Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Do we really miss what we miss, or do we just like missing it? Who among us would voluntarily go back to middle school, that dismal cornucopia of bad hair, braces, and trapper keepers? And yet...the '80s are back. It's not just music, and it's not just the last couple decades. Design has been going retro for years now as the recasting bug has swept the ID world, and everything's fair game, from turn-of-the-century hunting-lodge chic to baroque ornamentation. But enough is enough.
Design is a pendulum that swings from then to now as designers look for inspiration in old forms and new ideas, alternately embracing and rejecting the past. It's been this way forever. In the 19th century, they went nuts for ancient Greece: houses had columns and furniture was decorated with ropes and lion heads. Then Gropius and his cronies turned up their noses at history and riffed on the contemporary factory aesthetic. Post-modernism swung back again, and today designers are at the apex of that curve, recasting anything and everything from the past in modern materials. But things are about to change. They have to, because historicist design, in all its ironic, witty, and just plain cheesy incarnations, has jumped the shark.
Frank Gehry's cardboard furniture started it all.
Walk into pretty much any hip design store and you'll see what I'm talking about. It's a New York thing, mostly, popularized by places like Areaware and Citizen:Citizen. Harry Allen scrounged around in his brother's closet (the story goes), found an old picture frame, and turned it into My Brother's Frame, a series of candy-colored wall ornaments. Allen's Gran candlestick keeps the trend of familial inspiration going. Fredrikson Stallard takes it one step further, casting pretty much the same candlestick not in resin, but in wax. Jason Miller made antlers in porcelain and Tobias Wong made McDonald's spoons in gold. Martino Gamper, Roost, and Seletti all have different takes in glass on the humble plastic water jug, and then there's Rob Brandt's Crushed Cups and Maxim Velcovsky's Sommelier wine glasses, both recasts of plastic drinking cups.
"Speaking from the museum point of view, it's very easy to look at the world in a vacuum, but there are always market forces in how things are produced. The fact that recasting is an easy process is probably driving this trend."
John Gordon, a curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, traces the trend's beginnings to the early '70s: "The idea of taking a quotidian object and rendering it in a new material, or taking a quotidian material and making something different out of it, that's the post-modern experiment, going back to Frank Gehry's cardboard chairs." But, Gordon says, today's recasting has lost some of its intellectual vigor along the way. "In the early 19th century," he says, "when designers were recasting ancient Greece, it was because of an ideology, the ideology of the Classical world. Or in the '70s and '80s, it was this backlash against corporate modernism. But casting and gilding as ways of creating an object are very easy. Manufacturers love it because it's low-cost. Speaking from the museum point of view, it's very easy to look at the world in a vacuum, but there are always market forces in how things are produced. The fact that recasting is an easy process is probably driving this trend."
But in an odd way, these utilitarian, market-driven concerns are an ideology in and of themselves: today's recasting has its roots in the Church of the Undesigned. Sam Hecht and Industrial Facility recently launched Under a Fiver, a show at London's Design Museum that gathers up artifacts from around the world defined by their simplicity. "These items are not just souvenirs and there are no famous names behind them or manuals required to operate them," the show description says. In an interview on Dezeen, Sam Hecht elaborates: "none of them are actually designed in the sense of how we expect the concept of design to be applied." They're not created, in other words; they just sort of . . . exist, naturally. Plus, all the objects cost less than five pounds, adding to their mystique of ubiquity. You can see this nostalgia for a simpler past in Muji's design contest, too. This year's theme: "Found Muji," inspired by grandma's 90-degree-angled socks.
Hecht explained he picked up the objects for his show in markets and hardware stores. This isn't a new idea. Way back in 1934, MoMA opened its Machine Art show with that exact same philosophy. (Ironically, the show was curated by Philip Johnson, who would later revert back to historical pastiche in buildings like New York's pedimented Sony tower.) Ball bearings, springs, propellers: the undesigned artifacts of the modern age. Twenty years earlier, Marcel Duchamp infamously bought a snow shovel from a hardware store, walked down the street to a gallery, and propped it against the wall. Voila: art out of the mundane.
This is design by declaration. Johnson and Duchamp turned springs and shovels into art objects by renaming them, changing their context, casting them in new light. The shovel never changed--just the way we looked at it.
MoMA's Machine Art show.
Unlike MoMA show, Under a Fiver smacks of nostalgia for a simpler time, not of pride in the present. Its pendulum swings back, not forward. Both shows champion recontextualizing as a design act, but today what we recontextualize happens to be granny's socks, not shovels. When you combine that nostalgia with an embrace of new materials, you get the crop of post-modern design objects choking the shelves of boutiques and Urban Outfitters across the country. Wit--the currency these things traffic in--comes from the discord between undesigned objects and their desing-y makeovers.
We'd do well to think of our own homes as museums sometimes, places where design objects sit on rafts of meaning, and "stuff" doesn't belong.
Steampunk and cocopunk, two parallel recasting subgenres, are part of the same big idea: that makeover is where design happens these days. Steampunks dress new technology up in Victorian garb; cocopunks prefer grass skirts. A steampunk laptop might look like this, with brass rivets and big, toothy gears. A cocopunk one looks like this, covered in bamboo. Steampunk and cocopunk seems like opposites of the school Harry Allen belongs to--he makes old things look new; these guys make new things look old--but it's not. Both ways look backwards for inspiration, and to recasting for execution. They give new skins to preexisting ideas. Sam Baron of Fabrica took this concept literally when he came up with rolls of patterned tape meant to spruce up old, unwanted furniture. "The idea is to create a covering system that creates a second skin, and a second life to some old furniture that can be found in a second-hand market or in the street," says Baron. "It's design through re-design, basically."
Therein lies the problem. Re-design doesn't cut it. Under all that polished brass and bamboo, the laptop hasn't changed. It's just been renamed. Duchamp's shovel is still a shovel. John Gordon says that as a curator, he's "looking for craftsmanship and intellectual engagement. This might be an object that appeals to me on a Christmas-gift level, but museologically I look for something more. It's hard to do good things that are witty because a one-liner isn't funny after a while." And yes, his job drives that statement, but we'd do well to think of our own homes as museums sometimes, places where design objects sit on rafts of meaning, and "stuff" doesn't belong. "Design has to be lasting," Gordon says.
The trickiest part of the recasting trend, though, is that in a way, repurposing an old design is a great way to make it last. The problem is, it's the old design that should get into the museum, not your one-liner about it. Rob Brandt's Crushed Cups are a great example. The design is subversive, sure ("Get it? Normally you wouldn't buy a cup that was already crushed!") but at its core it's just an homage to the original. Sam Baron says his tape gives old furniture a "second life," that is, makes it last a little longer.
In fact, Kiel Mead, one of the Brooklyn designers that helped kick off the wave of historicism, says that idea--the power of nostalgia to keep the past around--is what drew him to recasting in the first place. One of his best, and funniest, pieces is a gold-plated retainer on a necklace chain. The goal was to put your awkward teenage years on display, to "wear your awkwardness around your neck." The retainer, then, becomes a symbol. "No one uses retainers anymore; it's all Invisalign," Mead says. "So this is a generational thing for people our age. When people think of a retainer, I want them to think of this as the iconic retainer. People buy it, and it's not designed for their mouth, but it's an icon. It's in gold around your neck." But it doesn't always work out that way. The retainer's funny, but that might be all. "I've made something no one buys but everyone laughs at," Mead says. And to him, that spells the end. "I'm frustrated that the trend has lasted so long. Unless you can get really crazy with it," Mead explains, "I think it's time to stop."
Murakami's demented pop.
So what's next? I asked Mead over a beer down the street from The Future Perfect, one of the hubs of the New York design scene in Brooklyn. By way of an answer, he talked about art. "Do you remember that Murakami show at the Brooklyn Museum?" he asked. (Murakami is a Japanese pop artist known for giant, anime-style canvases.) "The first paintings in the show were nice and clean and cartoony. But then you go upstairs to the last paintings and they're melted and washed out and really demented looking. And I think that's what we need to do now: take cute, fluffy, easy-to-do stuff and make it demented."
That idea is catching on. Another project from Fabrica--Bibelots by Eric Faggin and Sam Baron--recasts icons of our past like rotary phones and VHS tapes in ghostly white ceramic, emphasizing their absence Rachel Whiteread-style, keeping the past around to haunt us. Arik Levy takes a similar approach in his Fantome chandelier for Baccarat. The Parisian designer cut up one of the 244-year-old company's signature chandeliers and turned it into dozens of single-arm fixtures. In a creepy kind of reverse phantom limb syndrome, you can feel the rest of the chandelier floating there too. London's Lee Broom carves traditional Louis chairs and baroque vanities out of mahogany, and then wraps them in tubes of neon light, turning commonplace old-world design into a new, glowing alien species. Or take Lladro. Known for their dainty, old-school porcelain figurines, the Spanish company recently launched a line of tea ware by Bodo Sperlein called Equus that uses limbs amputated from Lladro's classic porcelain horses for handles. "They're taking something old and warping it," says Mead. "You walk by it like, 'oh I get it. Wait...what the...?'"
While the design act in traditional recasting is more intellectual (the selection and naming of the thing to recast), in this new demented recasting, there's another level--not just a selection, but an alteration. In his acid-washed work, Murakami paints a traditional pop scene and then laboriously sands away layers. In recasting's new wave, this twisted historicism, designers select a piece of nostalgia and then mutilate it, changing not just how we look at and think about the object, but its physical structure as well. Twisted historicism comments on the whole idea of nostalgic recasting, implying (rightly so) that witty renaming isn't good enough, and its manifesto is as simple as can be: designers should make things.
This new breed of recasting, then, is just what will help push the pendulum away from the past. As designers take a sneering, sidelong glance at granny's cluttered mantelpiece--as nostalgia gets nasty--we'll see less of Allen's candy sugar and more of Murakami's sandpaper. Mead has seen the light. In a 180-degree turn from his retainer, hanging from another necklace of his is a cast an old piece of gum. "This is an actual piece that I chewed," he explains. "It's disgustingly true to its form." The gum is nostalgic for a childhood of chewing, but also, in a way, for recasting itself. That little piece of pink-painted metal is the death knell of classic historicism: "I'm fed up with the whole idea, and now it's time to laugh about it. Here you go society. Chew on that."
William Bostwick lives in New York where he plays wiffle ball and writes and podcasts about design for places like Metropolis, ARTnews, Surface, Dwell, and GOOD.