Rearward glance

As we plunge into a new year, Jim Davies sounds a note of caution about the urge to break with what’s gone before – severing links with the past can be a self-defeating exercise

When’s it too late to wish people a Happy New Year? The first day of February? 15 January? Surely there must be some dusty, cobwebby guidelines out there somewhere? Well, at the risk of incurring a year-long hex, I’ll chance my arm… Happy New Year everyone.

All over the world, as midnight strikes on 31 December, it’s a case of callously dumping the old, and puckering up for full-on snogs with the new. In the UK, grizzled Father Time hands over the reigns to the precocious Baby New Year, sporting his traditional top hat and monogrammed sash. The Italians flamboyantly cast old clothes out of their windows (so last season, don’t you know). In Mexico, they write all the bad things that happened in the previous 12 months on pieces of paper, which are then ceremoniously burned. The Spanish, meanwhile, sport crisp new red undies for good luck.

OK, so we can all see the attraction of a fresh page, a bright new dawn, a younger model. We’re seduced by the sense of possibility and adventure, of stepping out into the unknown, full of anticipation and excitement. Many different cultures have held on to ancient myths of regeneration for centuries, because people need to believe there’s hope around the corner – a way out, a promise of better things.

So yes, as human beings we may crave change and novelty, but this cult of the new doesn’t apply to design. Design is part of an ongoing story. It feeds on momentum and progress, building on what’s gone before. And while it might be an interesting exercise, severing links with the past every so often to start the whole thing afresh would be totally self-defeating.

Of course, there are radical breakthrough designs out there, which appear to have sprung from nowhere, but that’s a false perception. Generally, these come about through incremental steps, as pieces of the jigsaw are put together through circumstance and happenstance. Adding two and two can occasionally give you a wonderfully original five, but you need to have your twos to hand in the first place. Besides, looking back has proved a tried-and-tested means of moving forward, plundering and reinterpreting the past to create something refreshingly different.

Even ’kick-the-system’ initiatives such as last year’s Anti Design Festival are born from the status quo – in order to be anti, you’re acknowledging the prevailing situation. The ADF was a shout for change certainly, but not particularly for something new. In fact, there was an Italian Anti Design movement back in the late 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by Ettore Sottsass, and associated with groups such as Superstudio, Archizoom and Gruppo Strum.

Of course, designers can’t be expected to reinvent the wheel every time they take on a brief, but they can – and should – strive for originality and personality. This means taking heed of experiences, mistakes, examples good and bad, and drinking in all the cultural and social influences going on around them. It means considering the past year as a valuable stepping stone into the next one, not as an excuse to rip it up and start again. It’s worth remembering that new is not synonymous with better – designers need to have a discerning enough eye to pick out the best bits from before and save them for later.

So next New Year’s Eve, when Father Time shuffles sadly off saying his last goodbyes, don’t be too keen to see the back of him. After all, what has a bonnie baby in a sash and a top hat got to teach us? Auld Lang Syne, anyone?

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