Some of Today’s Coolest Digital Devices Take a Page From the Past

It was Albert Einstein who said “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

He was talking about relativity, of course, but just hold the thought for a moment. In case you haven’t looked up from your iPhone lately, an unusual countertrend has crept into our gadget-obsessed world. It’s one that acknowledges the fact that even as we embrace the latest technology, there’s something inside many of us that misses the look and feel of the old stuff.

The result, a few examples of which appear here, is an emergent segment that marries digital capability with a lost, industrial-age interface.

Yes, analog is suddenly au courant.

To assume these products are simply part of some “retro” fad would be missing the point. Their appeal lays not just in the aesthetics of venerable materials like wood and leather or the satisfying feeling of pushing a button instead of a tapping a touchscreen, but (in many cases) in their ability to return the user to a more tactile, focused, purposeful interaction with a device.

“Each new gadget marketed to us promises a more ideal future, but not necessarily to connect us to the past or even to ourselves in the present,” says Jack Zylkin, creator of the USB Typewriter. This backlash, he adds, “tries to reclaim technology as a way consumers can shape their own landscape, instead of being shaped by it—to find a slower, more personal way of doing things, which can often be slower and less convenient than just going with the flow, but can pay dividends to the soul.”

No doubt it can. So push the button and let’s get started. 


BookBook iPhone/iPad case ($59.99)

Twelve South creative director Andrew Green has only praise for Jonathan Ive’s sleek and minimalist iPhone design, yet he felt some users still “yearned for something real, authentic and comfortable.” The worn leather BookBook case (modeled on 200-year-old leatherbacks Green found in a Charleston, S.C., bookshop) “gives users an ethereal comfort that they don’t even realize,” he says. Best of all, “you can look like you’re studying your hymnal when you’re really playing Angry Birds.”


Old Time Computer iPhone dock (prices vary)

Using old Victrola horns, craftsman Kirk DuQuette creates one-of-a-kind amplifiers that will tweet (in the old sense of that term) tunes saved on your phone. DuQuette says it’s not easy finding these horns, while the hardwood bases he makes to order. “The high-tech world never embraced aesthetics,” he says. “Natural materials aren’t used today because products change so quickly. But there’s a market for people like me to use creative ideas to expand on the ever-changing world of technology.”


Fujifilm X-M1 ($799.99)

“It has styling that looks like 1950s rangefinder cameras,” says product manager Justin Stailey. “But it’s not trying to look like them.” Instead, Fujifilm elected to return to analog controls (an F-stop lens ring, a roller wheel for the shutter speed) since these are what serious photographers prefer. From there, the camera’s body style simply evolved back to the past. “It would have been easy to make the camera look like a smartphone,” Stailey says. “But we wanted one that was an expression of your photographic experience.”


Rotary Mechanical Smartphone (prototype)

Spurred by the nostalgic wave that swept vinyl records back into vogue, designer Richard Clarkson decided to reengineer a contemporary smartphone with a rotary dial, while replacing the usual synthetic components with copper and brushed brass. “Premium materials and handmade qualities are strong indicators of value,” he notes. “People want such a device because they can have a tactile and emotional connection to the object that supersedes its basic function.”


USB Typewriter ($799)

“I made the USB Typewriter because I was sick of interacting with screens all day,” says Jack Zylkin, who believes many people miss the satisfaction of pressing typewriter keys and the “congratulatory ding” of the return bell. His creations are a synthesis of both, allowing the user to hammer at the keys and see his or her text on an iPad screen. “If you need to ask what the appeal of real typing is, you’ll never understand,” he says. But plenty do. Zylkin’s individually made machines are in deep back order.