Reinventing the past is a series which runs through the summer and autumn on Imperica. We will talk with people and groups using creative technology to develop fictional versions and iterations of notable, generally-accepted events in the past.
For the first in this series, we talk with designer Alex Varanese. Based in the Bay Area of California, Alex's clients have included Nike, CBS, and agencies including Publicis and Sapient Nitro.
His project, Alt/1977, re-imagines four common products as if they were invented in 1977, developing fictitious print advertising campaigns for them.
Tell me more about the project, and what led you to develop it.
Years ago, while working as a web developer, I passed a restaurant with a particularly 80's-looking sign and was struck by how out of place it looked. That concept of anachronistic design made me wonder what the web, for instance, might look like if we had the technology of today in the 60's or 70's; color LCD monitors running at 1920x1200, broadband internet connections, HTML-based browsers and all that, but combined with those drab, yellow-tinted color schemes, flower power patterns and new-age hippie sensibilities. There was something so wrong about that idea, almost to the point of revulsion, that I never quite got it out of my head.
Finally, in 2009, I was mulling over various ideas for a new print series and decided to try applying it, although I didn't get around to actually putting it together until this year.
Why did you choose 1977? What is your particular fascination behind that year?
1977 is really just a placeholder meant to invoke the feeling of the 70's in general. I did a fair amount of research in preparation for the design of the ads, for instance, but it was very general and subjective; a lot of the visual cues I tried to convey to sell the feel of the period might actually come from a few years before or after. But I wanted to give the series a snappy name and that particular year happens to have a very rhythmic sound to it. It also works as a logotype, as it's pretty hard to go wrong with double 7's when it comes to typographical possibilities. And of course, as the year Star Wars came out, it's a pretty major milestone for pop culture nostalgia.
As an added bonus, by the way, Lost spent parts of season 5 exploring 1977 and even touched on some ideas that vaguely resembled mine in the process. There seems to be something universal about "77" as a symbol for bygone eras.
Could you expand on your preference for "clunky, faux-wood-panelled pieces of uber-kitsch"? What is it about the product design that you find so interesting? Have we lost something in 2010 product design which you are aiming to recapture?
I should point out that I was playing a bit of a character when I wrote the backstory and content for Alt/1977. I'm actually quite pleased with modern day products from design-conscious companies like Apple and others. I drive a Mazda 6, carry an iPhone and listen to music on an iPod Nano, so no one can accuse me of disloyalty to 2010. That said, however, the "character" I mentioned isn't entirely fabricated; part of me really would love a MobileVoxx or LapTron 64 to carry around. As someone who consumes a lot of indie rock and "indie culture" in general, it's hard to go wrong with anything that strikes that vintage tone. In fact, I have a lot of albums that I'm quite certain would just sound better coming out of a wood-paneled iPod.
And to answer the second part of the question, while I don't think a direct resurrection of the trends from the 60's or 70's is what the industrial design world needs, it would be nice to see more products take risks in their aesthetic, perhaps to the point of betraying their time just a little. Some era-agnostic flirtations with respect to color, texture and patterns would certainly make the aisles at Best Buy a lot more interesting to browse.
You're creating a fictitious version of the past. Have you always had such an interest, and has digital technology enabled you to create a long-held view of what the past should be like?
I joke around about it a lot, but concepts like time travel really do fascinate me almost to the point of obsession. And it's not a shallow thing—I'm not really hung up on going back in time to correct my mistakes or win the lottery—rather, it's the juxtaposition of things that history didn't allow to coexist that entices me so much.
An strangely appropriate example is the Twilight movies, which I must shamefully confess to having actually seen (don't ask). While billions of girls are losing their minds over the insufferable teen drama between the pale guy and what's-her-name, I just can't stop dwelling on the fact that these immortal teenagers have essentially repeated the high school experience through every era of modern pop culture. It's the most fascinating thing in the movies by far and it's barely even mentioned. Why are we subjecting ourselves to two hours of shallow romance porn when Edward could be recounting what The Cure's live show was like in the 80's? How much more entertaining would that be?
And yes, digital design technology is like my first small step towards actually being able to explore this concept for real. I may not have actually been able to drop off an iPod in the 70's, but Alt/1977 as a whole paints a pretty convincing portrait of what it'd be like if I did. More than any of my other projects, in fact, I did this series simply because I personally wanted to see what it'd look like when it was done.
"I've learned that the strongest contrast isn't spatial or tonal, but historical". Could you expand on this point?
That's another of my "character's" pretentious ramblings, so I wouldn't recommend reading too deeply into it, but I think there's some truth there nevertheless. Contrast is perhaps the most fundamental element of expression as a whole, and to a graphic designer that usually applies to space, color, size, shape, et cetera. But I found that during the creation of Alt/1977, the contrast between two elements that are clearly out of place with one another in a temporal or historical sense was unusually strong. Seeing the wood paneling and harsh colors of the 70's on a device that was clearly designed decades after engaged me on a level that was both instinctual and yet deeply cognitive.
The anachronism itself, therefore, emerged as the strongest design element in the entire project. I'm not exactly sure how this principal could be applied in a more general sense, as time travel isn't exactly a common theme in design projects, but I thought it was worth noting.
Alex Varanese's website is alexvaranese.com.