Aunt Twackie’s Bazaar

Andy Beckett

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in