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Europe's nifty '50s. The end of World War II ushered in a new era of design in Europe. The new look - of shiny chrome, bulges, and bubbles - reflected both a reaction against facism and a fast-growing consumerism.

By James PressleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 1988



Paris

WELCOME to the junk heap of the 1950s. Here's an electric tea kettle that looks like an egg with a spout. Nearby is a fan equipped with a mini motorboat propeller. There, leaning against the wall, is a tall, flimsy bicycle - just like the one the delivery boy used to ride. And get an eyeful of that orange vinyl chair with the black tubular frame.

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These ersatz goods are part of the architecture and design display now on view at ``Les Ann'ees 50,'' a major, multimedia exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou. They are the fruits of Europe's post-war industrial boom, all stacked up, hurly-burly, shoved into corners, and draped with huge fishing nets. It reminds you of the stuff in your neighbors' storeroom - without the musty stench.

But in the midst of this ticky-tacky medley some sobering sights flicker across a tiny television tube: black-and-white images of European cemeteries, bombed-out slums, and the bleak streets of post-war Paris. The point is clear: The design esthetic of the 1950s was a reaction against the devastation wrought by World War II.

The end of the war ushered in an age of chrome, bulges, bubbles, and fins. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the automobiles of the '50s. The ground floor at the Pompidou now boasts a score of mint-condition voitures. Lined up as they would be in a car dealer's showroom, the cars include a '51 Bugatti, a '56 Renault, and a '57 Ferrari, all in bright blues, candy reds, and shiny blacks. They contrast dramatically with the rounded rectangles, sleek wedges, and muted colors seen in the cars of the '80s.

Creed of consumerism

In the decade after the war, Europe rebuilt its battered economy and infrastructure. Fed by America's Marshall Plan, material modernization swept across the Continent at a furious pace. Europeans - especially the French - forsook the countryside for the city, turning agricultural societies into industrial ones. As they did so, world manufactures grew by 60 percent between 1945 and 1958. Exports boomed, propelled by the rapid development of technology, including that electronic gem of the late 1940s, the transistor. Anxious to put the grim past behind them, Europeans adopted a creed that said economic and technical progress could conquer their woes.

In short, they became consumerists.

Their transformation occurred overnight, abetted by a simple law of the modern marketplace: Design sells. It was a lesson that the Americans had learned long before. Now Europe learned it, as postwar growth unleashed a flood of trendy consumer goods on housewives who had more disposable income than ever before.

Up in the Pompidou's mezzanine-level Centre de Cr'eation Industrielle, the strategically cluttered exhibits (magazines heaped on radios, TVs stacked on cars) emphasize how the mass media shaped postwar consumption patterns and life styles. A multiple-image slideshow strengthens the synthesis, blending the sights and sounds of the era: Fats Domino, tube radios, Expo '58, flying cars in cigarette commercials, and news broadcasts about Dien Bien Phu, Prague Spring, and Sputnik.

American media methods could be seen everywhere - in marketing, advertising, television. As these exhibits show, young Europeans hopped to Elvis Presley's rock, flipped through ``GI Comics,'' and gulped down Coca-Cola by the case. The ``model'' wife in one French advertising poster looks like Doris Day - even though she's showing off an Isetta three-wheeler instead of a Chevy V-8. No wonder European commentators of the '50s worried that crass America was ``Coca-colonizing'' the Continent.

But although Europe's mass media had become American, its product design sprang from wholly indigenous sources. Design became very localized: Each country sought a place in the international market by developing products that had a distinctive national look. The Italians led the way with low, rounded typewriters and aerodynamic cars, inspired by the abstract sculpture of Henry Moore and Hans Arp. An extreme example of this style is found here in one of Carlo Mollino's free-form tables: It has an S-shaped wooden base and a puddle-shaped glass top.

Regardless of their nationalistic characters, the new Euro-designs shared one similarity: All were reactions against fascism and fascist aesthetics. Nowhere was this more apparent than in West Germany, where the new look grew out of a design school that the National Socialists had rejected. The school, of course, was the world-famous Bauhaus, which had closed down in 1933, the year Hitler took over as chancellor. Now its ``functional'' geometric forms reemerged in hand-held hairdryers and other appliances made by the Braun Company and others.

Synthetic approach

Alas, none of this design history is made terribly clear by the Pompidou display. Although the exhibits do manage to touch all the important bases, they succeed more as synthesis than as analysis. This synthetic approach makes it difficult for the visitor to pick out separate design schools. It's simply not possible to follow one trend or national movement chronologically (let alone logically) from display to display. For this, one must turn to books on design and history.

Way back in the 1920s, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had posited that the really up-to-date 20th-century family did not want their furniture to remind them of the past. But the desire for a clean break with the past became a fact only after World War II, when large tracts of Europe lay in ruins or poverty or both.

We now call that clean break ``the '50s.''