Sunday, November 15, 2009

Design and Mass Appeal

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

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).

Resort Hotels

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.


kengelman said...

I personally don't really think that mass culture has changed that much since the 1950s. Yes we aren't concerned with the same products as back then but we still always want the newest and best thing. We are constantly trying to keep up with everyone else and what they have. I think this is exactly what the mass culture was like in the 1950s as well. They were always getting the newest car or newest appliance kind of like we are always getting the newest model of cell phone. The idea never changes but the products do.

I think people today express their personalities through the products they buy. You can tell a lot about a person by what they wear or what they own. If someone always has the newest and best thing you could tell they were very materialistic. If someone has all organic products you could tell that they were someone that was concerned about being the environment and being green. You are the products you buy.

Clay Moran said...

I think mass culture has changed in several ways since the 1950’s. I think ads and media have adapted with the changing trends and social norms. Where once there was a huge push toward the market of housewives, now there may be campaigns with appeal to today’s working woman. The appeal has changed from one of, “You need this to fit in with everyone else who has it,” to “if you have this you’ll be different from the others and stand out as unique.” That being said, the result is often the same. American Eagle may advertise their clothes on people with a certain style, looking like they have a specific personality, implied interests, and are generally trendy exclusive individuals. In reality though, if you took a lap through any high school campus you may find 40 percent of kids there wearing this brand, and several people wearing the exact same article. More than differences though, I see basic similarities. The LG washing machine commercial with Kelly Ripa shown in class is a prime example of what hasn’t changed. 1950’s ads for dishwashers, washing machines, and ovens sold a lifestyle of more leisure time, increased success as mother, wife, and homemaker, etc. Miss Ripa’s commercial sold a similar concept. It’s understood that we as a generation are far busier than any generation before and there’s a clear market for “on-the-go” groups. The combination of the two is a washer that relieves you from some of the time spent washing clothes with other machines and therefore makes your busy lifestyle easier and makes you look like a better Mom for being on the ball.
People today use mass culture, I think, to find a group that best expresses them. For example even though thousands of people own and wear Clarks Wallabees shoes, a person wearing them chooses to be counted in that group of people, with some extent of an associated personality, rather than in the group who wears Vans or Sperry’s. You can customize Ipods to a certain extent now, choosing your own color, maybe a pattern or cool cover. And even though it’s still an Ipod just like any other, the owner uses branded means of personal expression to make it more distinct.
There are those, however, who choose to rebel against the media and mass culture, owning nothing brand name, or dressing distinctly opposite the popular styles. These people though, tend to create their own style by attempting to have none. It seems there are only so many means by which to appear unique.

Casey_Ekers said...

I would have to agree with Clay I see lots of changes in our culture and that of the 1950s. Today our culture is more accepting of differences and change. Just the other day my mother was telling me they used to do underwear commercials with clothes on underneath the bras, and now we have women running around in Victoria’s Secret commercials that back then would have been considered practically porn. Our values have changed substantially. With women working outside the home more and more commercials are showing you how you’ll save time. Most big ticket items like cars are targeting peoples personalities. Making you think if you have this one you’ll be above everyone else and unique. People express them selves more and more through what they buy. The style of clothes they wear, the type of phone they have, are they a MAC or a PC? All kinds of advertising is directed towards self expression. Even though lots of other people might have the same shirt or phone the person feels like they just have something in common with the other person instead of less unique. This is why the less popular kids in high school would always want to wear the same clothes as the popular kids. It shows they are part of the same niche.
On the other hand you do have some groups of people who resist the trends and try to be different. In school we used to have a group of kids who wore their hair long, wore lots of black, the guys would even wear girls jeans. They came to be called Emo. At first they were unique and different which was their goal to shun popular culture. But the more and more it spread it stated to become the new trend. And fashion designers and much more began applying those ideas to their designs. Soon you could by “Emo” clothes at Wal-mart, bastardizing the original concept they had of being different. I feel like the people who want to be different are always in danger because design and fashion are always looking for the next big thing. And their attempts to be different might just attract the attention they don’t want.

Jenna Martini said...

How do you think mass culture has changed since the 1050s? I thinks mass culture has changed in many ways since the 1950s, especially within the way advertising and the media have changed for the more popular adjustments within design as well as products and their presentation. I think the media is using the products today to pertain to everyday life. For Example, the shoes we wear and clothes we buy for certain age groups, rather than just the clothes a housewife would wear or the working husband. Fashion has definitely taken on a new tool for mass culture to pertain to every human being, male or female.

With this said, I believe each individual person interacts with the market as a means of expression in different ways. Some choose certain items as a means of fitting it, others as a means of standing out. Both are reasons for why the market is so great today! It allows for all different generations of people to take their own market and choose it.

As for those who are different, who said this was necessarily a bad thing? Going off of what Clay said, I went to a catholic high school with uniforms and although the way people dressed did affect their social status, a lot of times the way one dresses has to do with the person that they are. Lashing out can be a good thing - perhaps the greatest designs came from being "different" and taking a chance against the market.

jmboga2 said...

I think mass culture has changed, just like anything changes over a period of time. The important aspects of life like the home and housewife then is not what is being advertised now. The message then was to buy this certain product because the most successful housewives will own one. Now, I think personal style has become way more common. In the mall, there are stores for every kind of different style that people may favor, and shopping at any of them is not judged or viewed differently in the broad sense. There is not an ideal Look that a woman needs to have anymore, like the flowing dress, curled hair, and apron.

Not only in fashion are women exercising more power to be unique and not fit standards, but also in the work force. We now see women engineers, doctors, and even presidential candidates. Gradually these professions have become more common and accepted, even the extreme of Hillary Clinton running for office, which in the 50's would be completely unrealistic. Mass culture has completely altered the identity of a women from then until now, and in a positive way. We still are looked at as slightly inferior to the male, but the way society is changing, who's to say that will reman in 20 years?
I think female is representative more of this topic than male, only because they have been given the alpha dog role since the beginning, and through advertisement and culture change, it has warped the views on womens roles.

Elizabeth Harr said...

The mass culture of the 1950’s was very influential. I think that today our mass culture has greatly changed but it has also stayed the same. The same basic idea is behind our mass culture today. We are always following each other. Trying to get the newest and best product possible. This is exactly like the 1950’s. People are ranked with what car they drive and what kind of house they live in, what neighborhood. All of these factors today are the same as the 1950’s. Mass culture is also changed. The biggest example of this is the housewife. The housewife no longer exists in today’s world. Women are in the working force. They provide for their families now. Like Jenna said fashion has also taken on a new tool for mass culture. Instead of the three types of fashions, the housewife, the workingman, and the child today there are fashions for all ages. Advertising has also completely changed yes the basic concept of advertising is the same as it was in the 1950’s but today advertising targets different values or habits of a person. Like Casey said a great example of this advertising is the battle between the MAC and the PC.

This blog is intended for the interior design students in the college of design at the University of Kentucky. It was created with the intent to present students with information, providing them with a channel for contemplation and discussion.