What Killed the 1960s Struggle For Utopia?

Andrew Blauvelt, curator of a forthcoming exhibition at the Walker Art Center, unpacks “Hippie Modernism.”

The tangible innovations of today often grow from the radically conceptual ideas from the past, a notion that the Walker Art Center explores in its forthcoming exhibition Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.


The counterculture movement of the 1960s occupies a divisive place in history. Was it a failure or a success? Artists, designers, and architects were armed with utopian ideals as they grappled with issues like war, environmentalism, racism, and equity. They saw promise in technology and a bright future. They proposed new ways of living that were about community and peace. They preached free thought and expression. Then the rosy future suddenly turned bleak. The subsequent decades were conservative by comparison and were driven by skepticism and consumerism.

“It’s difficult to identify another period of history that has exerted more influence on contemporary culture and politics,” says Andrew Blauvelt, a senior curator at the Walker and the exhibition’s organizer. He defines the hippie-modernist era as spanning the decade between 1964, when the Merry Pranksters took their famous acid trip across the country, and 1973/1974, when the oil crisis rankled the nation.

In advance of the exhibition, which opens October 24, Blauvelt spoke with Co.Design about the life, death, and rebirth of the counterculture ethos.


Co.Design: Why is now the right time to examine modernism and hippie culture together?

Andrew Blauvelt: A few years ago, I noticed a lot of contemporary designers, architects, and artists who were referencing things from this period—its attitudes and even specific works from the time. Why is the interest now? I wanted to look a little bit more cleanly at the sources and the ideas during that historical moment.

What attitudes from then do you see mirrored in the artists and designers of today?


The ideas around social-impact design, humanitarian design, and public-interest design. I also see it in more fringe areas like speculative design or critical design, which is more propositional or conceptual. The legacy goes back to this period because of a lot of the architecture and design in the show does not affirm professional practices—it’s really a critique of society’s use of design or architecture. It has more of a critical disposition to it. It resonates today. Artists now tap into similar modes of technology immersion, performance, and multimedia—a sort of blurring of the disciplines and crossing of the disciplines.

And what about specific designs that share similar motivations to the counterculture era?

A classic one would be Archigram‘s Info Gonks, which is a precursor to Google Glass. It was a conceptual product—Archigram made a prototype—but instead of having a basis in computers, it centered around the notion of educational television. Info Gonks were glasses that you would wear and they would augment your sense of reality. Archigram also anticipated things like virtual reality so the exhibition features collages they did for Info Gonks. Another project called the Room of 1,000 Delights anticipates the Holodeck [from Star Trek]. There are some really direct parallels between what was happening then and now.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Women in Design: The Next Decade, 1975
Poster, diazo printed and cut
15 1/4″ x 21″
Courtesy Sheila Levrant de Bretteville

Speaking of the Holodeck, it seems like science fiction of the past is quickly becoming the reality of the present.

From a general social and cultural angle, the show is highly resonant with today because of the grand narrative of the 1960s. Steve Jobs talked about this, without hippies you wouldn’t have personal computing—it comes directly out of that time period so there are a lot of parallels.

Environmentalism transforms in the 1960s and 1970s and becomes the environmentalism we think of today—we get the first sense that humans have an impact on the environment. Things like the Whole Earth Catalog start using metaphors about how humans will have to live in harmony and in relation to the rest of the world. “Eco” design of today really wouldn’t be possible without its roots in the 1960s and the 1970s.


Social protest movements also echo today. We have some work from Emory Douglas, the art director of the Black Panthers’ newspaper and the group’s Minister of Culture, in the exhibition. There are similar racial problems today, exemplified through the Black Lives Matter movement. There are these continuities between then and now that run through the show—and there seems to be a lot of them.

So what killed the 1960s struggle for utopia and put a kibosh on that momentum?

Richard Nixon! Well, there were several factors and I try to express that in the exhibition.


All sorts of turmoil happened in the late 1960s. Anti-war protests, civil rights protests, a confluence of protests on many fronts. This was also happening in Europe and South America. It was a moment where it seemed like society could transform.

The concept emerged after WWII that man might have all the technological means to make scarcity and poverty disappear. That could transform the whole world because those are the usual conflicts for war. This moment of turmoil, this clash of generations of cultures and values has an abrupt ending to it, which is usually identified around the election of Nixon to the presidency on a “law and order” platform.

In Europe, the failure of the May 1968 uprisings in France and Italy factored into it. In terms of this scarcity argument, I put the end around 1973–1974 in the show because that’s when the OPEC oil crisis hit. It changes the world’s stage because it institutes the notion of scarcity and not “disappearing” scarcity.


What I argue is that there are functional through-lines. Almost every significant and different thing that I can think of today is somehow tied back to this period. The conservative values of the 1970s and 1980s rewrote the 1960s as a kind of failure, but it depends on when you want to decide failure happens. If you examine this historic moment today, it seems like less of a failure. A lot of the concepts and ideas have in fact changed the way we think about things.

You could say that the utopian ideal wasn’t necessarily killed outright in the 1970s, it was just put into a deep sleep.

I think the other interesting thing about utopia is that the idea comes out of literature. The notion of utopia as something that has to be achieved and you’re is done is really false. Utopia is an argument that is about what’s wrong with the present and what’s right about the future.


In the exhibition’s catalog, you point out that high-modern architects of the 1960s didn’t engage with social issues. How are the two sides of high architecture and the values of hippie culture more unified today than in the past?

In the past it was more oppositional. Hippie modernism predates post-modernism. We talk about postmodernism starting in the 1970s as being about historical references, being slightly conservative, and a being a critique of modernism. Hippie modernism is really the first critique of high modernism.

A lot of the architects whose work is in the show came right out of school. They’re in their 20s doing really conceptual work and rejecting the professional field of architecture for a variety of reasons. The Italians were the most radical and they were influenced by Marxism and Socialism. The young architects were highly critical of a lot of modernist attempts. They saw modernism as a sort of failure so they wanted to propose something counter to that.


There are parallels in design, too. Because of the development of the post-war consumer society there was this ethical conundrum for product designers. How do they participate in this economy? In what ways? Are there any other alternatives?

One of the touchstones in the show is Victor Papanek. He pioneered the idea of humanitarian design, but was completely ostracized by the professional industrial design community because of his critiques. He thought industrial design of the time was facile styling, or only being done for corporate interests when there were other people in need of design. He was an advocate for the disabled and all the people who didn’t receive designed things because everyone ignored them.

Today, it seems more broadly understood that there’s a whole world out there. There’s almost a flip to it where business people will look at the billion people who are underserved as a potential market. So it’s a complete kind of inversion of what was happening then as a critique. You have more of a consensus now that everyone needs design. The notions of ethics and have shifted and business has shifted as well.

Ken Isaacs, Superchair, 1967Courtesy the artist

In researching the show, did you identify any unsung artists and designers that deserve more recognition and more of a place in history than they currently occupy?

There are a lot of artists who were working between disciplines and that’s really hot right now. It wasn’t necessarily really hot then because the art market was forming. A lot of the art history that we know about—minimalism, post-minimalism, conceptualism—was chosen to be promoted within the systems of the art world. A lot of the funkier stuff didn’t get that much promotion. Today, artists and designers are interested in creating immersive environments, working with technologists, and working with engineers so the past practitioners are starting to get their due.

There’s the group called USCO, an acronym for The Company of Us. They were a group of poets, engineers, and digital artists and they created immersive installations. This is also the beginning of installation art. They’re coming back into recognition.


A lot of the conceptual architects are hot now because what they were doing was largely speculative. They weren’t building buildings, they were making installations. A group that we feature prominently in the show is Haus Rucker Co., which is out of Vienna. A lot of contemporary artists directly reference their ideas about space and environment. Tomas Saraceno, for example. Olafur Eliasson, who does spectacular large-scale environmental projects now, would be a reference to that period.

A lot of the graphic design is also interesting. We’re showing work from Ken Isaacs who is a graphic designer. His Knowledge Box is a wooden chamber about 10 or 11 foot square outfitted with 24 slide projectors that display images on the walls, floor, and ceiling. He was really interested—like a lot of people at the time—in Marshall McLuhan’s ideas of how communication would change. He was interested in the bombardment of images and the rapid absorption of images so he would cut photos out of magazines and make slides out of them for these environments. He’s had a little bit of a rebirth lately.

We also have some DIY projects in the show and that’s really hot right now.


DIY culture is such a commodity now. For example, one knitter made $1 million in a year from her Etsy shop.

All of the alignments are there now. You have the Internet, a distribution network, you have a platform by which to engage that level, you have a broader market. Again it’s technology.

Evelyn Roth, who was in Vancouver at the time, pioneered what became the field of fiber art but she was really known for doing recycling projects. She salvaged old video tape and crocheted with the material. She would take apart old sweaters and reweave them into new uses. And that kind of prefigures this upcycling notion.

Newton and Helen Harrison were early eco artists and the museum is restaging a project they did in California in 1972. It’s called Portable Orchard and it was part of their Survival Series in which they explored the interface between technology and nature. It’s a 18 citrus trees planted in a windowless gallery under grow lights—an experiment on what survives. They later became well known because they were one of the very early artists dealing with issues of climate change. It merges into environmentalism.

How do you think designers today should reconcile the notion of utopia with the need for pragmatism?

I think the conditions today allow for both. In a way, the problem was that there was all of this really radical, interesting, speculative thinking happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then the design and architecture professions became increasingly professionalized in between then and now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Today I see that the new generation of designers is more interested in these more speculative and more conceptual ideas. Today you might call it being entrepreneurial.

Now you have systems and technology in place that allow ideas to spread quicker and faster and they can take root in ways they couldn’t back then because communication was slower and the market was different. That was the era of the mass market. It’s a lot of niche markets now. The systems, technology, thinking, and funding today allows some things to happen much more fluidly and easily than they did in the past.

There’s continuity of the past to the present. There is this dialog and that’s what I’m hoping people take away from the exhibition.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.