Retro graphics: Why can't today's designers get enough of the past?

Charlotte Philby
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:53

Over the years, any number of artists, writers and film-makers have laid out their visions for the future of the world in which they were living. In the late 1940s, in an almost uncanny anticipation of what was to come, George Orwell penned his account of a land blighted by pervasive government surveillance, with the classic novel 1984. In 1981, the director John Carpenter gave us the sci-fi action movie Escape From New York, in which the city had been transformed into one big maximum security prison. And who could forget Prince's worldwide hit "1999", in which "the sky was all purple" and there were "people running everywhere".

Clearly, the accuracy of the predictions in these respective masterpieces varies. But what each one failed to foresee is that while we might now spend an inordinate portion of our lives tending to virtual gardens and feeding imaginary pets at our laptops, or indeed conducting online conversations with neighbours who live three metres away, there are certain aspects of the past that we refuse to let go. And so we arrive at the marketing buzzword of our time: retro. The public thirst for this stuff has now become such that any second-hand shop need only rebrand itself as a "vintage" store to make a killing. Forget silver Spandex body-suits, metallic metropolises and flying cars, the 21st century has arrived and it's all about 1980s-style jumpsuits, Laura Ashley patchworks and mint-condition Beetles.

The current obsession for all things old is nowhere more rife than in the land of graphic design – a phenomenon explored in a new book called New Retro. By taking a look at the range of retro-inspired products which surrounds us today, the authors underline the well-established theory that our nostalgia for things we associate with a simpler, safer past grows in times of recession and global insecurity. To this effect, some pieces are reminiscent of a specific era, such as a series of reissued Penguin books made with debossed off-white paper and hand-lettered rendering, evoking the Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th century, or Coca Cola's Lovebeing Alu-bottle series, which uses "Pop Art colours, motifs and playful type that recalls the 'love-in' atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s" according to the writers. Others are simply intended to evoke a certain feeling.

The sign for La Manufacture theatre school in Lausanne, Switzerland (below), for example, which is pasted across two walls of the building, was inspired by its location in an old factory building. Made using die-cut metal plates and printed directly on to the walls, together with the worn texture and colour of the building, it is supposed to evoke an established, industrial feeling.

Above all, in contemporary design there is an increasing tendency to meld elements from different eras in order to create something new and different but which also has the sense of being familiar. The new Metroscript typeface, created by Michael Doret (and showcased on the poster seen here on the right), taking its cue from a number of popular handwriting styles from the 1920s to the 1950s, is a case in point. This pastiching, the design world seems largely to agree, is the only way forward: you take what you want from the past and you leave the rest behind. And that, just so you know, is how real progress is made.

'New Retro' by Brenda Dermody and Teresa Breathnach, Thames & Hudson, £18.95

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