Toxic Nostalgia

Posted inBranding & Identity Design
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“I LOATHE nostalgia!” The provocative opening sentence of the legendary magazine editor Diana Vreeland’s 1984 memoir, D.V., would find few supporters today—as a culture, we currently ADORE nostalgia. Design, from I.D. and the digital world to graphics and architecture, is drowning in it. Every era has borrowed and repurposed visuals from previous times, but lately design recycling has reached a new high. The endless archives of the Internet allow us to continually review and mine the past with great ease; as a result, we now often cloak the new in the forms of yesterday, even when these forms no longer serve any purpose except as wistful reminders of a world gone by. Does this create a progressive visual culture, or does it impede real progress? In short: has nostalgia become a toxic force in design?

Modernism strove to eliminate ornamentation and retain only an object’s pared-down, essential form, introducing typefaces without cluttery serifs, and industrial design and architecture stripped of the merely decorative. By contrast, the packaging of some contemporary products uses old-fashioned elements at the expense of function. A good example is Churchkey beer, which eschews the useful pop-top in favor of flat-topped steel cans that require a separate opener. The company’s tagline reads, “It’s worth the effort. The harder it is to achieve your goal the greater the satisfaction.” Churchkey’s website features a helpful video demonstrating how to correctly open a beer with the strange historic device (the churchkey) included with each six-pack. Having to watch a video to open a can does not feel like progress.

We are especially nostalgic for the mechanical. We miss the weight of objects, the sounds of gears and levers, the clicks and thumps, the ringing bells and clacking keys—and so we have a whole range of modern skeuomorphs, or derivative objects that retain ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original. Noisy Typer adds the sound of typewriter keys to a computer keyboard, and USB Typewriter (“A groundbreaking advancement in the field of obsolescence!”) allows any manual typewriter to be converted to a keyboard for an iPad or PC. Several iPhone covers are available that mimic the look of a vintage Leica or Hasselblad film camera. Instagram filters turn digital photographs into imitation Polaroids. None of this adds functionality. Nearly every one of the iPhone/iPad’s built-in apps uses an icon that refers to an outdated, much earlier version of itself: the Frank Sinatra stand mike, the vintage tube television, the spiral-bound address book, the envelope. Yet many smartphone users are too young to have used most of these objects in real life (consider the inconvenience of carrying them around); the nostalgic design of the interface feeds upon a set of reconstructed memories divorced from the experiences that generated them, creating a culturally-shared yearning for lost golden moments. The latest iteration of Apple’s iCal looks like a desk blotter—an item that’s been obsolete since we stopped writing with fountain pens. Ask ten people under the age of 30 if they know what a desk blotter is or what it was used for, and see how many have a clue what you’re talking about. Nostalgic design serves as a kind of safekeeping, preserving images of beloved objects so they don’t completely disappear from the collective unconscious.

Maybe we pine for outdated mechanical items because featherweight digital objects and applications lack soul. Quickly obsolete (the average lifespan for digital products is 18 months before a new version becomes available), they acquire no patina, remaining devoid of the gentle signs of wear and tear that prove they were used and even loved. The Singer Company’s 160th-anniversary limited-edition sewing machine—made mostly of plastic, with digital components—borrows its look from the company’s iconic cast-iron machines from decades past. There’s no significant downside, looks-wise; the anniversary edition is a lovely homage to the Singer heritage. But consider how many Singers from the early part of last century are still in use today, working flawlessly—then try to imagine this latest version still operational in 2112. Its nostalgic design is tinged with even more sadness than usual; it becomes an unintentional memorial to a vanished age of durable products.

Most vexing of all from a design perspective is the particular flavor of nostalgia best described as a fantasy trip to the imagined past. If years gone by are continually portrayed as better times, how can we hope for actual better times to come? For one dispiriting example, compare the Obama campaign’s graphic design for 2012 to his 2008 efforts. The first iteration introduced the distinctive Gotham O logo, promising a new path to the future. This year’s “Betting on America” combines the O with folksy-feeling retro typography that seems to look backward, evoking the design of fruit-crate labels from the early 20th century. It is a pastoral, farmland version of a simpler America—one that couldn’t comfortably exist in today’s economy.

Both recently constructed baseball stadiums in New York City fall victim to this nostalgic fantasy approach, too; the Yankees have brought back the old manually-operated scoreboards in left and right field (a feature last used in the 1960s), while the Mets’ Citi Field has a facade loosely modeled on Ebbets Field, the beloved former home of the greatly missed Brooklyn Dodgers. Even the dark green color of Citi Field’s seats was copied from Manhattan’s extinct Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants and the Mets once played.

In the advertising world, Peroni beer has created devastatingly beautiful commercials set on Lake Como or in Italian ski resorts, honey-tinged reflections of the 1950’s and ’60’s complete with soundtracks featuring cover versions of classic hits like “My Girl” and the Temptations’ “Get Ready.” Flirty women wear heavy eyeliner on their lids and old-fashioned curlers in their hair as they swan around in structured little bikinis. Laughing men drive classic wooden speedboats and lounge in swim trunks reminiscent of Cary Grant on the Riviera. There’s nothing wrong with any of this—except that the world shown is long gone. A viewer comes away thinking, “I wish I’d been there . . . it looked better than what we’ve got now.” Nearly all good design is aspirational, showing us that better possibilities exist, but using lost eras to project images of perfection seems unfair—we can never duplicate the past, no matter how hard we try.

Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable. For those wishing to discover something new, however, all this unending nostalgia begins to provoke a feeling very close to nausea. Diana Vreeland wrote in Allure, “This book isn’t about the past. I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for the suggestion . . . of something I’ve never seen.” Shouldn’t we, too, keep trying to shape that unseen future? Shouldn’t we refuse to accept that it only resembles the past?

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