Patrick Caulfield


In web and interface design there is currently a trend towards both flatness and the use of monotone colour palettes, the most well known implementations of which are found in the latest versions of Microsoft's Windows and Apple's iOS operating systems. There has been a lot of digital ink spent on these changes. John Maeda of RISD writes:

The word 'radical' was even tossed around in a few notable places, suggesting that design battles around re-flattening interfaces and smoothing out shadows actually advance the future of technology and design in the digital age.

Maeda is correct in his assertion that such discussion is largely superficial.

In this context it is worth considering the exhibition of Patrick Caulfield's paintings currently on at the Tate Britain. Here, we can see flatness and monotone colour palettes deployed in a different context. It is a useful corrective to the utopian progressive rhetoric that accompanies flat design and is so prevalent in technology circles. While Caulfield's paintings are certainly idyllic, they also foreground flatness for what it is: an aesthetic choice, and a bourgeois and potentially anti-humanist one at that (Caulfield's paintings are largely devoid of human figures with one notable exception: a painting of Juan Gris).

In fact Caulfield's paintings are appealing largely because they present a world from which humanity and nature can be selectively exiled. This is a world in which a Tandoori Restaurant without patrons is preferable to a busy one. They could be re-imagined as scenes from zombie apocalypse films like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend), in which the main character wanders deserted metropolitan streets. In first person, the gallery visitor is recast as the victim of an imminent zombie attack, which is to say that there is something haunting about Caulfield's paintings, however flat they may be. Rather than fading beneath functionality, as designers seem to expect, the flatness becomes a kind of function of itself. Isn't that rather the experience of phone with the latest iOS? I don't remember what it did, but I do remember it being very flat indeed.

Patrick Caulfield is at the Tate Britain from the 5th of June until the 1st September, 2013

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