“Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings. This does not come about without some effort: to compose that general book, each individual book must be transformed, enter into a relationship with the other books I have read previously, become their corollary or development or confutation or gloss or reference text.”
—Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler
I’m moving to Brooklyn next week so my current apartment is in various states of disarray—the living room is empty save for a few boxes; the kitchen is cleaned and organized, each utensil and gadget categorized and placed in its respective box to make the move easier; the bedroom looks sparse, every surfaced washed of its life. Every surface except for the bookshelf.
I’ve been saving the bookshelf for last. If it wasn’t for my collection of books, I wouldn’t have much to pack at all. Aside of general living expenses, most of my money goes towards books. When I moved to New York a year ago, I had to decide what I could bring with me to my new, smaller apartment. My books automatically made the cut. I wanted to be near them, surrounded by them.
And now it’s time to pack them again to move across the river.
Angela Riechers, writing for Imprint, questions the use of nostalgia and skeuomorphic elements in design:
Maybe we pine for outdated mechanical items because featherweight digital objects and applications lack soul. Quickly obsolete (the average lifespan for digital products is 18 months before a new version becomes available), they acquire no patina, remaining devoid of the gentle signs of wear and tear that prove they were used and even loved. The Singer Company’s 160th-anniversary limited-edition sewing machine—made mostly of plastic, with digital components—borrows its look from the company’s iconic cast-iron machines from decades past. There’s no significant downside, looks-wise; the anniversary edition is a lovely homage to the Singer heritage. But consider how many Singers from the early part of last century are still in use today, working flawlessly—then try to imagine this latest version still operational in 2112. Its nostalgic design is tinged with even more sadness than usual; it becomes an unintentional memorial to a vanished age of durable products.
This is an interesting thought. One look at a few of Apple’s iOS apps and you’ll see old desk calendars, spiral bound address books, old school microphones, and leather notebooks. As we transition more and more of our interactions to screens, we design those screens to echo the analog way of doing things. This provides an interesting challenge for designers. We’ve been given the opportunity to develop new modes of interaction, new standards and iconography, new reference points, yet we are largely relying on the past to dictate where we go.
I’m reminded of an old article by Michael Bierut on the design of baseball stadiums, pieces of architecture steeped in tradition and nostalgia but lacking any sort of innovation in recent years:
We all know that baseball fans love their nostalgic ballparks, and I certainly like the human scale and sense of place that the best of these venues provide. But do those values always have to arrive smothered in old fashioned wrappings? Sooner or later someone has to take a risk on something new.
Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable.
Design is about movement. It’s about building a new future and a better tomorrow. I long for the past — the easier times, the vintage photos, the classy suits, the sound of a cassette rewinding — just as much as the next person but is this longing preventing us from moving forward, from developing new systems in which to interact?
Caught in Suspension
“Nostalgia, it’s delicate, but potent, it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
—Don Draper, pitching a campaign to Kodak in an episode of Mad Men
Sometimes it’s the crisp morning air as I leave for work; I take a deep breath, inhaling a memory lost in time. Other times it comes with the music, the melody triggering something deep in my bones, reviving a distant memory. There are only brief moments in life where one feels they are in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people. It’s these moments that remind us what it is like to be alive.
We long to hold on to these moments, but we’re caught in the suspension of the present—hanging between the past and the future. Each moment that passes is gone forever, never returning to us. Times doesn’t return. All we can do is move forward.
We make art to imagine a better tomorrow, to build new worlds, to anticipate the future, but in the process of making, we end up documenting our histories. “The moment just past is extinguished forever,” wrote George Kubler, “save for the things made during it.” Our art eases that suspension, delicately balancing our history and our future. And maybe that’s the paradox of art, it’s created to give us a glimpse of the future, but is forever locked in a moment just past. Our art, then, becomes mile markers in our stories, keeping record of where we’ve been, creating a carousel, allowing us to travel backwards and forwards all at once.
It’s like when you scan your bookshelf and realize the tattered spines tell just as much about your story as the author’s. Or when that song comes on and you suddenly find yourself somewhere else. The things we surround ourselves with—our books, our music, our art, our objects—they all hold a piece of our story.
Time may never return and memory can be fleeting, but the art we create allows us to hold on to that nostalgia, to keep it close. As I was preparing images for my new portfolio site a few weeks ago, I found myself looking at work I’d done years ago and photographs I forgot I had taken. I was reminded of the late nights in college, hunched over my computer perfecting each project. I could feel the Spring air as I would walk to class each morning, as I prepared to graduate. These pieces are now forever tied to a memory, to a specific time. The art we make become much more profound when we realize they are the only tangible items we have to mark our journey.
The weather has been unusually warm in New York this week. I left my apartment building for work on Wednesday morning and as I stepped outside, a sense of nostalgia swept over me with the same Spring-like air I felt looking at my old work just a few weeks earlier. The past and future coming together in one instant. I breath in and am reminded of what it feels like to be alive. As I walked to catch the train, the sound of birds singing rose higher than the morning commute traffic.
The Atlantic has a great history of furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, known for producing the Eames’s work, and how they’ve focused on creating furniture for the education market:
Today—and for the past 40 years—many of the chairs, desks, and tables designed by Herman Miller are released through the company’s education division, which unites research with manufacturing to produce unique products that are meant to enhance the learning experience. This division grew out of Robert Propst’s Herman Miller Research Corporation, which was focused on the way people worked in the office in the early 1970s. “Consulting with behavioral psychologists, architects, mathematicians, and anthropologists, [Probst] quickly discovered the problem was larger and more exciting than the design of furniture,” according to a background document products by Herman Miller for a design show held earlier this year. “Probst’s research led him to the exploration of how students lived and learned on campus.”
I can’t tell you how many hours I sat in chairs like that in high school and college. Looking at those photos got me all nostalgic for those school days.