Pickled, or: That Looks Better Now Than It Did Before

I like pickles. I don’t like all pickles—sweet gherkins throw me for a loop—but salty, vinegary pickles really set off a meal. Sushi wouldn’t be the same without pickled ginger. Taiwanese food is an excuse for pickled mustard greens. Middle Eastern restaurants have me hooked if they include pickled turnips with the meal. A savory sandwich accompanied by a dill cucumber spear—you get the idea. The thing is, though, that I’m not equally enamored with the fresh vegetables themselves. I like ginger, mustard greens, turnips, and cucumbers just fine, but if you gave me the choice, I’d probably go for the pickled product. Good vegetables are crisp and fresh, but good pickles have been aged to perfection.

Designs are, in a way, like crops. Designers plant a number of ideas, cultivate the best ones, and present the finished product to the client. Whether that product is any good is always a matter of opinion, but generally there are some ideas that age better than others. Some designers take this into account and try to design things that are future-proof: not in the sense that the work will be compatible with future technology, but in the sense that the aesthetics will be equally pleasing in the future as they are now.

There are other things, though, that just weren’t designed to last. When blank VHS tapes were sold, these packages wrapped many a one, and were likely promptly forgotten. Looking at them again, most of them are still pretty clunky, though a few stand out. This TDK design is one my family actually had in my house, and to me it’s one of the best of the bunch. Of course, when this design first came out, it wasn’t as yellowed as it is now (trust me, it wasn’t) so it’s difficult to make comments about the original design. Was it “brilliant” when it first came out? That’s hard to say; blank-VHS-package-design isn’t high-profile design work no matter how you slice it.

What definitely IS noticeable is the creation of new designs that not only mimic the design aesthetics of the past, but also factor in the element of aging. Probably the most famous advocate of this is the Instagram app, which, as you likely know, lets users apply a number of “vintage” effects to digital photos.In this fashion images can look like time-tested and more “professional,” but using the effects implies that the original shot either wasn’t good or wasn’t authentic.

Another example: illustrator/designer/artist Kevin Dart goes for a 1960’s feel when he uses an off-white background on his website. Don’t get me wrong, it looks fantastic. Is the off-white, though, an acknowledgement of paper that is now yellowing? Paper hasn’t always been available in as bright a white as we can get these days, so I wonder: if past designers could update their designs with today’s color palette, would they choose the brightest white? If they did, would that change our appreciation of the original design?

This, of course, is not an easy question to answer, especially considering the other variables (tastes of the public, popularity among designers, budgetary constraints, technological limits, among others) that color our opinions. If you ever get to watch TV show American Restoration you can see old & worn objects get restored to showroom conditions. I have to admit that I sometimes prefer the aged pre-restoration look, if only for the battle scars and muted colors.

What’s probably the worst part of evaluating past designs is that in most cases we’ll never actually know what the standards of the original pieces were. Without knowing exact, verifiable color standards, we can only assume the exact degree of whiteness in historical papers. Remember the controversy that arose when the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was restored? Historians and critics couldn’t agree whether Michelangelo worked in such bright colors, or if the restoration process had stripped away a crucial layer of paint shading. Some people preferred the pickled look of the pre-restoration mural, insisting that the fresh post-restoration look was inferior, even though it’s completely possible that the bright colors were what Michelangelo originally intended.

To wrap up, consider that famous American icon standing in New York Harbor. Though originally a dull copper color (that’s what you get for making things out of copper) the surface tarnished to a green color (because that’s what you get for making things out of copper!) that has endured in the American public for over a hundred years. Apparently, the green color, caused by prolonged exposure to seawater, was more popular than the original brown.

Saltwater pickled the Statue of Liberty! Or, at least, it looks better now than it did before.

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