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In the best possible taste

In 1968, aged 28, I wrote the first English book on art deco of the 1920s and 30s.

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

70s Style and Design Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop

Thames & Hudson, pp.224, 24.95

In 1968, aged 28, I wrote the first English book on art deco of the 1920s and 30s. Some people who had lived through that entre deux guerres period — in particular, the interior decorator Martin Battersby, who was girding his scrawny loins to write about it but was pipped at the post — resented my poaching on what they felt was their preserve. Just over 40 years on, I suppose I could feel the same way about this book on the 1970s by young art historians; but I don’t. They have given me insights into that fabled decade which escaped me as it swanned and swaggered by.

When I began writing about the Twenties and Thirties, I thought: why couldn’t I have lived through those fascinating times, when modernism was busting out all over — charlestons, skyscrapers, Bugatti sports cars, cocktails and laughter, the pristine Strand Palace Hotel, Fred and Ginger at the movies? But then I suddenly realised that I was living through a period just as captivating and enviable: the Beatles; the Twist; Biba; mini-skirts and flares; Beyond the Fringe; Not Only But Also; the space race; Pop art with at least two indisputable masters, Warhol and Hockney; kaftans and joss-sticks in boutiques; the human artworks of Punk in the Kings Road, Chelsea, Mohicaned and safety-pinned.

At the time, I must admit, I thought of the Seventies as not much more than a hangover from the Sixties — the mixture as before. But Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop, with their historical perspective, have shown me I was wrong. There was a definite caesura between the 1920s and 1930s — the Crash of 1929. The Twenties were a fizz-and-bubble reaction against the horrors of the first world war, while the Thirties had as their backdrop the Depression, hunger marches and the rise of the dictators in Germany, Italy and Spain (Oswald Mosley aping them in England).

Similarly, I can now see 1969 as a natural caesura between the Sixties and Seventies, with the Beatles’ last performance together on a roof in Savile Row; man’s landing on the moon; the publication of David Bailey’s pantheon-book Goodbye Baby and Amen; and the supervening of harder times in the Seventies with the three-day week. The Seventies were not just leftovers from the Sixties.

Lutyens’ and Hislop’s work is essentially a sumptuous picture book with extended captions; and that was probably the best way to treat the Seventies, letting them speak for themselves — or rather, shout, scream and screech for themselves.

Dominic Lutyens (a great-great-nephew of the architect) came to interview me for the book because — to adapt Virgil — of those times pars parva fui. He told me that he and Hislop hoped their book would give the lie to the cliché reputation of the Seventies as ‘the decade that taste forgot’. I’m sorry, but the book wonderfully, triumphantly confirms the cliché. It is a Kitschfest of the highest order.

The Seventies were the first time, since Gustav Pazaurek’s book Der Kitsch and his Museum of Bad Taste in Stuttgart, in the early 20th century, that kitsch was treated as not just a valid art form, but a desirable one — in Gillo Dorfles’ book on the subject, John Waters’ films and a luscious Roxy Music record sleeve. As the authors point out, affecting the whole period was a long overdue backlash against ‘the clean functionality of modernism’; decoration made a comeback. The section headings tell their own story: ‘Less is a bore’; ‘Plundering the past’ (that included the deco revival); ‘Mondo Trasho’. It was the age of glam rock, lava lamps and platform shoes. (A cartoon showed a girl teetering on a dizzying pair of platforms, threatening: ‘One step nearer, and I jump!’) And it was the last decade before Aids was identified: an exodus from the closet was accompanied by — though not always linked to — a favouring of androgyny. (‘Boys like flowers too’ runs one heading).

Nostalgia is fast catching up with its own tail. This witty, perceptive and luxuriously designed book can only hasten that trend, reviving revivals.

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