Nostalgia(s): What the desire for retro design has to do with reveling in the past

The desire for nostalgia – an explanation for the popularity of retro design?

Sickly homesick. A diagnosis given in the 17th century to mercenaries from Switzerland who suffered from mental and physical problems such as insomnia, loss of appetite or palpitations while serving abroad. A nervous disease that was supposed to be of demonic origin – and was named “nostalgia”. “Nostos” comes from ancient Greek and means something like “back”, while “algos” translates to “pain”. This painful desire to return home was later labeled a psychiatric disorder, and the melancholic nostalgia was considered a form of depression.

What is nostalgia and what lies behind the indulgence in the past?

Today we know that nostalgia is not a disease, but an important coping mechanism to better process significant upheavals or profound changes. So those who indulge in reveling in the past are neither dissatisfied with the present nor afraid of the future. In fact, numerous studies have now found that nostalgia, however bittersweet it may be, has positive effects.

Indulging in nostalgic feelings leads to a more optimistic view of the future, improves mood and also boosts self-esteem. Nostalgia makes you more generous, tolerant and empathetic, thus increasing the bond between people. The amazing thing is that nostalgia is universal.

A research team from the University of Southampton led by nostalgia expert Prof. Constantine Sedikides found that the characteristic features of nostalgia in Europe, Africa and South America match. Only recently, researchers were able to prove in an experiment that we perceive physical pain less strongly when we are in a nostalgic state. And: Nostalgic feelings can actually help to literally feel warmer in cold rooms.

Is nostalgia an explanation for the popularity of retro design?

An advantage of nostalgia that will surely have found open ears in the furniture industry. Although the warming effect of nostalgia can only partially explain why retro trends have become indispensable, especially in interior design. Design icons from the 1960s and 1970s are still extremely popular decades later and are either auctioned off at significant vintage prices or copied and offered for sale by cheaper brands. At the same time, some buyers may not even be aware of which iconic design classic their new piece of furniture is based on.

What will make companies happy – whether it’s an original or a lookalike: Studies have shown that nostalgic feelings lead to money being perceived as less important and therefore better spent. But is nostalgia alone the explanatory factor why the iconic USM Modular Furniture Haller or the legendary “Tulip Table” by Eero Saarinen dominates our Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards?

The modular USM furniture system Haller has been around for over 50 years – it is now part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (about 3,806 euros).

Daniel Sutter

Of course, those who buy retro fashion or retro interiors will not do so primarily to feel nostalgic. It would be enough to look at old holiday photos or listen to the hits of recent decades. The “CH24 Wishbone Chair” by Carl Hansen & Søn, designed by Hans J. Wegner in 1949, the “PH Artichoke” pendant by Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen or the hyped “Togo Sofa” by Ligne Roset, designed by Michel Ducaroy are not just a means to an end, if only because of their prices. And although tastes sometimes differ, one can undoubtedly agree on one thing: the design icons always catch the eye.

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