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Retro styles nostalgic, but limited

By Elizabeth Bettendorf
Published June 29, 2007


Years ago, I lived in a small Midwestern town that still had a family-owned drugstore with a real soda fountain.

It was in that small town that I happened across a garage sale where a woman was parting with her sleek, chrome, hand-powered orange juicer.

It was a beauty - old, classic, and in mint condition - the kind of thing the Museum of Modern Art has long feted in shows and its catalog.

"Five dollars, " she said with a twinge of sadness in her voice. "I know you'll give it a good home."

I brought it with me to Florida, displayed it for its mid-century good looks, but never used it until this spring when someone gave me a couple of bags of fat, luscious juice oranges from their back yard.

Needless to say, the thing not only worked, it's a marvel of modern invention and good design. It effortlessly produced glass after glass of fresh juice for weeks.

Though it's back on display for its retro looks, I can honestly tell admiring guests that it actually earns its keep.

Lately I've been noticing the rebirth of retro design everywhere, newly minted furnishings and accessories that hearken back to the decades before cell phones, CNN and Paris Hilton.

Stores everywhere burgeon with cradle chairs, spring chairs, butterfly chairs and bean bag chairs.

Minimalist papery Noguchi-style lamps, chrome-and-leather bar stools and larger-than-life spider clocks have somehow become cool again.

And it's not just new furniture and decorative accessory lines that mimic the designs of yesterday.

Check out the retro parade of new toasters, mixers, appliances, and real wall-mount telephones (exactly like the one in Grandma's house). I've even seen reproductions of those totally suburban, retro-chic metal gliders for the yard.

A recent article I read cited GenXers as the primary consumers of this trend.

It's also called "history-inspired" design.

Say again?

Although I love the beauty and nostalgia such design evokes, I'm too far on the 40-something side of GenX to see it as new and refreshing.

Conventional wisdom holds that if you lived through a fashion trend once, you're probably too old to participate the second time around. I've long since tossed the miniskirts, but have to wonder if this same principle holds true with home decor:

If you've lived through a design era once, does it seem a little stale in its second act?

When I watch a Target ad -the ultimate in retro-meets-hip design - I think, 'Oh, how cool is that?' "

Then I go into the store and feel let down, like it's new stuff gussied up to look old and that I've seen it all before anyway.

I actually grew up around modern classic furnishings that once again have found their way back to pages of the homes magazines. I thought they were beautiful at the time and still do, especially when expertly blended with this year's textures, colors, materials and environmental design trends.

I just don't want too much of it.

I don't want all my furnishings to look like they arrived via time capsule from the Brady Bunch living room.

Not that looking back in home decor isn't good sometimes, especially if the item is either comfortable or functional.

Like that modern-but-old juicer I bought at a garage sale.

Or my very cool chrome-and-vinyl bar stool that once stood at a bar in my grandparents' basement.

It inevitably evokes admiration from retro-fanatic guests who like its sleek lines and mid-century curves.

I tell them that it's allowed to remain in my space-challenged condo for only one reason.

I actually sit on it when I'm eating breakfast.

And it's really comfortable.

Now, that's a timeless concept I can live with.