Past present

So-called ‘austerity’ graphic design was a trend in this year’s CR Annual. Nostalgia has long played a part in graphic design, but is it becoming more prevalent? asks

It felt as if we’d stepped into a design time machine and emerged in the mid-50s. Bevelled or drop-shadow type, muted pastel shades, flat graphics, a certain Festival of Britain feel: so much of the graphic design work that we saw among this year’s CR Annual entries was nostalgic for this austere post-war era in British life.

There was other work which picked up on historical references too, but none so prevalent as this. What was behind it all? My fellow judges and I thought we knew one culprit – Mark Farrow. His studio’s work for Peyton and Byrne, the upmarket bakery and café brand launched in 2006, was one of the first projects to have emerged in this style and appeared to have exerted, however unwitting, an influence. Time and again we saw that familiar colour palette, that Gill (or similar) type.

Farrow is aware of the work’s influence, which he seems to find both flattering and annoying at the same time, but sets it in a wider context. “I think there has been a general move towards what I’d term ‘austerity graphics’,” he says. “How much of that is down to what we did for Peyton and Byrne is not for me to say. I think other factors such as the tough times we are living through have played a part in the move. Plus companies such as Labour and Wait who sell good, honest household products, have also had an influence on this trend. And now there are TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off and the Sewing Bee which are following the same trend. And if I see another version of the Keep Calm poster I think I’ll explode. None of these existed when we created Peyton and Byrne.”

Labour and Wait (based, where else, in Shoreditch) takes the austerity theme to extreme lengths, selling enamel plates, galvanized buckets and £6 balls of twine (£20 for an oak stand to put it on) to east London’s finest. Fashion labels such as Albam, Folk and Aubin and Wills also exemplify the trend among young hipsters but Peyton and Byrne’s influence has entered the mainstream. “It’s funny, well not that funny, but we sometimes work with a copywriter who tells us that every time he visits one of the big food retailers he sees Peyton and Byrne images all over their style boards,” Farrow says.

It’s easy to see the appeal of ‘austerity graphics’ for a certain sort of client. “We set out to create something that had a kind of English heritage nodding to the past but feeling completely contemporary at the same time,” Farrow says of the work. It’s a shorthand to an idea of Britishness, craft and 2 3 tradition which picks up on the longrunning handmade backlash to our digital world and the search for authenticity that has been so marked in recent times.

Those same impulses have found expression in the US in the rediscovery of some of its own graphic styles of yesteryear. There has been a huge letterpress revival, for example, employing the decorative wood type styles of the nineteenth century along with a similar renewed interest in handlettering. In our October issue we reported on the book (and now documentary film) Sign Painters which celebrates those keeping the art of handpainted signwriting alive. And let’s not forget the current Lubalin love-in, with one of New York’s greatest exerting a huge influence on today’s designers through his decorative typography.

Thanks to Google image search, the past has never been easier to plunder, so it’s tempting to attribute today’s nostalgia wave to the ease of accessibility afforded by the web. But modern graphic design has always looked backwards as much as forwards, influenced by the prevailing tastes of its clients and peers in fashion, architecture, film and music. It’s just that the object of our fascinations change to suit the times.

In visual communications, the 60s was perhaps the first decade to mix freely the past into the present. The great days of Empire were cheekily subverted by the likes of Peter Blake, the Carnaby Street boutique I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and Mick Swan’s Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake album artwork for The Small Faces. Psychedelia remixed the erotic loucheness of Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt, with the likes of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat also borrowing freely from Alfonse Mucha to create what George Melly called Nouveau Art Nouveau.

The evolution of the logo for ultra-hip retailer Biba reveals how quickly influences drifted in and out of fashion at the time. In 1963, a pre-Pentagram John McConnell designed a logo for the shop which was inspired by Art Nouveau and Liberty prints: in 1969, Biba switched to an Art Deco style. Belle Epoque Paris had given way to Jazz Age New York. Airbrushed Art Deco styles persisted throughout the 70s on dozens of album covers.

Look through D&AD Annuals of the early 80s and you’ll find a curious affection for chintzy Edwardiana, with Peter Windett’s Crabtree & Evelyn packaging, Michael Peters’ Penhaligon’s range and the rise of Laura Ashley. Writing in Rewind, D&AD’s history of its first 40 years, Jeremy Myerson and Graham Vickers noted that “the infatuation with the past was an international phenomenon. When the novelist Tom Wolfe addressed the Industrial Designers Society of America in 1988, he spoke of designers everywhere entering the ‘great closet of historical styles’ to don the garb of different periods. But it was a game at which British designers and art directors would prove to be masters during the 80s.”

That ‘mastery’ would endure until the present day, with the increasingly tiresome internet meme of reimagining the world in Swiss minimalism fitting in alongside ‘Pretty Ugly’ revivals of Cranbrook-era deconstruction, various attempts to revisit day-glo ‘Nu Rave’ and, that old standby, Constructivism, which has inspired everybody from Neville Brody to Franz Ferdinand over the past four decades.

In 1991, the late, great Tibor Kalman expressed the frustrations of many when he declared that “Designers abuse history when they use it as a shortcut, a way of giving instant legitimacy to their work”. Historical reference and outright copying have been “cheap and dependable substitutes for a lack of ideas” he complained. Which surely gets to the heart of the matter: intent.

When Peter Saville ‘re-imagined’ a Futurist poster by Fortunato Depero for the cover of New Order’s Movement album, it wasn’t because he lacked an idea. He was, as he said in a Resonance FM interview with Frieze magazine writer Dan Fox which we published in 2007, “sharing my own learning curve with my contemporaries. I was on my own version of the Grand Tour, courtesy of second-hand book shops, and I was learning that I had an enthusiasm – I’d come across another thing, and sooner or later a suitably relevant opportunity would arise for me to say, for example, ‘This is Italian Futurism – it’s quite interesting isn’t it?’.”

Commenters on design websites, our own included, appear obsessed with originality. If work appears to owe a visual debt to something else, it’s instantly condemned as a ‘rip-off’. But this idea that only 100% original work is praiseworthy, or even possible, is surely an illusion. In an essay reproduced by Design Observer, Kate Cullinane argued that: “Creating a completely original piece of work is unachievable because design is the process of rearranging existing elements into new configurations.” While that may be overstating things somewhat, we should surely be less concerned about originality of content and more, as with Saville, about originality of intent.

In the endless online claims and counterclaims of plagiarism, graphic design betrays its immaturity and insecurity. Fashion and music constantly recycle their past. Where would popular musicians be without the record collections of their parents or their digital equivalent? The value is in adding to what has gone before to create something that feels appropriate and fresh for today. That is understood in fashion but in graphic design it often appears as if there is no greater crime than for a piece of work to have been ‘done before’.

What should perhaps give us greater concern is Kalman’s fear that reaching for the past betrays a 2 3 lack of ideas among contemporary designers. It does feel as if, currently, there is a higher proportion of work that borrows explicitly from the past than, say, 20 years ago. Why should that be?

Going back to that 2007 interview with Saville, we find an answer which places responsibility less on designers themselves and more on the demands of the market and clients. “The evidently referential, and the nostalgic, get to people very quickly. They like it, because they already know it,” Saville argued. The genuinely ‘new’, then, is not often helpful or appropriate in a commercial context. “It’s too slow for modern business to have to wait five years for people to ‘get it’. So it helps if things look like what people already know. It’s just really quick and I think that’s why we see so much of it now, it’s expedient,” Saville said.

Following this logic, it’s no accident that the 1960s were the first decade in which commercial visual communications began to borrow so freely from the historical canon of visual art. The rise of mass consumerism and popular culture demanded messages that could be quickly decoded and understood by audiences.
The pace of this process has accelerated today in keeping with the expansion of consumer culture. Which is how we end up with Constructivist album covers and upmarket bakeries dressed in the style of the ration book era. 1

A full transcript of Peter Saville’s Resonance FM discussion with Dan Fox can be found on the CR website at Kate Cullinane’s essay The Original Paradox, can be found at


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