Do you sometimes wonder if anything today is genuinely new or original? Does everything feel like a cover or remix or re-edit or re-release? The fact that so many of today’s most popular products and designs are retro reissues is by no means insignificant. In our latest Lowe Counsel Future Sign: Retromania we explore the concept of cultural nostalgia. This is a continuation from last years Future Sign: Analogue Update. While a preoccupation with the past is certainly not a new invention, the scale of the current retro obsession reveals much about contemporary fears and aspirations. Driven by a combination of factors from the need for escapism, an ageing population, anxiety about the speed of change and the desire to recreate the material and tangible in an immaterial and digital world. Retromania is almost an all-pervasive force in contemporary culture.
Some argue that our retro obsession can be seen as a symptom of nostalgia for better days and former glories. While others argue that the reason why retro nostalgia is so prevalent in our time is because it provides an antidote to the current speed of change in contemporary culture. It seems that our culture is stuck in repeat. For example, contemporary fashion has not changed dramatically since the 1990s, compared with previous decades where clear stylistic boundaries exist between decades and generations. The differences between the dress codes from the 1920s until the 1980s were clear and distinguishable, making it easy to date films of photographs from a specific era. Kurt Anderson writing in Vanity Fair highlights the relative lack of stylistic innovation in contemporary fashions, compared to previous decades. Since the 1990s there have been far less dramatic stylistic differences. Instead we have witnessed an almost continual referencing and reinterpretation of the past. As Anderson explains: “In the arts, entertainment and style realms, this bizarre ‘Groundhog Day’ stasis of the last 20 years or so certainly feels like an end of cultural history.”
Contemporary theorists suggest that the current obsession with culture of the past is a symptom of the present being too futuristic. The concept of ‘Future Shock’, first coined by Alvin Toffler in the 1970’s, describes a certain psychological state created by: “Too much change in too short a period of time”. This can be analysed as a collective unconscious reaction to the startling newness and volatility of modern technological society. Seen within the context of today’s advanced modern technological world of holograms, cloud computing, augmented reality, Google glasses and nano-technology; the present resembles what was seen as science fiction merely 10 years ago.
Instant Nostalgia and the Rise of ‘Meme’ Culture
Contemporary culture has become an accelerating nostalgia machine. The Internet has provided us with a portal to relive and explore the cultural minutiae’s of the past – facilitating the phenomenon of ‘instant nostalgia’. Retro cultural sound bites are being used and traded as cultural currency, in keeping with our increasingly sharable culture of ‘like’ and ‘share’. (Pioneered by the Dada movement in the 1920s and taken to extreme by the Post-Modernism of the 1980s and 90s.) The cut-and-paste nature of digital culture is particularly suited to facilitating nostalgia. The tools to remix are available to all and used to remix culture to create the cultural currency of today: The Meme. Meghan Lewit, writing in the Atlantic Review points out that:
“The Internet allows us to indulge more than ever in cultural tokens from our childhood.”
The rise of the meme as the dominant mode of popular culture often uses a mix of contemporary messages and retro images to create new collective meaning. Retro sound bites or memes are being used and traded as currency in our increasingly sharable culture. MTV executive Van Toffler explains: “We're going through a period of what we call 'instant nostalgia,' where it kind of goes back no further than the mid-'90s.”
Nostalgia seems to be starting earlier and earlier as digital technology helps to accelerate the speed at which revivals seem to come around. Right on schedule the 90s are the latest time period to witness a revival, as the world’s most influential consumers and creators, now in there 30s, relive their formative years. Designers and image-makers are now drawing inspiration from the pop culture of their youth. The number of 90s nostalgia and revival blogs demonstrates the appeal to a generation hungry for nostalgic tokens from their childhood. US TV channel Nickelodeon has brought back classic series, such as All That, Doug, Kenan and Kel and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Keith Dawkins, Senior Vice President at Nickelodeon explains the phenomenon: "It’s not just about the shows. It’s about the environment, the packaging, and everything that was going on at that time. They view Nickelodeon [of the ‘90s] as the golden age, because they’re so deeply emotionally connected to that time period.”
Nostalgia for our Digital Past
The digital past has become the latest thing to be mined to provide shareable nuggets of nostalgia. A whole host of apps have been created to accommodate people’s nostalgic desire to revive their past. Examples like web app Time Hop sends subscribers a daily email of their Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare posts from a year ago. The popularity in such apps has been fuelled by the easily shareable nature of digital culture combined with people's increasing tendencies for life logging - to record every single significant moment of their lives. As Jonathan Wegener, Co-Founder of Timehop explains: “Everybody is starting to realize that there’s value in the past, (because) everything is more emotional when it’s in the past.” Another example is Dear Photograph, a running diary of photographic memories juxtaposed with their modern versions. The popularity of the website (20,000 hits a day) has lead to the publication of a Dear Photograph book.
Digital technology is now subject to its own revival with the low-fi ‘pixelated’ digital graphic style currently hugely influential in contemporary design. Stephanie Buck, writing for Mashable describes the appeal of retro technology: "In the rapidly changing world of technology, pixel art represents a reminder of simpler times.” Artists such as Shawn Smith, with his 8-bit Animal Sculptures, are blurring the line between reality and simulation – exploring the conception of forms in the digital age. The pixel print has emerged as a key visual style for 2012/13 with examples appearing everywhere from the high fashion catwalk at Preen to leading edge furnishings by Cristian Zuzunaga.
The pixel aesthetic looks set to be a massive contemporary visual style - spawning a variety of products and fashion items. Dutch design firm IXXI creates and sells pixelated pop art and fine art portraits.
People are looking for increased levels of authenticity as a rejection of modern additives and manufacturing techniques. The last few years have seen a growing trend for reissued retro food products and ingredients.
Last year McDonalds launched the ‘1955’ burger in Europe – looking to recreate the old-style burgers sold in the restaurant 55-years ago. Tapping into the current trend for traditional US diner food the retro burgers have already proved a hit in European markets.
“It [1965 burger] has become Germany’s best-performing premium sandwich.”
- Don Thompson, President and Chief Operating Officer of McDonalds.
“It appeals to a bunch of people who remember it, have warm nostalgic feelings toward it and want to try it again, but then there’s another audience who have never heard of it,”
- Simon Green, marketing director of Global Brands.
Procter & Gamble released limited edition vintage packaging in Target supermarkets last year as a way of reproducing that “that simple, uncomplicated, comfortable feeling associated with no-frill, value-based products of the past”. Similarly, last year Tesco’s reintroduced tins of Campbell’s condensed soup in their original 1960s Warhol-style tins. Churchkey Can Co have created new 1935 retro style flat-top beer cans which are opened using a churn key, allowing consumers to enjoy a forgotten mechanism of the past. Amy Cantu, a spokesperson for Target explains: “Surprising guests with vintage packaging speaks to Target’s goal of keeping the weekly shopping trip fun and fresh.”
Retro Advertising Design
Retro advertising designs have also enjoyed a revival, as brands and advertisers look to summon the humour and stylish simplicity associated with past eras. Car rental company Hertz’s new retro styled ad campaign was inspired by 50s travel posters. Newsweek’s "Madmen issue" contained many original brand ad designs from the 60s – including ads for Johnnie Walker Red label and Spam.
What we take away from these findings is an increased, and further increasing desire to hold onto what has left us, by any means necessary. While the technological and social tools to do so continue to become more and more sophisticated, they’re seemingly done so expressly to appease an emotional tether to simpler times from a bygone era. And the returns are very promising thus far.