Toxic Nostalgia

“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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33 thoughts on “Toxic Nostalgia

  1. Selbys

    All good designers should understand the history of design. I think from there a designer would be able to incorporate both the “traditional” and trendy design to create something unique instead of just copying one another.

  2. Ramblin'V

    This is indeed a thought provoking article. As a graphic artist I too recognize this current trend. However, I also feel it is unfair to say that just because something was popular in the past it should be eliminated from my current design style altogether. Great artists used to copy the masters to learn skills. Perhaps we have an affinity for nostalgia because we can now recreate the past with such ease and in more interesting ways due to technology. To answer your question: Does this create a progressive visual culture, or does it impede real progress? I see progress! If you think about it, we are in actuality re-creating nostalgic designs but with contemporary, cutting edge technology. Warhol could have never imagined a 4 color pop art made from a click of a button on our imacs. I have a question too. Is it nostalgia we are after or is it redefining the norm to create something that is both visually appealing and functional? Mixing the best of both worlds? I mean the “typewriter” keyboard is a fabulous example of this combination. I personally love to pound of the keys when writing and to be able to do so digitally, that may be nostalgic in design but it’s also brand new in concept and function. Also – what about the idea of timelessness? America’s nostalgia is also part of our very young history. We are so used to innovation we forget the grand scheme. My point being, should something from a just few or more decades ago even be considered nostalgic? Considering the grand scope of the history of mankind, it seems logical to me that these rather current trends would not disappear so quickly.

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  4. Matthew

    The most satisfying moments in design have come to me when I take the time to understand the choices that were made by those who have come along ahead of me.  In many cases they were choices that were the result of a lot of effort and the outcome worked well.
    Nostalgia exists because we all used thosed things that were designed that way and they worked well for us.
    The lesson for me has been to slow down, understand what the ancients did and why, and then slow down again and see if I can take modern ideas and integrate them so that the user can benefit from them without having give up that which was good about the older stuff.
    The result often look older and may be judged as being nostalgic.  But nostalgia was not the goal.  Just a by-product.

  5. neil

    The past is a warm and cosy place. Safe too. We take out the bad and remember the good in our past experiences. Hence the popularity of Instagram, et al. and hand drawn folksy type just like mom used to make. (this only applies to us wealthy Westerners. Third world people in third world countries can’t wait to escape to the future).

  6. Dorothy Phillips

    Yes nostalgia design is everywhere, but I think the problem is when it’s used without thought. Using the style just because it’s trendy, and not because it’s the right solution is never a good thing. Take the “Web 2.0” phase for example. Everything had to be shiny with dropshadows and reflections which started to look ridiculous. That being said, I still love the retro looks I’ve been seeing!

  7. Allie

    Yup. I unapologetically admit that I am drawn to nostalgic design out of escapism. The present sucks, the future looks grim, and I fantasize about a world with modern amenities and human rights, with the better-looking design of 50+ years ago. So sue me.

  8. Don Hammond

    Virtually every building in this country that has been designated as a historic structure worthy of preservation—from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to the Berkeley, California Post Office currently in danger of being sold by the USPS—is a pastiche of historic architectural influences and styles. The classic architecture of the Greeks and Romans was the basis for most classic architecture of post-Medieval Europe, and the architecture in the New World was everything from a slavish copy of European architecture to a creative reinterpretation incorporating indigenous architectural styles and new building technology, and most of it somewhere in between.
    Vreeland’s condescending dismissal of what she calls “nostalgia” is particularly hypocritical, considering the fact that she was born in Paris into a wealthy and well-connected family whose daily lives would have been spent in historic structures, estates, and resorts. After marriage, she lived in London’s Regent’s Park amidst buildings which are the very essence of historical nostalgia, and then spent the rest of her life in Manhattan, working in wood-paneled offices with Persian rugs and elaborate plasterwork. As is typical for people in her financial and social position, the old stuff she liked and lived with was simply “good taste,” while the old stuff that the commoners liked and could afford was just nostalgic crap.

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  10. Leban Hyde

    I enjoy the points being made in this article and, to an extent, feel they are valid. I also think that James Puckett, however harsh, shared a very educated rebuttle.
    That said, I think the current trend, as with most design trends, is neither here nor there. Everything is as it should be. Nostalgicism is to be expected as a counter to the digital age. Art and design, as it always has, reflects the current sentiments of the community that generates it. Soon it will take a turn, Modernism will revive itself, and we will all be celebrating the mantra of Form Follows Function.
    For now, enjoy what’s being done because it will only happen once. The next round of nostalgia in say, 20 years or so, will look similar, but will still be different.

  11. Simon

    This is all great but what no-one has mentioned is why? Its ok to say that design needs to create something new but if ‘people’ and the industry of selling, both objects and ideas, rely on old aesthetics to sell then thats the design that we will use…its where our culture is right now, we need vintage design because we’re all sold the idea that the past was better than the present and indeed the pasts vision of the future is better than the present. 
    As long as we are being sold our own past in the form of lifestyle choices and objects nostalgia will remain a driving force in design. 

  12. d sam

    It’s a fad. Ironicly parralleling the fad of 100 years ago.
    Design of electronics just doesn’t suit itself to the embelishments found on mechanical turn of the century machines, unless the embelishment is the purpose.Vintage stained vid’s or graphics do conjure the warm fuzzies with a lot of people.
    I certainly sense the authors distaste for the steampunk genre, however she may not credit the greater context of fantasy dominating almost every artform in the last 10 years.
    I particularly appreciate the above comment praising MS’s metro. ‘Tis true.

  13. lea blüm

    I really can’t agree more. 
    it’s all restoration hardware, retro, quirky with artisanal marketing which was interesting and provocative when capitalism became tone deaf to culture. 

  14. Krabbie

    IMO, in iCal, as you depict it as a DESK BLOTTER, I used a real paper version, as a desk calendar for 35 years with a cheap ball pen for keeping track of my appointments in my auto shop. My wife and i still use fountain pens today. I realize I am OLD and retired, but nothing looks so stupid as trying to come up with a ICONic icon in a way of showing the future that is not here yet. Trying to be FUTURISTIC, now, when tomorrow the futuristic LOOK will go down a NEW design rabbit hole is farce to me. I’ll take the Skeu icons anyday, today,IMHO

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  19. Vibhor

    I’d had enough of simplistic cold so called modern design – I am glad we are moving towards the classic..the things that were crafted with love over long periods of time…and so the person making them would add embellishments for various reasons (free time, value addition etc)…now our only problem right now is that we are over-doing it…that too without love (talking about the people making these things)
    We’ll keep doing it until some ingenious designer / artist comes up with the look or direction we are looking for…which we are…as it’s clear from our change of taste that we are sick of the sensibility that came before our vintage obsession. 

  20. Ruler boy

    One key part of the critique is missing.  The ever-faster cycle of needing “new” in design has resulted in deisgn being treated as trash on a seasonal basis if not even shorter.  The appreciation, deeper use, and exploration of any moment in design has been chucked for quicker profits and more superificial communication.  “Rehashing” elements of the past and attempting to use them as a mirror for the present can be very smart; that it has just become another device for so many promotions and, as the article states, is now quickly just passe, is definitely the problem.

  21. Angela Riechers

    I agree that trying to find the new in design simply for the sake of newness is wrongheaded, and no one is suggesting that we deny artists the right to create in any style they want. Nostalgic design makes us feel good—that’s why there’s so much of it—and a great deal of it is beautiful and well crafted, certainly not offensive. It’s what it represents that is troubling. All design draws upon what’s come before, but without an evolution of the ideas and forms we’re stuck in a loop. Adding a USB hookup so you can use a manual typewriter as a keyboard for an iPad is kind of nuts. The Dodgers are never coming back to Ebbetts Field. All that’s over.
    I also agree that pop-top cans suck, but rather than returning to a flat top that needs an opener, what would be even better is an improved version of the pop top. Nostalgic design prevents this kind of development from ever happening. We aren’t going to get anywhere by recycling the past. Incorporate it, build on it, sure, but straight-up repetition is a dead end.

  22. Daniel Royer

    Great article….although I don’t necessarily agree with all your comment. There is no question that nostalgic design (especially a renewed interest in Americana) is extremely popular right now. Even the newest fashions are a throwback to previous generations. My feeling is that it is neither good nor bad. It’s just design. Even “modern” design was pioneered by a select few, with the majority of it being created by the bandwagoners. It’s a fad, a new trend. One that will see a ton of designers follow suit only to change and adapt when the general populous turns its eye to something else. Instead of being bitter, I choose to appreciate nostalgic design, knowing full well it will only be around for a time. Then we will be arguing about the next design trend on a blog post 20 years from now.

  23. Brian Cohen

    The broad swipe against nostalgia makes for an eye-catching thesis, but the idea breaks down upon further analysis. While it is easy to find superficial connections from I.D to graphic design to architecture, each trade has its own histories and meanings. Architecture, the least superficial, has always used new technologies and old ideas–if you had studied the Renaissance you would learn that it used principles from Ancient Greece and Rome. Graphic Design, the most superficial, is about communication, so all ideas, new and old are used to convey these messages. Nostalgia is most awkward in Industrial Design, which is closely tied with the newest technology (hense the silliness of the typewriter with a screen). 
    We have always had one foot in the past and one foot in the future–modernists, nostalgists, democrats, republicans–because our society changes but we as humans do not (or not very much over time). 

  24. Paul Bunyar

    In the case of Churchkey Beer, I actually think they are using a superior technology. Pull tabs cans went away due to sharp edges and the extra trash the pull tabs became. The pop-top cans are just as bad when it comes to sharp edges and those little attached tabs have also become trash as some people twist them off and throw them around.
    The church key provides a nice and smooth opening from which to drink — simply by pushing the sharp edge downward and into the can. And I would expect making a smooth top can is cheaper than making pop tops. Yeah, you have to have a church key handy, but at one time everyone did. I remember my dad having one in the glove box just in case — oil cans could be opened that way too.

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  26. James Puckett

    For those wishing to discover something new, however, all this unending nostalgia begins to provoke a feeling very close to nausea.
    So what? Get over yourself. Nobody owes you a damned thing, no matter how much you want to see something new.
    Your tired neophilial concept of creativity was born in the nineteenth century; it is older than the origins of the nostalgic designs you present. Your essay is as much a nostalgic rehash of Max Bill’s complaints about Tsichold abandoning the new typography as Obama’s new graphics are a nostalgic rehash of older graphics. If you cannot come up with new critical ideas, why should anyone take your complaints about their unoriginality seriously?
    Tschichold was right; that his rejecting the old typography was just as fascistic as the Nazi reject of the work he and Renner were doing at the Meisterschule. Think about his words:
    “He who calls for the supression of freedom of thought and artistic expression carries on the gloomy business of those who we thought were defeated. He commits the worst crime, for he buries our highest good, the sign of man’s worth—freedom. Which perhaps a man must lose first, as I did, before he can discover its true value.”—Jan Tschichold
    And some other creative perspectives on neophilia:
    “If you insist on being different just for the sake of being different, you can always come down in the morning with a sock in your mouth.” —Leo Burnett
    “It doesn’t matter if it’s been said, it’s never been said by me.” —Josh Homme

  27. Rick Barraza

    Fantastic artlce. As a software designer and developer, we have seen a push against skeumorphism the past couple years and Microsoft (of all people) are leading a strong movement against it with Metro. In my complementary article ( ) I argue that the appeal the skeumorphism is not bad in itself and during transitional periods of emerging technology it can serve an important function of acceptance. But like sugar, and that is what it is, eye candy, it needs moderation. While skeumorphism is the fastest way to nail visceral design, it shouldn’t be used as a crutch.