The retro explosion: why we love vintage

The recent past is taking over modern life. John Walsh explains our love of all things vintage and sets the scene for a cornucopia of retro delights
Click to follow

So we beat on," observed Scott Fitzgerald at the end of The Great Gatsby, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Scott, thou should'st be living at this hour. Hardly a few years into the 21st century, we're alarmingly keen to escape to almost any decade in the past century, provided it featured bold colours and distinctive graphic design. Fast-tracked into a techno-future of iPods, skinny laptops and phone-camera-computers, we are nursing a strange evolutionary blip. Lots of us are embracing the living styles, the domestic trappings, the cars and kitchens, furniture and architecture, even the food and drink choices, of an earlier generation – the generation of our younger selves.

The self-conscious archaising of modern life is seen everywhere. At my local record shop, I find Chris Rea, the grizzled blues guitarist, with a new album – available only on vinyl and CD, mind – of Fifties-tinged guitar instrumentals entitled The Return of the Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes. It comes complete with 1950s-style arty picture book. The vinyl will doubtless end up on my eldest daughter's new acquisition, a shiny, black Steepletone gramophone player, a replica of the Sixties classic, on which she plays her collection of 33rpm discs. In the bathroom, I listen to an old-fashioned, four-square Roberts radio, the revolutionary 1947 design, now available again in bright red or green for £100. On my hall table sits a mail-order catalogue from Baileys, the company that flogs Edwardian-artisan paraphernalia – iron shoe-lasts, copper kitchen scales, oak fruit-delivery crates – as conversation pieces.

No Saturday morning stroll around my neighbourhood is complete without a visit to Hope & Greenwood, a dream of the post-rationing Fifties sweetshop, with its huge jars of Gobstoppers, Flying Saucers and Lemon Drizzle Lollipops. At the local bookshop, the tables groan under the weight of The Dangerous Book for Boys and its dozens of offshoots, devoted to telling young TV game addicts how to spend their summers out of doors, making go-karts, treehouses and knots, and learning how to navigate using a wristwatch. After Christmas 2007, exchangers of book tokens could have chosen between facsimiles of Eagle or Girl annuals, circa 1958, and Nigel Slater's Eating for England, a bath in culinary nostalgia, reminding readers of the lost delights of Custard Creams, Marmite, Quality Street, Bisto and Dairylea triangles. Meanwhile, the newspapers are full of excitement about the new designs of Celia Birtwell, the new movie starring Julie Christie, the re-release of Robert Siodmak's The Killers, made in 1946...

What's going on? Several things may explain the retro explosion. One is that the baby-boomer generation are about to hit retirement age or, among the younger members of the demographic, are staring at the horrible prospect of turning 50. Their heroes of Sixties rock'n'roll – the remaining Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan – are not just getting on a bit, they're facing the hitherto-unimaginable prospect of dying of old age. Rather than indulge in Sixties nostalgia, the boomers are harking back to the culture of their early childhood: to the Fifties.

Then there's the tragic decline of Real Things. In an age of "invisible" downloads from the iTunes library, is it surprising we long for the days when buying a record was an event? When you bought an LP with gate-fold cover, inner-sleeve lyrics sheet and band photographs there was a faint whiff of connectedness, as if you were mystically in touch with the talent within. Retro is all about ownership, solidity and lastingness, of having some concrete possessions in an increasingly virtual world. Inured to on-screen digital images, the theory goes, we (and our teenager offspring) yearn for three-dimensional stuff you can hold in your hand rather than access by remote control, through a Wii console.

Stephen Bayley in his book Design: Intelligence Made Visible notes that the term "retro" was first employed by French journalists in the mid-Seventies to describe a design fad for looking back lovingly on the recent past. He doesn't however, find it has much value. "From the early Sixties," Bayley writes, "Victoriana, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Contemporary were all revived as if to subvert the Modern Movement's obsession with the future, and restore the power of psychological and symbolic meaning in design... Eventually, the distinction between the various 'retro' styles became eroded into a joyless, directionless eclecticism."

The concept behind retro-art isn't new, of course. The impulse to revert to, or recreate, the past is itself an elderly impulse. Neo-classical painting and sculpture, which flourished in Europe between 1750 and 1800, was a conscious retro-rocketing back 180 decades to emulate the "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" of Graeco-Roman art. Robert Adam and Sir John Soane introduced it to English and Scottish buildings, and saw Edinburgh transformed into "the Athens of the North". The 19th-century obsession with Arthurian legends and chivalric codes basked in the retro-stylings of medieval mythology: Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood made an absolute fetish of devout knights kneeling to mysterious damsels in dappled glades.

Nobility was the watchword in these energetic exhumations of the past. There's little actual nobility in our current fascination for 1950s tea services, Pashley bicycles and the "Clip Art" graphics, with their crude, one-colour line drawings of handsome husbands in hats spurring their aproned wives on to feats of culinary genius. But there's something more personal, more emotional, than nobility going on here. As the following pages will show, retro is about rediscovering an everyday beauty we may have missed first time round. Retro is a loving exhumation, a bringing back to the light, of the world we saw – or fancied we saw – around us, before the modern world kicked in and we had to grow up and take responsibility for something called The Future. It may be idle to think we can redeem our lives through Bird's custard and Ladybird books; but we're having a jolly good try.