The Promise - Real and imagined MCM in America
by Barbara Schwab·
Embracing the modern style in the 1950’s was part of the post WWII American “Promise for the Future”.
The climate of hope and an advertised encouragement to living, and affording, the good life, created a new marketplace for modern design in America. Introduced into the American imagination by both reality and fiction, mainstream America was catapulted into a modern aesthetic after the launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the “space age”. The wonderful result was a splendor of manufactured goods: space lamps, streamlined everything, surface patterns, pushbutton kitchens and clean lined interiors that become abundant and even today, sought after.
Top: Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright architect. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
The inter-linking of fantastic architectural buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum and the imagined Hanna Barbera architecture of the early 60’s TV cartoon “The Jetsons” became blended in the American psychology. The stereotypical style of what we think of as MCM in America is driven by the creativity of Madison Avenue advertisers, entrepreneurs’, and madcap designers such as Charles and Ray Eames. Industrial designers including Raymond Loewy also influenced the styling of modern products in America. There are many creative forces that could be named here who envisioned the prolific permutations of what is modern design in America. The basis of the modern aesthetic may come from Europe but as in all things American (the melting pot) we reinvented ourselves constantly.
A rush to acquire what is modern in America during the fifties and into the sixties was fueled by the baby boom and subsequent house building to accommodate young families raising children.
This population was young, both designers and consumers, and had gained the experience of a wider world from their service in the armed forces during WWII. They wanted to create a new vision for their lives and country. They succeeded in creating a vision that has stood the test of time, which has become imbedded into the psyche of American culture and taste.
And so a resurgence of the MCM is underway. The children who lived in these houses and fondly remember the modern furniture and décor of the time are now in the financial position to collect, upgrade, and recreate these houses and interiors. The vast majority of the wealth in America is owned by baby boomers.
MCM collections by the original owners are being passed to the next generation, through inheritance, estate sales, auctions and flea markets. We now get to enjoy purchasing them, restoring them and experiencing them all over again.
I commend the next generation taking up the love of all things MCM. Do not rest on what has been accomplished in creating these beautiful objects and the dream that they represent. We need new artisans, inventors, visionaries, and designers to create the new aesthetics and technologies that are part of the original promise of living and affording the good life in America.
Postscript: We need to acknowledge the utopian bubble presented in the concept of what I describe as MCM. While we have aspired to improve modern life in America through design for everyone, the realities of poverty, racism, political division, and terrorism, then and now, have not allowed us to provide the American “Promise” envisioned in this piece for all.
Header picture at top: Ad for Motorola television appeared in "Life magazine" and "The Saturday Evening Post" from 1961 until 1963. Illustrator: Charles Schridde
Above, top row from left to right: Adrian Pearsall Mid-Century Modern Sofa 1960’s, Sputnick influenced lamp, Eames RKR Rocker by Herman Miller 1950, asterisk clock by George Nelson 1950.