Designing the Decades

Saturday, March 22, 2003 by

Like its little brother the ’80s, the 1970′s has received a rather rough press. Crap fashion, crap music the critics carp. Well, bollocks to that. The ’70s were bloody brilliant. I know. I was there. How can anyone frown upon Simon shirts or Boney M? How dare anyone look down their nose at those cheesecloth shirts my mum used to make me wear, the ones that ripped my wee nipples to shreds – it’s no wonder the burn the bra movement lost its momentum as cheesecloth became chic. No, the ’70s were more than alright. They were righteous. So this “retrospective trawl” (copyright every listings mag in town) through the design icons of the designated decade is a wonderful trip down memory lane for a child of the ’70s, such as myself.

Patently, the ’60s were always going cast a shadow over the decade that succeeded them. The era of tune in, turn on, drop out and the bit at the end of that sentence that I can never remember (but no-one else cares to, either) was always going to have a phenomenal influence on generations to come. But, design wise, the ’70s weren’t exactly shabby, I’ll have you know. Choppers, flares, beige, Jacuzzis, punk – man alive, flares apart, that little list rocks with unabashed nostalgic joy. And so the programme predictably re-examined these, and other, timeless (and some not so timeless) joys.

It has been written countless times that the ’70s aspired to mediocrity and succeeded with consummate ease. But can a decade that gave us the music centre and the pocket calculator truly be considered mediocre? Yes and no is the obvious but honest answer, I suppose. There are some (older than I) who reviled that decade when they inhabited it and still clearly do. As a five and a half year old as the ’60s ended, and a spotty, irksome, 15 year old as the ’80s galloped into view, I adored the 1970′s. For me, they were 10 years of growing from child to adolescent, 10 years of constant amusement, bafflement and amazement. How could I not love the ’70s?

Gazing wistfully back as this show jolted myriad memories, it was clear that this was a decade of contrasts. From the frumpy floral world of Laura Ashley to the bondage trousers of Vivienne Westwood, from pine kitchens to Trellick Tower, it was a confusing time, and one in which designers took every opportunity to vent their spleen. Arguably, perhaps only Concorde can claim to be a true style icon (despite being designed in the ’50s) that has remained so, but other objects deserve to be remembered.

The Chopper. Did you have one? Classic design and still an object of much debate and reverence amongst thirtysomethings. Personally, I was disappointed that the show failed to recall the Holy Triumvirate of Chopper, Chipper and Tomahawk – a holy trinity for children of the ’70s. The Chipper was always a girls’ bike. Very feminine. The Tomahawk was just a smaller version of the Chopper but, ridden correctly, was infinitely superior. Better handling, better brakes and without the whole junior version of penis envy that the Chopper conveyed. No prizes for guessing what I had. A tartan scarf tied to each handlebar and as many lollipop sticks that your spokes could handle and you were away. Warriors, come out to play! No the Chopper was, and as this show proved QED, still is, essentially overrated. Sure it had more of an impact than the feeble Grifter ever did but it relied on its wee cousin to underline its utilitarian beauty way too much.

The other icons came and went with a lovely sense of fluidity. Jacuzzis, Range Rovers, Laura Ashley, the digital watch, pocket calculator, Trellick Tower, Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre, Jamie Reid’s Pistols’ album cover and – unusually for a show like this – the contributions from the talking heads were (almost always) wistful, entertaining and evocative. Molly Parkin, in particular, proving to be a worthwhile participant. I also like the naïveté of Charles Hall, water bed pioneer, who expected his invention to become a serious piece of furniture. And then named his company Wet Dream. Quality.

For me though there were several glaring omissions. When I look back upon that decade, the design classics that I recall with fondness include Doc Martens (how many “holers” were yours?), the age of Mamba, Bamba and Samba, Bukta and Admiral football strips, the rise of the quarter villa, the joy of Pong and Butterscotch Angel Delight. True design icons – especially the Spurs home strip for the ’78/’79 season as worn by Ardilles, Villa, Hoddle and Terry Yorath. And how could you produce a show like this and not do the Feather Cut? Criminal.

But this critic’s carps aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. Whilst I may quibble with some of the inclusions (Laura Ashley never made it Glasgow for another decade or so!) and whinge about that which had been excluded, this is a lovely stroll down memory lane to the decade that taste didn’t forget but rather chose not to hang about with that much. An hour is far too short for such a broad subject matter, perhaps 90 minutes would be more deserving and allow greater inclusivity. Any excuse for another half-hour of the glorious voice of Penelope Keith and a longer Good Life clip.


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