Backward and Forward Columns / Creativity

Backward and Forward

Caitlin Dover
Designer Camille Walala created this display (left) of her products for London boutique Aria during the 2015 London Design Festival. Camille Walala, designer; Aria, client. “Cutouts” card (right) by Dusen Dusen for Paperless Post. Amanda Pickens/Ellen Van Dusen, designers; Ellen Van Dusen, artist; Dusen Dusen, design firm; Paperless Post, client.

A few days after the 2016 election, I was taking a walk to clear my head when I passed a grocery delivery truck parked by the sidewalk. Peeling red script on the vehicle’s side spelled out this phrase: “The taste you grew up on.”

After a presidential campaign that focused, successfully, on the idea of bringing back another time, this creaky slogan suddenly rang with new meaning for me. I began thinking about nostalgia and how the last few months had illustrated its extraordinary power—and had also shown how amorphous and difficult it is. Our cultural and aesthetic experiences blend with our real-world memories, informing our emotions and worldview. Before the election, an NPR segment brought together women of various political persuasions. When asked what the phrase “make America great again” meant to her, a Republican voter cited Leave It to Beaver. For her, the television show, which ran from late 1957 to mid-1963, was a talisman of a better time. It was the taste she grew up on.

The formative tastes of younger generations are different, of course, but no less significant. From generation X (full disclosure: that’s my demographic) through the millennials, our nostalgia is for all things 1980s and 1990s. It’s hardly news that the styles from these periods have seen a major, lengthy revival. As Vulture’s Jen Chaney pointed out in her article “It’s 2016. Why Are We Still Obsessed with the ’80s?” the 1980s resurgence has been going strong since the early 2000s, gaining ground and changing form ever since. Her evidence is grounded in 21st-century movies, music and TV—from reboots of The Karate Kid and A Nightmare on Elm Street to Bruno Mars to The Americans. Fashion has long been playing with 1980s colors and shapes, and references to Memphis Group, a design and architecture group in Milan, Italy, have become hugely present in interior design. On Gizmodo, Alissa Walker noted the 2014 comeback of Memphis Group style and that it continues to permeate products and interiors, with art deco references, geometric shapes and pastels showing up in ceramics, furniture and paint colors.

In graphic design, the 1980s and 1990s resurgence has taken many forms, appearing in illustrations, motion graphics and prints, among others. Bubble letters, neon and teal—they’re all back. London-based designer and illustrator Kate Moross used updated versions of confetti patterns to adorn covers she did for the Guardian’s Guide magazine, and a 2016 Paperless Post collection by New York–based clothing and home goods designer Ellen Van Dusen (whose Dusen Dusen home and fashion line was already a touchstone for the 1980s visual trend) also uses revamped confetti patterns. London-based graphic artist Camille Walala’s vibrant, saturated patterns are full of 1980s-style bounce, and London-based French illustrator Malika Favre’s bold New Yorker covers have more than a little Patrick Nagel about them.

Perhaps the most successful resurrection of 1980s graphic styles can be seen in the title sequence of Netflix series Stranger Things. Attention to period detail is the hallmark of the much-lauded show, and that thoughtful consideration is more than evident in the glowing red letters of a customized Benguiat typeface that glide—with just the right amount of analog flicker—across the black opening screen, accompanied by a reverberating synth track. The titles are Stephen King covers, R/Greenberg Associates titles and the feeling of late-night movie-watching parties all rolled into one: pure nostalgic delight.

Stills from MTV’s series Gender Bent by And/Or. Erin Kilkenny, art director; Kendra Eash/Kelli Miller, creative directors; Tammy Hahn/Olga Povarchuk, designers; Tammy Hahn/Dmitry Morozov/Olga Povarchuk, animators; And/Or, production company; MTV, client.


The director of the sequence, Michelle Dougherty of Los Angeles–based studio Imaginary Forces, brought her own relationship with the era to bear on the project. “My memories of the ’80s are pretty vivid,” she says. “The movies from the ’80s had an impact on me. … I thought this sequence shouldn’t feel like it was for an ’80s show, but rather, an ’80s movie. Big. Impactful.” She also had memories of working with that era’s technology earlier in her career. “Optical titles were shot on film, so sometimes there were little inconsistencies or happy accidents that I was looking to mimic,” she explains, though she adds, “If you worked at an optical house in the ’80s and had filmed a sequence like ours and if it had as many inconsistencies as we added, you probably would have been out of a job.” She worked on the titles with “animator extraordinaire” Eric Demeusy, who is young enough to have missed that film age. “It was fun to talk [with him] about how it used to be,” she says. “It felt … similar to when our parents or grandparents say, ‘When I was your age, I used to have to walk through snow.’ But it was true. Technology was so different then.”

For Kelli Miller, cofounder and creative director of Brooklyn-based studio And/Or, one of the best qualities of 1980s and 1990s design can be found in those pre-Adobe imperfections that Dougherty brought to life. “I think there is a sense of playfulness and discovery in that work that is fascinating,” she says. Miller, 40, and her team created a teaser for MTV that, like Dougherty’s project, was specifically geared to recall the period—in this case, Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python, which, she notes, sprang from the 1970s, but bled into the early 1980s. In 2017, seamlessly produced visuals are the norm, but, says Miller, “there is just a really nice self-awareness to making things that are not perfect, that have some kind of wonky kinks in the system, which early experimentation with technology encouraged.”

The period’s aesthetics can have a similarly freeing quality for creatives who were brought up in the church of modernism. Los Angeles–based designer Annie Nguyen says, “I think [1980s] design was a lot more wild.” Her work for an album by synthwave artist Com Truise is tailored to evoke the era, complete with space imagery, a pink-and-teal palette, and a sans-serif logotype that blazes across the composition. Nguyen, 30, says that her reference for the design was Atari video game covers. “On the one hand, I absolutely love the discipline of Swiss and German design,” she says. “I love grids, order and the ‘less is more’ approach. … However, I’m strangely attracted to Patrick Nagel’s illustrations and the deco, digital and tropical movements and to the ’90s, which to me was the decade of dirty design with people like David Carson. If you look at early Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher, there’s a lot of movement and emotion. This is not to say there is no longer emotion or movement in today’s design, but it was a lot more blatant then.” Some designers may also find the 1980s palette a refreshing change of pace. Notes Bellingham, Washington–based illustrator Keith Negley, “Since the early to middle 2000s, color palettes in a lot of illustrations were very muted: lots of yellows, oranges and browns. Giving your illustrations an old and weathered patina was kind of a thing for a while. And we might be seeing a reaction to that, finally, with bright magentas and cyans and crisp, flat shapes.” 

But why are younger generations pining for magenta and “wild” design to begin with? Kate Simmons—who runs Mirror80, a blog dedicated to 1980s and 1990s design and its contemporary reinterpretation, sometimes labeled “retro-modern”—has her own interpretation of the phenomenon: “The ’80s revival is the first major style revival to happen during a time that involves the wide use of the Internet and social media,” she says. “In this age of rapid technological development, there’s something appealing about a time when American culture was more unified. For example, there were a limited number of TV stations in the 1980s. People watched the same shows and listened to a lot of the same music.” Dougherty points to a similar source for the 1980s resurgence. “It’s the antithesis of the rapid growth of technology,” she says. “I think it’s really comforting for people to see something from their past. I guess we need something warm in an era where everyone is looking at their phones, when everything feels a little uneasy and uncertain—this period offers that.”

Stills from Imaginary Forces’ titles for Netflix series Stranger Things (left). Eric Demeusy/Arisu Kashiwagi/My Tran, designers; Michelle Dougherty, creative director; Peter Frankfurt, executive creative director; Eric Mason, Flame artist; Imaginary Forces, production company; Netflix, client. SPELLS Hawaii Com Truise event poster (right). Annie Nguyen, designer; SPELLS, client.


As illustrated by the voter who cited Leave It to Beaver, comfort is certainly a key element of nostalgia; and for young people in this country, the last decade posed the kinds of challenges that might make anyone wish to be soothed. When you are in school—or have just graduated—and the worst economic disaster in decades upends your real-world dreams, the Pegasus stickers and MTV videos of your childhood can be cheering. It may well be another reason for the extended lifespan of this particular nostalgic wave, which, as Chaney notes, has lasted longer than visual comebacks usually do. 

Sources of nostalgia are not equal, however. One of the delights of Stranger Things is that the show, along with its on-point titles, enables us to enjoy a type of entertainment that we love and remember and that also captures the unease that ran through the era and its art. In fact, the Upside Down, the eerie parallel universe at the heart of the show, is an excellent metaphor for that interweaving of warmth and dread. The genres that form Stranger Things’ DNA come from a period that, as many who were adults then will tell you, was hardly a bucket of rainbows and unicorns, neither in terms of its political landscape nor in terms of all the art that responded to it. “I think the zeitgeist of the ’80s was rebellion: expressions of disgust and unhappiness over President Ronald Reagan, the anarchy that came with the punk movement,” says Dougherty. By contrast, she notes, “there was this embrace for the abundance in the country. Perhaps it is sort of reflective of today, with so many people identifying with similar sentiments.” Miller cites the revolutionary art forms that were born from this period as an inspiration: “Anything coming out of the [do-it-yourself] punk underground is a constant influence for me: punk and riot grrrl zines, graphics from record labels like Dischord, Kill Rock Stars, Rough Trade and Sub Pop.”

Miller suggests that those who use 1980s and 1990s styles in the most interesting ways—and she counts the Stranger Things title designers among them—are those who bring a “newness” to that influence. “It’s kind of boring to regurgitate exactly what has been done in the past,” she says. “It should be a place of inspiration that you can build from and add your own voice and reflections to.” 

If nothing else, we learned last year that we should take nostalgia seriously. As Miller and her fellow designers make clear, we should also look for the ways it can help us reimagine and improve the future, rather than simply trying to bring back an imagined past. We can look to bygone times for comfort, and they can also propel us forward. ca

Caitlin Dover (twitter.com/caitlindover) is a writer and editor based in New York City who has held editorial positions at BMW Guggenheim Lab and Print. She has written about design and culture for Metropolis and ELLE DECOR, among other publications. Dover holds an MA in design history from Bard Graduate Center and has taught at Pratt Institute.

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