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The Way We Were: To Create, Some Turn to What’s Been Forgotten

June 7, 2011

Picking through bits and pieces of the past has been a longtime hobby of mine. Things of great or little value, beautiful or ugly all manage to offer some sort of inspiration for the work I do.

Coco Chanel once said (and you can imagine how it sounded, all hoarse and nicotine stained), “He who insists on his own creativity has no memory.” That’s another way of saying that it’s not easy being original. But many designers and commercial artists turn to the past for inspiration, a time when design felt somehow more fresh and vibrant than the self-conscious, krazy glue approach used by some in appropriating the detritus of the past. Hello Lady Gaga.

Thrift stores and vintage shops can provide a haphazard appreciation for the world of commercial design: the decorative, the utilitarian, and the obsolete. At one time, someone somewhere was inspired, innovated an idea or concept, and executed it into a finished object. Some of those designers became famous. Many are forgotten.

I was at one of my favorite vintage stores the other day and a woman in her late seventies passed me, slowly scanning the random objects scattered high and low like a strange collage. Here we were, two different generations, each looking out into the darkness of our own pasts and remembering ever so vaguely, a place in time when many of those objects before us actually mattered.

We mark time as much by experience and the lines on our face as we do with many of the objects around us. Those things we keep long beyond their necessity are often simply markers of a simpler, more innocent time.

American “antique” stores in particular are experts at selling us our pasts — objects with little real value beyond that they remind us of something. These shops are chock full of kitschy mementos like Shirley Temple dolls, heaps of table linens, potato mashers, or piles of Ladies Home Journals. In other words: junk.  Here: a telephone that once heard thousands of conversations from 1967 – 1992 until it was summarily dismissed for something… cordless. There: a collection of ashtrays from Las Vegas motels, or a ViewMaster with slides of Yosemite.

It’s no secret that designers are constantly using fragments of the past to inspire their current creations. Some are more liberal than others. Prada has been criticized for essentially “copying” vintage textiles a bit too closely. Others, like home furnishings icon Jonathan Adler has been even more aggressive in his nod towards a Pat Nixon-Country Club aesthetic. Nevertheless, consumers continue to gobble up modernist-inspired pieces for their playful nostalgia.

Which is why the website, How to Be a Retronaut ( is a bizarre but fascinating trip through time with esoteric bits of ephemera that have been randomly discovered and offer a visceral glimpse into the past.

Like a 200-year-old love letter is discovered in the upholstery of a French armchair.


One of several photographs taken of London's Piccadilly Circus by a man named Chalmers Butterfield, c. 1949

Or a pristine set of photographs of London’s Piccadilly Circus in the 1940’s, in sparkling Kodachrome (R.I.P.) In this case, the site allows one to zoom and soar through the photos as if we were there. It all looks so fresh and new like it was yesterday, the people on the streets, the cars and traffic. A moment in time when everyone was busy being alive and moving forward.

As we look: back.

One entry is a stranger-than-fiction moment. Filmmaker George Clarke claims that a 1928 clip from the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus” reveals a woman who appears to be talking on a mobile phone. He suggests that she must be a true Retronaut — a time traveler (watch the clip here.)

A frame of film from the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's 1928 film, "The Circus"in which some believe a woman is talking on a mobile phone.

Photography makes up the bulk of How to Be a Retronaut but they are not just ordinary vintage photos. They are moments in time when no one was looking. People conducting their lives unselfconsciously (hardly what we see today.)

One of my favorites is a recently discovered collection of photographs taken at American suburban shopping malls in 1990. They are so candid and ordinary that you can’t help but be a voyeur (to learn more about these photos, go to

Shoppers at an American mall in 1990, when they had firmly decentralized suburban downtowns. These photos are a reminder of how relatively ordinary shopping malls were before they became a "destination experience."

The site also features pictures of forgotten places such as hospitals, schools, and amusement parks. Overgrown and ramshackle, they invite us to imagine the lives once lived there.

A website which devotes itself exclusively to such places is Creator Henk Van Rensbergen began photographing his discoveries at age 20. I’ve been following his work for almost ten years now and am always drawn to his remarkable work. His specialty seems to be old hospitals and insane asylums, but he also captures my other favorite, old airports.


An abandoned hospital in Italy, photographed by Henk Rensbergen and featured on his website,


A church in Belgium. Van Rensbergen began photographing his discoveries at age 20.

If that’s your idea of a vacation, then I recommend Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields (not much of a title, but there’s no room for mistake),

A flooded hangar at the old Flushing Airport. Built in 1927, it was once the busiest airport in all of New York.

This is site is a good deal more nerdy than artistic, but there are some fantastic photographs of many commercial airfields, weed-choked and definitely forgotten, but still able to capture the lost romance of travel.

And like any time traveler, isn’t that what we’re all ultimately searching for?