Just When You Thought it Was Safe. . . Postmodernism Makes a Comeback!; Maura Lucking talks to AQQ’s Matthew Sullivan

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Some of you may remember when Memphis furniture and Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia (above) bounced into the world, reminding designers steeped in Braun-era minimalism and high-minded Modernist architecture that design could be FUN.

Then the visual jokes were coopted by Philip Johnson in the Chippendale top of the AT&T Building (now Sony Tower, below right, completed 1984) and Postmodernism became the new corporate style. This became loathed by designers who counter-rebelled with a return to midcentury Modern (the “ism” part of Modern dropped in an age of Dwell), melding it with the sometimes competing, sometimes converging, trends of “sustainability,”  computational design and a rebirth of craft.

PeterShire_BigSurSofa_1982Well, who wouldda thunk it, but now PoMo (as a former editor of mine used to describe the paper-thin, neo-neoclassical facades of the 1980s that he hated) is BAAACK, and once again it is a reaction against the save-the-world seriousness of today’s variant of Modernism.

The re-appreciation of PoMo has been growing for a number of years, manifested lately in a critical re-appraisal of the long-despised Art of the Americas building at LACMA, unabashed rip-offs of Ettore Sottsass’ Bacterium, and in newly colorful, adhoc creations by emerging designers in Los Angeles drawn more to the work of Peter Shire (shown left, Shire’s Big Sur Sofa, 1982) than Charles and Ray Eames. 

225px-Sony_Building_by_David_Shankbone_cropIronically, given the degree to which Postmodernism was appropriated by developers, its fledgling years are now remembered warmly as anti-capitalist.

Maura Lucking has been tracking this fascinating revival, finding that it’s not only the aesthetic but also the attitude of the 70s and 80s-era rebels that attracts emerging designers like Matthew Sullivan of Al Que Quiere (AQQ), not to mention their love of arcane literary theory. Matthew Sullivan is profiled here by Maura and featured on this DnA podcast.

And tell us what you think about the revival of Postmodernism. Thumbs up or down?

During a recent exhibition of his fantastical furniture line, AQQ Design, artist and furniture designer Matthew Sullivan (his display at a recent KCRW/Helms design event shown left) fielded some unusual questions from visitors. “Are these actually meant as chairs?” to “Are you doing retro postmodernism?”

AQQ display at Helms BakeryAnd one comment, which he wasn’t sure was serious: “Oh, I’m so glad that Charles Moore look is coming back,” Charles Moore being the ideological center of West Coast postmodernism, the designer of colorful historical pastiches like the Piazza d’Italia, and an early advocate for the work of LA architects like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne.

But Sullivan has no problem with the sometimes-polarizing nature of his designs.  That comes with the territory when you move to Los Angeles—a city that puts its mid-century heritage above all else—and begin a neo-postmodern furniture line fabricating chairs and tables in a panoply of neon colors and Greco-Roman forms.

AQQ’s oversized felted armchairs and fluted marble tables (VALIS table shown right) are reminiscent of avant-garde Italian design, like 1980s design-world darlings the Memphis Group (below left, Ettore Sottsass’ Biedermeier Sofa, 1982) and the architectural design of American eclectics Robert Venturi, Stanley Tigerman and, yes, Charles Moore.

AQQDesign_VALISThis slightly off-center approach is reflected in the firm’s name.  AQQ is short for the Latin phrase Al Que Queire – “for he who wants it.” However, Sullivan is quick to point out that what he is doing has roots in California—both in design via our own Memphis-member, the widely adored Echo Park ceramicist, sculptor and furniture-maker Peter Shire, and West Coast culture more broadly in the alternative utopias of the 1970s counterculture—mind-expanding trips to Joshua Tree and communal living experiments like the Source Family included.

Many of the same things brought Sullivan to Los Angeles from New York about five years ago: the promises of expansive studio space, relatively undisturbed creative freedom, and peyote cactus.  After art school, he worked as a photography dealer, a textile designer, apprenticed as an interior decorator, and even worked for a while styling the shop windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.  Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, making a living off of his extensive knowledge and love of European mid-century design as a rare furniture dealer. And all those eclectic professions wound up in his current furniture line, in one way or another.

Sullivan seems indicative of a growing trend among young designers who, tired of both the earnest return-to-craft ethos of recent years and the relative anonymity of digital work, are most interested in a conceptual practice – one driven by ideas and content more than function or materials. This is perhaps best reflected, in Sullivan’s case, by the manifesto that acts as the designer’s “info” page on his portfolio website.  Where you would typically expect to find an email address and maybe a short bio or resume, Sullivan has outlined an ambitious eight-point mission for exactly what his practice aims to do.

bon mots like: “AQQ believes it is nice when comfort and content meet,” and “AQQ knows there are endless things to enjoy and partake in.” It also outlines where Sullivan’s practice stands, however, in critical distance from what he sees as traditional capital-“D”-design, explaining that it views improvement and function as a relative (and often futile) undertaking, and arguing that designers need to be as aware of the cultural meanings and implications of their objects as their physical comfort.

Something in this approach has struck a chord; at a recent design fair, a stranger approached Sullivan with a book he had printed and bound of the designer’s writings.  He had lifted them straight from the AQQ website, and reproduced them in a pocket-sized reader complete with the line’s logo and color scheme.  It was a surreal moment for the designer. These polemical texts are a big part of what Sullivan means when he talks about situating designed objects in the larger world and responding to their cultural implications.

AQQDesign_TEMPLEOne of his most compelling (and beautiful) designs is a simple hard back oak chair. Like other famously uncomfortable chairs before it (the Rietveld Zig Zag chair, or Donald Judd’s Chair with Shelf, for example), the TEMPLE chair (right) doesn’t look like one you would want to spend any sustained amount of time in.  But Sullivan would argue we need to question our assumption that chairs are only meant for sitting in, anyway. Its fluted legs and softly scalloped back are designed to complement the other objects in the collection, as well, all while in conversation with Italian design and art deco ornament and Mesopotamian ziggurats, among its many far-reaching references. It features a kind of intellectual curiosity rarely found in contemporary design practice.

In the designer’s own words: “We should constantly strain our necks, and hearing, to eavesdrop on that which is unstable and strike when the mystical synapse, to that which is non-human, opens. Sometimes the expression of this can be a chair.”

Listen to Maura and Matthew talk about his work and the revival of interest in Postmodernism on this podcast: