Vintage Design in a Digital World


My children are digital natives. I am not, and when we meet up they mock my general incompetence with IT. Nevertheless, I’ve been giving serious thought to going paperless. We are drowning in mountains of the stuff and, however organised we aspire to be, our lives seem to be punctuated by panic-searching for important documents.

I recently downloaded Evernote and have spent two days obsessively playing around with it. It could just turn out to be another self-indulgent exercise in fine-tuning my digital identity. There’s no time-sink like the customised theme! Or, if I’m disciplined and can get over my initial reservations (and maybe buy a portable scanner) it could actually simplify our lives.

But I’m very resistant to going entirely paperless. Some deep, atavistic impulse resists that loss of sensuality. I could digitize all our old school reports and early attempts at English composition. But would it feel as satisfying as digging a yellowed exercise book from the 1960s out of the loft? I suspect not. It may just be a generational thing, and digitized playgroup artwork wouldn’t worry my kids at all. If they’re out there, with nothing better to do, they might like to give me some feedback on that.

This has got me thinking about the current fetish for all things retro. It’s reached the point where I recently bought a tin for my dishwasher supplies that looks like it predates the invention of the appliance itself. And that seemed like a logical thing to do. You could argue that any preoccuption with aesthetics is inherently illogical, or even trivial, but trends can be revealing.

Why are we filling our kitchens (and other spaces, though perhaps less obsessively) with the things people now reaching crackersmiddle age threw away in their early adult life? Remember the contempt and embarrassment that greeted the offer of dated household goods from thrifty parents to offspring starting out on independent life? Now those very students are buying reworked versions of the same objects.

However, the retro boom doesn’t just attract ageing baby-boomers wanting to relive their chidhood. Cath Kidston is as popular with twenty-somethings now as Laura Ashley’s balloon-sleeved, flowing smocks were when I was their age. A cynic would argue that it’s easy to idealise an era you don’t remember. And some designs are beautiful and a lasting pleasure to use – my late mother-in-law’s J&D Meakin coffee set  came out yesterday for friends in all its chunky 1970s glory and was much admired. My own theory is that as we increasingly form our identities online (I was going to say in cyberspace, but that word probably counts as retro in its own right these days), we crave the solidity of physical objects.


vintageI came across Evernote while searching for my beloved Clairefontaine notebooks, which give me pleasure every time my pen glides over their beautifully smooth and well designed pages, or organise my notes according to their perfect page-design. And as I poked around on stationers’ websites, I discovered that Clairefontaine themselves are getting in on the act, issuing vintage cahiers to mark their anniversary. It’s an odd example of the permanence of physical archiving persisting into an age that might yet see the death of handwriting (unless stylus scribbles on an iPad screen count). But do people actually fill these collectable notebooks, or are they just aspirational possessions, symbols of something we miss on an instinctive level, but wouldn’t actually want to return to? Rather like the Belfast sink, once ubiquitous in humble terraced houses but now the mainstay of an upscale farmhouse kitchen?

LP Hartley famously said that the past is another country. We don’t want to live there, or even visit too often, but we do like to surround ourselves with its souveneirs.


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