Where’s My Space Age

Originally posted June 3, 2010 on

I got around to perusing a design book this week that was on my summer reading list. Published in 2003, it’s called “Where’s My Space Age,” by Sean Topham. Subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Futuristic Design,” it traces the roots of the Space Age to WWII rocketry (Werner von Braun et al) and Cold War technological competition, though after a chapter on space flight it brings the disquisition down to earth with a long section on the impact of space-mania on 1960’s living environments.

Rather than a book review, this is a book reaction, and that reaction is visceral. Topham sets the stage for his book with a comment from a 12-year-old boy on the eve of the lunar landing in 1969. I was ten at that moment, and so was a child when manned space flight went from dream to reality. Part of Topham’s argument has to do with a child’s sense of wonderment representing a broader cultural reaction to the exploration of space-he suggests the idea of a fresh start several times, and notes that space travel entered the home first in the form of children’s toys.

It is hard for someone my age to look back at the imagery of the early postwar space age without a tinge of nostalgia, but look back we must because Topham argues, rightly, how important visual information was in disseminating ideas about space travel. From Arthur Clarke’s 1951 “The Exploration of Space” on, a succession of images prepared people for the coming conquest of space. Confidence, swagger, and technical mastery were suggested graphically, and awe was elicited with photos of rocket launches and breathtaking views from space. Shown here is a rendering from Clarke’s factual rather than fictional account, and a shot of the jammed nose cone on Gemini 9.

This visual component was brought home, literally, by architects and designers during the 1960’s. For Topham, the futuristic “look” of the 60’s was deeply influenced by themes and imagery drawn from space, more directly in references to space helmets, space suits, satellites, and capsules, less directly in the use of aluminum–the material of early satellites–and perhaps the vivid blues of shots of earth from space. Moreover, space helped usher in an era characterized by disposability–multi-million dollar rockets were discarded after one use, as were paper dresses, while plastic chairs and tables would be replaced rather than repaired.

Topham illustrates a wide array of futuristic 60’s design, including Haus-Rucker-Co’s “Fly Head” (1968), shown here, but the essence of it, for him, can be distilled into Matti Suuronen’s ellipsoid Futuro House of 1968, and the furniture designs and interior landscapes of Verner Panton. Topham points out that the flying-saucer shaped Futuro House, shown here, which represents the concept of pod living, was designed as a transportable ski cabin. Panton’s Visiona 2–depicted here–captured the exuberantly colorful and youthfully irrepressible (and irresponsible) character of space age design, while shifting styling from the clean lines inspired by spacecraft interiors to a more organic terrain–more “Barbarella” than “2001.”

Ultimately, according to Topham, the era of space age design was undone by its own excesses and by the oil embargo and recession of the early 1970’s–the cost of plastics rose with the price of oil, and a scenario of resource scarcity trumped the scenario of disposability. Curiously, Topham fails to bridge the idea of pod living into the era of sustainability. Surely, some notion of living in a compressed space, analogous to a spaceship or space capsule, remains relevant at a time when our greatest drain on resources comes from our egregiously outsized residences.

Ironically, the smallest prefab dwelling at a recent MoMA exhibition was intended as a ski cabin–40 years later, an idea of pod living still has to be couched in recreational terms.

‘The Jetsons’ on the Drawing Board

Originally posted September 30, 2010 on

From time to time I look online for still images of “The Jetsons” interiors for a post about cool futuristic design in animated TV sitcoms. Sooner or later, I’ll rent the DVD of the first season and photograph selected frames. Yesterday, though, I came across a website devoted to the animation art of Irv Spector, put up in 2008 by his son, Jay.

Irv worked for Paramount and Hana-Barbera, and one of his assignments was to do background and character studies for the first season of “The Jetsons.” For anyone growing up in the 1960’s, the show was a must-see, a futuristic version of “The Flintstones,” which was itself an animated variation of “The Honeymooners.”

Premiering in September 1962 on Sunday nights on ABC, “The Jetsons” had an initial run of 24 episodes, ending in March 1963 (it would be resurrected for another 50 episodes in the 80’s). Thanks to serialization, “The Jetsons” had a cultural impact beyond its short run-“that’s so Jetsons” is still a pejorative way to describe postwar design. Yet, as the renderings shown here demonstrate, the creative vision behind the program had much on the ball in terms of architectural and design savvy.

Among Irv Spector’s papers was a drawing of Saarinen’s TWA terminal-to Jay Spector a clear indication of the primary source of inspiration. The other source mentioned on discussion boards is the Seattle Space Needle. Both structures are clearly visible in the parabolas, swooping arcs, soaring arches, and freeform shapes of Irv’s drawings-the police station is a miniature TWA terminal; the tower on the right, a version of the Space Needle. I especially like the first three renderings, sans George and Jane-these look like architectural or interior design proposals from a leading early 60’s firm, more Oscar Niemeyer, even, than Morris Lapidus (sorry, Morris).

Surely, the vision of the future presented in the Jetsons owes much to 50’s architectural and design practice-this, after all, was the “googie” decade, the era of Las Vegas and Miami. But it is worth noting that both the TWA Terminal and the Seattle Space Needle opened in 1962, just as “The Jetsons” came on the air. This sort of aesthetic synchronicity is rare in movies or TV; just look at “Men in Black,” where the futuristic furniture was designed in the 50’s and 60’s. Even Morgue’s Djinn series came out three years before “2001” aired. So people watching “The Jetsons” in 1962-and given the Sunday-night time slot, this likely included as many adults as children-were absorbing utterly contemporary interior design and architectural references that conveyed futurism in their moment (“The Jetsons” was set in 2062) and still continue to do so.

As for the gadgets and gizmos, that is another story, but have a look at the flat-screen TV/video phone shown here. Thanks, Jay, for sharing your father’s work.

Modern Spanish Furniture

Originally posted September 17, 2009 on

When you think of Spain, mid-century design is not the first thing that comes to mind…or the second…or third. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to name a single Spanish designer or architect working after Gaudi, except for Jose Luis Sert, who left Spain for America in 1938. I’m not sure why this is, but two possibilities suggest themselves.

First, Spanish modernism simply languished after WWII. Second, post-war Spanish modernism is out there to be rediscovered. Given the virtual absence of Spanish sources in the major design yearbooks of the mid-century—Arredimento Moderno, Studio Yearbook, New Furniture—and the presence of Latin American architects and designers such as Niemeyer, Tenreiro, and Rodrigues—it is tempting to conclude that less modernist work was produced in the mid-century in Spain than elsewhere, and what there was flew under the radar to begin with an exhibition held at The Met a few years ago, “Barcelona and Modernity: from Gaudi to Dali,” tracked Spanish art, architecture, and design in the first three decades of the twentieth century, from the glory of Gaudi to the reaction against the perceived excesses of Art Nouveau. 

By the 1920’s this reaction took two forms:  a revival of interest in tradition in architecture and handicraft, and the emergence of a school of minimalist rationalism that became the Spanish arm of CIAM and that culminated in the Barcelona Exhibition of 1929, with the famous Mies Pavilion and the Barcelona chair. After 1930, it seems that much of the story simply remains to be told. The strong impulses in Spain toward tradition and minimalism, coupled with Catholicism and fascism, may not have been conducive to the exuberant brand of mid-century modernism of Eames, Molina, and Finn Juhl, but they were not necessarily inimical either. Too, the Spanish mission style, transplanted to California, was one of the progenitors of 20th-century design. Sooner or later, we would expect to find Spanish modern design, whether pan-European or regional and idiomatic. The question is, where?

One answer is in the pages of “Arquitectura Interior,” a yearbook of design published in Madrid and edited by the architect Carlos Flores. I have four volumes in my library, 1959 and 1962-4. The 1959 volume provides something of a survey of the European and American modernism of the moment, and while it includes some indigenous Spanish design, the gist is that of spade work—a primer on the New Look for a constituency just being exposed to it.
By 1962, however, the task of defining and promoting Spanish modern design has begun in earnest. The introduction, roughly translated, predicts that contemporary Spanish living environments can soon be furnished with Spanish design exclusively.

While this confirms the supposition that there was little in the way of Spanish modern design through much of the 1950’s, the 1962 issue introduces us to a host of Spanish designers now plying the modern idiom, and doing so with confidence, inventiveness, and verve. I’ve singled out a cantilevered steel chair by Fernando Ramon, referencing Mies, as a point of departure; a table by Antonio de Moragas that channels mission in its solid simplicity, with a nod to the mid century in its flexibility—the top slides to any position—and demountability; an auditorium chair by Miguel Fisac with a nice posture and sculptural presence; a rakish three-legged plywood chair by Jose Dodero recalling Wegner, Prestini, and Tenreiro; a nice constructivist chair by Julio Bravo, et al; and a fluid lounge chair by Equipo 50 revealing its skeleton of wooden slats.

As for interior design, I was drawn to the clean, Spartan spaces that recalled Spanish monasticism, particularly the dorm room by Obra Sindical del Hogar y Arquitectura, and the foyer by Federico Correa and Alfonso Mil, with its bull’s horns. I also liked the varied textures and patterns in the interior by Oriol Bohigas and Jose Maria Martorelli. The names of these designers and architects may all be unfamiliar, but the work speaks across the decades, and there is no reason I can see why they should not be part of the current dialogue.

From top: steel and leather chair by Fernando Ramon; flexible coffee table by Antonio de Moragas; Constructivist chair by Brava, Lozano, and Pintado; chair by Miguel Fisac Spain; plywood chair by Jose Dodero; ribbed chair by Equipo 57; Cabinet by Salvador and Tomas Diaz Magro; interior by Obra Sindical del Hogar y Arquitectura; interior by Federico Correa and Alfonso Mila; interior by Oriol Bohigas and Jose Maria Martorelli.

‘Mon Oncle’

Originally posted October 23, 2008 on


I watched Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” (1958) the other night. Focusing on the furniture, I came to realize a few things about the film: Yes, it is a satiric send-up of modern technology and culture, a parable that opposes a modern world at once sleek, antiseptically clean, automated, superficial, and inhospitable with a traditional milieu that is spontaneous and convivial, if messy. And yes, Tati is a  latter day Chaplin (or present-day Lucille Ball?), a French everyman whose bumblings expose the sterility, fatuousness, and pretension of modern machine civilization. But people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and at least part of Tati occupies the modernist and strikingly beautiful Villa Arpel.


Tati was born in 1907 and came of age during the 1920’s, the heyday of avant-garde modernism, the era in France of Mallet-Stevens and a young Le Corbusier. If you plainly see in “Mon Oncle” Tati’s nostalgia for a traditional, older world (which, incidentally, was not about to disappear soon in 1950’s France), you also see the formative artistic pull of modernism. The Villa Arpel reflects a sensibility weened on Le Corbusier—it is an iteration of the “machine for living in,” with its technical gadgets, its decorative asperity, and its conspicuous lack of comfort.


But even in the 1920’s, the machine for living in was more a polemical construct than an actuality. By 1956, no one near the mainstream was seriously advocating living in a machine, nor was minimalism apropos to a decade of rampant consumerism. The Villa Arpel was hence an easy target for satire—a clay pigeon, really—and an idiosyncratic vehicle for a parable.


It was also an expression of Tati’s own artistic temperament. Tati was a mime with a mime’s economy of motion, gesture, and obviously, words. Minimalism is integral to this art form, and naturally extends to set design. It is not surprising, then, that the Villa Arpel is minimalist (“this is the vase”). What is surprising is how far beyond caricature Tati ventures. The Villa Arpel sets are brilliantly edited and meticulously executed, from the selection of furnishings, which include works by designers such as Baltensweiler, Chambost, Mategot, and Motte, to the spare and elegant arrangements of the pieces, to the vivid accents of color visible in the furniture and clothing, to the outdoor landscaping. The vistas are visually exciting and photographically beautiful. Tati needed only to construct a target for his arrows; instead, he created a tour-de-force of mid-century modernism that looks as fresh today as it did fifty years ago, and still resonates as an abstract work of art.  In its day, the Villa Arpel was copied by a fan as a residence; more recently, it has been the subject of museum exhibitions tracking Tati’s influence on modern design. In the end, the Villa Arpel was rendered with such aplomb and virtuosity, it was so clearly inspired, that it documents the undeniable joy, delight, and creative exuberance unleashed by avant-garde modernism, and this complicates the message of the film, or perhaps makes it a greater work of art.


Nowhere is Tati’s ambivalence toward modernism more apparent than with the furniture he designed (along with Jacques Lagrange, his longtime set designer) for the Villa Arpel.  The three key pieces—the “Haricot” sofa (shaped like a bean), the rocking chair with the yellow seat, and the “Harper” sofa (think two tootsie rolls connected by a folded paper clip)—are designed to convey discomfort. At this they succeed, but again Tati goes further than needed.  The rocking chair has a long seat and short back, forcing M.  Arpel to slouch when seated, but this element creates an asymmetry that is visually exciting.  The Haricot sofa looks impossible to lounge upon, and Hulot is forced to turn it on its side to sleep on it.  Try this, though, and you will understand how much effort went into the design, which referenced both Perriand and Kiesler (the 1942 Peggy Guggenheim installation).The Harper sofa is shown with a woman perched rigidly on it, but it is the most beautiful of Tati’s designs—and one of the most striking sofas of the fifties—bridging the precision of the machine age and the sculptural presence of the mid-century (Lescaze meets Noguchi).  One could even argue that these pieces rate highly as good design; they are visually excellent and suited to purpose, given that their purpose is to look uncomfortable.  As a testament to their enduring appeal, all three designs were recently issued by Domeau & Peres in an edition of eight. Ironically, Tati anticipated not only the minimalism of the 1960’s but the limited-edition, not-for-comfort design/art of the present decade.