The heart of the matter

Why is there a growing market for nostalgia and retro products? Could it be because the public views modern design as unemotional, gimmicky, cold… and generally not very good? Gaynor Williams thinks so, but believes some designers are working towards so

SBHD: Why is there a growing market for nostalgia and retro products? Could it be because the public views modern design as unemotional, gimmicky, cold… and generally not very good? Gaynor Williams thinks so, but believes some designers are working towards solutions

Christmas is the time when everyone gets seriously into sentimentality. As we all sat there – semi-comatose, munching on mince pies and watching ancient Bing Crosby movies over the hols – one of the biggest pulls on our subconscious was nostalgia.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been such a huge upsurge in nostalgia that many advertising agencies and designers have turned it into an art form all its own.

Some manufacturers have even obliged by producing so-called retro designs of varying descriptions, from cosmetics to radios and watches. There is even a retailer called Old Times, which has recently opened up a branch on London’s Regent Street, selling reproductions and re-interpretations of Celtic, Gothic and you name-ic designs. Yet few manufacturers seem to have seriously analysed what it is about “old things” that people really like.

Retro goods are, more often than not, gimmicky and of poor quality. In design terms they present a collection of cold, calculatedly commercial mannerisms, rather than expressing the values and feelings that people really hanker after.

As a collector of sorts myself, I frequently search antique shops and auctions looking for ceramics. I have often wondered whether the Wedgewoods of this world did the same, to get inspiration. What is it about, say, Susie Cooper’s coffee sets that make them so collectable – even the mass-manufactured ones? Why not take some lessons from her: and I don’t mean by simply copying them.

I hope I’m not being sentimental, but it seems to me that what we have lost in much modern design is feeling. Whoever designed the Silver Ghost, for example, obviously really loved cars – was obsessed by them – and poured their heart into its shapely lines.

This is precisely what Volkswagen has set out to do with its “Beetle of the 21st century”, due out by the end of the decade – put the feeling back into functionality. But it’s a bit too little too late for my money.

For years, cars have been designed as blank, faceless status symbols, conveying nothing about their owners except their level on the social scale. Now, at last, a company has come right out with it and said that it wants to create an “emotional design”.

No doubt Volkswagen has been asking itself why there’s such a huge market in second-hand VWs: old war horses that appeal to people who like some spirit and fun in a vehicle.

Creating products with “emotion” has been the key to Apple Computer’s success. Now, at last, other manufacturers, such as Volkswagen and electronics group Philips, suddenly show signs of doing the same.

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t mind taking a look at Philippe Starck’s new Moto 6.5 – the motorbike that puts the caf back into racer. You can tell that Starck is a committed biker from the auto-eroticism of the design: an exposed radiator and exposed engine – but with a strike plate under the engine block; fanciful touches like wheel spokes; a neat, unassuming, old-fashioned round headlamp; steel tips to the handlebars… yet, with all that, a strange and striking tear-drop frame with an insect-like tail.

The history of the motorbike is all wrapped up in one package, from the 1930s to the 1990s. Starck has kept the best of the past without plundering it. The bike is a celebration of a culture, and a way of life – that’s why he’s designed accessories such as matching boots, gloves, luggage and, most importantly, sunglasses(!). A bit rich, a bit kitsch – but fun.

Why is it that so many people prefer the comfortable armchair of nostalgia to modernity? What is it that makes the man on the Clapham omnibus reach for his revolver when he hears the word design? If you ask me, it’s things like Alessi knick-knacks that give design a bad name (“excuse me, are you telling me that’s a kettle?”), the kind of thing you’re excited about when you take it out of the box, but can’t be bothered with after two weeks.

What the man clutching the revolver doesn’t know is that the Clapham omnibus he rides is designed, as well. Perhaps somebody should tell him.

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