Flea Markets and Postmodernism

On any given Saturday afternoon in the 90s, my family could be found rummaging through a garage sale or hitting the road to some little downtown to explore the antique shops. Department stores, with their carefully selected, priced, and arranged items were not for us. We were after unique items with a story that spoke to us on a personal level.

There was one type of venue that was always my favorite: the flea market. Not the antique shop on the square, where all the items are thoughtfully curated and overpriced. No, I am talking about a true flea market located in the still-to-be-renovated part of downtown. It is open during odd hours and the only way to find it is to follow the hand-painted signs. It’s a risk. You might get lost, or you might find a fabulous chandelier.

This to me is postmodernism.

Flea markets reject the grid. You walk in and there is a table full of dingy stuffed animals, dishes, and spare car parts to your left. To your right is a hodgepodge of furniture. There’s an add-on where the carpet changes color and slopes down into a room of flower pots and romance novels. No signs, no flashing lights, you the shopper must make sense of it all (Figure 1).

Figure 1. April Greiman, The Modern Poster, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988. Text swirls in space, some is set at an angle, and it is up to the viewer to decide what to look at first.

The flea market embraces the juxtaposition of retro and contemporary. New stuff is mixed in with old stuff. A 20s flapper dress dangles off a rack next to a flat screen TV. “High art” mixes with “Low art”: a stack of dogeared People magazines sits atop a shelf of encyclopedias.


Figure 2. Herb Lubalin, U&Ic Magazine Cover, 1978. Retro type mixes with a new technique of inserting photography into type.

Nothing is priced in the flea market. Value is in the eye of the shopper. A $35,000 antique armoire could go for $50 if the shopper is a good haggler. On the other hand, a broken radio worth nothing to most people might sell for a few hundred bucks to someone who sees it as sculpture art.

You get the idea. postmodernism design can appear disorganized, embraces retro typefaces and vernacular, and caters to the individual. It is risky, but worth it to a willing audience.

Image references

Greiman, A. (1988). The Modern Poster, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York, N.Y.: Accessed through ARTStore Slide Gallery, 9/7/2017.

Lubalin, H. (1978). U&Ic Magazine Cover. New York, NY: Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. Accessed through Graphic Icons by John Clifford, pg 148.