Dezeen Magazine

"Postmodernism was typecast as soon as it made it out of the Italian magazines"

Opinion: why did the Postmodernist design movement flounder at the end of the 1980s? Will Wiles finds the answer in popular Hollywood movies.

Films are time capsules, even bad films. And from time to time something is preserved so perfectly in that capsule, it feels like it should be somehow rescued from the celluloid and placed in a museum. Which is quite unnecessary, of course – the film itself is museum enough.

A quick stroll around that museum is often a good way to fill in some of the missing links in design history. For instance – why did Postmodernist furniture and interiors never thrive? Could it be something to do with the cinema's love-hate relationship with Pomo in the home?

To answer, first of all let's crack open the time capsule that is Ruthless People, a 1986 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler. DeVito and Midler – that's a very 1980s marquee right there – are a wealthy, obnoxious married couple. DeVito wants to murder Midler so he can grab her family fortune and shack up with his mistress; he imagines that his prayers have been answered when Midler is kidnapped. All he has to do is defy the kidnappers' demands and they will, he hopes, kill her. Unhappily for him, the kidnappers are not the "ruthless people" he imagines, but in fact bungling Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater.

Hi-jinks ensue. We can forgive Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker this middling outing because they made the sublime Airplane! and would go on to make The Naked Gun. And for one other reason: Ruthless People contains an exquisite, period-perfect, museum-quality example of Postmodernist interior design.

DeVito and Midler's Bel Air mansion could be a showroom for the Memphis Group, the 80s-spanning Ettore Sottsass-founded collective that typified Pomo in the home: brilliant primary colours struck against white, nursery-simple shapes in avant-garde collision, baroque exuberance by way of De Stijl and the Early Learning Centre.

Trailer for Ruthless People, 1986

DeVito scurries past Peter Shire's watermelon-slice Bel Air armchair and schemes against the backdrop of Sottsass's Malabar sideboard. Enthusiasts of the look might be delighted if it wasn't for the fact that it's all intended to highlight how ghastly he and his wife are supposed to be. By contrast, humble, wronged Reinhold and Slater live in homely, thrift-store poverty.

The following year brought us the original Wall Street, Oliver Stone's morality play of Reaganomic rapacity. Under the tutelage of amoral financier Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, fresh-faced master of the universe Charlie Sheen is propelled to overnight riches.

As his net worth takes off, Sheen acquires a trophy girlfriend, Daryl Hannah, an interior designer – "a great spender of other people's money," she says – who has redecorated Gekko's faintly Venturian beachfront home in the Hamptons.

She disdains his small, nondescript Upper West Side apartment – "home of the exposed brick wall and the house plant" – which he leaves for an East Side penthouse. In short order Hannah is staplegunning brick-texture wallpaper to concrete pillars, layering impasto surfaces and screwing up Georgian-style cornices with smatterings of gold leaf in an authentic Postmodern dog's dinner. A Richard Sapper lamp watches the pair make love. The scene is set for Sheen's existential crisis. "Who am I?" he wonders, staring out of the window.

Trailer for Wall Street, 1987

Another year on, to 1988, and Tim Burton's fantasy comedy Beetlejuice – a film that might not have too great a cultural reach today, but which tends to make people of my generation (including myself) go misty-eyed when it comes up, which implies possible future classic status.

The Maitlands – played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis – live in a quaint clapboard house in an idyllic New England village full of covered bridges and the like. Then they plunge off one of those charming covered bridges and die. Their house is bought by the Deetzes, a gaggle of moneyed, vain art-world New Yorkers who embark on a vigorous remodelling. But the Maitlands are still resident as ghosts – their transfer to the afterlife has hit a bureaucratic snag and they are haunting the attic.

The Deetz vision for the house is, naturally, Postmodernist – and I wonder if Burton makes an architectural joke here. Among their improvements is a striking sun-deck comprising an open, painted frame. This, and the various other extrusions and doodads pinned to the building, resembles 1976 cheery-eerie house frames by architects Venturi and Rauch at Franklin Court in Philadelphia, showing the former location of Benjamin Franklin's house and called the "ghost structures".

Ghost structures for a haunted house? It's a little on the nose, but the painted smile of Postmodernism was always pretty haunted, welcoming back in the spirits Modernism sought to exorcise. The design-conscious Deetzes are set up as villains, of course, and the Maitlands, with their plaid shirts and rocking chairs, as honest, relatable types.

Day-O scene from Beetlejuice, 1988

Two more sights on the tour, to bookend these highlights. The first is Brewster's Millions (1985), in which Richard Pryor has to burn through $30 million dollars in one month in an effort to inherit $300 million. Among the things he spends on is interior design, and each successive look is more Pomo than the last. "Spending other people's money", quickly.

Lastly the underrated satire Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), in which the eponymous diminutive monsters take over a New York tower block owned by John Glover's character Daniel Clamp, a fairly transparent Donald Trump homage. Clamp Tower is black glass International Style on the outside – 101 Park Avenue by Eli Attia, in fact – but the lobby is a Postmodern-tending-to-Decon horror of jazzy angles and neon.

Clamp has plans to demolish Chinatown and turn it into a horrific orientalist pastiche; after a salutary gremlin infestation he sees the error of his ways and is won over by the hero's misty-eyed memories of his small-town origins. (Gremlins 2 is an equal-opportunities polemic on architecture: High-tech gets a hammering too, and the International Style doesn't come out looking great.)

A clear pattern emerges. What do these Pomo clients have in common? They are rich, but it is strongly implied their wealth is stolen or otherwise unearned. They clearly consider themselves discerning, but their tastes are being held up for ridicule. (This is particularly the case for DeVito and Midler – ironically, as the contents of their house must now be worth a fortune.) They are either trashy new money or pseudish cosmopolitans. They are nearly always contrasted against wholesome small-town blue collar types.

Pomo was typecast as soon as it made it out of the Italian magazines – it became the production designer's go-to style to communicate Reaganite excess and 1980s anti-urbanism. Perhaps this explains why it was never as successful as Postmodernist architecture, and why the Modernist reaction in the home was to wicker, farmhouse and floral, not Memphis. The triumph of Postmodernist design was to perfectly capture its age. Its tragedy was that the age was rotten.

Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.