The looks, styles and products of the world’s first-ever consumer boom (1955-65). It covers architecture, interior design, cars, labour-saving appliances, nuclear fallout shelters etc. It’s fascinating, if you like this kind of thing.
The illustrations are great – some of them amazing. The adverts for the products were often more interesting than the products themselves.
It’s well-written and quite witty in places. You can tell Hines loves his subject deeply, and nothing is too trivial to mention. One innovation of the populuxe period, apparently, was the corrugated potato chip, whose form was borrowed from structural engineering, the idea being to make it stronger and therefore able to scoop up more dip. But that’s an exception – in most instances the look was pure styling, with no practical function. Not that it was empty – it embodied a “fantasy”, usually a positive and optimistic perspective on the future.
The dominant visual motifs were borrowed from jet planes and rockets (most manufacturers of consumer goods were also military contractors). Stuff was curvy yet angular – both acute and obtuse, as exemplified in the “leaning forward” look that appeared in cars in about 1957. Rectangles which were perfectly happy just to sit there became parallelograms, itching to go where they were pointing. The tailfins tend to attract more attention but there was plenty of evolution at the front ends of cars too, such as the introduction of useless conical protuberances synechdochically termed dagmars after the actress of the same name. Some fronts are really beautiful – chrome bumpers that break forward and backward with the voluptuous rhythms of a Borromini façade. But not all designs were successful and one model with a curiously-shaped radiator grille was especially unloved – “like a great gaping minge bearing down on me,” as one English visitor described it.
The ability of a design element to embody meaning sometimes determined its inclusion even at the expense of functionality. He’s quite close to Americana-loving French intellectuals like Barthes and Baudrillard in his semiological approach here. So push buttons became ubiquitous features on household appliances during the period, often when a dial would have done the job better, such as setting the temperature on a washing machine or whatever. Maybe the appeal of buttons lay in their binariness and the way this prefigured the “digital” age. It was a terrible decade for the rheostat, anyway.
I want a formica-topped blob table now!