I wile away a sizable amount of my time searching for things that fall under the rubric of “vintage design”. And while I find an awful lot online, the fact remains that when it comes to getting inspired or just enjoying the art itself, print culture wins every time. A one-hour visit to the archives of my old Belgian university library often gave me more than a whole month of surfing ever did.
Much of this comes from the physical allure that design books hold–what’s more inspiring to a dilettante: finding a heaving shelf of foreign movie poster books, or surfing the dismally commercial sites online, sifting through an unsatisfying array of sub-40k JPEGs? Not only is the editorial touch lost, but the tangible nature and the sheer weight of most design books make the print culture all the more appealing.
While a flickr pool full of vintage buttons, magazine scans, or movie posters is endlessly rich and interesting, even the most carefully monitored can balloon out of control, filling our browsers with 2,001 different selections just because they’re available. The chances of finding a carefully controlled, perfect group of design that covers an area you want–with high-quality jpegs of each image, too–is next to impossible. Sure, they’re out there, but the investment of surfing time isn’t usually worth the return.
One $20 book on 60s advertising provides me with more subjective enrichment than any set of afternoons trolling flickr. However, if there is one area that’s hard to find in print (and quite a few remain), it’s vintage computer design. At first, I thought it might have something to do with the designs themselves–a function before form kind of thing–but surely the historical spectrum of interesting computer models is wide enough to merit more than 3 lonely books, none of them truly comprehensive?
After all, if a big design publisher like Taschen can publish a book on apartments called Brussels Style (really a fine little book, just very specific to one, smaller city, and not in the art-nouveau way you might be thinking), they could easily do one on vintage computers, or vintage electronics at the very least, and find a sizable audience. And yet they haven’t.
For now, the majority of vintage computer design tends to be surveyed through the lens of advertising, but I often find myself far more interested in the objects themselves. Since advertising gives us a visual history of both product and graphic design, and serves as a reliable indicator of the commercial zeitgeist, most “vintage” searches inevitably end with a piece of scanned publicity. And while we all love staring at advertising, there are times we need something more specific–clean, big, minimal-context photos–maybe even chosen by a real editor with an eye for design.
And so we’re left with the few books out there that fit the bill, and then the wide, unorganized Internet. With this disparity in mind, here’s a selection of books and sites on vintage computers that rise above cursory nostalgia and reach the level of inspiration.
Mark Richards’ Core Memory
Nothing can be said about vintage computers without mentioning this absolute marvel of a book, released in 2007. Without question, some of the most gratifying images of vintage technology (of any kind) I’ve ever seen. Richards has an eye for framing & lighting that makes a rack-mounted server look like a forgotten masterpiece. For inspiration and sheer enjoyment, this book is finer than anything you’ll find online.
Gordon Lang’s Digital Retro
Lovingly profiles 40 computers from the late 70s to the early 90s, backed up with big, new photographs and some solid layout.
Marcin Wichary’s Computer History Museum Photographs
Far better than anything you’ll find on the museum’s official site, a beautiful set of vintage computer parts from a prolific flickr photographer with a keen eye. He’s got some fantastic stuff from other computer museums around the world, too.
Mark Frauenfelder’s The Computer: An Illustrated History
Although I have yet to see this book in person, and it’s not searchable on Amazon, it comes from boingboing writer Mark Frauenfelder, and repeated mentions of its “coffee-table appeal” suggest a high quota of worthwhile imagery within.
Dan McPharlin’s Miniature Models
A beautiful cardboard computer model done for Esquire magazine. This guy knows what he’s doing when it comes to uniquely capturing the appeal of vintage electronics. Most of his previous model work (also posted on his flickr account) is made up of fantastic renderings of analog synthesizers.
C64 – A flickr set by *ade
This is the kind of link I just like to have on hand: 9 macro shots of a Commodore 64 that highlight some of its best aesthetic features up-close.
While we’ve got the major books covered, I know we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to vintage computers online. If you know of a particularly good, design-centered resource, share it with us in the comments!