The Aesthetics of Exaggeration: The Complexity and Contradiction of a Postmodern Build

Since rising to prominence in the 1960s as a reaction to modernist austerity, postmodern design has embraced the experimental to prove that form needn’t imply function.

When it comes to postmodern architecture, the more convention-breaking and boundary-pushing, the better. According to The Art Story, “Postmodernism is distinguished by a questioning of the master narratives that were embraced during the modern period, the most important being the notion that all progress—especially technological—is positive. By rejecting such narratives, postmodernists reject the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories, embracing instead the local, the contingent and the temporary [...].”

Said another way: “Postmodernism overturned the idea that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art or that this meaning was determined by the artist at the time of creation. Instead, the viewer became an important determiner of meaning.”

Feel like your head’s spinning? The postmodernist would say: “Good.”

In terms of architecture and design, postmodernism emerged as a movement in the 1960s in reaction to, and rejection of, conventions of architectural modernism; namely, formality and austerity (think Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater or the self-referential designs of the Bauhaus School.) In contrast to the stark right angles favored by modern architecture, postmodern edifices seem to delight in breaking traditional architectural forms and rules. Postmodern homes indulge in camp—or, as Susan Sontag defines the term in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” (recently brought back into the cultural zeitgeist thanks to the 2019 Met Gala): “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” as well as asymmetry, color, humor, complexity and contradiction.

So just what is postmodern home? Well, one that defies easy categorization.

Take these 10 buildings in “the late 20th-century style that exploits and exaggerates historical references,” as designer Adam Nathaniel Furman defines postmodern design. The first on the list, an emblem-adorned home called “A House for Essex” in the U.K., “was designed as a shrine to fictional character Julie Cope” and features boldly contrasting red and green tiling and a tiered silhouette reminiscent of a Russian nesting doll.

Or check out this “chaotic stacked hotel” in Zaandam, The Netherlands. The 11-story wonder, designed by architect Wilfried van Winden, features a mosaic of stacked facades in bright colors, seeming to almost defy physics.

If you’re looking to bring a dash of postmodern esotericism to your space, start with the truism well-understood by Surrealist painters and postmodern designers alike: Form doesn’t follow function. Check out these nine characteristics of postmodern design as listed on Houzz for more inspiration, or start with one of the pinnacles of postmodernism in the U.S., the Vanna Venturi House designed by Robert Venturi.