We are a nation in love with nostalgia—every decorating magazine, a majority of movie sets and the multi-billion dollar home furnishings industry attest to this fact. At the same time, living a nostalgic lifestyle is somewhat unrealistic. If we really could go back in time and relive it according to our fantasies, we might find life simpler there, but we also would find many things missing. Life would be more stark and probably full of more hard physical labor than we would have expected.
But that is a moot point, because no one today is going back in time—although time travel may be possible someday, today it's not a reality. So we do the next best thing, we create our own time machines in the form of the beautiful interiors where we live, eat, sleep, work, entertain and interact with those we love and admire. And we do it in a way so that we are not without the creature comforts of the 21st century. Simply put, we look back, but live today.
According to a recent survey of the National Home Builders Association (NHBA), two major trends in home furnishings have surfaced: nostalgic design and mid-century modern. While more people are joining the ranks of the stark modern movement (mainly men), the majority of people prefer nostalgia to machine-like living (80 percent of all decorating decisions are made by women). What motivates so many of our clients to prefer nostalgically themed decorating? The answers are varied, and as we better understand what's going on inside our customers' minds as they lean toward nostalgia, we can better suit their needs and desires. Consider the following reasons for yesteryear design.
THE LIFE CYCLE OF DESIGN
This reasoning has to do simply with what's "in style" today versus, say, five to 10 years ago. What was fashionable then is considered gauche now because of the desire of many people to be on the cutting edge of fashion. This means that the style of interior design must shift to stay vibrant. We move from one design source to another, and right now there are some strong contenders for the in-fashion look.
One is the Arts & Crafts style, which is gaining momentum rather than losing it to become a major design direction with years of usefulness ahead. Another is Neoclassic design, inspired from classic elements, particularly the Golden Age of Greece and Imperial Rome. Yet another style is the historic European setting, interpreted by wall coverings designers and implemented in a never-ending variety of patterns and the newest colorways to keep the look fresh while respecting its traditional origins. These and other sources of design keep interest in nostalgic decorating high.
HAVING OUR CAKE AND EATING IT, TOO!
One major reason why nostalgic design is so prevalent today is that it allows us the styling of another era while at the same time building, remodeling or buying homes that have all of today's built-in luxuries. These include state-of-the-art heating, air conditioning and plumbing; upgraded wiring that accommodates cable or DSL computer connections as well as interfacing among computers; plus intercoms, surround sound, computer-controlled appliances, even central vacuum systems.
The upgrades are daily becoming considered necessities rather than luxuries. To live with these newer necessities, while enjoying the freedom of selecting any historic decorating theme, is a great boon for today's homeowner.
THE ANTIDOTE: LIVING CONCENTRIC LIVES
The demands of modern living make many people—especially women—feel as if they were living concentric lives. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, women often are in the center of the impact with facets of their lives forming circular patterns surrounding them. Each ripple is another part of their lives from family to career or volunteer service to involvement in church or community to the responsibilities of caring for a home.
This is a major change from a few years ago when many women were intensely interested in home décor, which fit into one of their life's closest circles. Today the trend is toward home furnishings as just another "to do" on the extensive list of time demands requiring balancing acts to keep them going. Women enjoy their homes more, but feel much less like slaves to them. Women are busier and more involved in things, people and commitments outside the home. The home is becoming a staging ground for work, service and even entertaining, and no longer is a place where intense labor is required on a daily basis.
Nostalgic design fits neatly into this concentric philosophy. Today's woman is still very connected to her home and often has the means to create whatever style she prefers, even styles that historically would have required a staff of housekeepers to maintain. Ironically, hired help is again becoming the norm—women who have the time to keep their own houses also have the freedom and where-with-all to hire professional house cleaners.
Yet another interesting consideration is that the woman of the 21st century often feels nostalgic for a time when life was less hectic and demanding as compared to her modern multifaceted life and the lives of her family members.
TIME HONORED, TRUSTWORTHY DESIGN
With the advent of time constraints and interest in or commitment to demands outside the home, another justification for nostalgic design is that creative decorating takes too much time and energy. Better to have a safe, proven direction in design to begin with. It takes plenty of time just to select furnishings from sample books, let alone try to invent something new.
The myriad selections available today in wall coverings, fabric, hardware, furniture, rugs and accessories give today's homeowner plenty of latitude to select from themes and designs that have withstood the test of time. Surface ornamentation artists continually create historic or nostalgic designs in contemporary color palettes, which offer freshness to any room being furnished or redecorated. We can feel confident and safe that selecting historic design will yield a satisfying result—it's easy to be happy with a pattern that has been appreciated and honored for generations.
LIFE WAS PRETTIER THEN
This is a twist on the idea that "life was simpler then," which has become a little troublesome. We have to come to grips with the fact that historic simplicity, appealing as it might be, could mean going without a cell phone, microwave or remote control—unthinkable to our 21st-century lifestyle.
So now comes a new line of thinking: "life was prettier then." This frees the customer to keep all the devices essential to modern living and to simply enjoy the beauty that nostalgic design can offer, without guilt.
A FRESH APPROACH
Part of this approach is that it is not really new at all, but seems new and fresh each time new goods are purchased. This is the very purpose of redecorating! Our customers can enjoy the freshness of new decorating while feeling secure in the patterns and styles that have withstood the test of time.
When new products are unveiled at trade shows, we often find (as design professionals) that they show recycled patterns that have been proven sellers for years, but with a slight change here or there. They also are offered in new colors. Coloration often is the key element that makes a design appear fresh.
MODERN IS NOT EXCITING ANYMORE
As compared to the other trends documented by the NHBA, nostalgic design has a larger following. While mid-century modern has many advocates who prefer its clean lines and ultra sleek approach to home furnishing because it makes domestic living simpler, it also is cold and inflexible.
Many people find that modern is not exciting. Its appeal, itself a type of nostalgia for those old enough to remember it, has become a little trite and too simplistic compared to the richness and complexity of their lives. In fact, those who prefer modern typically are younger consumers who are technologically savvy and have information-age careers where machines and machine-like forms are revered and symbolic. Not so for a vast number of homeowners who, although they may be wired, do not live techie lives. To this majority, nostalgic design has far more emotional appeal.
Fear is a major motivating factor in the selection of nostalgic design. We live in an age of fear—fear of unlawful entry, burglary and assault; fear of road-rage; fear of Internet viruses that can destroy hard drives; and fear of credit card fraud to name a few. Also, many of us are paranoid about the environment. Nothing is safe—foods contain chemical additives and pesticides, there are contaminants in the drinking water, even the air we breathe is polluted. We fear, justifiably, that the future contains greater evils than these we see today.
It has become common to see people go to great lengths to find a measure of safety and security concerning these things—from air purifiers, bottled drinking water and natural foods to security systems. A great psychological comfort is found in the fact that we can select interior design components from the past when life was safer, cleaner and purer. This helps greatly to allay our fears of the future.
THE HEARTS OF CHILDREN
Perhaps the most compelling reason why nostalgic design is significant is what it means to adults who are children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who revere their predecessors. There is a great turning of attention, admiration and love for those who have paved the way for our luxurious lifestyles—few of our ancestors had it so good. In fact, many of those who preceded us sacrificed, scrimped and saved so that the possessions they had often were carefully preserved and handed down as treasured heirlooms.
This idea is ages old, going back to Biblical times. In Malachi 4:5-6, Elijah is to be sent to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. We have seen a tremendous surge of interest in genealogy and with it an increased love and admiration for those whose lives made our own possible. Hence, for many people, traditional and nostalgic design is a way to remember and to say thank you.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.