Art History Lab

Reviving the Past, Imagining the Future: The Wonder of Retrofuturism

Exploring Retrofuturism: A Journey Through the Past and Future

Have you ever thought about what the future might look like? Throughout history, people have imagined the world of tomorrow in many ways, and one of the most fascinating cultural movements that has explored these ideas is retrofuturism.

In this article, we will take you on a journey through the concept of retrofuturism, its origins, and the different trends that have emerged over time. What is Retrofuturism?

Retrofuturism is a cultural movement that emerged from the futuristic visions of the 1960s. It is a unique blend of nostalgia and speculation, imagining what the future might have looked like in the past while also offering a new perspective on the future from our current vantage point.

Retrofuturism often features futuristic elements that are inspired by old-fashioned designs or technology. The term retrofuturism was first used in the early 1980s, when Lloyd Dunn, the editor of the Fringe Art Magazine, coined the term.

T.R. Hinchcliffe later used this term in his book, Retro-futurism, published by Pelican Books in 1983. Since then, the term has gained popularity and recognition as a cultural movement.

The Two Trends of Retrofuturism

There are two main trends in retrofuturism: exploring the future from the vantage point of the past and exploring the future from the vantage point of the present.

Retrofuturism from the Vantage Point of the Past

The first trend looks at the future from the vantage point of the past, usually the 1950s and 1960s. This type of retrofuturism imagines what the future might have looked like through the lens of the past.

Retrofuturism from the vantage point of the past has been influenced by the utopian visions of 1950s futurism, which included clean, crime-free cities, flying cars, and other technological advancements that we still dream of today.

This type of retrofuturism is fascinated with the idea of a perfect, utopian world.

It often features clean lines, bright colors, and streamlined designs. The architecture of the period inspired cities that looked like they were straight out of science fiction.

Retrofuturistic art from the vantage point of the past depicts the world of the future as a clean, orderly place where all problems have been solved with technology.

Retrofuturism from the Vantage Point of the Future (Our Present)

The second trend looks at the future from the vantage point of the present, often referred to as the old with the new. This type of retrofuturism embraces the idea of mixing old-fashioned styles and technology with modern advancements.

Steampunk and Cyberpunk are perfect examples of this trend. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that imagines what the future would look like if the steam-powered world of the past continued into the present day.

This type of retrofuturism features brass, copper, exposed gears and bolts, and other elements of machinery. Steampunk has inspired fashion, art, literature, and even interior design.

Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is a subgenre of science fiction that imagines what the future might look like if technology continued to evolve at an unbelievable pace. This type of retrofuturism features dark, gritty, and neon-lit environments with advanced technology alongside more primitive and old-fashioned designs.

Cyberpunk has inspired movies, video games, and novels.

Why Retrofuturism Still Matters Today

The concept of retrofuturism may seem like nothing more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but it provides insight into how people envision and create the future. By looking back at how the past viewed the future, we can analyze our current ideas and see how they compare.

Retrofuturism also allows us to imagine new and exciting ideas for the future and consider how they might impact our world.


Retrofuturism offers a fascinating way to explore the future by looking both backward and forward in time. Through the cultural movement of retrofuturism, we can gain a better understanding of how our past and present perspectives influence our imagination of the future.

The two trends of retrofuturism, exploring the future from the vantage point of the past, and exploring the future from the vantage point of the present, offer unique insights and perspectives that continue to inspire designers, artists, and writers today. Retrofuturism is a vast and varied cultural movement with many different sub-genres, each with their own unique characteristics and influences.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the sub-genres of retrofuturism, and explore the art forms and mediums that are associated with this fascinating movement.

Sub-genres of Retrofuturism

The most well-known sub-genres of retrofuturism are Steampunk and Cyberpunk. Still, there are several other sub-genres that are equally fascinating, each exploring different facets of possible futuristic worlds.

Some of these sub-genres are Atompunk, Dieselpunk, Decopunk, and Raygun Gothic. Atompunk is a unique blend of retro-futuristic styles and aesthetics inspired by the Atomic Age of the 1940s and 1950s.

It depicts a world where atomic energy is harnessed for the greater good of humanity, clean-powered cities, and the exploration of space. Atompunk features designs and colors inspired by atomic-age aesthetics, including flying cars, robots, and ray guns.

Dieselpunk is similar to Atompunk, but instead, it is inspired by the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. This sub-genre features many of the same design elements as Atompunk, but with a greater emphasis on industrialization and machinery.

Dieselpunk takes inspiration from art deco and machine age design and often depicts dystopian realities set in smog-filled, gritty cities. Decopunk is another sub-genre inspired by the art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.

It features grand, ornate designs and clean lines that are often emphasized through the use of bold colors. Decopunk imagines an idealized future where technology has greatly improved the human experience.

Decopunk features designs inspired by architecture, city planning, and transportation from the era. Raygun Gothic is a sub-genre that looks back to the future as it was imagined in the 1930s and 1940s.

Often associated with science fiction and pulp stories, it depicts a world where rocket ships, jetpacks, and ray guns are commonplace. Raygun Gothic features a unique art style that blends Art Deco and Googie design, featuring sleek, streamlined shapes and bold colors.

Characteristics of Each Sub-genre

Each sub-genre of retrofuturism has unique characteristics that set them apart from one another. Steampunk is known for its heavy use of Victorian era design elements, such as gears, brass, and elaborate clockwork mechanisms.

The sub-genre is focused mainly on the idea of an alternative, steam-powered future with ornate designs that exemplify aesthetic and functional beauty. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, has a much darker aesthetic, portraying dystopian realities where technology has advanced to a terrifying degree.

Cyberpunk features a mix of high and low technology, often emphasizing vast, sprawling cities filled with towering skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, and dark alleyways. Atompunk, as previously mentioned, takes inspiration from the Atomic Age, with a focus on clean, sleek designs and a positive outlook on the future.

Dieselpunk also features a dystopian reality, with heavy influences on the Industrial Revolution, highlighting advancements in engineering and the rise in factory work. Decopunk features an optimistic outlook on the future, with a focus on the clean, sleek designs of the Art Deco era.

It reflects an idyllic and prosperous society, with avant-garde metropolitan architecture and streamlined transportation such as streetcars, trains and ships. Finally, Raygun Gothic draws heavily from the Art Deco and Googie styles of design, with clean, geometric shapes, and bold colors.

It’s a blend of optimistic futurism, art, and science fiction.

Retrofuturism Art Forms and Mediums

Retrofuturism explores a vast array of art forms and mediums, from illustrations and films to literature and fashion. Architecture, music, video games, consumer products, and design are also significant components that showcase the retrofuturistic elements.

Illustrations play a crucial role in retrofuturism art, as they depict different worlds, times, cultures, and technologies. These illustrations lay the groundwork for the designs, fashion, and architecture that follow.

Films and television shows are also significant art forms in bringing to life a retro-futuristic world. The Matrix and Blade Runner are classic films that showcase the dark, urban aesthetic of the cyberpunk sub-genre.

Star Wars and Star Trek franchise encapsulate the iconic imagery of Raygun Gothic, and shows such as Penny Dreadful and The Wild Wild West adapt the Steampunk style into a whole different world. Literature also offers another dimension to retrofuturism art, allowing for vivid imaginations to take hold in their descriptions of futuristic worlds.

Books, graphic novels, and comics heavily influenced the representation of retrofuturism art over the years. Fashion and clothing has always been a primary component of retrofuturism.

Steampunk fashion draws from the Victorian era, while Cyberpunk fashion conjures up images of leather and metallic pieces. Fashion has heavily influenced the image of alternate times and futures, as designers put their spin on everything from jewelry and accessories to outfits that create otherworldly personas.

Architecture has always been a significant component of retrofuturism, from Atompunks futuristic cityscapes to the intricate Victorian designs in Steampunk structures. Art Deco features geometric shapes and patterns in buildings, while Dieselpunk and Raygun Gothic content to showcase brutalist architecture in some of their more edgy environments.

Music and sound effects are also essential in creating the atmosphere of the world depicted. New genres of music have sprung up around the different sub-genres of retrofuturism, creating new sounds and experiences that help with the immersive feeling of being in that world.

Influences and Realism in Retrofuturism Art

Retrofuturistic art often takes elements from the past and looks toward the future, resulting in unique and often fantastical creations. Yet despite its whimsical nature, there is often an element of realism to retrofuturistic art.

It reflects creative thought in its functionality, deliberately incorporating historical aesthetics of the past and imagining what they might look like in a hypothetical future.

In conclusion, retrofuturism offers an exciting mix of different sub-genres, art forms, and medium.

It serves as a window into the past, present, and possible future with an amalgamation of nostalgic styles, technologies, and futuristic imaginings. Retrofuturism creates new cultural trends and becomes intertwined with all aspects of our everyday lives.

Retrofuturism extends beyond art and culture, penetrating into the realm of architecture, objects, and design. The architectural style known as Googie, as well as objects and designs inspired by retrofuturism, provide further examples of how this movement has influenced various aspects of our lives.

Googie Style in Retrofuturism Architecture

One prominent architectural style associated with retrofuturism is Googie. Originating in Southern California in the 1940s and 1950s, Googie style was heavily influenced by the Space Age and the newfound fascination with modern technology.

It encompasses bold and playful designs that feature geometric shapes, curving forms, upswept roofs, and distinctive elements like tailfins inspired by automobiles of the time. Materials such as metals and glass were often used, and neon signage played a significant role in highlighting the futuristic aesthetic.

Googie architecture can be seen in various buildings, but one iconic example is the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. Completed in 1961, this structure captures the essence of Googie style with its flying saucer-like shape, recognizable through its elevated restaurant encased in a glass dome.

The architectural design creates a sense of movement and excitement, reflecting the optimism and dreams of space exploration during that era. Another notable example of retrofuturistic architecture is found in Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland.

This section of Disneyland, which first opened in 1955, features innovative designs and futuristic elements. Buildings are represented with sleek lines, metallic panels, and glass facades, presenting an idealized vision of the future.

The mixture of modern technology and architectural design in Tomorrowland showcases the fusion of retro elements and futuristic concepts, providing an immersive experience for visitors.

Examples of Retrofuturistic Architecture

Retrofuturism inspires architects and designers to create structures that exhibit futuristic elements while incorporating retro aesthetics. Some examples include innovative skyscrapers, unique cityscape designs, and eco-friendly buildings that merge sustainability with futuristic visions.

The Shanghai Tower, completed in 2015, exemplifies retrofuturism in contemporary architecture. This skyscraper stands tall on the skyline of Shanghai, featuring a spiral-like structure that evolves as it reaches the sky.

The tower’s design combines advanced engineering with a sleek and futuristic appearance, symbolizing China’s vision for a bold and modern future. Another example is the Bjarke Ingels Group’s design for the National Gallery of Greenland.

The design incorporates sustainable practices, such as using renewable energy sources and integrating green spaces, while also challenging traditional architectural norms. The structure’s geometric shapes and unconventional forms create a futuristic aesthetic that reflects the vision of a sustainable future for the Arctic region.

Retrofuturism Objects and Designs

Retrofuturism has also influenced the creation of objects and designs that channel a mix of nostalgic elements and futuristic concepts. This intersection gave birth to various inventions and innovative designs that sought to push the boundaries of technology and shape the future.

In the realm of objects, retrofuturism had an impact on the development of telecommunications. Early predictions of video technology, remote connections, and wireless communication have become a reality today.

Retrofuturistic designs showcased devices like videophones, which, though not as prevalent as initially imagined, have evolved into the video calling capabilities we now enjoy on our smartphones and computers. Similarly, the concept of photocopies and printers emerged from retrofuturistic ideas.

Early depictions of futuristic offices often featured machines that could reproduce documents quickly and efficiently, a concept that has been realized in the modern-day photocopiers and printers we rely on today. Retrofuturism also influenced the way we envision travel.

Illustrations from the past often depicted futuristic vehicles and enhanced travel experiences, showcasing rapid and effective speed. While not all futuristic travel concepts have come to fruition, advancements in transportation such as bullet trains, electric vehicles, and the exploration of reusable rockets align with the spirit of retrofuturism.

In conclusion, retrofuturism extends its influence beyond the realms of art and culture. Through architectural styles like Googie and examples such as the Theme Building and Tomorrowland, retrofuturism has shaped the physical landscape and created immersive spaces that reflect futuristic visions.

Retrofuturism has also driven inventors and designers to create objects and designs that integrate nostalgia and futuristic concepts, leading to the development of technologies such as video communication and photocopying. By exploring retrofuturistic architecture, objects, and designs, we gain insight into the collective imagination of the past and how these ideas continue to shape our present and future.

Retrofuturism has left a significant impact on various art forms, including films and video games. These mediums often provide immersive experiences that showcase the fusion of nostalgia and futuristic imaginings.

Additionally, the optimistic view of the future that retrofuturism embodies has influenced present-day perceptions and continues to shape our lives.

Retrofuturism in Films

Films have been a pivotal medium through which retrofuturism has been brought to life. One notable example is “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004) directed by Kerry Conran.

The film blends elements of classic 1930s and 1940s adventure serials with futuristic technology and aesthetics. The retro-styled visuals, futuristic gadgets, and epic storytelling transport the audience into a world where the past meets the future.

Another influential retrofuturistic film is “Brazil” (1985) directed by Terry Gilliam. This dystopian satire portrays a society governed by bureaucracy and technological overreach, reflecting retrofuturism’s tendency to explore the dichotomy between utopian ideals and dystopian realities.

The film’s unique visual style combines retro elements with futuristic technology, creating a distinctive and thought-provoking atmosphere. “Blade Runner” (1982) directed by Ridley Scott is a seminal film that captures the essence of retrofuturism.

Set in a gritty, dystopian future, the film integrates advanced technological elements with a noir-inspired aesthetic. The fusion of old and new, dark and stylish, paints a vivid portrait of a society grappling with the consequences of extreme progress and industrialization.

Retrofuturism in Video Games

Video games offer another platform for retrofuturism to thrive, allowing players to engage with and explore imagined worlds. Several video games have embraced the retrofuturistic aesthetic, creating captivating settings that combine elements of the past with futuristic concepts.

“Assassin’s Creed III” (2012) takes players back to the American Revolution, blending historical accuracy with futuristic technology. The game features a secret society using advanced technology, such as the Animus, to relive their ancestors’ memories.

This juxtaposition of the past and future creates a compelling narrative and an immersive retrofuturistic experience. “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” (2012) is set in the near future and showcases the potential consequences of advanced technology and military innovation.

The game paints a bleak picture of a world torn apart by geopolitical strife, exploring the dark side of retrofuturism through its narrative and gameplay. “Crimson Skies” (2000) provides a retrofuturistic take on alternate history.

Set in the interwar period, the game features dogfights amidst a steampunk-inspired world where zeppelins and innovative aircraft dominate the skies. Its unique blend of historical nostalgia and futuristic concepts creates a thrilling retrofuturistic experience.

In more recent years, games like “Cloudpunk” (2020) and “Dishonored” (2012) have further demonstrated the lasting influence of retrofuturism in video game design. “Cloudpunk” presents a cyberpunk world where players navigate a vertical cityscape as a delivery driver, while “Dishonored” embraces a steampunk aesthetic set in an industrialized, plague-ridden city.

Both games exemplify the interplay between retro elements and futuristic imaginings, captivating players with their immersive retrofuturistic worlds.

Utopian Ideals and Dystopian Realities

One of the key aspects of retrofuturism is the exploration of utopian ideals and dystopian realities. Retrofuturistic visions often depict an idealized future with advanced technology, improved living conditions, and harmonious societies.

This utopian aspect reflects the optimistic view of progress prevalent during the time that the retrofuturistic visions were conceived, such as the mid-20th century Space Age. However, retrofuturism also recognizes the potential for dystopian realities.

It questions the consequences of extreme progress, highlighting concerns such as the dehumanization of society, environmental decay, and oppressive systems. The juxtaposition of utopian aspirations and dystopian elements adds depth and complexity to the retrofuturistic narrative, emphasizing the importance of examining the potential downsides of technological advancements.

Retrofuturism’s Influence on Present-day Perceptions

The influence of retrofuturism extends beyond the realms of art and entertainment, shaping our present-day perceptions and experiences. Retrofuturistic aesthetics have become ingrained in our visual culture, celebrating the optimism of the past and transforming our perception of the future.

Through the celebration of retrofuturism, our present is imbued with a sense of optimism and possibility. The incorporation of retro design elements in contemporary products, fashion, and architecture pays homage to past visions of the future while embracing our ever-evolving technological landscape.

As we look towards the future, retrofuturism encourages us to explore innovative ideas that balance nostalgia with progress. It challenges us to think critically about the role of technology in society and the potential consequences of its advancement.

In conclusion, retrofuturism’s influence expands beyond art and entertainment. Films and video games provide immersive experiences that bring retrofuturistic worlds to life, showcasing the fusion of nostalgia and futuristic concepts.

The exploration of utopian ideals and dystopian realities deepens the retrofuturistic narrative, prompting valuable reflection on the consequences of technological progress. Moreover, retrofuturism’s influence on present-day perceptions fosters a celebration of optimism and encourages innovative thinking.

Retrofuturism continues to shape our lives today, guiding our perception of the future and reminding us of the power of imagination. Retrofuturism is a dynamic cultural movement that influences various art forms, including films and video games.

From Googie architecture to the immersive experiences of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “Assassin’s Creed III,” retrofuturism showcases the fusion of nostalgia and futuristic imaginings. It explores the tension between utopian ideals and dystopian realities, challenging us to critically examine the consequences of progress.

Retrofuturism’s enduring influence on present-day perceptions encourages a celebration of optimism and reminds us of the power of imagination in shaping the future. Let retrofuturism inspire us to envision and create a future that balances nostalgia with innovative thinking.

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