There are many reasons to slobber and pore over Dominic Lutyens and Kirsty Hislop’s superb book 70s Style and Design, but the most spectacular image, for me, is the incredible shot of Noosha Fox which opens this review. I really do struggle to do ‘regular’ book reviews; I just want to scan the pretty images and gush most tragically over the contents. Assuming the contents are gush-worthy, but you needn’t worry about that with Seventies Style and Design.
From start to finish there are more lush visuals on offer than any other book tackling the era. It suffers, if suffering is exquisite, from the same problem as Marnie Fogg’s Boutique book in that, frankly, you’ll probably read it about twenty times before you actually come close to reading the text. I sat down, determined to read it from cover to cover for this review, and my determination was flagging after the midway point because I just wanted to gaze at the images. Which in turn got me thinking about the potential of a ‘double book’ where you have a separate tome dedicated to the images, and can sit down and properly concentrate on the written word; clearly researched extremely well and full of ‘new’ information, which just gets lost or swiftly forgotten amongst the visuals. Tricky, but well worth it, I reckon.
Biba in Nova
My gushing only hesitates at two issues, which is quite amazing for picky little me. The first is probably too general to explain properly, the second is horribly specific.
Firstly, the ‘theming’ of the subject matter into edible chapter-sized chunks (Pop to Post-Modernism, Belle Epoque, Supernature and Avant Garde). I completely understand the motivation behind this, and the themes aren’t your average “chapter one: Psychedelia, chapter two: Glam Rock” type. Thank goodness. Thought and care has gone into them. But it’s always going to struggle a bit in an era which the authors even admit was something of a ‘free for all’ in its style and design themes. You could be forgiven for exiting from the last page with an idea that the Seventies was relentlessly fabulous, iconic and glamorous in its appearance. They even make punk look mouth-wateringly elegant. It is wide in its coverage, but it still orbits only in the atmosphere of what is now perceived to be interesting, beautiful and/or iconic. Which is a curious kind of Russian doll trap, given that the chapter on the Art Deco revival goes into the very interesting notion of cherry-picking from the Twenties and Thirties.
“A defining characteristic of all this Biba fuelled nostalgia or ‘retro’ – a word first coined, appropriately, in the 1970s – was that it wasn’t purist but pluralist. Many of its fans were too young to have witnessed these eras, and so interpreted them in whichever way they fancied, usually viewing them through rose-tinted lorgnettes and blithely glossing over such crises as the 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression.”
Page 73, 70s Style and Design
I’m not sure how self-aware the authors are, but it amused me to see this in a book which itself contributes to the modern synthesis of the Seventies into a more glamorous, louche and decadent era than most ‘average’ people who lived through it would recall. I know I’m guilty of much the same thing, especially when writing my blog and listing my wares, but I’m also deeply attracted to the more mundane, everyday primary sources. I love dull, contemporary documentaries, unfunny and borderline-gloomy sitcoms, films and dramas, pictures of slightly iffy looking people in iffy looking clothes and naff interiors and objets. It can’t always be high-gloss, high-sparkle.
I know examples of bad taste are ‘clichés’, but many great aspects of the Seventies are in danger of becoming as much clichés themselves. See the likes of Lady GaGa. When one becomes tired of Bowie, has one become tired of life? Sadly, I have found myself pondering this lately.
Saying that, it’s always wonderfully refreshing to read a book about Seventies design which doesn’t set out to sneer or incite howls of I-can’t-believe-people-dressed-like-that laughter.
Amanda Lear in an advert for paint
Plus, high-gloss and high-sparkle are exactly what we need these days. And I don’t blame anyone choosing to jettison Gloomy Style and Design from their research, not least because the book would be twice the length and half the fun with those things included.
A waitress at ‘Mr Feed’em’
My second criticism, and it really is horribly specific, is the omission of Janice Wainwright. There! I said it was specific. If you want a pure-as-the-purest-spring-water example of the best of the Seventies aesthetic, I would say she was high up amongst the greats. Ossie, Biba, Mr Freedom, Bill Gibb are included, certainly, but Janice remains as yet unsung. In a book which gives us references to Universal Witness, Antony Price’s Plaza, Manolo Blahnik’s Zapata, Strawberry Studio and Kitsch-22, it seems a shame to leave anyone out!
What I love about the design of the book is that there are plenty of full-page, high quality images which have never been seen before, interspersed with a more scrapbook-esque mish mash of visual references. Adverts, photoshoots, posters, labels; some are annoyingly small but it’s just so nice to see them all included without any detriment to the written word. The inclusion of many lesser-known designers and characters is quite wonderful; I hadn’t encountered Thea Cadabra and her incredible shoes (see front cover) before, and now I’m a bit obsessed.
Also, any book which contains a half page reproduction of a Malcolm Bird illustration, the aforementioned full page photo of Noosha Fox and which uses the word ‘splendiforously’ is always going to take pride of place on my bookshelf.
Highly recommended for any vintage wishlist this Christmas (and beyond).
Malcolm Bird’s illustration for Biba