For all its flaws, kitsch remains an influential interior style that celebrates the liberation of design from elitist ideals and arbiters of “taste.”
Who is to say what really constitutes style and taste? This is the fundamental question behind the movement in kitsch décor, an “anti-style” which signalled a rebellion against the fashionistas of interior design and caught a popular love for things which were so “bad”, they became “good”.
Born of a love-hate relationship that thrived on a playful passion for “bad” taste, kitsch juxtaposes the spectacular with the tacky and smugly puts a sham in place of the chic. The value of this design theme is found in its affordability. Kitsch décor is accessible and easy to add to the home, has personal value, a humorous element and is often surprisingly well designed. It can bring personality to a shell of a house to create a home filled with joy, fun and meaning, even if it is merely an obscure sense of sentimentality.
THE TIME IS NIGH
Historically, the rise or revival of an aesthetic usually coincides with some crisis. Introducing kitsch as an interior could not be more relevant today as people tighten their wallets in a climate of economic instability. The knowingly lowbrow, superficial and guilt-free beauty of kitsch pleases at first glance and can be replaced if and when it tires over time.
In her book, The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel declares that it is time to celebrate the aesthetic abundance that can be found in the design of ordinary objects. Virginia argues that this shift dictates more than a triumph of design over denigration, but a triumph of democratic opportunity where everyone has access to objects that display “style”.
Kitsch is not just a fake for imitation’s sake but is functional, inclusive and can be sustainably viable. More and more people are turning to second-hand stores in the hope of finding something unique to feature in their homes. There are treasures that won’t break the budget to be found among once-cherished, now-discarded artworks, ornaments and furnishings.
REBEL WITH A CAUSE
Kitsch deliberately breaks the rules with its brazen bad taste and mockery. These defining factors are what once pushed kitsch outside the desirable norm, and which have ironically returned it to popularity. As Milan Kundera says, no matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.
The concept as a style grew as a response to 19th century art aesthetics. The theme was born in the markets of Munich in the 1860s where art dealers used it to describe cheap, arty stock. Kitsch designs from this period are now coveted, expensive antiques and collectables. The word itself, with that overbearing consonant combination, was derived from kitschen, which is German for “cheapen” or “make do”, and verkitschen, which means to “switch-sell.”
With its incongruous style and ornamentation, kitsch brought vibrant eccentricity to furniture that lacked personality and individualism. However those critical of the aesthetic emphasised that this was in stark contrast to “good” design.
Aesthetic preferences are often associated with social distinction, class dynamics and socioeconomic status. As kitsch embodies taste without a capital T as both a design theme and a social reaction, it is particularly relevant to this influence. The paradox occurs as the upper class desire to distinguish themselves from those with lower social status, who in turn aspire to imitate the higher hierarchy. There comes a point when the popularity of a trend, style or product displaces its function to create this division and so begins the cycle to develop yet more stylistic innovations.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the tastes of classes are based on assessments, emphasising that some choices are not equally possible for everyone due to their level of economic wealth and culture capital. He identified that an upper class taste is characterised by refined and subtle distinctions, where the value is on the aesthetic experience. In contrast, middle class taste is driven by a desire to emulate or compete for social status rather than an appreciation for artistic principles. He refuted that the ruling class merely dictated a class taste that was legitimate as opposed to one that was genuinely “good.”
The widespread influence of kitsch on design affirms the mobile nature of taste – once governed by the conventional and the establishment but now more open to subjective beauty and inferred meaning.
Kitsch has always been subject to debates about what defines “style”. Ultimately, these prove inconclusive, as taste is subjective, dynamic and will always be framed by individuals’ personal and cultural patterns of reference when they make distinctions.
One iconic kitsch item is the best-selling print Chinese Lady by Vladimir Tretchikoff, known commonly as The Green Lady. Uri Geller, an admirer of Tretchikoff, contended that it was not a ground-breaking artwork, but wrote, “you put a brick in the Tate today and it’s art. Who decided that The Green Lady is kitsch? Not the hundreds of thousands who bought it.”
Philosopher David Hume proposed that feeling, not thought, informs people about whether an object is beautiful or ugly, with each mind perceiving a different beauty. His motivating insight, borrowed from fellow philosopher Francis Hutcheson, is that sentiment is the essence of evaluation.
Another notable thinker, Immanuel Kant, coined a concept of taste that denied any standard where the “good” could be empirically identified. To him, beauty is not a property of any object, but an aesthetic judgement based on subjective feelings that reject a consensus. Even Plato’s contemplations on subjective aesthetics could only be devised to a combination of beauty, symmetry, and most interestingly, truth. In the twenty-three hundred years that have followed his ideas, modern thought has not been able to incontrovertibly prove or disprove intelligent design. Today the most famous of trend dictators, Karl Lagerfeld, continues to proclaim the idea of beauty without a standard.
The essence of beauty will be forever disputed. What could be clichéd, tawdry and tasteless for some can also be hip, in vogue and found in the finest homes of others. Because at it’s fluffy, neon heart, kitsch is more concerned with the personal connotations of furnishings that fill a room and rejecting anyone else’s idea of style.
GOOD KITSCH, BAD KITSCH
Done well, Kitsch merges with an eclectic style and makes use of pop art, sentimental ornaments and witty humour. Combine these subtly with contemporary designs. Opt for simple gestures and avoid festooning the entire space with excess clutter. Though this aesthetic is personal and beyond reasoning, here are a few tips to consider.
Figurines and knick-knacks with pop-culture appeal can make a bold and intriguing addition to a space, while conveying the personality of the inhabitants. Welcome the addition of celebrities or characters you admire in portraits, porcelain or plastic.
Display small collections in modern shelving arrangements or stand alone pieces with contrasting décor. The favourites of today’s hipsters: faux fruit arrangements, deer and birds – in particular owls – can make endearing statements placed on a mantle, or sparingly combined as a wall feature.
Avoid over-the-top cutesy items such as bunnies, kittens and ducklings. Leave these in the nursery and go for the grown-up stylish alternatives like freestanding gloss tigers, wall-mounted unicorn heads or metallic antlers. Even the ultimately tacky flock of flying geese and biggest fish catch, reinvented in a monotone or minimalist design can bring a rustic, Scandinavian style to the modern home.
Add irony, humour and a healthy dose of mockery into a space with décor that is amusing, clever and unpretentious. Incorporating kitsch is a bold decision but it also offers up a lightness of being and an opportunity to poke fun at the sometimes pompous idealism behind works of great art, deep emotion or grandiose sentiments. Don’t disregard the beauty of rip-offs, just make it obvious that you know that they are. Why not use a gnome instead of Michelangelo’s Thinker as a bookend, a cuckoo-cat variety of clock, a modified Mona Lisa or a glittered Madonna. As a risqué option, showcase the taboo or vulgar.
Put souvenirs and heirlooms on display; don’t just pack these away to collect dust. Tourist curios always have a story behind them and mini replicas immediately transport your mind back to the original place of wonder and admiration. Inherited items will also have an emotive history, personal connection and vintage appeal. In a kitsch interior you can be winding the clock back with mums sticker covered radio in one place and bringing on the cold weather with an Alaska snow globe in another.
Have fun and be brave with pattern and colour. Draw on the golden days of the emergence of kitsch for inspiration. Let retro tones like mustard, burnt orange and pop pink dominate or, if you dare, mint and lilac. Ground them with neutrals, olive green and mocha. Bring the look up-to-date by injecting bold hints of glossy red, metallics and even neon.
Plastic is fantastic as far as kitsch is concerned. Cheap-looking is not always a negative; these products are inviting and can help the space feel more like a home instead of a sterile ward or luxurious hotel you have to tip toe around in. Don’t be too quick to turn from mass-produced budget furniture especially when it will be used in an ornamental way or with minimalist styles to showcase knick-knacks. However avoid inflatable varieties at all cost, they are the epitome of passé.
Kitsch as a theme is more defined by its shortfalls than merits and routinely allotted with the unsightly. However the ingrained idea of bad taste actually remains a subjective and unquantifiable perception. It can, and will be disputed about until the cows come home or for that matter a cow ornament is placed beside the home entertainment system. The only rules to remember when incorporating kitsch into your interior design are perfectly captured in the maverick spirit of Tretchikoff’s motto: “Express your passion. Do what you love. No matter what.”
Photography: Courtesy of Corbis