(The paragraphs below are taken from a guest lecture I gave to postgraduates at Chelsea College of Art - it goes from this rather rancorous introduction to a defence of the notion that nostalgia for the future can become a political position - something mostly done through cut & pasting of stuff that regular readers will already know. Nonetheless, this stands on its own, I think. Although I should probably also confess to owning a People Will Always Need Plates mug, of Park Royal station...)
You are probably familiar with the poster above. From seemingly nowhere, this image - which combines starkly Modernist typography with the reassuring imagery of the Crown and a similarly reassuring message - has spread everywhere. On Monday, walking around in an inch of snow, I saw one of them posted in the window of a 1960s house in Blackheath. Of course the implied message about hardiness in the face of adversity and the Blitz spirit seemed rather absurd in a context where a bit of snow caused the shutdown of London's entire transport network, but nonetheless - this poster seems to exemplify a design phenomenon which has slowly crept up on us in the last few years to the point where it's now unavoidable. We could call it austerity nostalgia. More particularly, a nostalgia for the kind of public modernism which characterised much of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s and early 70s, and which is being gradually rediscovered. That is, the responses on the part of designers and architects to, first, the great depression, and then the reconstruction of Britain on a more egalitarian basis, after the destruction of many British cities in the Blitz.
Unlike traditional forms of nostalgia, this is not at all based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other bits of tat based upon it, were probably born in the 70s or 80s, and have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent modernism it seems to exemplify. This is an example of the phenomenon defined by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s as Legislated Nostalgia, that is 'to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.' The poster itself was never actually mass-produced, so even those who can remember the 1940s would be unlikely to remember it. It was designed for the Ministry of Information during the Blitz of 1940. The official website, which sells a variety of Keep Calm and Carry On tat, mentions that it never became an official propaganda poster, so only a handful must have been produced. One of those few was found in amongst a consignment of second hand books bought at auction, then reproduced by a provincial bookshop, gradually becoming a sort of middlebrow, semi-ironic staple when the recession, euphemistically the 'credit crunch', hit. Through this poster, the way to display one's commitment to the new austerity was to buy pointless branded stuff, the excess of which had helped cause the crisis in the first place. We could adapt it into 'keep calm and carry on shopping', as commanded by George W Bush both after 9/11 and when the sub-prime crisis hit America.
The legislated nostalgia of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is only the tip of a veritable iceberg of Modernist nostalgia, spreading gradually through the ranks of the chattering classes. Take Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food, with its 1940s typeface and its name echoing the wartime Ministry of Information, appealing to a time when things like food or information were apparently dispensed by a benign paternalist bureaucracy, before consumer choice carried all before it – although here the nostalgia is particularly dubious, in that the existence of such a Ministry of Food is all-but politically inconceivable, given how it would antagonise such planks of British capital as the supermarkets and the tabloids. Even then, the Ministry of Food appeals to the element in the middle classes that has always enjoyed lecturing the lower orders on their poor choice of nutrition. You could also include the use of the 1930s Penguin book covers as an 'iconic' logo for all manner of memorabilia, all calling to mind Penguin's former role as an educative publisher; or the considerably more interesting modifications of their designs - via the garbled nature of (un)real memory - into something more eerie and psychedelic, as practised by the Ghost Box record label. Another instance of it is the ceramics company 'People Will Always Need Plates', who have made a name for themselves making towels, mugs, plates and badges emblazoned with various British Modernist buildings from the 1930s to the 1960s, elegantly redrawn in stark, schematic form, rather than the often rather shabby reality of the buildings themselves. Cute as they undeniably are, they manage to almost precisely reverse the original Modernist ethos. There, ornament was crime, here Modernist buildings are made into ornaments. However, when you look at the buildings chosen, there is something politically interesting about them. Houses for Hampstead intellectuals, blocks of 1930s collective housing, 1960s council flats, inter-war London Underground stations. These are not the buildings that have characterised the last 30 years.
A relatively early example of this nostalgia for the watchful eye of benevolent institutions was provided by Transport for London, the somewhat beleaguered publicly-owned transport network created by Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London in 2000, which began by trying to stop privatisation, and ended by winning a pyrrhic victory, renationalising the tube but creating new privatisations on the East London line. These posters appeared on bus shelters in 2002, and have as you can see certain similarities in typography with 1930s posters for London Transport by the Bauhaus designer Lazslo Moholy-Nagy. They quite deliberately play with the 'totalitarian', Orwellian associations of 1930s and '40s design, almost courting accusations of 'big brother' tactics, with their eyes watching over London's bus commuters. This is a rather queasy joke. Britain has some of the heaviest surveillance in the world, and London more CCTV cameras than any other city, so to treat this as something benign is deeply dubious. It advertises the allegedly caring role of the Metropolitan Police in their surveillance of the bus or tube passenger, something which can only leave a foul taste in the mouth after the public execution of Jean-Charles de Menezes, so unsurprisingly it hasn't returned in the last five years or so. The great irony of all this is that the supposedly paternalistic public institutions of the 1940s were either unable and, for that matter, unwilling to set up the apparatus of surveillance that every Londoner now regards as normal. What Orwell hadn't realised was that the surveillance society would be accompanied by nostalgic jokes, not shrill exhortations.