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Marty McFly in Hill Valley, 1955 (image via Huffington Post)

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching design history to college students — apart from watching their reactions as I play excerpts from grouchy interviews with the legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams in class — is time travel. Not the actual temporal kind, but the generational kind, where you realize that you’re the only person in the room who remembers the 1980s, and everyone else in the room is really curious about that.

Doc and Marty’s test run of the DeLorean, 1985 (image via (click to enlarge)

Rebecca Onion’s recent essay in Aeon magazine, “Against Generations,” argues persuasively that the labels we use to shuffle and sort the long march of cohorts in our society are tools of the lazy, and that the “personalities” we assign to these arbitrarily determined populations are the stuff of wonkish trend pieces, offering no real insight. In this I think she may be right, but even if the labels are more akin to horoscopes than accurate diagnoses, there’s no getting around the fact that when we were born impacts how and whether we use and enjoy certain technologies or products. The discipline of design history is partly predicated on this, and Anna Garvey’s fantastic essay “The Oregon Trail Generation” illustrates it beautifully (speaking as a fellow covered-wagon pioneer.) If a technology is new when you are an adolescent, it is truly yours; your parents don’t know how to use it, and older kids are busy with some slightly outdated thing you’re not interested in. You use the new thing to connect with peers and carve out a knowledge-based niche with its own humor and aesthetics. Every few years, the technology in question changes, but this dynamic seems to be eternal — at least since the dawn of industrialization.

A survey class in the history of modern design is required for students in the College of Media Arts at Drexel University. It introduces future fashion merchandisers, graphic designers, app builders, game architects, and digital animators to things like Anglo-Japanese furniture from the Aesthetic Movement and, a bit later on, Tupperware and Womb Chairs. To break up the slew of slides in class, from time to time I used clips from movies and TV to illustrate styles, objects, or social mores from other eras. When we talked about the 1980s and the wave of nostalgia then for the 1950s, we went straight to the source: Robert Zemekis’s sci-fi masterpiece Back to the Future.

Marty with his parents in high school, 1955 (image via (click to enlarge)

When I realized last fall that today, July 3, 2015, marks exactly 30 years since the movie came out, it came as something of a shock, for two reasons. First, not only do I remember seeing this movie in the theater, I remember seeing the theatrical trailer. Second, and more importantly, the distance of time that separates us today from the year the movie came out (1985) is the same amount of time that separates teen protagonist Marty McFly from the year to which he travels back in time, 1955.

When the film came out, 1980s audiences chuckled at the depictions of 1950s hulking, wood-encased television sets, crinolines, neon-lit diners, and the characters’ pervasive lack of familiarity with things like diet soda, puffy outerwear, and Eddie Van Halen. Watching it today adds another layer to a virtual archaeological dig, in which we find 1985 chock-full of tape decks and sports cars, but missing smartphones and laptops.

Examining the design and narrative conceits of this movie through my students’ eyes as best I can, something I had never thought to question before became strikingly clear: the plot of Back to the Future revolves almost entirely around cars. Every nail-biting scene in the movie, from uncrating the plutonium to escaping from the Libyans to harnessing “a bolt of lightning” from the clock tower, unfolds in the service of Marty and Doc Brown’s attempt to retrofit their nuclear-powered DeLorean from 1985 to run on gas (with an extra jolt of electricity) like an American car from the 1950s. Marty’s nemesis, Biff Tannen, drives a gleaming 1946 Ford Deluxe Convertible (which is memorably sullied during a manure incident), and Marty’s truck is the fetish object that signals his return to a new and improved version of 1985 at the film’s conclusion.

Biff Tannen and his gang in the 1946 Ford Super Deluxe (via

Would this be the case if the movie were made today? I asked a student, a professor, a curator, and a technology reporter for their takes on this, and though all hail from different cohorts, the common response was a firm “no.” Things really have changed in 30 years.

You could say that cars are to the history of design what paintings are to the history of art — not because they form the bulk of the content, but because the car industry so perfectly illustrates many of the principles that form the basis of the discipline, interwoven as it is with the advent of the interstate system, world’s fair attractions, consumerism, advertising, and popular culture, from drive-in movies to the Beach Boys.

Car manufacturing and marketing have shaped contemporary consumer culture more profoundly than many of us realize, even for those of us who can’t (or won’t) drive. Henry Ford conceived of the “5-Dollar Day,” which enabled his own factory workers to purchase Model-T’s on their salaries, crucially transforming what had up until then been a luxury good into a middle class staple. Less well known (but familiar to those in the habit of watching closing credits on PBS) is Alfred P. Sloan, who ran General Motors from the 1920s to ’50s. While “Fordism” made cars affordable by keeping parts identical and models consistent year after year, Sloan turned this concept on its head by introducing the practice of annual styling (“Sloanism”) — that is, the introduction of new shapes, features, and colors to car models each year as though they were fall fashion collections. Last year’s model might run just fine, but the new Cadillac is available in Azure Blue and has fins. It was one of the most successful examples of planned obsolescence put into practice in the 20th century, and its legacy is evident in the design and production of consumer goods today. If you’ve ever wrestled with the question of whether you actually need the newest model of the iPhone, you have Alfred P. Sloan to thank (or blame).

David Raizman, the Drexel professor whose textbook History of Modern Design has become the go-to resource on this topic for educators, grew up during the auto industry’s golden age. “I lived through the great age of the ‘Big 3’ [Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors], and anxiously awaited the unveiling of the new annual models each fall when my older brother’s Popular Science magazine arrived,” he writes. “The subtle differentiation of models and brands, as I think of it now, was so full of meaning in terms of lifestyle, status, and aspiration.” Whereas appliances are domestic, cars are roving public spectacles. There’s hardly a better way to understand the practice of aspirational consumption than to study the cars, car advertising, and the car culture that made the Route 66 era so beguiling.

Doc Brown returned from the future, 1985 (image via

Like all golden ages eventually do, the age of the ‘Big 3’ came to a close, and with it the utopian optimism that surrounded car design and styling, says Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York. “I think that the whole interest in progress as a positive phenomenon has greatly changed, and popular depictions in movies and games are far more dystopian than utopian. Even Disneyland’s Tomorrowland has been frozen in a streamlined 1950s version of the future.” Why the change? Albrecht cites the gas shortages of the 1970s and the nascent environmental movement of the same period as likely causes. The perfectly timed arrival of compact cars from Japan in the 1980s shifted consumer desire to new qualities like efficiency and fuel economy, as did the growing ranks of young people in urban centers who preferred public transportation.

Much has been made of the claim that Millennials aren’t as interested in cars as previous generations were, a debate sparked in 2012 by an article in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissman. Whether or not this is true — with such a large cohort, there’s bound to be great variation — the fact is that we associate the romance of the car as a consumer product and symbol of teenage freedom with words like “classic” and “vintage,” rather than “new” or “innovative.” What would Marty McFly rely on today, to get “back to the future” in 2015? “It would be whatever the next Apple device is,” speculates New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who notes that the energy among young industrial designers seems increasingly focused on mobility — by which he means the portability of mobile devices, not cars. Manjoo recalls that earlier in the evolution of computers and laptops, the focus was on trying to increase memory to make devices more powerful and faster; today, much of the emphasis is on trying to increase battery life so that devices can be untethered from the wall for longer periods of time. In a sense, our love affair with technology has migrated from the machines that move us to and fro to the tiny gadgets that allow us to stay connected no matter where we are, offering us a different way of changing the scenery.

Doc and Marty just after the test run, 1985 (image via (click to enlarge)

Drexel graphic design student Maddy Russell echoes Manjoo’s citation of the Apple Watch as a potential replacement for the DeLorean, adding, “Smartwatches have been experimented with in the past, for example, James Bond’s Omega Seamaster had a detonator and shot lasers in GoldenEye and let’s not forget Michael Knight’s smartwatch in Knight Rider let him communicate with the car.”

For the moment, time travel is not really a pressing concern for industrial designers. But moviemakers and smartwatch developers, take heed: a tiny, wrist-sized flux capacitor might be just the ticket.

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Sarah Archer

Sarah Archer is a writer, curator, and all-purpose decorative arts nerd based in Philadelphia. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Artnet, The Journal of Modern Craft, Hand/Eye, The...