Inspired by our new Egina 38 Pendant by Angelo Mangiarotti for Artemide, it’s time to talk about High Tech (AKA Structural Expressionism AKA The Industrial Style). This aesthetic and its many monikers arrived in the mid-seventies as the mid-century period was waning. Interest in Scandinavian furniture was waning as quality declined, and the zeitgeist, rocked by the twin failures of modernism and sixties counterculture to bring about a functional or freewheeling utopia, was ready to catch a new prevailing wind. Two design journalists, Suzanne Slesin and Joan Kron, put their finger on exactly what that was the 1978 publishing of High Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home. A now-seminal work, the book has served as an initiation to many a design industry observer — this writer included.
As laid out by Slesin and Kron, the High Tech or Industrial Style was a natural successor to several active narratives. The first, the long-burning fight to legitimize industrial materials, began in 1851 with the highly controversial construction of the wrought iron and glass Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. Further points on the line were the 1934 debut of MoMA’s design collection, with a companion exhibit “Machine Art,” followed by the construction of Ray and Charles Eames’ Pacific Palisades home from pre-fabricated metal parts, as well as the rise of prefab components in high profile architectural projects in general. In short, design elevated industrial components, design became art, and industrial parts became design.
The second narrative is a cultural one of symbolic subversion, that sees High Tech and its focus on items of anonymous design as a practical, nuanced negotiation of the anti-materialist sixties. This update for postmodern sophisticates acknowledged the futility of the previous generation’s search for authenticity, but still allowed a degree of sly commentary by using High Tech’s aesthetic signifiers as a practical form of anti-establishment posturing.
Interestingly, High Tech is a fluid concept — a style or a discipline (or both!), equally encompassing buildings and objects that are created by repurposing industrial components, and those that are simply meant to appear like those elements. This made High Tech a far more forgiving doctrine than the preceding functionalist system, where objects that made only perfunctory nods toward the visual language of utility were derided. In this sense, we can view High Tech as an important transition period between the Modern and Postmodern styles.
As such, the High Tech home might have included architectural elements (prefab steel braces, whose profiles would be celebrated rather than hidden), some industrial finishes (Pirelli rubber non slip flooring), and some design items that incorporated a “technical” look (Italian lighting hanging from retractile cord). Almost certainly it would have featured Metro wire shelving, a commercial-grade system designed in 1955 by Louis Maslow that was sold at restaurant supply stores in the outer boroughs of New York, and also at Ad Hoc, a Manhattan home goods store that was High Tech personified.