Quite possibly one of the most powerful design tools architects and interior designers have is nostalgia.  Utilizing nostalgia as a tool to design is tough to achieve when creating space for a multitude of people in a commercial space, however can be more easily reckoned with through smaller spaces.  Are there common denominators to what people see as nostalgic?  How does one accomplish the sense of nostalgia?  The feeling of longing for the past or remembrance of an event or place?  While this is absolutely different per project and client, the sense of nostalgia and designing with it can be achieved in a few simple ways, as long as the designer understands their client and most importantly, the context of which their nostalgia spawns from.  

Designing with Nostalgia

Nostalgia(n) is defined as: 

a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Possibly the most important word in the definition is 'sentimental', holding something very close to oneself or one's experiences.  To design with nostalgia in mind or directly employing it as a methodology can get tough primarily because sentiment and experiences are all localized.  A few common denominators of the methodology can assist in creating it with a larger number of constituents in a space.


The olfactory experiences are quite possibly some of the most powerful senses designers can employ.  While these vary between project types and clients, they can trigger intense memories and sentimental thoughts.  These scents can be anything from food to the smell of wood burning, commonalities that people share and can trigger different senses of emotion depending on the most powerful associative memory they may have.  For example, the smell of burning wood probably triggers one of two (primarily) memories in most people: winter time or summer nights.  These memories triggered by smell can be then seen as additional invisible design objects - or materials - in a space that contribute to its overall sense of place and experiential qualities.  Smells in a space can originate from the materials themselves or the use of techniques to filter contextual scents into spaces. 


Intimacy with materials is an odd concept at a workplace or some larger commercial spaces, however at home, the idea of material intimacy is strikingly apparent.  A lot of people associate the idea of wood and its affiliated textures with warmth and comfort.  The texture of a Berber carpet bring memories of childhood and carelessness - crawling on the floor -  back to the forefront.  Whereas plastics, concrete and metals bring the idea of sterility and coldness to most laymen.  The power these materials and their textures have is at times overpowering and can easily be used to accomplish a sense of place, especially when the scale of the material is considered against the scale of the space and the contact points the people within may have with it.    

Geometrical Organization/Typology

A typology in architecture probably has one of the strongest abilities to trigger an emotional response and sentimental repertoire.  As Venturi spoke of the typologies of barns around America and the associations people made with them, the same can be made with the typical geometry of a house.  A child's drawing illustrates - literally - the idea of what we think of a home as a society.  This typology and even internal spatial organization can create sentimental thoughts and experiences that could be negative or positive, depending on the upbringing of the experiencee.  


The absolute most important component in using nostalgia as a design tool is context.  Context can at times be out of a designer's control and at others, they are at the helm of its creation. Contextual elements identify a place and the feeling of that place, all of these intangible elements combine together to form sentiment or anti-sentiment.  The essence of place is crucial to any project that is seeking the removal of a globalized effort to create a cohesive place. Instead, the nostalgia of place and sentiment of experiencing that place can only be created in that original context, or one that meets all of the same criteria.  It is in the essence of place and the experiences of place that we find the most comfort or dejection, this component sits atop the hierarchy of nostalgic design. 

Nostalgia and the sentimental feelings that are brought along with it are some of the most powerful emotions a piece of architecture or space can manifest.  Materiality and context are key in creating the desired experiences.  Without a firm grip on either, it can quickly turn to be a banal space.  Spatial experiences are quickly being swallowed in a sea of globalized architecture and spatial design.  Nostalgia in most people is triggered by a specific place or series of experiences that can only be achieved by keying upon those past emotions in a place that is familiar to those memories.  The sense of place can be created, but only delicately.  Each place feels different, and the only way to utilize the correct essence of place is to site a project in that exact place.  Nostalgia is powerful, but it is also an insanely hard sense to design with or for. Harnessing the power it can bring to any given project correctly can create an overwhelming emotion over even the biggest skeptic.  Can nostalgia be tapped and utilized effectively before the day where all of our nostalgia is universal; the idea of glass skyscrapers and plane white boxy homes?