Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mid-Century Design

One of my enduring infatuations is design (of all types) from the mid-20th century (circa 1955-1965).

I guess it's partly a case of some type of misplaced nostalgia. I was born in 1960, so I obviously have little or no personal recollection of the extant styles, but I do think it's natural to have a bit of fascination with the world that surrounded you at your birth (e.g., "birth songs"). Anyone who had occasion to examine old newspaper microfilms/fiche as part of research in college would surely have taken the detour to examine, say, the New York Times of the day of their birth.

Really? Just me?

Anyway, I do know that on September 20, 1960 Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev was docking in New York in prelude to his famous shoe banging scene at the UN on September 29, 1960.

The larger part of it, though, is the utter distinctiveness of so much of what was happening in design at that time. The building which I consider to be the most beautiful in the world, the Seagram Building in New York, was designed by Mies van der Rohe and built during these years. The two artists which still continue to hold the most fascination for me -- Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns -- were still in the full flowering of their talents during these years.

This infatuation extends, moreover, to more generic aspects of design from the period, and it is these that find their way to the great website Ephemera Now. The site describes itself as "dedicated to the commercial art of mid-century America." The largest chunk of the site is dedicated to reproductions of automobile promotional materials, which are equally notable both for the design of the cars and the design of the ads.

As an example of car design, you can hardly beat the excesses of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. This car is seriously wack, but is almost certainly the epitome of the fins & torpedoes look of the era:

1959 Cadillac

A little more stylishly restrained and timeless, at least to my eye, was the 1961 Pontiac Bonneville:

1961 Bonneville

As far as ad design itself goes, the exemplar for me is this one for the 1959 Imperial Crown Convertable:

1959 Imperial

In spite of having the pluperfect 1959 home (a la North By Northwest), the white-tuxedoed host on the stairs is insanely jealous of the white-tuxedoed guest who has only narrowly escaped barrelling his brand new Sherwood Green '59 Imperial into the retaining wall. "Fetch that man a Manhattan. Immediately!"

The site also contains a set of home decor "ideas" which are also remarkably apropos for the era. My fav is this spectacular 1956 rec room, tricked out in Armstrong Excelon tile:

Rumpus Room

It's almost impossible to know where to start with the best thing in this room. The huge flagstone fireplace? The matching couches (which match the stairs as well as themselves!)? The dance moves & drink recipes painted right on the wall for easy reference? Sorry, for me it has to be the marshmallow skewers at the ready for roastin'.

Finally, the highlights of the "Ads" section of the site are the series of Motorola magazine ads from the early '60s (these are all also found in a coffee table book I own called All-American Ads of the '60s). Each of these ads feature Motorola products (generally stereos and TVs) in impossibly cool settings, such as the terrifyingly cantilevered terrace attached to the penthouse suite of a suave 1961 playboy:

Dancing On The Balcony

"Don't worry, we'll get to those etchings in good time. "


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