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In bad taste

Interview: Helen WhittleJune 21, 2013

What is good taste? And who decides what's bad? The exhibition "Evil Things: An Encyclopedia of Bad Taste" takes a playful look at the style crimes of today's objects.

Keds children's sneakers with an Obama print design
Image: Armin Herrmann

We might scoff at the idea of lessons in the art of good taste. But in the homeland of Bauhaus and Immanuel Kant - the great Prussian ponderer on matters of judgment -, the issue of aesthetic appreciation has a long and complex history.

While Kant's colossal "Critque of Judgment" (1790) laid the foundations for modern aesthetics, the industrial era brought a new self-consciousness about the effects of consumerism and commodification in modern culture and, along with it, entirely new debates on the issue of taste.

At the center of these debates was the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation), an association of artists, designers, architects and industrialists. It was founded in 1907 and included big names like Peter Behrens, Bruno Paul and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe.

As a forerunner of the Bauhaus, the Werkbund worked to inspire good design and craftsmanship in manufacturing and architecture in order to improve Germany's competitiveness on the international market.

The Werkbund was shut down by the Nazis in 1938, but the legacy of the rich intellectual debates concerning modern design and aesthetics continues to inform thinking on matters of taste to this day.

German Werkbund member Gustav E. Pazaurek (1865-1935)
All in good taste: Werkbund member Gustav E. Pazaurek was a very stylish manImage: Fotoarchiv Landesmuseum Württemberg

One particularly influential member of the Werkbund was art historian and museum director Gustav E. Pazaurek (1865-1935).

Writing in the journal Kunstwart in 1899, he recommended that every museum of arts and crafts should add a "chamber of horrors" to function as a "drastic cure" for poor taste.

Pazaurek opened his own "Cabinet of Bad Taste" at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909 and over the course of 24 years, amassed a collection of more than 900 objects to offend the eyes.

Now Pazaurek's chamber of horrors is the launching pad for the exhibition "Evil Things: An Encyclopaedia of Bad Taste" at Hamburg's Museum of Arts and Crafts, which asks: What is taste? And who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly? 

DW talked to curator Imke Volkers about style offenses, the new ethical consumer and separating the cool kitsch from the just plain offensive.

DW: Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?

Imke Volkers: Gutsav Pazaurek wrote a book called "Good and Bad Taste in the Arts and Crafts" (1912) in which he developed a meticulous taxonomy of taste, divided into four overarching categories: material mistakes, design mistakes, decorative mistakes and kitsch.

A jewel encrusted cell phone
Tacky? Everybody needs a glittering, jewel encrusted cellImage: Armin Herrmann

He also developed an incredible array of subcategories with brilliant descriptions like "Decorative Brutality," "Jingoistic Kitsch," "Cheap Originality" and "Ostentatious Materials." For a variety of reasons, matters of taste were so important in Pazaurek's time. We decided to apply these terms to modern-day objects to see if these categories of taste still apply 100 years later.

And what does the exhibition reveal?

Well what the exhibition reveals is very interesting. Some of the categories of bad taste devised by Pazaurek still apply, for example the use of poor quality or tainted materials. But today we have a very different value system. Taste is now far more rooted in morality, as opposed to functionality or aesthetics. Today we are much more conscious about protecting the environment and sustainability, as opposed to judging products on the basis of superficial appearance.

Isn't taste more a question of sozialization, of class and upbringing? I'm thinking of the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu…

You have to see Pazaurek's work in the context of the culture reforms of the early 20th century. The reforms didn't merely concern kitsch and the superficial question of taste, rather it was about establishing a new value system, a value system that encompassed social concerns.

Lemon juicer designed by Philippe Starck
Functional lies: Philippe Starck's iconic but useless lemon juicerImage: Armin Herrmann

They were against using imitation or "fake" materials, against ostentation, against the overtly ambitious bourgeoisie who desired such ostentatious, yet cheap, mass-produced objects. They were in favor of a material integrity, of an authenticity, of a restrained and modern style of design that was appropriate to the age of industrialization, to the new machine aesthetic.

In keeping with the philosophy of the German Werkbund, Pazaurek believed that objects have a strong influence on the people around them - aesthetically and morally. What did he mean by that?

It was in the context of the culture reforms of the early 20th century. People believed that the environment in which a person lives, for example the type of furniture a person owns, has an affect on the people in positive or negative ways.

A keyring imitating Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch probably wouldn't have approved of this keyringImage: Armin Herrmann

The Werkbund, like the Bauhaus, identified a connection between people and their environment and were in favor of light and airy apartments and very little ornamentation, as opposed to cluttered, dark and dusty apartments. This new, minimal aesthetic matched the new machine aesthetic, which of course had changed the appearance of objects.

Philippe Starck's iconic lemon juicer is also in the exhibition. Why is that?

It may be a design icon, but what we wanted to do is take the categories devised by Pazaurek and apply them to a range of contemporary products. The juicer is in the category of "functional lies." Contemporary design encompasses ironic elements - non-functional elements designed with a wink. The lemon juicer may be a design icon, but you can't really juice lemons with it very well. Applying Pazaurek's terms allows us to look at objects in different ways as we live in times of anti-functionalism, plurality of styles, and "anything goes."

Yes, I actually quite like the Obama sneakers in the exhibition.

It's really astounding how people react to the objects in the exhibition. People find a lot of the objects funny and like them. We have a different understanding of kitsch these days, and of the element of irony. But there are things that are really, really awful and then you have to question the distinction between "cool" kitsch and just bad taste.

You also added new categories such as racist design, sexist design and cadaver chic.

Yes. Pazaurek didn't evaluate objects based on factors such as having been produced using child labor or from toxic materials, nor in terms of sexist or racist design. Of course those things existed in his time, but they weren't part of his value system. Today we have the ethical consumer. There are still problems with products, but today the unethical element is often in the marketing.

There's a so-called "exchange service" at the exhibition in Hamburg where visitors can leave or exchange objects they no longer want. What types of objects have people given away?

It's often things that were given to them as gifts: unwanted gifts that people find tasteless or have no real use for, or things they've inherited that they feel bad about giving away. The exchange service is a place for people to free themselves from these objects and write about why they don't like them. It's been very popular; people have had a lot of fun discussing the value of different objects. It's a big discussion forum about taste and that's really what the exhibition is. It's there to provoke, to make people think.

An ash tray made from a horse's hoof
This horse's hoof ash tray definitely belongs in a museumImage: Armin Herrmann, MKG
A salt and pepper shaker set in the form of a naked woman
So bad it's good? Salt and pepper shakers get a makeoverImage: Sammlung Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge, Fotograf Armin Herrmann