Retro-futurism is a time capsule of what we thought the future would look like in the past. The ideas of what the future would bring often included flying cars and servant robots by the 21st century, but here we are still walking to class.
The roots of retro-futurism can be traced back to the mid-20th century, a time when rapid technological advancements fueled dreams of a futuristic utopia. The Space Age, in particular, played a pivotal role in shaping the visual language of retro-futurism. The mid-century optimism about space exploration and technological progress gave rise to a plethora of artistic expressions that envisioned a future where humans would travel among the stars and live in utopian societies.
Artists and designers often looked to technologies they wished would exist to create their designs in this area; often leading to extremely utilitarian and maximalist designs. This graphic from Bruce McCall below shows a futuristic vehicle that has something for everyone.
An interesting affect of retro-futurism today is a strange sense of nostalgia. The sense that we are longing for a future that never happened. This causes a deeper connection to the designs proposed in a modern sense while allowing the user to feel comfortable with a highly advanced piece of technology. This also ties into repetitive design trends, and the idea that a style of the past can come back into the limelight. Because retro-futurism ties the aesthetics of the past with functionality not available at the time, it lends itself perfectly to advancements currently being made and the technology to go along with it.
One iconic representation of retro-futurism is the World’s Fair exhibitions held in the mid-20th century. These events showcased the latest technological innovations while also presenting grand visions of the future. Visitors could explore pavilions that featured futuristic architecture, transportation systems, and household appliances. The optimism of these exhibitions permeated society, leaving an indelible mark on the collective imagination.
Flying cars were a big theme in retro-futuristic design because the automotive and transportation industries had made such fast progress in the early 20th century, it only made sense that by the 21st century there would be much more advanced technologies. This was such a main focus because transportation has been a sore point of society forever and the sooner we can teleport where we want to go the better.
An interesting thing to note in the above image from Star Trek is the state of technology in retro-futuristic designs. Even though artists are doing their best to create an idea of what the future will look like, they tend to stick with familiar technologies and user interfaces. The lights and buttons may seem futuristic at the time, but compared to the user interfaces we use today, they seem archaic even though the starship has technologies far beyond our current reach.
Retro-futurism is inherently a design style of the past, however, it is possible that some futuristic designs today will be seen as a sort of “retro-futurism” in 50 years. It is hard to tell what concepts fall in this category and what are more accurate predictions without time travel, but some ideas like self-driving cars and colonies on Mars could be examples of us applying our current understanding of technologies to far-out ideas. It is entirely possible that in 50 years — if and when we colonize another celestial body — we find that the colonies look nothing like we imagine them today.
Retro-futurism stands as a testament to the enduring power of imagination and the cyclical nature of design trends. Its impact on modern design is profound, influencing not only the visual aesthetics of products and environments but also sparking a cultural fascination with the juxtaposition of the past and the future. As designers continue to draw inspiration from the mid-20th century’s dreams of tomorrow, retro-futurism remains a dynamic and timeless aesthetic that continues to captivate and inspire yet always seems to just fail to predict the actual future.