What a difference a decade makes. We were living in the communication dark ages, but didn’t know it. But all that changed in 1993 when the World Wide Web, invented in 1989, became public domain – and the world as we knew it would never be the same. The computer was also driving architecture and design innovation, with new 3-D software allowing practitioners to create never-before-seen forms. Frank Gehry was an early proponent; his Guggenheim Bilbao, completed in 1997, set off the Bilbao effect and the starchitecture craze that would dominate the 2000s.
Denise Scott Brown had been busily working away as an equal partner with her husband, Robert Venturi, when in 1991 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize and she was not. The repercussions of this snub are still felt today, but lobbying efforts to have her retroactively recognized have failed.
A Star is Born
Philippe Starck’s arrival on the scene ushered in the era of designer as celebrity. His Juicy Salif citrus squeezer from 1991 is still iconic as part of a prolific ascent that also included a string of hotels in collaboration with Ian Schrager, including the Royalton.
Not the Whole Picture
Airbrushing has a long history, but Adobe Photoshop’s 1990 debut made it easier for just about anyone to tell out-and-out whoppers. Tibor Kalman, for instance, presented a black Queen Elizabeth II in a 1993 issue of Colors magazine. At the same time, 3-D software, such as Alias, CATIA and Rhino introduced the world to NURBS (non-uniform, rational B‑splines) and the possibilities of blob architecture and blob objects.
Graphic design got political and product design got graphical. Stefan Sagmeister epitomized the now-it’s-personal movement: he stripped, handed his intern a razor and became poster art eight excruciating hours later. Meanwhile, Paula Scher rejected computer-generated flawlessness and crammed reams of hand-lettered “useless information” into her graphics. Produced by Alessi in 1994, Alessandro Mendini’s Anna G. corkscrew was an open invitation for the design world to loosen things up.
Beware the Bilbao Effect
Each generation produces its version of the “building as icon.” Unlike previous masterworks (think: Ronchamp, Expo 67’s Habitat and the Centre Pompidou), Frank Gehry’s museum single-handedly transformed a small provincial town into an international cultural destination, a phenomenon henceforth known as the Bilbao effect – which has since been deployed by ambitious clients to justify questionable cultural projects by dubious celebrity architects.
Spirit of Place
Renzo Piano completed the magnificent Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa, New Caledonia, in 1998. The last of French president Mitterand’s Grands Projets, it is named after Jean-Marie Tjibaou, an anthropologist and representative of the indigenous Kanak people, who was killed in 1989 by extremists for his role in brokering an agreement with the French government on Kanak autonomy.
In 1998, Jonathan Ive’s transparent, candy-hued Apple iMac hit the market and exploded the notion of the computer as a standardized beige box. It also spawned a craving for all things colourful and translucent. In 1999, Will Alsop, one of the most vibrant architects who ever was, completed the Peckham Library, an inverted L propped up on stilts and sporting a jaunty orange beret. And in 1996, UNStudio ushered in the era of the showpiece bridge, with the Erasmus in Rotterdam.
A new generation of product designers explored notions of “supernormal” design and outright exuberance; Naoto Fukasawa’s work for Muji (far left) and Tom Dixon’s S-Chair for Cappellini represent the spectrum. Meanwhile, the éminences grises of design were producing some of their best work yet: Michael Graves debuted his affordable kettle for Target in 1999, and Achille Castiglioni his Fuscia pendant light for Flos in 1996.
With the opening of the Manhattan flagship he designed for Calvin Klein in 1995, John Pawson made maximal minimalism his calling card. Through his books, architectural projects and furniture, the independent, London-based architect would further cement his rep as the master of monastic simplicity.
Blurred Lines and Bright Ideas
The ethereal facade of Jean Nouvel’s Fondation Cartier in Paris, completed in 1994, blurred the distinction between inside and out. The foundation’s contemporary art exhibitions seem to slide into the park, and vice versa. Also enduringly ethereal: the works of Ingo Maurer (1932-2019). From the sweet “light bulb with wings” playfulness of Lucellino (1992) and the vivid majesty of XXL Dome (1999) to the crazy-lovely futurism of his LED designs, Maurer made the world brighter.
Low-Tech, Sky High
In 1993, Dutch design historian Renny Ramakers and jewellery and industrial designer Gijs Bakker co‑founded Droog, a movement based on lowbrow conceptual irony and the crafts-based tradition of readymade. It was the launching pad for Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius and other notable designers. Meanwhile, architecture was getting higher and higher: For a while, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, could boast that its Cesar Pelli-designed twin Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world (that title now belongs to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa).
In 1996, Peter Zumthor completed the elegantly understated Therme Vals spa, a series of caves built from locally sourced Valser quartzite slabs. The Swiss master sought to create a restorative, sensual bathing experience akin to meandering through the woods. As this architectural ode to transcendence was being built, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf were debuting Herman Miller’s Aeron (1994), which revolutionized the task chair – all in the service of making employees work more comfortably, and perhaps stay much longer at the office.