Originally published in GRAPHIS magazine.
WASHINGTON- At a press conference Monday, U.S. Retro Secretary Anson Williams issued a strongly worded warning of an imminent “national retro crisis,” cautioning that “if current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2012.” According to Williams…the U.S.’s exponentially decreasing retro gap is in danger of achieving parity with real-time historical events early in this century. “We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur,” Williams told reporters.
-From The Onion, reprinted in the New York Times Magazine
Defined by the dictionary as “directed backwards or behind”, retro is traditionally a prefix, usually attached to some more substantial or vibrant word. In contemporary culture, however, it has become a noun, capitalized and standing alone, loosely defining any style that draws heavily from the past. The oxymoron “Modern Retro” usually focuses on design in the style of that from the 1950’s and 60’s, particularly American varieties. The general term can be somewhat broader, however, covering anything from 20’s French Moderne to Depression-era American home furnishings to Scandinavian design from the 70’s. What ties these all together is the shared precedent of acceptance: each was endorsed by some previous generation as modern and comfortable. Currently, there are two broad categories of Retro. First, that which is “heavily influenced” by earlier styles but is new in design and manufacture. This includes everything from Old Navy graphics to Turner Classic Movie channel visuals and Johnny Rocket franchises. Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was the first to epitomize the phenomenon with its glossy hot rod exterior wrapped around a bland, under-powered, marginally reliable platform of a standard compact. Then came the Mini Cooper with the engineering prowess of BMW and, more recently, the Fiat 500.
The smaller second category is comprised of actual designs from the periods which are being remanufactured to original specifications and sold at a premium. This includes a lot of 20th century furniture, ‘50s revival fabrics, Williams & Sonoma’s latest benders and numerous niche market products. Fender™ Bassman amplifiers, as one example, and other Fender musical products from the 50’s and 60’s are now being remanufactured to their exact original specifications and sold for exponentially more than comparable modern Fender products. Go figure. It makes even Starbuck’s seem original by comparison.
As the quote (it’s a joke) indicates, the retro trend we have been experiencing for the last few decades is bound to soon expire by necessity, since we are (no joke) rapidly running out of past styles to emulate. The real question, of course, is not when we are going to run out of past styles to retro, but why we began the entire retro design process in the first place. Are we experiencing a chronic shortage of talented new designers or is the trend consumer-driven? I believe the latter to be true. The last few decades were so confusing, loathsome and crisis-laden that humans sought refuge from the maelstrom in the trappings of past eras. By doing so, they created a market that now dominates the retail industry.
Modern life is stressful, bland and crass. Retro design transports us to kinder, gentler times; where life had a slower pace and products lasted a lifetime. More than any other period, the 1950’s embody the built-for-life, over-engineered charisma so blatantly the polar opposite of today’s disposable, perpetually obsolete culture. Hence, the universal popularity of 50’s Retro. The image, of course, is not remotely accurate, but it’s the way the period is often portrayed and publicly remembered: no tough decisions, no crack cocaine, no AIDS, lots of leisure activities, martinis, soft jazz and domestic bliss. What’s not to like? Everyone wants a happy ending, especially these days. The only problem with this scenario is that there is little (almost nothing) new occurring currently in terms of design. That’s a cultural conundrum: can one be on the leading edge and simultaneously copying 50-year old styles? I think not. So my warning is this: Retro is the Anti-Christ. It’s succor for the ordinary, a pariah of originality. It asks our culture to choose between being comfortable or engaged and, because it precludes being both, may herald the end of original design and creative endeavor for at least a generation or two. Think about that! What if the most creative individuals in our society were hedge fund managers and insurance actuaries? If we don’t get off our collective asses and start finding ways to embrace, rather than deny the future, that’s exactly what we may find 10 years hence. Any society that’s afraid to live in the future will be doomed to live in the past. Retro’s immense popularity is an early warning that the danger is imminent.