Cranbrook and the American Look

Cranbrook Sighting # 11
Sighter: Shelley Selim
Sighted: Cranbrook Art Museum and Library
Location: the Internet
Date: March 10, 2014

The Internet Archive continues to be a hardy source of endearment for Shoshana and me, and this weekend I found myself traipsing through a favorite district of its offerings–Prelinger’s backlog of mid-century Populuxe videos. The term “Populuxe” was coined by cultural and design historian Thomas Hine for his 1986 book of the same name, which analyzed the hyper-consumerism that swept the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. Product styling–an extension of a collective fervor for material abundance and variety–became a wellspring of national pride during the Cold War, particularly as a means of counter-defining American capitalist prosperity against the Soviet Union’s Communist economy.

Many “Populuxe” promotional films were produced in the mid-century, and American Look, sponsored by General Motors’ Chevrolet Division, is a champion of its genre. It has it all: bright colors (in the ’50s, practically everything was offered in an array of colors, from home appliances to toilet paper), all the trappings of the new cult of domesticity  (housewives, home ownership, picnics, pools, backyard barbeques), and of course plenty of furniture and home goods created by Americans and our allies (particularly the Scandinavians).

See how many designs by Cranbrook graduates and former faculty members you can spot in this film, which is part one in a series of three. Spoiler: There are a bunch, including several chairs by Harry Bertoia, whose 99th birthday just happens to be today!

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013–2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum