There is a particular type of contemporary design that I deeply hate but for which there is no terminology. About six years ago, out of frustration, I came up with “contempo.” It is a deliberately cheesy term for a cheesy aesthetic, an aesthetic of dumbed-down, cutesy faux-modernism. The made-up word “contempo” somehow had the correct sound—the idiotic, faux-Italian, marketing-ish, self-conscious jauntiness that this style cried out for. It seemed the sort of term condo decorators might use on a target audience that believe it wants edgy, urban, modern design, but that really wants softened, comforting, domesticated objects faintly reminiscent of children’s toys, or of an earlier, mustier era.
You know contempo when you see it. It often has a forced, strained expressivity or an almost wacky attempt at playfulness. Look at me! Look how creative and quirky and snaky I am!
Contempo makes no attempt to be true to materials or function. Nor does it abide by modernism’s ethic of minimalism and simplicity. It’s brushed nickel aping stainless steel, it’s Edwardian shapes but made from faux-industrial materials, and above all it’s elaborate and pointless curves instead of straight lines.
IKEA, which sometimes gets design right, does now produce a lot of contempo. Brushed nickel/plastic triffid fixtures and curved tracklights are the worst type of contempo design.
Why does contempo involve all those saucy, expressive curves? As my friend Michael put it, “why can’t we be the curve?” Is all this snakiness meant to make us feel more alive? Or is it in fact busy doing all our slinkiness for us? Did it ever consider that we might want some straight, restrained edges to be slinky in contrast to? Is it because people are desperate to make their objects offset the experience of living in urban boxes by aping the fluidity of the natural environment? The thing is, if you want to make environments more sensual and human, why not just add a few soft, high-quality handmade textiles with some integrity, rather than this loopiness that’s doomed to failure?
Manufacturing-wise, it is more difficult to make curves than straight lines (though with algorithmic-based architectural software and with 3D printing this could, sadly, change. Look out.). But of course curves are only one of the ways contempo design trumpets that it’s trying too hard.
It’s generally accepted in cultural theory that aesthetics are not an autonomous realm separate from other pieces of the social puzzle. Aesthetics and culture are not subordinate to “more significant” components like economics and social relations, but are in fact an important player in the social enactment of our dominant patterns of thought (philosophy, politics, ideology). If you believe that, then you have to believe that all this “contempo” stuff has a meaning. So what is that meaning? Furthermore, why does this stuff always have a faintly creepy aspect? In its attempt at liveliness, why does it seem to have something deathly about it? Is that a paradox or does it only look like one? Is it because this stuff pretends to be organic and lifelike but is actually crassly commercial? Is it because these weak attempts to imbue commodities with “life”—the sense of life that we are slowly losing via the process of commodification—are inherently doomed?
Alessi (most of it) is contempo. Click the link for an extended discussion of some possible meanings behind the Alessi aesthetic. If Alessi products are “playful,” why do they all have a deathly, zombie sort of quality? Even Alessi knows, on some level, that its playfulness is married to death, to the inanimate or to zombies and robots. See for example its anthropomorphized human-shaped tools that often have deathly X’s for eyes, such as its suicide corpse bath plug.
Below, the “Bookend” building by Paul Merrick of Merrick Architecture in Vancouver’s Olympic Village (or “Millennium Water” condo complex). It’s totally contempo. But then contempo and condos do, so often, go hand in hand.
Condos are, generally speaking, the Ur example of contempo.
Above: The contempo Bookend Building. Below: great 1970s townhouses in Vancouver’s False Creek: the doors’ geometric pill-shapes are not an attempt at wackiness, and the effect is not contempo. See how fantastic art looks in the windows of the townhouses below? Compare to the above. The difference is obvious.
Addendum: Thanks to reader Laura Cochrane of Make Magazine for pointing out the building below, which I want to rename “Contempo General Hospital.” Because when you’re rushing to Emergency, you will appreciate the feeling that an inappropriately jaunty, heavy curved roof is going to collapse on its bad, skinny circular columns and fall on you. From this Youtube video at 1:18: