When World War II ended, it meant manufacturing no longer needed to be focused on creating goods related to the war effort. Instead, production could be targeted to the consumer market. And that market was growing in numbers, diversity, and economic strength. Returning soldiers ready to get on with their lives, households finally recovering from the Great Depression, and burgeoning business opportunity fueled demand. At the same time, the end of the war effort meant manufacturers needed the consumer market as a replacement market for their products.
This flux tended to swamp the “good design” movement, which had sought, among other things, to shape society and educate the public’s taste through exposure to high quality design. Instead a fairly broad eclecticism prevailed.
This eclecticism was further encouraged by the concept of “artificial obsolescence,” which had been championed by advertising pioneer Elmo Calkins early in the 20th century. Calkins viewed every-increasing spending, rather than saving, as the key to prosperity (Gorman 131). His idea to purposely design things so they would become obsolete before their utility was depleted was one way to promote spending.
Raizman notes that broad eclecticism not particularly concerned with design standards: “Standards suggest permanence and durability of products, while obsolescence and novelty imply a perpetual state of ‘becoming,’ of desire, where consumption itself becomes a way of life.” (Raizman 295)
Obsolescence, however, requires frequent change to the product, which entails risk, so manufacturers of the time tended to focus on changing superficial rather than integral parts of their designs, an approach not unlike earlier industrial designers.
A number of financing options for consumer goods, including credit lines and term payments, were also expanded in the postwar era as another way to encourage spending.
Companies used a variety of media, including radio and television, which were rapidly expanding into households, to reach consumers. Advertisements linked products to the achievement of status, beauty, and social acceptance (Raizman 295). This interaction of market and media and the interrelated attitudes of consumers is often referred to as “mass culture.”
The automobile industry made prominent use of the concept of artificial obsolescence, beginning in the early 1950s when the post-war market for new cars in the U.S. was nearly saturated. Ford had applied the concept before the War, but Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors, re-energized it significantly. Sloan’s idea was to differentiate GM’s product line, through visible differences in styling that changed frequently, and offer a variety of models from economical through luxurious to fit most people’s budgets. This differentiation helped to equate car buying with social and personal mobility. The variety of styles and features including massive tailfins, lots of horsepower, and options like convertible tops also provided consumers with a sense of personal expression that enhanced the feeling of freedom that came with automobile ownership (Raizman 296-298). America’s famed love affair with cars is generally traced to this period.
The 1954 GM Cadillac El Dorado
The 1954 Ford Thunderbird, modeled somewhat on Italian sports cars and priced for a broad market, pushed the idea of buying a car for self-indulgence rather than practical reasons (299).
There were critics of the extreme styles. According to Raizman (300), Raymond Loewy thought that the outer forms of Ford, GM, and Chrysler products had wandered too far from streamlined modernism and from the mechanical basis of the cars themselves. His own designs for Studebakers were critically well received but did not sell well enough for the company to survive.
The broader cultural debate that had begun with the Industrial Revolution re-surfaced around questions related to whether mass design is a means to manipulate the buying public under the “banner of freedom of choice and democratization of luxury,” (using artificial obsolescence and the advertising that went with it) or whether mass design and mass culture is an “expression of the desire for individuality for a diverse audience” (Raizman 300).
The postwar period also saw another defining contributor to popular design: the resort hotel. These hotels first appeared in Miami and Las Vegas where they were destinations for the expanding base of Americans with interest and means to travel and vacation. Notable among these is Morris Lapidus’s Fountainebleau in Miami, built in 1954 and characterized by sweeping curves, mezzanines, and grand staircases that “seemed to reduce the barrier separating Hollywood from the experience of Americans escaping for a week of vacation at the beach.” (Raizman 301)
Lapidus took much of his inspiration from France, which in the postwar period was again associated with the most cultivated tastes, particularly in fashion. His designs, like high fashion of the time, were rich in sensory excitement.
The Fountainbleau Hotel, Miami
Las Vegas hotels also emphasized sensory stimulation, extensively using neon lights and incorporating gaming and sexual allusions.
The movies, an important component of mass media, glamorized these design developments and exposed them to a broad swath of the American.
Housing in the postwar period is closely tied to the automobile and to the automobile industry, which lobbied for federal investment in highways. A more extensive highway system not only made motoring easier, it made it possible to locate homes further from the places in the cities where people worked.
Advances in manufactured and pre-fabricated housing also made it easier and cheaper to build further out from cities. Federal investment in low-interest mortgages made it easier for people to buy these houses.
This combination of factors contributed to the growth of suburbia in the United States where land was relatively cheap compared to Europe and where home ownership was more closely associated with stability and social status (Votolato 218).
Most suburban housing of the time was fairly traditional and rather modest (Raizman 306). The most common house type was the Cape Cod, but builders also offered Colonial, Tudor, and Ranch style homes. Houses continued the trend toward informality and emphasized comfort and entertainment. Emphasis was placed on the kitchen as the nerve center of the house (Votolato 222) and as a way to market to women.
A basic Cape Cod style house
New industrial materials like Formica and Naughahyde and materials like aluminum that were redeployed from the war effort reduced the standardization of interior design and decoration (Raizman 307-309).
Processed foods and advances in home appliances were targeted to women, often with the dual promise of better homemaking and more leisure time. These messages tended to reinforce the idea that it was a woman’s place to take care of the home (and increase her consumption of home-related goods).
Suburbanization is also linked to increased economic and racial segregation as people moved from more diverse urban (and also rural) areas to relatively homogeneous housing developments.
Critique of Mass Culture
The debate around mass culture that began to take shape in the 1950s continues, although it has new expressions.
Raizman (301) frames the debate this way: “…popular culture reveals a paradox, for its expressions may be viewed both as a form of resistance to conformity on the one hand and as acceptance of the ephemeral criteria of mass appeal on the other. In either case, however, the status of the commodity and the capitalist system that creates and distributes it remains paramount, for even resistance most often takes the form of consumption rather than threatening social or political action.”
How do you think mass culture has changed since the 1050s? How do people today interact with the market as a means of personal expression? How do people express themselves without interacting with the market or mass culture? What forms of resistance to you see people exercising? What effects do these attitudes and behaviors have on design?
Gorma, Carma. The Industrial Design Reader. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.
Raizman, David. History of Modern Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 2004.