Design: Getting on with the Past
Here’s an interesting thought: for the most part, the way of American life hasn’t really changed for a century. Well, okay, make that 60 years. Take away computers and the Internet, and the most defining pieces of technology in our lives are, going backwards in time, the television, the automobile, and electricity in the home. Everything else is unchanged. My life is essentially the same as it would have been in the ’50s, sans computer.
My evening entertainment is still primarily a book or television. We keep our food in a refrigerator. I drive to work in an internal combustion engine automobile. (Mine actually looks like it came from the ’40s, to boot.) The telephone on my desk at work has a cord, and operates through a switchboard (albeit electronic). “Memos” are still the internal communication method of choice, it’s just that they’re electronically delivered and called email. At home, our range, oven, hot water heater and clothes dryer burn gas. (Hell, our house was built in the ’40s.) The microwave oven, for all of its convenience, is still just reheating in an oven, though faster. People still go to movies, listen to the radio, listen to “records” at home (even if they are embodied in digital files). So very little in our lives is truly modern, in terms of how we live our lives… except for computers. Computers are the only really new introduction, going back almost a century.
But here’s the thing: men like Steve Jobs have been working to get the computer out of our face, to give us the benefits of computing and the Internet without actually having a “computer” around. Even at my house, we’re almost there. A century ago, we would still have needed a desk somewhere; instead of being occupied by an iMac, it would have been a typewriter, or perhaps a sewing machine, and all the other accoutrement of a desk: pens, paper, pads, etc. (Okay, we have some other doo-dads like tape, a stapler, and such. But those are just new-fangled fasteners in an otherwise old paradigm.) We have drawers of stationary, old paper records, and other desk crap.
The laptop, or notebook if you prefer, has gotten us most of the way there, which is to say back to the way we lived before the ’90s and the Internet and personal computing exploded on society at large. I think the iPad takes us the rest of the way. The computer almost disappears. So, I wonder if that doesn’t partly explain the resurgence of classic design in our lives. The physical requirements of the technology no longer have to dictate the design of the product. Look for starters at the design of the recently-revealed iPhone 4 hardware (loath as I am to link to Gizmodo): very Dieter Rams. Look at automobile design over the last 20 years, and the return to popular or classic lines: the Beetle, the Mini Cooper, the PT Cruiser, the HHR, even the Mustang and Charger going back to their muscle-car days. Look at the renewed interest in font design (now that modern electronic delivery methods can employ the designs of old), and the interest in the TV show Mad Men.
Steampunk, which I love, is another thing, but that’s going back to an aesthetic that either never was, or existed but during a time when our way of life was truly different. Notably, of course, the reliance on steam for the operation of large machinery and for heat, but also the reliance on horses for local transportation, gas for light, and the pen and ink for writing. Never mind the modes of dress, cooking, and entertainment. No, it’s a bit of a stretch to go back that far and still maintain our modern way of life.
But you could drop a 1950s businessman onto the street of a present-day city and he wouldn’t look a bit out of place. In fact, he would look kind of cutting edge, in terms of style. We no longer have to adapt ourselves to this new computing technology; it has evolved sufficiently to adapt to us, and is now letting us get back to the way we were before we had ever heard of IBM, Microsoft or Apple.
On that note, I want to give some links to sites I have come to love lately, for their devotion to design. I’ll not give explanations; please explore at will.