New doesn’t always mean better. A small group of designers is rejecting the cutting edge and turning to redundant technology from the recent past. They are creating works that they feel have a warmth and richness lacking from the digital age. It’s the design equivalent of modern bands turning to Moog synthesisers and theremins to get sounds they can’t wring from computers, or even the current trend of plugging big old handsets into your mobile phone because they feel better. “Progress nowadays is all about making things smaller, faster, with more functions and more efficiency,” says Sebastien Noel, co-founder of London-based design trio Troika. “And maybe those aren’t always the most desirable features for a design.”
This ethos is present in a piece Troika has made for Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 5 building (icon 057). Cloud is a suspended black blob covered in small silver discs that flip over, making the shape shimmer with patterns. It’s the same mechanism that was once used in the information boards in railway stations, and it makes the same delightful fluttering, chattering noise. This is the kind of detail Noel feels that modern technology is bad at, a seemingly minor aesthetic detail that gets overlooked in technological development.
A similar approach was taken by Swedish design collective Front for its Changing Cupboard, which transforms itself at intervals using the same technology as mechanical billboards. The effect could be made more sophisticated with technology such as LCD screens, but something would also be lost: “It might not be a cupboard any more, and might as well be a TV or computer screen,” says Front’s Sophia Lagerkvist. “It wouldn’t be interesting.”
Lagerkvist sees a fascination in mechanical objects that is missing in electronics. “As a kid you were wanting to take things apart, and then put them together and have them work again. You can never do that with electronic things.”
But it’s not always a question of choosing the mechanical over the electronic. Troika’s second installation at T5, All the Time in the World, takes extremely simple and decades-old electroluminescent segmented display technology and updates it by giving it a new “typography” of segments, so that the display appears attractively handwritten. “What I find interesting, especially in terms of information displays, is that engineers always want to go full screen, full resolution, full brightness, full colour,” says Noel. “We went for something completely different – something that does only type, but does so beautifully and very efficiently.”
Redundant display technologies have proved particularly fertile ground for designers working in this area. Communications designer United Visual Artists makes extensive use of old digital readouts and LEDs in its installations, and Swedish artist Albin Karlsson combines the classic segmented display typeface of old digital clocks with simple mechanics and unexpected materials to create beautiful timekeeping works of art. Similarly, dot-matrix printing – which had its heyday in the 1970s and 80s before being superseded by inkjet and laser printers – inspired London studio Random International to produce Pixel Roller, a paint roller that paints a picture on a wall rather than a solid field of colour, and the more recent Light Roller, which “paints” with light on a glow-in-the-dark surface. “In every technology there’s this poetry, but often you need to let it rest for a bit before that emerges – maybe 20 or 30 years,” says Random International co-founder Hannes Koch. “You think about all these rubbish interactive projector-screen projects where you can move around windows like in Minority Report, but if you use the same sensor technology and create something very raw and simple and analogue … then wow, it’s a joy to see I think.”
Designers like Random International and Troika are a challenge to linear, engineer-driven technological progress. They pose instead a romantic, chaotic and non-linear approach, based on designing with no end product in mind – a “Victorian approach” of tinkering and experimenting.
Noel finds it particularly frustrating that designers are often only involved at the final stages of product development, after technological choices have been made, and are reduced to simply designing the packaging. Earlier involvement, he says, could lead to far better use of resources: not just efficiency or simply conforming to a narrow engineering definition, but examining human and subjective qualities of poetry and warmth. “If you look, for example, at Terminal 5, there are 600 huge plasma screens that are used to display flight information – just text,” Noel says. “It’s a waste of a lot of resources that our technology can make exactly the same, only as thin as paper and for a fraction of the cost.”
However, this isn’t a reactionary movement, driven by a regressive nostalgia. “It’s not to be against innovation, but it’s looking at it more soberly,” says Koch. Lagerkvist agrees: “It has nothing to do with the ‘retro’ idea, that we are using a ‘lower’ technology – for us it’s simply a much more accessible technology.”
And, importantly, it is not about excluding all technological developments past 2000. Random International’s Pixel Roller, for instance, needs delicate sensors and sophisticated computer programming. “It’s about mixing, using quite advanced contemporary processes in terms of programming and software and so on, combining that technology with something that’s very basic that’s been around forever and getting the mix right,” says Koch. For instance, Hulger’s P-Phone handset may look retro, but it still uses mobile technology or VOIP – it just restores the pleasing heft of older phones.
For Noel, it’s about bringing something from the recent past to the technology of today. “The straight reuse of older or redundant technology is maybe a little restrictive,” he says. “Our approach is more a reflection on technology, how we can produce a different quality in sound or in physicality to things that are more and more virtual and more and more miniature.”
The approach is also relevant for presently cutting-edge and future technologies, says Koch – there will come a time when they, too, have been superseded. It’s just a question of remaining open-minded. “It’s not an ideological rejection of the new. The thinking has to be futuristic, and then you select the appropriate technology, which is often in front of you and 30 years old.”