“Contempo” – my term for the insincere faux-modern design style infecting our lives

There is a particular type of contemporary design that I deeply despise but for which there is no terminology. About six years ago, out of frustration, I started calling it “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.

South False Creek low rises, Vancouver

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:

8 comments on "“Contempo” – my term for the insincere faux-modern design style infecting our lives"

  1. A *lot* of Italian design is like this. Low, middle and “hi” end Italian housewares have this contempo vibe — pointless curves, pointless anthropomorphism, glossy primary colors, huge knobby handles. I often wonder if it’s a reaction to the good design in the country that is hard to shift — you really can’t knock down the building and people keep their homes and their furniture forever, so some designers perhaps rebelled by creating fugly stuff for the kitchen and so forth. I love the term, though, and will do my part by spreading it.

  2. A friend and I came up with contempo a while back as well. Depending how much we hated it, it became contempt-orary. This is a pet peeve of mine and a lot of other designers and architects as well.
    I think it is a development of a consumer based design process where objects and buildings are created to “appeal” to the largest number of people. Too boxy, put a curve on it, too monolithic, break it up into smaller parts and use a lot of different materials. It subjugates the design to a rapid process of speed modification to appeal to the broadest range of people (allegedly) and negates the critical power of design thinking which is time consuming and might confuse the buyer.
    It is part of believing consumers are the only arbiter of design success and only your box office ($) matters, cynical to an extreme.

    1. @Doug I’m not surprised others have come up with the same word. “Contempo” is such a loathsome word, it perfectly fits this loathsome design shipwreck. Also I love (and will adopt) your “contempt-orary.” I agree on the lowest-common-denominator commercialism of this style, but my real question is *why* the majority of buyers actually like this stuff? I’m not sure the answer is obvious. Anyway, explanation or no, it’s clearly some sort of unholy collision between commercial economics and buyer psychology. But it’s like picking a scab; I can’t leave it alone.

      And why does the attempt to make things appear more “friendly” almost always fail now?

  3. Thank you for putting a name to this phenomenon. I think I always referred to it as “contemporary faux-modernism” or something…!

    While I admit a fond appreciation for stark 80s post-modern design (even all that Memphis-Milano stuff)… I’ve always hated the kind of 90s onward aesthetic of brushed nickel, and excessive frosted glass, and also that awful orange beech wood (is that what it is? usually it’s in veneer form) or faux mahogany. And you’re right about the excessive curves. It’s always noticeable in canned restaurant chain decor. Inappropriately curved furniture, “abstract” prints on the upholstery etc.

    It’s definitely a pox on Vancouver.

  4. Also I often love things that are in bad taste, against my better judgement, but the worst part of this kind of design is that it thinks its tasteful, or we’re encouraged to believe that it is tasteful, I guess.

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