words William Wiles
Kitsch is a controversial subject. “Sometimes it upsets people,” says British designer Nicola Malkin. For decades, the word has been loaded with negativity. It gets used to say many things, rarely positive: ugly, cheap, tacky, chintzy, ostentatious, unserious, unsophisticated, whimsical, twee… bad.
“Hideous! Hahaha!” says Malkin, a jewellery designer who revels in exploring kitsch, describing what most people think when they hear the word. But something astonishing has happened: kitsch, a pariah among styles, has become an influential cultural force in contemporary design.
Which raises a problem. Kitsch is everywhere, with designers turning out jokey ceramic figurines, lavish floral patterns, objets d’art and gilt-encrusted tea sets. But some designers are incredibly reluctant to talk about it. British ceramicist Barnaby Barford’s work, for instance, is a paragon of the new kitsch. Barford takes ceramic figurines – cute animals, decorative plates, elegant figures in period dress – and rearranges them in subversive ways that suggest debauchery and violence. It’s witty and original, and Barford was initially happy to discuss it. But after consulting with his gallery, he abruptly pulled out, apparently troubled by the idea. Other designers expressed similar reservations, which is unfortunate. The surreal, satirical tableaux Barford produces are a strong argument for the sophistication and articulacy of kitsch. Yes, the style can carry with it a lot of cultural baggage, but that sprawling hinterland of associations is now being tapped, be it in Barford’s wit, Atelier van Lieshout’s black humour, Jaime Hayon’s fantasias, Maxim Velcovsky’s cultural nostalgia, Kate McBride’s instant heritage, Nicola Malkin’s bling gigantism or Marcel Wanders’ showmanship. Furthermore, traditionally “kitsch” manufacturers such as Lladró and Swarovski are emerging as major patrons of new design.
“People have a hard time understanding kitsch,” says Jaime Hayon, currently creative director of Spanish ceramics company Lladró. “And I think a lot of people will feel like you’re damaging them by saying ‘ah, that’s so kitsch’.” Lladró hired Hayon last year to reinvigorate its highly kitsch collection. There’s no doubting the craftsmanship and skill in the company’s output, but the subject matter, however beautifully rendered, is sentimental in the extreme – wistful flower girls, sad clowns, puppies, mermaids. Change the subject matter, however, and Lladró wouldn’t be Lladró. There is, after all, a big market for the company’s work, and it wanted a refresher, not a change of profession.
Hayon actually changed very little. “When you get one of these figurines and you neutralise it, you make it all white, you see the sculptural part of it,” he says. “The sculptural part of it doesn’t damage anybody in the eyes. But I think that the colour might damage. It’s much more difficult to accept.” The Re:Deco range that Hayon produced in this way retains Lladró’s high standards of craftsmanship and subject matter, but the look was suddenly opened to a far broader range of people, who might not have previously made room on their mantel for a porcelain ballerina.
The link between kitsch and craft is an important part of how it came to be excoriated so thoroughly, and also why its fortunes are now reviving. Kitsch was a word used by art dealers in 19th-century Germany to describe cheap, crowd-pleasing pieces of work. With the rise of manufacturing, objects were democratised – everyone could afford reproductions of things they liked. But inevitably, cheap mass-produced reproductions of decorative art are low-quality. Popular taste – with its class implications – became inextricably linked with shoddiness, unlike modernism, which was created for mass production. This association – popular=kitsch=bad – spread retroactively to cover almost all craft and popular decorative taste. “Craft went hand-in-hand with kitsch – such a horrible word to associate with your work,” says Alistair McAuley, co-founder of Glasgow studio Timorous Beasties, which champions figurative themes in its wallpaper and fabrics. “If you were presented as a craftsman, you were making mittens or polishing stones or wrapping bits of heather up, all that sort of thing.”
For years, then, kitsch was disregarded in “serious” design outside occasional and limited bursts of fashionable irony and camp. In the art world, however, its fortunes shifted with the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s and, in the 1980s, the excess and pomp of the work of American artist Jeff Koons. Koons is something of a patron saint of the new kitsch, with several designers citing him as an influence. But while the egotistic screw-good-taste bombast of Koons was fine for the art world of the Eighties and Nineties, in interiors and design “good taste” was associated with simplicity and asceticism.
Dutch designer Marcel Wanders is a passionate advocate of the value of kitsch over mass-produced functional minimalism, and says that designers are wrong to disregard its widespread popularity. “There is a reason why it’s called kitsch – kitsch is often something that so many people love so much that they start to replicate and replicate the idea, making it very cheap and affordable,” he says. “So you end up having things that a lot of people like, and the technologies behind them have been so well developed that they are very cheap. I think it’s a way we can connect in a very direct way to the people.”
With the rediscovery of craft, functionalism lost its appeal, and the objet d’art has risen again. “You can see a lot of designs today, coming from quite modern designers, that are really quite non-functional,” says Hayon. “So the designer has become a little artist.” Czech designer Maxim Velcovsky agrees. Like Hayon, he’s a young designer now exploring relationships with manufacturers of more traditional fare, which he updates, for instance adding a digital readout to an ornamental carriage clock, or turning a romantic animal statuette into a moneybox, so that it must be smashed at some stage. “I think design is becoming again more like the arts, trying to employ art things in 3D objects,” Velcovsky says. “The designers were the ones who had to make the functional pieces of tableware. It’s absurd really because we are in the same context and I think we can reflect civilisation as well as emotion.”
The rise of the new kitsch is in many ways a backlash against modernism, minimalism and functionalism. Timorous Beasties was in the vanguard here, adopting a strongly decorative style right at the start of its career, and sticking with it throughout minimalism’s hegemony in the Nineties. “A design guru of our latter student years would say at our lectures that the best form of interior design was when you walked into a room and you didn’t notice anything,” says McAuley. “And that set us in an off-key manner, kind of, ‘what the fuck are we doing this for?’ We’ve got this guru saying ‘this is the best’, when you don’t notice anything!” British designer Kate McBride, who designs astonishingly ostentatious and deliberately imperfect tea services and ornaments, says the best results come from striking a contrast: “Whenever you see these beautiful modern homes, fantastic designs, my instinct always is to put something very strong there, somewhere inappropriate, and that’s a very kind of kitsch way of looking at it – just to break up the line, just to give the eye a bit of a jar.”
Wanders is also eloquent on the need to get beyond functionality. His exhibit at Milan 2007 featured giant, decorated plastic bells and simple little hand-moulded sculptures. “Should [designers] make the things that people need because otherwise their life fails, or should we design the things that people love, to make their life beautiful?” says Wanders. “Functionality is so over-valued in design, and we’ve kept design very small in that way. Functionality is the sheer minimum. If your house burns down, what do you take? The cat in the window that you got from your mother, or the chair you have?”
The return of kitsch is bringing a refreshing burst of creativity and originality. But the old, negative connotations of the word persist. For many designers, the entire notion is shunned like something radioactive, even as its influence spreads. “There’s people who will never accept kitsch-ness, and there’s people who will,” Hayon says. “But believe me – it is much more addictive to be loving kitsch than it is to be loving minimalism.” Hayon’s solution to kitsch’s image problem is to consciously rebrand it. “Magazines like yours should find new names. Like supersonic kitsch! Something, like, weird! It has to be a new name.”
Wanders, however, feels that it is not the word that needs to change, but the attitudes behind it. “It’s important to understand that if we use the word kitsch, within the intention it has today, it means that you don’t respect the fact that someone else could have a different opinion that is more primitive, personal and direct than yours,” he says. “Yours is better than theirs, and probably you’re not even listening to them. I think we don’t have to change the name, let’s forget about the name. Let’s start with the human consideration behind it, disrespect for people with different opinions. There’s a world of people out there and we do nothing for them. That’s a job right there – to make their lives fabulous.”