, and design thrives."

It's easy to criticise the decade as the time that taste forgot. But far from being a design desert, the Eighties produced a rich seam of creativity. In our attempts to banish all those memories of black pine and chrome interiors, we forget it was called "the designer decade"; we even distance ourselves from that Eighties design buzz word, postmodernism.

Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Jasper Morrison were the new boys of the Eighties. In 1981, the seminal "Memphis" exhibition in Milan reintroduced colour and decoration, and materials like stainless steel, chrome and polyamide to the design-hungry consumer. Key "Memphis" designer Ettore Sottsass christened it "the New Design".

Italian design house Alessi is one of the most recognisable producers of Eighties classics. Michael Graves, sold 500,000 of his steel Whistling Kettle 9093 (1985), with its bright-blue, plastic handle and bird-shaped whistle. It has the brash Eighties humour but easily makes the cross-over from naff chrome kitchens to chi-chi Nineties minimal. "At Alessi, we never discussed the cost of materials or even issues of fabrication," recalls Groves. "We enjoyed carte blanche." Whistling Kettle 9093 sits happily with such Nineties Alessi best-sellers as Guido Venturi's garlic- crusher (1996) and Matti Di Rosa's Gianni storage jars (1994).

Iconic Eighties pieces should slip seamlessly into the classic design source book while not compromising the era in which they were born. Ettore Sottass's Bay Table Lamp (1983) - a piece produced for "Memphis" - could be Twenties Deco, Sixties space-age or postmodern plain amusing. It won't be restricted by date, whereas Ron Arad's gold, sheet-steel, Well Tempered Chair (1986) bellows masculine Eighties and won't be ignored. "We tend not to judge a piece on the criterion of when it was designed," says Sherwood. "Any of what's happened in this century is a progression. Yes, there are pieces a design-literate public can place in a particular decade. But good design transcends its time."

It's all a question of context. Cini Boeri's moulded-glass, Ghost armchair (1987) would look hard and graphic against the Eighties interior colours of black and red. In a white loft space, the piece is ethereal and minimal. Design is a fluid process and ideas don't die as the clock ticks into another decade.

Designers like Jasper Morrison or Tom Dixon continue to play with ideas engendered in the Eighties. Morrison's sinuously curving sofa (1988) is a classic, sculptural piece copied a million times in Habitat and Heals in the Nineties. Dixon's metal and wicker "S" Chair (1987) still inspires young designers like Michael Sodeau with his wicker-work lighting and furniture.

The showpieces in Haus demonstrate that furniture design devours its past. A geometric, black-leather, upholstered sofa and two side chairs by Robert & Trix Hausmann (1988) for Knoll could be a classic 1920s Deco design by Donald Deskey. When Sherwood reveals it as an Eighties piece, you see the cross-references in furniture design of the past century.

"People come into Haus and identify Bauhaus pieces as 1970s because Mr Conran was reproducing the classics at Habitat in the Seventies," says Sherwood. Recognising a piece and dismissing it as from the not-too-distant past blinds people to the beauty of the object.

Haus launched a CD-Rom in March as an interactive research and shopping guide for customers and architects. When designing the Haus CD-Rom and website, Sherwood intentionally categorised the entries by house, designer and type of furniture rather than date. "I think people are genuinely surprised when they look at the dates of a piece like the Hausmann sofa and chairs," he says. "Ultimately, the period is secondary to the piece itself."

Inevitably, the design of the times reflects the aspirations of the consumer. As Alberto Alessi says, "Our role is to mediate between the most interesting expression of creativity of our times and the dreams of the consumers."

The backlash in the Nineties against conspicuous consumption was a hangover that lasted arguably until the latter years of the decade. Our dreams changed from displaying our wealth to downshifting. Minimalism whitewashed the heavy, decadent designs of the Eighties and deflated the confident, triumphalist mood of its designers.

But Eighties pieces are starting to appeal because minimalism is at the end of the line. We've seen the future. It could be a white cube - and we don't want to go there.

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