It’s like we blinked and everything in our grandparents’ house became cool again.
So what’s happening?
Things have sped up so drastically over the last century that, at some point, we began to look back. We gazed with nostalgic eyes to a sugar-coated time where furniture was made to last, bands played rock’n’roll and home was the heart of everything.
The rise of retro is a little different to the rise of ‘vintage’, so it’s important not to confuse the two. While ‘vintage furniture’ implies anything old (if it’s older than 100 years it’s also antique), the term has also come to mean anything second-hand or in the style of yesteryear.
Retro, on the other hand, means retrospective. Retro furniture can refer to any piece from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, or it can mean a new piece of furniture made in the style of these eras. Retro also signifies a movement in design, beginning in the fifties, that drastically departed from the more traditional styles of the pre-war era.
Retro furniture embraced modern design, which only really became widespread and available on a mass production level in the flourishing fifties. Rationing time was over: people could stop hoarding money to support the war effort and start spending to support the recovering economy. Mass market furniture brands like G-Plan, Cosco, Herman Miller and Ercol Windsor dominated the British and American furniture market with glossy advertisements, fashionable designs and affordable prices.
By the late fifties, Scandinavian design had taken firm hold of the furniture industry, impressing western consumers with its bold minimalism, sleek functionality and low production costs. Even today, the Danish-style sideboard continues to reign as one of the world’s bestselling retro pieces.
Working it: Retro and our world
Retro doesn’t just sigh back to an idealised time of suburbia and American conservatism, however. In Sarah Elsie Baker’s book, Retro Style: Class, Gender and Design in the Home, she describes how the desirability of retro furniture and objects is often linked to an “association with past working-class culture”.
Baker says that, as a culture grows, what was previously considered ‘tasteless’, kitsch or tacky is revisited and later appreciated for its nostalgic value. So the flying ducks we grew up watching in Coro Street became cool again, along with those old posters from the western ‘war effort’, sixties magazine advertisements and ‘industrial’ furniture.
Elizabeth E. Guffey points out in her study Retro: The Culture of Revival that there’s also an element of subversion to retro trends, where a culture looks back to move forwards. Guffey says that retro gives us the means to “come to terms with the modern past”. So retro isn’t just a form of nostalgia for days gone by, but a way of shaping the present by appealing to the past.
Gone with the old, in with the new-old
The beauty of retro was that it came cheap. Or, at least, it used to. Gone are the days where you could head to your nearest op shop and grab a $20 retro bargain. The popularity of retro furniture, vintage and decorative objects has not only led to the rise of middlemen in an already oversaturated marketplace, but has allowed retailers to get away with selling shabby, poorly preserved furniture at new prices. This is all bad news for bargain hunters, where the charm of finding a good piece for cheap is now increasingly rare.
The rise of replica retro furniture was a response to the oversaturated retro marketplace, allowing designers to produce new pieces inspired by the old and the new and distribute them at reasonable prices – appealing not just to the market, but to a new generation of retro buyers.
Regardless of whether you buy your retro pieces old or new, it’s worth thinking about the background behind your next statement piece. Whether you’re drawn to the fine lines and functionalism of Scandinavian design, or if you crave the vibrant hues of an Art Nouveau revival piece from the 1960s, retrospective furniture is an intrinsic part of the way we design our modern world. And it’s not going anywhere.