Max Clendinning has reached an age—90—when to be cold-called by a journalist on a Thursday afternoon must feel as natural as breathing. "Are you in London?" the architect and designer wants to know. Regretfully, the caller is across the Atlantic, and can't pop by Clendinning's near-fabled Victorian house in Islington, filled with giddy-making artifacts that he and his partner, Ralph Adron, an artist and theatrical designer, have constructed, collected and arranged over several decades.
As far as one can tell from photos, the effect is of a luxury acid trip with smart, clear-headed docents.
"What am I working on?" This question Clendinning takes in stride, too. "I'm quite old, actually. I work all the time, but mostly for myself." At the moment, he's designing a new settee for the house. It will have a simple painted base and interchangeable canvas cushions. "I'm always interested in construction, how things are put together, so you can see how they're made," he says. "It will be flexible."
Will it be gray and tomato-red like his 1965 Maxima cabinet in the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum? Or orchid and pale pink, like the shiny vinyl-covered foam armchairs that decorated another London home in the sixties?
"The color is the natural color of the canvas," he says. "My theory of color is that everything should be the same color. If you have a yellow room, I like the chairs to be yellow, and many other things."
No kidding. In 1965, Clendinning designed one of the first all-white rooms in London and helped to launch a trend. The stripped-down look was memorable enough to be parodied in a 2004 episode of the British comedy series "Absolutely Fabulous." The decorator of a white-box kitchen, claiming to feel stifled in the frosty space, even after she has removed most of its contents, points to one of the few remaining pieces of furniture and screams, "I want that out!" "We can't take it out," her partner says." "Why?" "Because you've taken out the stairs."
Clendinning, of course, has played up and down the chromatic scale. As a form-maker in the sixties, he worked with vivid palettes and billowing shapes. His Maxima furniture—which evolved from pieces that furnished a town hall he designed in Crawley, England—was based on the clunky computer fonts of the time. When parts of the collection were shown in 2012 at a V&A exhibition on postwar British design, a wall label quoted the designer Michael Wolff, writing in 1965: “It will be a great day when furniture and cutlery design…swing like the Supremes.”
Whether that day has actually arrived is an open question, but few would argue that furniture and cutlery are rocking more than usual. A postmodern revival has brought color and humor back into interiors after a long modernist winter. Starved for surprise, we seem to look more favorably at anything that challenges the familiar lineaments of Eames and Jacobsen.
However different they are, 1960s Pop, a bubbly elixir after a dreary postwar diet, and 1980s Memphis, a snarky declaration of aesthetic independence (it might be considered the Donald Trump of design styles), appeal right now for the same reason. They're vivid, funky and refreshing.
So it’s a good time to look at Clendinning again, but not to judge him solely as a romantic. Born in 1924 in Northern Ireland to a family of furniture makers and schooled by modernists, he backed his whimsical designs with sensible, democratic ideas. The Maxima collection was made of pieces that packed flat and slotted together—a method that his father and uncle used to ship goods from their furniture factory in Richhill, County Armagh.
While working as an architect for British Rail in the 1950s, he helped design the Oxford Road station in Manchester to replace an older building; it later received landmark status as the only large rail station in Britain to have been rebuilt using prefabricated methods. Of special note was the station's revolutionary cone-shaped roofs made of laminated timber because of a structural need for lightness. "Everyone thinks it was influenced by the Sydney Opera House, but it came before," Clendinning now says of the building, which was completed in 1960. "The influence was from France, strangely enough. They built the same shells, but in concrete."
Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, sees no contradiction in Clendinning's mix of fancy and pragmatism. "I think all the Pop designers and postmodern designers who were worth anything were trained as modernists, because that's what gave their work its formal strength," he says. "What gave it interest," he adds, "was its departure from orthodox style." Adamson anchors Clendinning in Pop, comparing him with the British architect Richard Rogers, who introduced "high color and high technology" through buildings like the Georges Pompidou Center and Lloyds of London.
Writing about Clendinning and Adron's house in 2012, a reporter for the London newspaper The Independent said, "There is a degree of artful maximalism here: The items have form and function, but they are also expressive, personal, and don't necessarily sit together in obvious ways." The quality perfected in the home, she concludes, might be best described as "miximalism."
That seems the right label for our eclectic age. And if design is looking for its mojo, Islington may just be the place to find it.