Trend: Yabba Dabba Do

Reporting for this magazine about last year’s Milan Furniture Fair, I noted that many of the products had a freeform quality, but with shapes that were less biomorphic than geomorphic—i.e., not globular or squishy but fractured and chunky. I was thinking of Maarten Baas’s Sculpt furniture pieces, which are blown-up versions of miniature sketches with their imprecise lines left intact. (Baas’s previous furniture group, Clay, was literally earthy.) I also had in mind Ineke Hans’s Fracture collection for Cappellini—polyester “bandages” wrapped around polystyrene to form squat chairs and tables. What convinced me that I was in the presence of a legitimate trend, however, was a little voice in my head that erupted when I saw these stumpy or lumpy objects. A song, really. It went like this:

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones.
They’re the modern Stone Age family.
From the town of Bedrock,
They’re a page right out of history.

Was I hallucinating? I returned home, leafed through an Ikea catalog, and noticed children’s furniture with big, round drawer pulls and goofy conical legs. Bloggers led me to the Mass Storage Stone, the prototype for a portable 4-gigabyte hard drive formed like a rock. And then came Wolff Olins’s design for the London 2012 Olympics logo. Many recoiled at the neon-colored lightning bolts because of their ungainliness, but I saw something geological (like a fault line) crossed with something bright, exaggerated, and awkward (like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon), and the theme song returned once again:

Let’s ride with the family down the street
By the courtesy of Fred’s two feet.

The first time The Flintstones intruded on my contemplation of design was in 2004, when the furniture company Heller introduced outdoor seating by Frank Gehry. Those roto-molded plastic boulders were destined for gardens, but their elephant-gray surfaces and architectural scale seemed better suited for the mountain scene in a production of Peer Gynt. Or over at the Rubbles’. Meanwhile, Tord Boontje was turning out products with lovely motifs of woodland flora and fauna. Like Ariel and Caliban marking the extremes of enchanted-island living, Boontje and Gehry were being anything but good citizens of the Republic of Modernism. They seemed to react, however, in opposite ways, one with grazing creatures and shiny, lacy materials; the other with all the delicacy of a belching volcano.

Was Flintstones style the earthy side of the decorative design revival? Not its lemon chiffon, but its sauerbraten? Not its Orlando Bloom, but its Harvey Keitel? I called Ineke Hans at her studio in Arnhem, the Netherlands. “I have a weird question…” I began, before alluding as diplomatically as I could to Fred and Wilma.

“It’s interesting that you should say that,” Hans replied. “It’s been my language for a long time, this very fat stuff. We have a lot of internal terms in our studio, and we often say if a design isn’t good enough, it’s not Fred Flintstone enough.” Her approach, Hans went on, is to strip form down to its basics to the point “that an object looks clumsy, as if it hasn’t been designed at all.” She appreciates the reductivism, the “clarity,” of pictograms and children’s drawings, and like Baas, she explores the complicated shift in experience when one inhabits a child’s world and perceives the oddness of objects that are simply enlarged.

Michael Leung, the Mass Storage Stone’s designer, also was unruffled when I inquired about his connection to Bedrock. His device isn’t mined from the cartoon, however, but is a throwback of another sort: “As a child, everyone plays with stones and remembers their texture and tactility,” he explained. “Contrary to putting a portable hard drive in their bags, I wanted people to carry the Mass Storage Stone in their pockets, as if they had collected it on a beach or on holiday.”

The Flintstones appeals to children largely because Fred is a big, self-absorbed baby. He beats against the implacable forces of his world until he is forced to behave appropriately. His is a long tradition, which also includes Falstaff, Mr. Micawber, Ralph Kramden, and Homer Simpson. When push comes to shove, Flintstones style is about the deep emotional pleasure of defiance. When Baas designed a standing fan for his lumpy Clay collection, which looked like a built version of a child’s scrawl, he gave it five legs simply because he could. He was wallowing in a luxuriant mud pie of irrationality.

I still have questions. Why is so much Flintstones style coming out of the Netherlands (which is also Boontje country)? What will a Flintstones backlash look like? Will I ever summon the nerve to interview Frank Gehry about it? Stay tuned.

Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D.

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