On retro-designs
4 years, 1 month ago Posted in: Blog, Design, Semiotics 0
On retro-designs


There is no doubt that retro-design has been around for few years now, dominating contemporary graphic design. Currently the UK is inundated with designs that revive the spirit of the 1950’s & early 1960’s. During my visual shopping exercises, I have spotted not only few but many retro designs – countless to be fair. While walking around, I can’t stop thinking why this trend is so crucial for the contemporary graphic designer? Is it just its ubiquity that makes us feel that this is just part of our contemporary being without any substance behind it? I am trying to think about the spirit of this retro-style and its connection with contemporary social changes- still a lot to answer.

During the 1950’s people saw the emergence of the modern credit card, the photocopying machine, the colour TV and the beginning of mass-produced computers. It was during this era that Alfred Hitchcock made ‘Rear Window’ and Walt Disney ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The Golden Age of Cinema brought films such as ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’. Also, the 1950’s saw the introduction to Miss World the beauty competition.  Unfortunately, not everything was good; the 1950’s brought boring housewives, McCarthyism and over consumption.

While comparing 1950’s and contemporary designs, there is a perception that during those days people were living an idealised future, and that now we are living a present based on a romanticised past. Unsurprisingly, we have seen recently a revival of classic films, colour palettes and tributes to photocopied techniques e.g. ‘Alice and Wonderland’ and ads based on Technicolor palettes. Visually, there is a return to the basics, a reaction to all cold and mass produced machine designs, creating a clear distinction from computer-styling design and personal design. The 1950s reacted to machinery and over-constructed design processes. Pop Art was a reaction and a need for bold, eye-catching designs that were easy to reproduce with simple printing processes. It is important to recognise that not everything was about handmade illustrations and typographies.  Swiss-style typographic rationalism was present via Helvetica, Optima, Palatino and Univers starting a new sense of modernity. In those days, Industrial design and architecture worldwide became curvier and organic, moving away from Bauhaus styles. Telephones, coffee tables and chairs were designed for function, but embracing a sensual aspect to it – in some cases inspired by feminine forms e.g. Oscar Niemeyer curvy architecture.  As in the 50’s, we are embracing a sense of ‘the real’, approachability and familiarity – not only by crafty designs but by designs that connect with functionality.

We are surrounded by classy and classic brought from those days; the embracement of new classy femininity based on idealised values is pretty much here. I have seen more girls on the street with retro-styled hair, people with matching garments, and classic polka dot dresses emphasising traditional ideas of ‘femininity’.  This return to the classic, a suggestion to elegant soirees and art house cinema can be also seen in recent advertising campaigns. Stella advertising is bringing back via 60’s illustration style a classic James Bond style, trying to move away from the wife beater perceptions that the brand is bringing femininity and sensuality back to the fore. ‘Head and Shoulders’ is bringing feminine styles with a sexualised tone, and other brands are just taking inspiration from idealised ideas of femininity, ideal family home and mother care from 1950’s to introduce new values – values that seem lost and wanted.

It seems that this current ‘old femininity’ trend is only the product of a cultural anxiety, a similar anxiety as the one lived during the post-war period. The return of women to the home after the war brought contradictions, in which the liberties that women factory workers had around fashion disappeared and fashion became more restrictive, and more feminine.  We only have to look around to see 1950’s fashion in the consumption space. Chrome, bright red, baby blues, polka dots, necklines, sleeves, and skirts are pretty much 1950’s. Vintage costume jewellery is coming back, as high hills for different ages.  The 50’s was the era when pointed toes and stiletto shoes were more popular that mum – not a different story today.

Retro is bringing ideas of hope connected to design, as those lived in the 50’s via the futuristic trends, when consumer goods became affordable to the average man. I can’t avoid creating a connection between our recent economical downturn with the 1950’s period. We are just coming out from a deep economic recession; current imagery reinforces the process of rescuing old values that help us embrace new ideas in this recovery process. As it happened in the American 1950’s, during the post-war period, US saw a recovery full of wealth and consumerism – in contrast to the coupon-based Britain and devastated Europe.  Hope was in those days and it is still here. Americans saw a return to conservative and traditional values after 911. Britain saw it during and after the last recession.

Well, it seems that we are going back again to the basics but also that we might have to stick to this visual trend for now, until designers discover that there is more than going retro for the sake of retro. Well, what’s next? Post-feminism V2? 1920’s style?

Post By Lucia Neva (25 Posts)

Lucia is a graphic designer and anthropologist, with deep expertise in the use and exploration of methodologies for the analysis of the visual through design principles and anthropological thinking. She counts more than 10 years of experience as a graphic designer, semiotician, and researcher delivering cultural and design insight, and semiotic strategies for companies in a wide range of sectors.

Lucia Neva is based in London but works around the world.

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