Early on in this book there is a photograph of the British architect Peter Cook’s living-room ‘circa 1970’. Cook is now Sir Peter, co-designer of the rather bland main stadium for the 2012 London Olympics. But he was a young adventurer back then, a founder of the archetypal 1960s and 1970s avant-garde architects’ collective Archigram, which came up with never built but influential schemes for futuristic ‘walking’ buildings and ‘plug-in’ cities. His 1970 living-room is stacked with then state-of-the-art silvery gadgets: a TV, a turntable, a film projector, hi-fi amplifiers and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Otherwise, the room is sparsely arranged, the only furniture a single table, stool and chair, each spindly and metallic; the only decoration some records and magazines propped up against the walls with their covers carefully showing. ‘First Flag on the Moon’, one magazine announces; ‘Stones in the Park’ another says. In 2010, this space-age bachelor pad set-up looks frail and old-fashioned – a museum piece, rather than a scene from recent cultural history. Parts of the 1970s are beginning to seem as remote as the 1950s.
Two pages later, there is another photograph, this time of a model wearing designer sunglasses in the early 1970s. Their frames are thick and jarringly white, their lenses huge and half-glamorous, half-geeky. Just down the road from where I am writing this, in Dalston in East London, according to some authorities currently the capital’s coolest suburb, these are exactly the sort of glasses style-conscious people are wearing. Parts of the 1970s are very much with us.
More than 30 years on, 1970s style and design still divides and confuses. It can seem antiquated or contemporary, extravagant or impoverished, embarrassing or enviable. It is reviled, and it is revived. It is celebrated and written off. This unresolved quarrel about 1970s culture – running in parallel with, and sometimes intersecting with, the equally unresolved quarrel about 1970s politics – has been one of the main ways Britons have chewed over their postwar history. In 1988, the cultural historian Jon Savage, who had spent the 1970s as a young rock journalist writing doomy but excited pieces about punk and urban decay, published a cover feature about the decade for the style magazine the Face. It was headlined ‘The Decade that Taste Forgot’. The 1970s, Savage wrote, had been ‘all content and no style’. Yet ten years earlier Angela Carter had concluded the opposite: the 1970s, she wrote in the Sunday Times, were an age ‘to do with pure style, with doing yourself up … This could only have happened … when certain rules and conventions of appearance [were] relaxed.’
This book sides emphatically with Carter. The 1970s, Lutyens and Hislop declare in their introduction, saw ‘an explosion of new visual languages’. In architecture and design, ‘conventional forms were challenged … In fashion, eclecticism and individuality ruled.’ The authors have no interest in the drab side of 1970s culture, the muddy denim and lank hair, the stained concrete and dumpy cars – the side of the decade usually emphasised by British writers. Instead they lay out a glossy international panorama, taking in London, New York, Paris, Milan and San Francisco, featuring boutiques and nightclubs and fashionable homes, and upwardly mobile stars such as Bryan Ferry and Liza Minnelli and Ossie Clark. The London clothes shop Biba gets more entries in the index than anything else.
How far the trends portrayed spread beyond the metropolis is rarely clear. A single photograph of a glamorous young Liverpool shop-owner called Maureen Bampton, wearing stack heels and extravagant florals, at work in Aunt Twackie’s Bazaar in the early 1970s, suggests a small network of style obsessives outside London. It isn’t a milieu Lutyens and Hislop explore. Yet even in the capital, they uncover a lost world. There is a double-page spread on the ‘fifth-floor, 10,000 square-foot Rainbow Room’ in Biba’s flagship branch in Kensington, with its ‘500-seat restaurant and stage’. A photo shows acres of gleaming cutlery, potted palms between the tables, and a distant white grand piano, all beneath a technicolour ceiling lit up like a giant jukebox. ‘Its parties were legendary,’ Lutyens and Hislop continue, ‘particularly its closing-down knees-up in 1975. “People dined on lobster and champagne and the guests were shoved into the lifts completely rat-arsed at ten a.m. in the morning,” recalls fashion designer Antony Price. “It was the best party ever.”’
This was the year the British inflation rate reached 26.9 per cent; the year in which many observers felt that a postwar economic decline had become a freefall. The book often omits or skates over such details. Biba’s closure is mentioned almost in passing – the authors are much more interested in the party. A later section on the cultural fertility of New York in the 1970s says nothing about the city’s simultaneous notoriety for muggings and arson and municipal bankruptcy. Yet the determinedly upbeat tone also makes a counter-intuitive and shrewd point. Whatever the economic troubles of the decade – and these were much less relentless than the standard accounts suggest, with the period of real crisis lasting only from 1974 to 1976 – the defining characteristic of much of its cultural and consumer life was not scarcity but overabundance. Lutyens and Hislop are not the first to notice this. In 1986, the historian Robert Hewison called his fine study of British culture between 1960 and 1975 Too Much. In Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party, the claustrophobic lounge, crammed with 1970s products (like a cruder suburban version of Peter Cook’s showy living-room) is as much the villain as the overbearing hostess herself. If the 1970s hadn’t been a time of plenty or excess for most people in the West, they wouldn’t have left subsequent generations so much stuff to snigger at.
Lutyens and Hislop bring order to the decade’s seemingly chaotic visual culture by identifying four main trends. The most important is that slippery late 20th-century phenomenon, postmodernism. By 1970, they argue, modernism had run out of steam. Its emphasis on clean lines and decorative spareness and perpetual artistic ‘progress’, which had been hugely influential since the 1930s, no longer seemed exciting or liberating. ‘Less is a bore,’ the pioneering postmodern architect Robert Venturi wrote in 1966, turning Mies van der Rohe’s modernist commandment against itself. The more disorderly, more fragmented feel of life in rich countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the appetite for swirls and sensory overload unleashed by psychedelics; the more diverse and less deferential habits of consumers: all these were creating a world to which postmodern design seemed better suited, with its clashing colours, populist references to the past, and fast changing, disposable forms.
In 1970, a gang of entrepreneurial trendies of the sort London specialises in opened a shop on Kensington Church Street called Mr Freedom. Like Biba, Mr Freedom sold clothes, but its pick’n’mix aesthetic was new, drawing on comic strips, 1960s Pop Art, 1950s rocker styles, 1930s Art Deco and a dizzying array of other influences. The clothes still startle: a cosy yellow tank top with the word HELLFIRE written across it in huge letters, neat zip-up jumpers in warring primary colours, satiny jackets covered with Dan Dare space rockets. The pictures in this book vividly convey the appeal of the cartoonish postmodernism that made Mr Freedom commercially viable and internationally influential for much of the 1970s. Lutyens and Hislop also undermine the common notion that the decade’s extravagant styles were adopted unknowingly by their producers and consumers. During the 1970s irony and self-consciousness began for the first time significantly to shape the behaviour of both groups.
In 1971 … even Vogue asked if bad taste was a bad thing. The following year, magazine-of-the-moment Nova … coaxed readers to ‘let your bad taste out for an airing.’ A fascination with kitsch … massively influenced avant-garde fashion and interiors … Andrew Logan’s studio-cum-home in Hackney, London … featured a wardrobe fronted by Astroturf, a mannequin torso as a fountain … a plaster Alsatian.
A heightened interest in the look of things and in what that meant was also evident in academia. Roland Barthes’s Mythologies was belatedly translated into English in 1972; by the end of the decade, British cultural studies was producing influential analyses of the everyday, including Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), a close reading of the street-corner peacocking of youth tribes such as punks and skinheads. The word ‘retro’ was coined in the 1970s, according to Lutyens and Hislop. There was an unprecedented flood of aesthetic revivals: Art Deco, Weimar, Jazz Age, old Hollywood, teddy boy, Belle Epoque. These had some unlikely enthusiasts. You might think of Rod Stewart as a rasping, boozy rock star with a football fixation, but in these pages he is also revealed, deliciously, as an ‘Art Nouveau and Deco aficionado’. His album Every Picture Tells a Story (1971) ‘bore a Deco sunburst pattern, while his two homes brimmed with Tiffany-style chairs, cane peacock chairs, Mucha posters and Victorian taxidermy’.
A museum curator’s mentality lurked even in punk. At the time and since, punk has been presented as the moment in 1970s popular culture when British and American street fashion and rock music transformed themselves almost overnight. In fact, many of the 1976 and 1977 punk bands, unruly and spontaneous on the surface, were carefully put together collages of past youth styles. They dressed in teddy boy drape jackets and brothel creepers, ripped jeans, as worn by New York rent boys and artists since the early 1970s, tight suit jackets as worn by British mods in the 1960s. One reason for this breadth of sartorial reference was simply that some of punk’s key figures had been trying to make it for a long time, and had been members of a succession of youth tribes themselves. There is a telling photo here of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in 1971, posing in their first shop, young and hungry-looking and dressed for attention. But it would be another five years before they became famous, for stage-managing the rise of the Sex Pistols. In the British 1970s, even in the most fashionable circles, change could be painfully slow.
An impressive array of 1970s tastemakers gave interviews for the book, from hairdressers to jewellery designers to the creator of the trippy BBC children’s television cartoon Crystal Tipps and Alistair (1972), which took advantage of the arrival of colour TV to feature giant butterflies and a little girl with a pink afro. Should the flamboyance and big-city one-upmanship of all these hipsters get a bit relentless, relief comes with the introduction of the authors’ last big 1970s trend after postmodernism, the retro boom and the rise of the sartorial avant-garde: the back-to-the-land movement.
Modern environmentalism began in the 1960s, and by the 1970s was influencing many architects and designers. Would-be green communes sprouted like low-tech moon colonies across the American deserts. Arcosanti in Arizona was one of the most ambitious, a whole new town constructed using as few materials and as little energy and land as possible. Its jumble of slabs and arches – like the Sydney Opera House taken to pieces and strewn across the desert – proved surprisingly enduring. In the mid-1990s, I stopped by to take a look. Many buildings were still unfinished and partly open to the elements, but the town was properly, unselfconsciously inhabited, and the smooth wall sections looked good in the hot afternoon light. There was also an extensive selection of Arcosanti merchandise.
The 1970s, particularly after the 1973 oil crisis, also saw the first vogue for domestic solar panels and wind turbines. A 1976 book on American eco-houses was called Design For a Limited Planet. Looking at the homes shown here, with their natural light and recycled materials and proud dressed-down owners, you might almost be flicking through a modern property supplement. The subsequent dip in interest in green architecture in the 1980s and 1990s was a massive lost opportunity. Other aspects of the 1970s back-to-nature boom seem less impressive now. Laura Ashley commuted by private jet while selling rural simplicity on a hundred British high streets. Converted Cotswold barns became desirable as second homes for wealthy Londoners, all peasant-chic exposed beams and bare walls. In 1971 the Crafts Council was set up in London to promote the artisanal over the mass-produced, but by the late 1970s the rustic was threatening to become just another mass-produced style: ‘It was hard to find a toaster that didn’t have a dormouse motif stamped on it,’ Lutyens and Hislop write.
The authors miss a trick by saying little about the advertising industry, which increasingly helped create an appetite for new design styles. In 1973, before his success in Hollywood, Ridley Scott directed his famous television commercial for Hovis, featuring a boy delivering bread by bicycle up a steep, cobbled street of chocolate box cottages – perhaps the most expert encapsulation and commodification of the era’s rural yearnings. Scott was a typical product of 1970s London adland: precocious, male and internationally ambitious. Despite Britain’s economic problems, the advertising industry established itself as the most important image factory in the world after Hollywood itself.
In many ways, the visual culture of the 1970s was ahead of the political curve. In politics, even at the end of the decade, it was still quite possible to believe that there was a future for the left, for collectivism and the postwar consensus: the election of François Mitterrand as French president on a left-wing manifesto in 1981, and Margaret Thatcher’s nearly fatal struggles as prime minister between 1979 and 1982, suggested that the mid-1970s revival of the right in the West was far from secure. But if you followed style and design during the 1970s, there were hints from early in the decade of a profound social shift towards consumerism and individualism. There was the new fashion for sportswear, explicitly marketed as self-improving: ‘Sports clothes are built for … winning,’ the fashion writers Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy announced. ‘Who can’t use a little injection of that in everyday life?’ There was the attention-seeking and aspiration behind the decade-long craze for extravagant dressing up: ‘What my generation learned from Bowie was the idea of rotating one’s own image,’ the graphic designer Peter Saville told the authors, sounding a little like a careers adviser. ‘We could engineer our own identity … We were interested in how things looked, much more so than the 1960s generation. We can even call the 1970s an era of exceedingly superficial values, and very proto-1980s.’
Saville is partly right. It is a shock to see in these pages that so much of the 1980s landscape – the gimmicky postmodern buildings, the baggy designer suits, the hard-edged furniture – was already present in the 1970s. But he goes too far. Rich countries in the 1970s were also full of young people – feminists, gay rights campaigners, hippies setting up free festivals – whose ambitions were less materialistic. It’s a shame that Lutyens and Hislop didn’t include the snappy graphics of the Rock against Racism campaign in their definition of ‘style and design’, which at times seems too commercial and depoliticised. Yet in capturing the visual noise of the decade, the hectic turnover and profusion of competing styles, they convey an appropriate sense of turbulence. In the 1970s, more people than usual were searching for an ideology or an aesthetic which would transform the world.