Once, as a young man, I asked my mom to explain the 1970s. Having lived through them, I reasoned that she would have some sort of explanation for the thick carpet, the strange colours like harvest gold and avocado, the generally off-putting design. Surely, nobody actually thought any of this was a good idea, I thought as a kid, so someone really has to explain what on earth everyone was thinking.
She didn’t really have an explanation, much to my disappointment. But I understand, because now that we are the same distance from the 1990s, I can’t explain what we were thinking then, either.
It’s easy to make fun of a lot of it now, but then I remembered thinking a lot of this stuff was actually legitimately cool. I responded to ‘90s advertising, which had eighty different fonts, half of which were difficult to read and all of which were trying a bit too hard to be edgy. I liked ‘90s design, which was all about soft corners and generally making things that looked like heavily-used bars of soap. I thought the background in my school photos, which looked like a laser battle in space, was genuinely cool. I actually asked my mom for frosted tips. She said no, and she was correct, so there are no pictures of me with the most famous ‘90s haircut.
Looking at it now, many of those things seem awful. Part of this is inevitably because of context. When they’re presented in contrast with modern things, they look different, weird, and old. But at the time, when they were part of the same trends where everyone was doing it, they looked normal. And, in some cases, they even looked good. I mean, I might make fun of transparent purple plastic now, but I had a Game Boy in that plastic – known as “Atomic Purple” because it was the ‘90s – and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Honestly, I look at it with fondness.
In some ways, I secretly wish some stuff from that decade would make a comeback. Colour is a big one. If you buy a car, for example, you often have a choice of a black interior or, if you’re feeling really daring, a black interior. But back then you could get all sorts of colours inside your car, and on the outside you could get weird purples or wild greens. I miss the bright reds and pinks that the decade was obsessed with, even if I can understand why we toned it way down in the years since, probably out of fatigue. I also definitely think transparent plastic is still cool, because I like seeing how things work, even if I understand it’s a cheesy effect to many people.
I can recognize that a lot of the stuff I thought was cool back then has not held up. I can understand if someone thinks that the ‘90s were a low point in human endeavor, and I can’t explain why I liked what I did during the decade. But there are a few things that, when I look back on them, I think are secretly still cool.
I’m sure, in 2038, someone will wonder why we thought 2018 designs 2018 looked good. We might not have a clear answer, but it’s going to be fun to see what we’re embarrassed by when we reflect on the trends of today.
Though they can’t possibly look worse than the 1970s.