Midcentury Style, in Real Time

One of my favorite finds among mom’s things is a trove of magazines from the 1960s — her mother had set them aside because they had cover stories on the Kennedys, but I soon became engrossed with all the other articles—and what they illustrated about the culture of the day. Magazines like Life, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCalls, and Look all had decorating sections, which is where I gravitated.

And here’s the best thing—a 1961 article in Life about the then-new Hollin Hills community in Alexandria, which at the time only had 65 houses, all designed by Charles Goodman:

“Goodman planned the house for family comfort, not fanciness,” the article said. Life asked Paul Rudolph, chairman of Yale’s Department of Architecture, to offer a critique.

Gratifying to Rudolph is the way the Goodman house, by combining romantic elements such as old brick and a huge fireplace with a modern floor plan and tall spacious windows, takes a step toward being every man’s home, as the Cape Cod cottage was in its time.

He also praised the price: $23,500 for the house and land combined. I went looking on Michael Shapiro’s Modern Capital blog, which traces midcentury real estate in the area, and saw that a comparable home in Hollin Hills now goes for close to $600,000.

But let’s go back to the picture at the top. Taken on their own, those armchairs are amazing. Their shapes are just as sexy today as they were back then. Yet in the context of the rooms where they were placed in 1961, they’re just sort of… meh.

So is this, in McCalls in 1962:

That chest, with its apothecary drawers and curved arches—even the turquoise color on the back—would be stunning in almost any-style home today. But what the hell? The other dreck in this room just completely swallows it.

And how about this, from a 1961 Ladies Home Journal: “Red is being used more boldly this year by professional decorators, whose rooms can offer fresh ideas for eagle-eyed amateurs,” the article said. It offered two ways of using it—”the luxurious ‘dress up’ room” here:

and “the price-conscious ‘dress down.'”

Where do I start—beyond those garish tomato walls, of course? Maybe it’s the puny rugs, or the dinky throw pillows, or the oddly placed art?

Then I had an idea. These magazines weren’t the authority of interior design. Surely Architectural Digest would have been publishing the kind of stuff we now revere in modern-day midcentury interiors, right?

Nope.

These covers were published in 1965.

Fast forward to an AD profile this past March on photographer Steven Meisel’s L.A. home, circa 1963. This is the glory of midcentury design that seems never to existed during the mid-20th century:

 

I also did a story for Luxe earlier this year, where New York goddess designer Amy Lau decorated an East-Side penthouse with vintage midcentury furnishings and art, filling in with custom pieces to complement the style.

 

 

I was chatting with local designer Nicole Lanteri just yesterday, because I’m covering one of her client’s homes for Arlington Magazine this fall that’s done in—yes—a midcentury style. I told her about this paradox between real-time midcentury decorating and our modern interpretation of it. “It’s a romanticized notion” of the past, she said. We’ve taken those clean lines and greatly elevated them.

And that’s just great. Because I can’t un-see images like this:

 

To Nicole’s point, it’s the lines and shapes we celebrate now, creating interiors that emphasize them against the background. The profusion of weird colors in these original photographs steal the focus away from those striking silhouettes.

Could be because ads like this

were teaching homemakers to turn their walls into Easter eggs and Lego bricks—what you placed in those rooms was irrelevant. If you look at the room pictures in the ads, all you see is the color of the walls! It does nothing for what’s inside of them. (Yes, I know it’s an ad for paint, but still.)

Perhaps that’s an explanation for this bizarre fascination with minty-green kitchens.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Green is my favorite color. And I don’t object to the idea of a pistachio kitchen. But we just do it so much better now, like here, from a recent issue of Better Homes:

Or a blog post by designer Claire Brody last year that was devoted to green kitchens:

One thing that helps is the use of real materials such as wood cabinetry and stone counters, as opposed to metal cabinets and Formica counters. Where the old kitchens are flat planes of color, there’s so much more texture and points of interest in the new spaces.

Because I can’t help myself, I’ll end with a (short) tirade on the sexism that fueled all these decorating stories, as it did on almost every other topic in those magazines of yore.

I love the classic Eames lounge chair and ottoman, for example, but editors for Look magazine originally positioned that chair, and others like it, as “Men Only.”

If you can’t quite read the small print in the image, it says, “Men seeking maximum masculine comfort can sit back and relax in a new crop of modern Morris chairs.” The updated version of the reclining easy chair is at the rear, “designed by Charles Eames, who says ‘it fits a man like a huge catcher’s mitt.'”

The rest of these arm chairs are billed as “mister” chairs. “All are geared to the American man’s dream of a big easy chair reserved for him only.” [Enter sound of garbled scream here, followed by a forehead smack to the keyboard.]

And here’s an idea kitchen that McCall’s created for “the true connoisseur.” It’s really two kitchens in one, the story points out: “The peninsula below contains the wife’s built-in oven, dishwasher, and stainless-steel sink.” Oh goodie, everything we need to do the chores in one convenient corner!

Meanwhile, in the image above at right: “In the foreground, the man’s domain: The sinks back to back and an under-counter gas refrigerator for meats he will barbecue.”

“To the left [below], you see Himself’s pride and joy—gas-fired, steel-hooded barbecue, steel-topped work space, and lots of storage below for all the cooking tools and supplies.”

And then there’s the adjacent bar counter. “It is a wide one that lets him spread out as he prepares his specialties, and deep enough to hold a wine rack, a blender, and other useful things.”

Forget the fact, you idiots, that women made the buying decisions in their households, and aside from a few stage-show appearances a husband might make in front of his Great. Big. Barbecue., it was THE WIVES who used this space day in and day out! Yet they’re only “given” the corner where you clean up??

[Did I write that or did I just think that?]

Anyhoo, I think we’ve come a long way, baby, and not just with the midcentury look. These magazines reeked with labels (overweight children were “cheerless chubbies”), and every editorial slant was directed at patronizing women and revering men, shoehorning everyone into a stereotype.

Clearly, I’m not talking about decorating anymore, but I’ll take the 21st-century version of “midcentury style” any day over the horrible real thing—on every conceivable level.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Thanks Pamela!

  2. Jennifer Sergent says:

    I agree — can you imagine what you could do to that house now?

  3. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Thanks for your comment. I can only say that my voice is one of my own time, not of that time. I guess I’m frustrated because some of these amazing pieces of furniture were not properly celebrated in a room design, in my opinion. But I thank you for adding your opinion, too.

  4. I am so surprised by the vehemence in your “voice” when discussing these past design styles. I am not quite as disgusted as you are by the rooms. In fact, I find it interesting to see how we have taken what was stylish at that time and re-interpreted it to work in today’s lifestyles and homes. Just as we look back at fashion and chuckle (remember the football sized shoulder pads of the eighties) I think we will look back at the turquoise and orange rooms of today with trellis patterned draperies and wallpaper and scoff just as we now scoff at wallpaper borders and green mint green kitchens.

    I will agree with you on the manner in which advertisers of the time depicted women and directed all ads towards men even for items like washing machines and detergent. I wrote a paper about this very topic in college and used these same magazines as evidence of how far advertisers have come or, rather, how much smarter they are these days! I am not offended by what is historical, just fascinated at how much things have changed and yet stayed the same in many respects.

    How fun for you to run across that treasure trove of old magazines left behind by your mother. Should provide lots of interesting reading for quite some time and thanks for sharing.

  5. Great piece, Jen! The Hollin Hills community really is a local gem. Thanks for sharing the vintage magazine images – love, love love!

  6. This is so fun, thank you for scanning all of these! I know to a designer the colors are maddening but I would not be mad about living in the “space, glamour and good looks” house.