Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable. For those wishing to discover something new, however, all this unending nostalgia begins to provoke a feeling very close to nausea. Diana Vreeland wrote in Allure, “This book isn’t about the past. I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for the suggestion . . . of something I’ve never seen.” Shouldn’t we, too, keep trying to shape that unseen future? Shouldn’t we refuse to accept that it only resembles the past?

Rather than regarding this as a widespread trend that means Something About Us, it appears to me as saying something smaller, if no less significant, about the formation of personal identity: namely, it's really hard to form one, and it shouldn't be surprising if people often mistake having something for being someone. I was put in mind of this by an excellent reflection on the topic by Flavia:

It's recently struck me that I'm no longer trying to be "the kind of person who" does this or does that: the kind of person who lives in a house full of books; the kind of person who entertains on vintage china; the kind of person who knows Latin; the kind of person who always wears lipstick; the kind of person who lives in Manhattan; the kind of person who gets invited to give talks; the kind of person who makes complicated cocktails; the kind of person who knows stuff about stuff.

Now I either do or am or have those things--or I don't. But the things themselves don't signify in the way they used to: I still like mostly the same things and still have mostly the same tastes and the same interests as I did in my mid-twenties. But when I was in my twenties, it seemed to matter terribly much that I be the kind of person who owned demitasse spoons, and wrote letters on distinctive stationery; the kind of person who kept up on live theatre and museum exhibits; the kind of person who threw good parties. A friend once told me, affectionately, that my life was "governed by imperatives"--by which she meant not that I was driven or ambitious or had a life plan all mapped out (I didn't then and I don't now), but rather that I had a decisive sense of how I should live in the world.
As both an academic and a person who survived their 20s, it was interesting to observe how people (myself included) tried on various kinds of affectation in an attempt to see what would stick. Most of the affectations I tried did not stick, my personality having been contrarianly set by 18, it seems: read lots of books, drink much coffee, enjoy irony and sarcasm way too much, disagree with other people whenever possible. 

I can't help but notice, in this context, that almost all the examples of design mentioned in the original post are things a person can buy. Purchasing items as a shortcut to personality is pretty common: it shows up on Flavia's list, and it shows up on my own personal equivalent. The trend seems especially pronounced amongst young conservatives, ironically enough, who tend to think that their possession or use of old things will enhance their credibility: a person becomes that person by surrounding themselves with the appropriate accoutrements and, therefore, becoming the sort of person who uses them.

The saner way was suggested to me at an appropriate age (thank God) by, of all places, McSweeny's:

Some people manage to replace cool with the confidence that comes from experience and accomplishment, and, increasingly, the people in your life will start to value those things more as they themselves move on from their 20s. Coolness was a placeholder, something they leaned on as they assembled themselves. I’m not suggesting you undergo some sort of instantaneous transformation into “maturity” involving a fanny pack and a Land’s End catalog—30 is still quite young, you know—but I think you need to at least begin shedding the skin of your 20s. Hang on at your peril. There’s a 40-year-old out there who still wears shirts that allow him to show off his barbed-wire-armband ink. Don’t become him.

But you could, you know, just be a guy who knows a lot about a lot, who’s got some awesome stories because he’s lived almost a decade beyond the campus quad, and who’s shown some follow-through on the ambitions he spent so many years blabbing about in his 20s. You also could be in better shape than all the guys who bloated up in college, too. Not so “cool,” but cool and durably so.

This is very similar to the advice W.H. Auden gives in The Dyer's Hand. Identity formation is a long process, and there are no substitutes to putting in the time: but the reward is being yourself, and not someone else's idea of what you should be.*

*There is another post to be written about how most unsuccessful 20s relationships are attempting to be what someone else wants you to be, or attempting to make someone else something other than what they are. But that's for another time.

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