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Egads, Watson! What’s Up with the 19th Century Thing?

In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that nostalgia was an illness. A hundred years ago, Freud gave a famous lecture at Clark University in which he pointed out that “hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic symbols of particular experiences.” If this is true, I wonder what must be behind contemporary culture’s current nostalgia for the 19th century itself, manifested in a superabundance of handlebar mustaches, arm garters, taxidermy and ornate typography—those trappings of the Victorian Age that seem to be showing up everywhere these days.

In New York, it started a few years ago with the opening of bars and restaurants like Freemans, Smith & Mills, Five Leaves, and Hotel Delmano, all of which bespeak a bespoke bohemia based on a proliferation of antlers, dreamy landscape paintings, tin ceilings, Edison bulbs and baroquely named mixed drinks listed on finely filigreed menus. (In his 2007 historical novel Heyday, which takes place in the mid-19th century, author Kurt Andersen could easily be describing an experience in one of these retro redoubts when he writes of his main character perusing a cocktail menu: “He wore a dazed smile and moved his lips as he read the names of the American drinks he knew . . . and wondered about the ingredients of the ones he didn’t—the Timberdoodles, Syracuse Smashers, Flip-Flaps, Drizzles, and Great Big Boys.”)



Freemans Restaurant in New York.

The Freemans phenomenon springs largely from the vision of two interior designer brothers, Johnny and Kevin McCormick, who have populated pubs with distressed décors and a belief that “people wanted a little more warmth and history back.” While after nearly a decade of Karim Rashid–replicant restaurants this is certainly true, there’s more behind Neo-Victorian nostalgia than just a pendulum swing away from slick. For one, despite the flourishes of the 19th-century aesthetic, it is a trend that seems emphatically masculine in nature. The McCormicks are not the only male siblings in the gaslight game. The Mast Brothers—the bearded and Williamsburg-based chocolate makers—have also become identified as neo-Victorian nabobs whose artful packaging employs Florentine wrapping paper and a simple craft label with their name on it.


The Mast Brothers and their chocolate.


Fashion designers like Alexander McQueen have followed suit in menswear collections that feature frock coats, hats, and spats on models that look ready for a Five Points–style rumble if you dare to question their masculinity. And this Christmas, Sherlock Holmes—that patron saint of Victorian vigor—is appearing in a Guy Ritchie remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 19th-century novels starring Robert Downey Jr., whose forty-something torso is stripped for fisticuffs in publicity stills.



An Alexander McQueen outfit.


A still from the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie.

With its downbeat economy and seemingly endless wars abroad, the America of today has much in common with a time in the not-so-distant past that also saw a rise in interest in the Victorian aesthetic: the mid-1970s. Back then, American masculinity was in a siege state as well—victim in part to the Vietnam War and the changing gender roles inspired by women’s lib. And while this time around chances are no millennial male will dare to dress himself in knickers the way Nick Fleetwood did on the cover of Rumours, these days there’s a definite comfort in curlicues—a repudiation of hard-edged reality that’s also evident in graphics that delight in detail.

Rob Barnickel, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer known for creating finely wrought branding campaigns for everything from bands to menswear lines, points to the lure of 19th-century Romanticism in the face of grim post-industrial society. In his identity for South African photographer Sacha Waldman, Barnickel borrows inspiration from the 19th-century French typographer Charles Derriye, who was renowned for deeply decorative borders and floral fillips. And in a series of T-shirt graphics he designed for the fashion label What Comes Around Goes Around, Barnickel juxtaposes detailed engravings of wild animals mounting a grid of impossible, Escher-like elements in a seeming smackdown between Victorian naturalism and the neon 1980s—another all-encompassing cultural trend. (In this instance at least, nature, “red in tooth and claw,” seems to be kicking Escher’s ass.)



Two pieces by designer Rob Barnickel.

Like all stylistic moments, however, the current Gilded Age is bound to pass at some point. So if you happen to be distinctly anti-antimacassar and relish a return to flush-left Helvetica and rectilinear furniture, chances are good that your time will soon come. The Lazy Susan of styles is in constant rotation—and another 19th-century term for nostalgia is Schweizerheimweh, which translates as “Swiss homesickness.”


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